When the Best Drink is Cocoa, in the Style of the British Navy

By Cathy Huyghe

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“A man dies too young if he leaves any wine in his cellar.” – André L. Simon

A used bookseller I know on the North Shore usually sets 20 or 25 books on two small bookcases just outside his front door, for casual passers-by to peruse and possibly purchase. The bookseller changes the theme frequently – Cape Cod ecology in the summer, Updike novels when he passed away, how-to-entertain manuals around the holidays – but this week the theme was wine, food, and cocktails.

I stopped to peruse.

What caught my eye first was a small pamphlet from 1962 called Wine and Food: A Gastronomical Quarterly edited by André L. Simon, the prolific wine writer and merchant from the first half-ish of the 20th century.

The edifice of the small periodical was charming, the way the stylistic choices of the producers of “Mad Men” are charming – the copy, for example, for one advertisement in the front of the book for De Kuyper Hollands Gin reads, “Most People… Host People… Let’s-Propose-A-Toast People prefer De Kuyper.” All ads were in black and white, though this one occupied a full page and its illustration evoked a well-appointed cocktail soirée where one prominent male guest in a lean-cut suit and tie looks back over his shoulder, grinning, glass of gin in hand.

Another post (this one starting with “Write to us for such and such…”) reminded me of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, who placed two-line ads in newspapers of the day to cull suspects out of hiding.

The contents of this particular issue leaned heavily toward articles on food – like “The Princely Pineapple” by David Gunston, “The Herb That Lulls” by Winifred Graham, and “The Hampstead Dinner Club” by Harold Adshead – but the most curious part of the book for me was a small section in the back called Memorable Meals.

Seven meals were detailed by date, time, place, hosts, guests, fare, and drinks/wines. Most of the meals took place in 1961, except the odd one from 1941, circa May 1, which happened at 2am on the HMS Havoc off the coastal waters of Monemvasia, Greece, in the company of “as many New Zealand servicemen as could be accommodated on, under, in, above, below, or between the decks.”

The fare: “Bread, with margarine or butter, ad libitum.”

The drink: “Cocoa, style of the British Navy.”

Although each of the other Memorable Meals was memorable at least in part because of the wine served – Château Petrus 1947 and Château d’Yquem 1947 at one, Nuits St. Georges 1919 at another, and Romanée Conti from 1934, 1945, and 1953 at yet another – the descriptive essays following each meal’s vital statistics indicate that the point of memorability was more the occasion of the coming-together and less the drinks and wine that were consumed.

That sounds odd, especially judging from the provenance and quality of wines on offer.

But when British Navy-style cocoa counts as the beverage of note at one of the most memorable meals of recent times, and when who was there is just as important as what was served, and when descriptions are given of the conversation and tone of each meal, you get a sense that context matters for the appreciation of the experience overall, rather than any one part of it.

Which comes as a refreshing then-as-now bit of history, all the way from 1962.

Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. She has studied at La Varenne École de Cuisine in Burgundy, France, completed the Wine Studies program at Boston University, and received Advanced Certification from WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust). Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.

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