1939 New York Gourmet Society Tastes New Orleans Cuisine

Food has been a way to nurture people but to also bring them together, whether it be a Thanksgiving or just a night in, food will more than likely be involved. In 1939, J. George Fredrick, with the Gourmet Society of New York, helped people understand and appreciate New Orleans cuisine by hosting a dinner with gourmet menu items and detailed information about Louisiana dishes. 

Gourmet Societies

Gourmet societies have been around for centuries, whether they are secret societies or not, they all gather because of their love of food and strong pallets. In the 1930s, these societies seem to pop up, like the Les Amis d’Escoffier Society of New York. This New York society was created in 1936 with a vision to “continue the standards of haute cuisine and culinary tradition by marrying the resources of respected culinary professionals and enthusiasts.”1 Unlike the Gourmet Society of New York who had open membership, this society is very exclusive. 

The French aspect of gourmet societies continued with The Chaine des Rotisseurs, in the 1950s it was revived in the United States from the Paris organization created in 1248.2

Another organization closer to Louisiana is the seen in the Cajun painting, the Aioli Dinner. According to The Aioli Dinner Supper Club website, the “old Creole Gourmet Societies”, from 1890 and 1920, were French men coming together for a Creole dinner, “French high society living in Louisiana”.3 Unlike these other societies, The Aioli Dinner Supper Club is still around today and hosting “multi-cultural culinary experience with an emphasis on French cuisine.”

A theme I am seeing with these gourmet societies is that they were used as an escape and an opportunity to use their lavish lifestyle and money to attend these dinners with others that would broaden their palates.

The Gourmet Society of New York 

The Gourmet Society of New York was founded in 1932 by J. George Frederick, it was “a dinner club of gourmets and cosmopolites with six or seven dinners per season at different selected dining places.”5 According to the menu, anyone joined who had “palates esthetically sensitive to good food and drink, and who have imagination enough to cherish the gourmet traditions.”5 In 1939, with yearly dues of $5 that in today’s money would be about $93.66.6 It shows that those in this society were of higher income than most. Before the start of World War II, I’m sure people splurged on membership into this gourmet society in New York. 

According to many of the New York Times articles featuring the Society’s meals, it’s purpose was more than simply eating the food in a fancy restaurant, but it was learning experience as well. J. George Fredrick ran the meals while “lecturing on good food and briefing the guest on the dishes and beverages being served.”7 Frederick was the perfect person for leading the dinners as he was an expert on topics as diverse as  “Chinese and Hindu cooking” as well as being the author of books on cooking like Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook. Not a trained food writer, Frederick’s primary occupation was in marketing, a field he wrote about extensively, including his Masters of Advertising Copy.8

Being part of New York’s social scene, the Society was talked about even by those who weren’t members. There are articles about lectures given at meals, who attended, and even who made great fools of themselves. A New York Times article talked about a dinner guest named Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach who had disgusting manners, they listed how he “began dinner with a drink of whisky, smoked a cigar and pipe during the meal, and ended by proclaiming the greatest American dishes were terrapin and planked shad.”9 Another dinner focused on etiquette like what hand to hold a fork and even had a skit to show the “beautiful foods and wonderful table manners.”10

The dinners varied by theme, from the Hawaiin feast to Chinese night. The main focus seemed to enjoy and study these cultures and food. The society also did themes focused on remembering those foods that might be disappearing, like a ‘Lost’ restaurant theme in 194911, “Dining in America” to recognize neglected local dishes, and ‘American States’ Dinners with dishes like roast turkey and strawberry shortcake.12 The Gourmet Society of New York also took on most exotic meals like Indian night at an India Restaurant that left the guest grabbing the waters, one guest called it, “virtually pure acetic acid.”13 According to the NYT articles, the dinner guest numbers could range from 38 to 175.

New Orleans Restaurant Menu 

Led by George Frederick, the Gourmet Society of New York took on New Orleans cuisine on January 22, 1939.5 The menu offers “gourmet details” on each menu item, from Oyster Rockefeller to orange Louisiana wine. The menu even includes interesting details on Lousiana Magnolia perfume that was given to every lady. The cook of the evening was Mrs. Helen Geulberth Andrews and from what I could tell not all of the items were not shipped from New Orleans but adapted. For example, the Oyster Rockefeller were from Robbins Island Box in New York, but of course, the Gulf of Mexico pompano was “flown here by airplane from the Gulf.”5 The gourmet items are the menu were fitting with the society as discussed next. 

The general idea of the dinner was “to acquaint us with the gourmet flavors of New Orleans, a world-famous gastronomic capital.”

New Orleans Cuisine

The items on the typewritten menu are still popular today but some have slowly disappeared. Most of these menu items are mainly seen in New Orleans in finer restaurants in the French Quarter who still serve the traditional local dishes like Antoine’s Restaurant. 

This is where Café Brûlot was invented. This coffee cocktail was created in the “late 1800s by Jules Alciatone, the son of the founder, and inspired by the French.”14 The coffee is created at the table side in the restaurant, when sugar is drowned in Cognac and lit with an open flame then extinguished.14 The show of making the drink shows why it is gourmet and only served in a few New Orleans restaurants. 

Description of Cafe Brulot from 1939 menu

Oyster Rockefeller, the first item of the menu, was also created by Jules Alciatore in 1899. According to Jody Eddy, the oyster dish was created because there was a shortage of French escargot in New Orleans.15 Research shows that there are different stories of why the name Rockefeller, some say it is because the dish is “as rich as a Rockefeller”15 or as nola.com says, “sauce so rich he named it after John D. Rockefeller.”16 The oysters are baked then covered in this “rich” sauce. Oysters Rockefellers are seen at more restaurants than Cafe Brulot but with a name like Rockefeller they are the gourmet oysters of New Orleans, perfect for Society. 

Description of Oysters Rockefeller from 1939 menu

A thing that both of these items and many other items have in common is the French influence. Like the New Orleans pralines, pecans covered in sugar, the praline was created in France originally with almonds and became a “popular treat.”17 Still apart of many New Orleans shops and tours today. 

Description of New Orleans Pralines from 1939

A menu item I was unfamiliar with was Louisiana orange wine. With research, it seems that the citrus business in the South is no longer what it was back then. The citrus did not get shipped to the gulf states until the early 1900s, but it was Louisiana that had a longer and more consistent history with the fruit.18 In Plaquemines Parish, citrus farms grew and had to overcome colder winters and even hurricanes but eventually, the hurricanes and cold winters won around the 1980s.18 But this strong citrus growth in the early 1900s allowed for Louisiana orange wine to be served at the Gourmet Society with dessert. 

Description of Louisiana orange wine from 1939 menu

Cooking Crab and Shrimp Gumbo

The item I will be preparing is the shrimp and crab creole gumbo. This item has a French influence, the roux-based in the gumbo is a french seafood soup but has other influences.19 The article also states the adding of okra in the gumbo is from the West Africa influence and the Native American Choctaw added the file. The Creole, upper class French, are the ones that created the seafood gumbo, like the one I am creating today. 

I will combine the short description in the menu and other classic seafood gumbo recipes I can find to create the dish while explaining the difference in how I created in 2020 to how it might have been served at the Gourmet Society in 1939. 

Cooking Demonstration

When studying the menu, the first thing that I connected to was the creole shrimp and crab gumbo. As I stated above I’m taking the menu description or the gumbo recipe and my mom’s grandmother’s recipe to recreate this Louisiana dish with the ingredients we could find. 

Hours before I started the roux, I needed to cook down the okra. When my family makes gumbo we don’t always add okra but following the recipe from the menu, I wanted to add it. A difference in making gumbo in 2020 versus 1939 is gathering the ingredients. In 1939, the okra would have been fresh but to make it easier on myself I purchased frozen, but local okra from Ponchatoula, LA. I also added a half a can of Rotel tomatoes to stick to the menu description. I smothered the okra and tomatoes with some seasoning in a small pot for almost an hour at a low temperature. A tip I gathered from my mom is to add a little bit of vinegar to the pot to keep the okra from getting slimy. 

Okra and tomatoes

With assistance from my mother, we started the gumbo how every gumbo starts, with a roux. With two people in the household who are gluten-intolerant, I started by cooking grapeseed oil and a tablespoon of butter in the pot until it started to sizzle then added equal parts gluten-free flour. Then continued to stir the mixture so it wouldn’t burn. As my mom said, “stir it until it is the color of an old penny,” then we moved on to the next step. 

Roux before fully browning

The next step was adding the ‘seafood trinity,’ onion, bell pepper, and celery, again pre-cut to save time, then coated it into the roux. Then came the seasoning, the first thing that was seasoned was the raw shrimp that I purchased fresh from my local, Louisiana grocery store. I seasoned the shrimp with “Slap Ya Mama”, black pepper, and cayenne pepper. Then, I added the seasoned shrimp to the roux and stirred it in to combine. 

Seasonings

Next to make it a gumbo, you have to add liquid. I added vegetable stock. When using gluten-free flour, sometimes the color of the roux isn’t dark enough and if so, I would add browning sauce, but this roux was dark enough to be considered a gumbo. Then seasoned the mix with Zatarain’s Shrimp & Crab Boil to add spice and mixed in the okra and tomato mix from before. A big difference with the gumbo that was made at the 1939 dinner was that now there are these specialty seasonings that are sold that are specifically Louisiana, cajun seasoning. To go along with the menu details, I added bay leaf and thyme. 

Lastly, I added water to the mixture and the crab meat. The crab meat was not from Louisiana but from Coden, AL but bought fresh rather than frozen. A difference I choose to make in relation to the menu was I choose crab claws because, at my mother’s request, she said it would make the crab in the gumbo easier to eat and it wouldn’t “fall apart.” Another difference was the price, I purchased 8 ounces of cocktail claw fingers for $15, I’m sure in the 1930s the price was much lower. In the 1930s, I wouldn’t have been able to go to a large grocery store to purchase Gulf of Mexico crab claws, especially if I lived in New York City. The final step was to cook down the gumbo while cooking rice. 

I think an important thing that the menu description mentions is that everyone has different recipes for gumbo and like the one I used, it stays in the family. I am lucky enough to live in Louisiana and have access and grow up with Louisiana recipes and food, getting to see Louisiana cuisine taking off in New York in the 1930s is fascinating. Thanks to this menu and project I can now cook my MawMaw Lebouf’s gumbo recipe. In the end, it was delicious!

Notes

  1. “About,” Les Amis d’Escoffier Society of New York, n.d., http://www.escoffier-society.com/about.php.
  2. “About Us,” Chaine des Rotisseurs, April 1, 2020, https://www.chaineus.org/about-2/.
  3. “History of the Aioli Dinner,” The Aioli Dinner Supper Club, n.d., http://aiolidinner.com/history/.
  4. “About the Supper Club,” The Aioli Dinner Supper Club, n.d., http://aiolidinner.com/about/.
  5. New York Public Library, “New Orleans Restaurant,” January 22, 1939: 1939-0018_wotm, http://menus.nypl.org/menus/30257
  6. “Inflation Rate between 1939-2020: Inflation Calculator,” $5 in 1939 → 2020 | Inflation Calculator, n.d., https://www.in2013dollars.com/us/inflation/1939?amount=5.
  7. June, “J. G. Frederick, 82, a Writer, is Dead,” The New York Times, March 24, 1964, pp. 33. https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1964/03/24/97174263.pdf?pdf_redirect=true&ip=0
  8. “J. George Frederick (Author of Pennsylvania Dutch Cook Book; Masters of Adversitising),” n.d., https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/872795.J_George_Frederick.
  9. “Gourmets Shocked by Dr. Rosenbach,” The New York Times, May 10,1937, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1937/05/10/94373125.pdf?pdf_redirect=true&ip=0
  10. “Mrs. Post Unbends at Gourmet Dinner,” The New York Times, January 24, 1938, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1938/01/24/101019479.pdf?pdf_redirect=true&ip=0
  11. “Gourmets Deplore ‘Lost’ Restaurants,” The New York Times, February 21, 1949, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1949/02/21/85340931.pdf?pdf_redirect=true&ip=0
  12. Mackenzie, “Native Dishes to the Taste of the Gourmet,” The New York Times, May 9, 1937, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1937/05/09/468902822.pdf?pdf_redirect=true&ip=0
  13. Schumach, “Gourmets Ignite 5-Alarm Dinner,” The New York Times, December 20, 1948, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1948/12/20/96608796.pdf?pdf_redirect=true&ip=0
  14. “Light My Fire: The Spectacle and Tradition of Café Brûlot,” New Orleans French Quarter.com, n.d., https://www.frenchquarter.com/tradition-cafe-brulot/
  15. Eddy, “The History of Oysters Rockefeller and How to Make Them,” Chowhound, January 30, 2019, https://www.chowhound.com/food-news/194180/the-history-of-oysters-rockefeller-and-how-to-make-them/
  16. Contributing writer, “History on the Halfshell: Antoine’s Restaurant and Oysters Rockefeller,” Nola.com, August 24, 2017, https://www.nola.com/300/article_1abe1019-5918-5d34-b063-32e6c23bd068.html
  17. Gerdes, “The Evolution of New Orleans Pralines,” National Geographic, June 20, 2012, https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2012/06/20/the-evolution-of-new-orleans-pralines/
  18. Spiers, James D., Claudine A. Jenda, and Bridget S. Farrell. “History of Gulf Coast Citrus”, HortScience horts 52, 6 (2017): 806-813, https://doi.org/10.21273/HORTSCI10982-16
  19. Bhabha, “The History of Gumbo,” FOOD52, April 4, 2014, https://food52.com/blog/10105-the-history-of-gumbo

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