Edgar S. Van Olinda was a long-lived journalist for the Times-Union in Albany, New York. His regular beat was arts and culture, covering especially music and film. From the 1940s his city column increasingly looked back, to old Albany, in diverse ways: its Dutch roots (seemingly his own), Limerick-Irish history, German heritage, distinctive architecture and more.
Breweries and beer seemed a particular interest of his, as they recur regularly in his work. I have not been able to determine his birth year and date of passing, but he was still writing for the paper in 1970. By that time he had to be about 85, judging also by archival photos.*
In his column of March 29, 1943 he chronicled the passing of the free lunch at a local hostelry, Kalkbrenner’s. The bar had been set up by the current owner’s father ca. 1900, and was called originally Schlitz – perhaps financed by the famous brewer although this is uncertain.
The permit system of buying food mandated by the war finally put paid to a rare, post-Prohibition survival of the free saloon lunch.
While that survival was notable in itself, Van Olinda’s commentary gains further interest for its insight into the city’s German-American tavern culture:
Although the “free lunch” counter is now one of many cherished memories, there still is food to be had [at Kalkbrenner] even if a slight tariff is placed on the check; delicacies such as ham hockies and sauerkraut, roast fresh ham, corned and smoked beef, great big frankfurters, bologna, pickled lambs’ tongues, home baked beans, Liederkranz cheese and pickled limes. And for the piece de resistance a great, shining roast turkey for sandwiches, and the carcass for delicious turkey soup. Of course, if you insist, the waiter will take your order for some of the draught bock beer which is seasonable at this time of the year.
Charlie’s place is one of the last of the old hotels with the real Bavarian atmosphere. Even the architecture on the front of the building—great spaces of stippled stucco, criss-crossed with solid, weather-beaten timbers, crowned by a peaked roof—carries out the simulation.
The same issue of the paper, bare inches from Van Olinda’s column, contains war news of great import, including how permanently to disarm Germany and end its militarism after the anticipated victory.
The disjunction is notable: a benign, comforting picture is offered of German ethnicity via its transplanted food and beer, only lightly Americanized (the turkey, beans), while the country at the same time was in a civilizational struggle with the ruthless Nazi regime then in power.
Van Olinda makes no effort to reconcile these two visions, it is almost as if they are separate things. In many ways they were though, or at least, by World War II the country was able to view them as such.
World War I was different, the German immigrations of the 19th century were more recent, and there was a cultural divide. It was exemplified by the writing of journalist and author H.L. Mencken who challenged the justice of America entering a European war.
In a famous jibe Mencken called war proponents “Anglomaniacs”. While there was certainly a pro-Nazi element in German ethnic America in the 1930s, it was largely silenced or neutralized once the war started. Mencken himself, not pro-Nazi but against American involvement in another European war, withdrew from active involvement at the Baltimore Sun.
If there was lingering resentment nationally of German-American culture by the early 1940s, it was kept out of the public eye in the form of news and opinion coverage.
We can conclude, or so I view it, that by 1943 Kalkbrenner’s and its like had become American institutions. Their hallmarks of food, beer, and architecture might suggest otherwise, but note Van Olinda’s term “simulation”.
Kalkbrenner’s old saloon, when Pearl Harbor brought America into the war, was an echo of the German nation in America, not its reality. Remember its formal name, finally, as Van Olinda memorialized it: the American Tavern.
Part II continues the series.
Note re image: source of image above is identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property in source belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.
*Note added December 1, 2021: I later determined Van Olinda was born in 1884, son a church organist. I elaborate in the Final Part.