In this day of Food Network, Cooking Channel and the hundreds of fabulous restaurants available to us in our culinary-obsessed city, it’s easy to scoff at dishes like “Chicken a la King” or “Oysters Rockefeller.” They’ve been around so long, and seem so old fashioned in light of the many fads in food that have come about since. In fact, the only modern Chicken a la King I’ve seen might have been on a hospital menu. It’s interesting to note, however, the time and place at which these dining room standards came about, and how recipes we’ve come to consider staples in our cooking repertoire became popular.
Prohibition had a huge effect on food and dining habits in the United States.
"When Prohibition went into effect in America on January 16, 1920, it did more than stop the legal sale of alcoholic beverages in our country...[it] increased the production of soft drinks, put hundreds of restaurants and hotels out of business, spurred the growth of tea rooms and cafeterias, and destroyed the last vestiges of fine dining in the United States...Hotels tried to reclaim some of their lost wine and spirit profits by selling candy and soda pop. The fruit cocktail cup, often garnished with marshmallows or sprinkled with powdered sugar, took the place of oysters on the half shell with champagne as a dinner party opener... The American wine industry, unable to sell its wines legally, quickly turned its vineyards over to juice grapes. But only a small portion of the juice from the grapes was marketed as juice. Most of it was sold for home-brewed wine. Needless to say, this home brew was not usually a sophisticated viniferous product, but sales of the juice kept many of the vineyards in profits throughout Prohibition. Prohibition also brought about cooking wines and artificially flavored brandy, sherry, and rum extracts. Housewives were advised to omit salt when using cooking wines, as the wines themselves had been salted to make them undrinkable... Some cooks gave up on alcoholic touches, real or faux, altogether." ---Fashionable Foods: Seven Decades of Food Fads, Sylvia Lovgren [MacMillan:New York] 1995 (p. 29-30)
"Prohibition, with its tremendous impact on the eating habits of the country, also had a great deal to do with the introduction of Italian food to the masses. Mary Grosvenor Ellsworth, in Much Depends upon Dinner, (1939), said this about Prohibition and pasta: "We cooked them [pastas] too much, we desecrated them with further additions of flour, we smothered them in baking dishes and store cheese. Prohibition changed all that. The Italians who opened up speakeasies by the thousand were our main recourse in time of trial. Whole hoards of Americans thus got exposed regularly and often to Italian food and got a taste for it. Now we know from experience that properly treated, pasta is no insipid potato substitute. The food served in the speakeasies--with Mama doing the cooking and Papa making the wine in the basement--was not quite the same as the food the Italians had eaten in the Old Country. Sicilian cooking was based on austerity...But America was rich, and protein rich country, and the immigrants were happy to add these symbols of wealth to their cooking--and happy that their new American customers liked the result. Meatballs, rich meat sauces, veal cutlets cooked with Parmesan or with lemon, clams stuffed with buttered herbed crumbs, shrimp with wine and garlic, and mozzarella in huge chunks to be eaten as appetizer were all foods of abundance, developed by Italian-Americans..." ---Fashionable Foods (p. 37-8)
At Besaw’s in the 1920s, things were—in some ways—very much the same as they are now. We still serve a Pork Loin Chop and Mashed Potatoes, for example, and a great steak. Cheffy still likes to serve up an occasional decadent Italian-American special. Maybe that’s what “comfort food” is all about; maybe it’s those recipes and ingredients that have been kitchen staples since our grandparents were kids. In our dining room, we’d like to think we have a flair for celebrating our history, while incorporating what’s seasonally available in the abundant Pacific Northwest.
On July 25th, join us for the first in a series of Throwback Dinners, featuring an extra special menu of updated classics from the 1920s. Expect a local fruit cocktail, some jello with whipped cream, traditional mashed potatoes, gravy, and fried chicken. We’ll be serving milk, tea and coffee with supper, and –cough, cough—our servers may discreetly whisper the password for a “prohibited” summer cocktail.
1920s Traditional Supper ~ $35
Choice of salad, cup of soup, entree (with your favorite sides), dessert
Waldorf ~ Chopped Kale with Oil & Garlic ~ Wedge with Thousand Island Dressing
Cup of Tomato Soup
Veal Cutlets with Tomato Sauce
Seasonal Vegetables with Homemade Egg Noodles, Creamy Herb Sauce
Candied Sweet Potatoes
Jello with Whipped Cream
Fried Chicken Dinner ~ $25 (no substitutions, please)
Half Fried Chicken
Green Peas & Sweet Potatoes
All the biscuits you can eat