image1Title: Dining and Social Positioning: From Delmonico’s to the Four Seasons
Speaker: Paul D. Freedman
Date: March 31, 2016
Location: Mount Vernon Hotel Museum

Commensality: the act of eating together. With whom we eat, what we eat, and where we eat, especially in public, defines our identity. As Paul Freedman, the Chester A. Tripp Professor of Medieval History at Yale University, argued, eating together expresses our character and is so fundamental to our humanity that virtually every blockbuster movie, save one Star Wars flick, has an eating scene. And restaurants, according to Freedman, provide three types of networks: social, business, and romantic.

Public eateries are dynamic venues of social change.  During the nineteenth century, men’s clubs provided refuge from the anxieties that the Victorian and Gilded Ages ushered in. Their cocooning atmosphere reinforced bonds among the “regulars:” to be a part of that inner circle was reassuring, but business reversals could result in ostracism. To be a regular at Delmonico’s signified that one was a member of the social elite.

After World War 1, New York’s elite restaurants were in the forefront of changing cultural norms: Hollywood stars, scandalous bootleggers, and other naughty but glamorous patrons brought a new aura into the art of public dining. Although Prohibition killed many of New York’s finest gastronomic temples, once it was repealed, restaurants assumed a new model of sociability and status-consciousness. Restaurants in the mid-20th century followed a nightclub model, rather than the old men’s club model: nightclubs (and the newly-fashionable spots such as the Four Seasons) had “Siberia,” areas where the aspirational, rather than the arrived, would be seated.

The Four Seasons was an especially groundbreaking restaurant. Resolutely not French, it introduced an idea of seasonality to New York diners. Its well-spaced tables and the murmuring of the Pool Room made it a perfect location for the business lunch (although it was not conceived of as a business venue): its unimpeded sight lines allowed everyone to see and be seen, but not overheard. The Rich and Famous enjoyed its ostentatious austerity, to use Professor Freedman’s marvelous phrase; suddenly, the food was less important than being at the venue. Some of the regular (more culinarily eccentric?) patrons would order off-menu, choosing plebeian foods, such as cottage cheese.

We were extremely fortunate at the reception preceding Professor Freedman’s talk: no cottage cheese for us. Executive Chef Billy Oliva, of the Delmonico’s Restaurant Group, catered part of the reception, with fabulous steak tartare, radish and anchovy canapés, and a Sauternes-poached salmon, all inspired by recipes in The Epicurean and rendered in bite-sized tastes. Members of CHNY prepared desserts, including an Italian Coffee Meringue that is our featured recipe.