The Roots of World Cuisine

The program shown is the Seventh Anniversary Dinner of the Wine and Food Society of New York held on December 9, 1941 at the Starlight Roof, Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

December 9 was two days after Pearl Harbor, and two days before Germany declared war on America. The menu, while of elegant design, is yet spare and quite short even for the few wartime menus of the Society appearing in the menu archive at the New York Public Library,

Whether the menu was hastily abbreviated or modified due to the onset of war with Japan cannot be known. The use of contrasting red type for the drinks perhaps indicated substitution(s) from the original plan, or was simply a design motif.

No French, Italian or German wines are represented. The war in Europe explains this, either by cessation of exports to America since hostilities or American sympathies with Britain and France.

That is, even if these wines were still available in hotel cellars, which I would think they were (or some), the Society likely was disinclined to feature them.

It is surprisingly difficult to pin down from Internet sources – at least I found it so –  what exactly was the trade regime between America and the Axis before 1942. One thing is clear though, the British naval embargo of Germany imposed in the fall of 1939 proved highly effective to stop ocean trade with America.

The Americans didn’t protest greatly given majoritarian sympathies were with Britain and France. Isolationism, led or symbolized by controversial figures such as Charles Lindhberg, Father Coughlin, Henry Ford, and their ilk, was declining. Still, the embargo did cause ruffles at times especially for the delivery of mail, if not wines.

For whatever reason, drinks from the main Axis nations stopped appearing on Society menus from 1939 with the odd, minor exception.

Impact on Wartime Society Menus 

A March 25,1940 tasting of liqueurs and brandies at the Waldorf-Astoria included a sizeable range of Cognac and other French brandies, but France had not yet fallen.

A similar tasting in November, 1941 still included a Cognac from Hennessey, and a “Bellows Imported Brandy” – source not stated. Of the latter the notes stated “… it lacks, perhaps, the austerity and grandeur of great natural Cognacs …”.

The November, 1941 tasting included a five-year-old Park & Tilford bourbon, a “blend of straight bourbons” – the first time bourbon appeared in a Society tasting judging by the available published menus. One can see how the war encouraged looking in one’s backyard for spirituous alternatives of quality.

By October 1942 a “red table wine” tasting at the Hotel Pierre featured an extensive California selection, some wines from Ohio, and even a few from New York State. Only Chile, perhaps for the first time, was represented from offshore: a 1934 Cabernet Sauvignon.

The significance of the extensive California foray cannot be over-estimated. In the 1940s 80% of grapes grown in California were high-yielding types suitable for table or sweet wines. It took further years for Vitis vinifera to recover its c. 1900 importance in the Golden State.

By focusing on California’s best dry wines in default of the usual suspects being available, the Society helped create the interest in quality domestic wine that grew steadily after WW II.

The Wines and Other Drinks at the Seventh Anniversary Dinner

What drinkables were served to the guests? Quite a heterogenous group, as the menu above shows. A South African hock, or Rhine Valley-type, called Imperium appeared. Britain had supplies of South African wine too during the war, I’ve seen a number of references to it.

Different sherries and ports were served. One sherry was Harvey’s Gold Cap. Gold Cap was a term generally used by Harvey for port, but it must have also used it for sherry at times, I think it may have been an Oloroso.

There were two dry California wines, one from famed Beaulieu Vineyards. A Rioja, too – Spain was neutral and perhaps its wines were still being imported either directly or via a third country such as Cuba. Even if supplies had stopped, fetching up a bottle from the cellar had a different implication than for a French cru.

Vintners was a merchant’s house brand for wine selections from the “Lakes”, the Finger Lakes in western New York. Finger Lakes’ sparkling wine always enjoyed a good reputation but clearly red wine was being bottled too. This would have been from native-variety grapes almost certainly.

Alberto Valdivieso is a venerable Chilean house, and supplied its Champagne-style wine to the FDR-era crowd at the Starlight. It is still going strong, see this excellent report from wine writer Lisa Denning in New York. One of its current sparkling wines is a Blanc de Blanc, echoing its Chardonnay range.

An old New England rum was served, not as part of a punch or other mixture, but to savour on its own – another likely result of war conditions which on the other hand surely helped explain the merits of aged rum as a digestif. 

We are, here, only 20 years after the start of National Prohibition, which delivered the coup de grace to New England’s rum business, long-declining due to relentless pressure from anti-drink zealots. A little rum continued to be made after 1933 but I’d guess the carriage trade firm S.S. Pierce’s “very old” rum was pre-Pro stocks.

Lejon was a blended California brandy (straight brandy plus high-proof grape distillate) and in the market for at least two generations from the 1930s. The name is still included for brandy on the website of the West Coast bottler Frank-Lin, but I don’t think Lejon brandy is currently being sold.

Lejon was devised by California wine pioneer Lee Jones and later associated with the famed Italian-Swiss Colony winery. Some of its subsequent history can be gleaned from this collector’s link.

The Drambuie may have been a first for the Society although the Scottish specialty could have been served earlier at a “holiday drinks” or liqueurs/after-dinner drinks event, the Society held these almost every year.

Nuyens apricot brandy was blazed in the hot soufflé termed “Monte Woolley”. The liquor may have been French but I cannot trace the source. Nuyens was another merchant’s or bottler’s brand.

Certainly some French brandy was sold under the name, I have seen the labels. If Nuyens was the brand of an American merchant, the brandy could have been from anywhere. One may note though it was used just in the cooking, not served on its own, so maybe it was French but given a subordinate role as it were.

The Food

The food at first glance seems conventionally French, but on closer look shows numerous idiosyncrasies.

Nova Scotia smoked salmon was served to start, this is classic American eating. New York’s Jewish community always liked it, it was a staple in its dairy restaurants in Manhattan and Catskill resorts for generations – not so much today due to its high cost and/or decline in quality.

Turtle soup with sherry is a straight throwback to the Gilded Age and does evoke Escoffier and the haute. Lobster mousse too – Charles Scotto was a pupil of Escoffier who presided in the kitchen at the Pierre Hotel in this period, he also helped found the American Culinary Federation, and was a charter member of Les Amis d’Escoffier, the trade promotion body for the elite chefs and hospitality managers of America, it still exists.

The coq au vin is French all the way, but not really classic cuisine, it is more regional and bonne femme cooking. Here we see a sign of the great influence the local, regional and terroir would have on post-WW II culinaria.

And Virginia ham was served with the autumn salad finale, a southern American food that heretofore enjoyed no particular culinary regard – it was something you saw in corner diners and regional restaurants. Someone probably realized that its quality equalled the best French or German ham, so why not go for it?

The soufflé was of course French again, named here for a noted actor and former drama professor, Monte Woolley, Wikipedia has some good bio on him, here. Woolley, pictured above, was probably a typical member of the Society in the 1930s-50s. He was high-born and well-educated, a man about town.

What We Can Learn

It’s a nice dinner, isn’t it? And interesting. Inspired to a good degree by the exigencies of war, a kind of jerry-rig, the program ends by offering what we now call world cuisine. Its grammar is exactly that of today’s culinary world.

Can’t you just see Anthony Bourdain hopping about from Chile to Nova Scotia to Jerez to Burgundy to get inspiration for a dinner like this?

Get hip to this timely tip, Anthony.

Note re images: the first four images were sourced from the respective links stated in the text. The final image was sourced from an eBay listing, here. All property in the images belongs to their sole owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.