It’s not that I don’t like avocado toast and three-foot high milkshakes topped with every kind of cookie and candy known to man—I do. But I’ve become hooked on FX network’s series “Trust”—the story of John Paul Getty III’s kidnapping in 1973—and it’s making me want to take a seat at a long elegant table set with fine linen, candelabra, and fresh flowers, ready to dine on rare and magnificent foods after ever-so-politely using my finger bowl.
The world itself was pretty messy in the 1970s. The Getty grandson was kidnapped in 1973, there was an oil crisis in 1973, an energy crisis in 1979, Nixon resigned from the presidency in 1974, the Vietnam War ended in 1975 after years of protests, and the Iranian Revolution happened in 1979. It was the era of disco music, the “Me Decade” (a phrase invented by Tom Wolfe in his New York Magazine essay in August 1976). There were wars, political upheaval, natural and man-made disasters, the start of the Green Revolution. Apple computer was founded in 1976 and the sexual revolution continued, as did (second-wave) feminism.
In the food world, things were also changing. Food historian Evan Jones wrote “The whole spirit of the 1970s may have been summed up one day in 1973, when the weekly called New York adapted an acerbic Spanish proverb by captioning an issue devoted entirely to food and drink: ‘Eating Well Is the Best Revenge.’”
There were the beginnings of fusion cuisine and new American cuisine. Alice Water’s groundbreaking restaurant Chez Panisse had opened its doors in 1971, but Larry Forgione’s An American Place would not appear until the decade was over, in 1983. James Beard’s 875 page tome “American Cookery” was published in 1972, collecting everything known to this food expert as “American” food. Would those recipes be used to create menus for the very rich?
Then, as now, the wealthy eat better than the poor. And though the era of household servants had, for the most part, been part of the past, they were still present in wealthy kitchens. Private chefs, to this day, are among the last remaining live-in staff for the wealthy, always on the spot and ready to make whatever food is required whenever it’s wanted.
What food would the private chef actually be making back then? The New York Times reports, “When Stephanie Hersh got her first job as a private chef for a family of four in Milton, Mass. in 1989, she did what she thought private chefs do: She spent each day preparing haute cuisine for dinner. At the end of the first week, her employer sat her down and said they needed to talk about menus. As Ms. Hersh recalled it, her employer was reassuring but firm, telling her: ‘Not that this hasn’t been wonderful—it’s just not the way we eat. We like foods like macaroni and cheese and meatloaf and lasagna.” This was true in the 1970s as well.
Though it may seem counterintuitive for the wealthy to employ private chefs to make them meatloaf instead of haute cuisine, New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne—well-known at the time for the “scandalous” five-hour, 31-course meal he had in 1975 at a well-known restaurant with chef Pierre Franey—had this to say about the idea of eating haute cuisine: “Give me a platter of choice finnan haddie, freshly cooked in its bath of water and milk, add melted butter, a slice or two of hot toast, a pot of steaming Darjeeling tea, and you may tell the butler to dispense with the caviar, truffles, and nightingales’ tongues.”
One fabulous privilege the wealthy undoubtedly have is the ability to easily dine at the finest restaurants anywhere in the world. When they’re not doing that, they might be at charity balls where dinner is “fancy,” or at business meals where the food is also often more finessed, less simple than “homestyle” cooking.
At the Association for the Study of Food and Society, food scholars of all types and backgrounds gather to discuss food ways, food history, and food culture. We asked about the foods of the wealthy in the 1970s and Jim Chevalier and Maggie Topkis responded with some thoughts.
Chevalier: If the Batterberrys (authors of “On the Town in New York, a Landmark History of Eating”) are to be believed, that was the precise moment when upscale dining became unfashionable.
Topkis: Lutece, for one, held on for considerably longer. And restaurants like The Colony were always more about being seen and making the scene—a certain kind of specific, old-money, WASP scene—than they ever were about food.
I’d counter that the early ‘70s is, in fact, the point at which the old-money WASPs for whom restaurants like The Colony functioned as something of a private club began decisively to lose their hold on the city’s social scene, giving ground increasingly to the cult of celebrity, to new money, and to Eurotrash—all of it noticeably lacking in diplomas from Groton and Yale. So basically I’d say that the early ‘70s were the point at which the restaurants that served that old-money crowd ceased to have much relevance for the city in general.
Some of the wealthiest people I’ve ever spent time with ate the worst food. I remember spending a few days with a very old-money, WASPy family in Maine, and the food was just all but inedible. Instant coffee with powdered creamer, bologna sandwiches on supermarket white bread, Sara Lee pound cake for dessert, etc. All the members of the family—at least the ones I met—were very slim and drank like fish. Nobody ate much.
Chevalier: Well, yes. That’s an old WASP affectation. Bush Sr. famously loves pork rinds. And the food at Mortimer’s—an elite meeting place in the ‘80s—was said to be, at best, mediocre.
There’s anecdotal evidence that when at home, the wealthy, then and now, eat food as unsophisticated as anyone from other income groups. Rudy Stanish, who worked in the kitchens of many of NYC’s wealthy in the 1970s, tells a story about an evening soon after he became Bunny Mellon’s “supper cook.” “One night when they were having a midnight supper, Madame didn’t want to have the usual Lobster Thermidor. ‘Let’s have eggs,’ she said. ‘Can you make eggs?’”
Of course there were many opportunities for the wealthy to eat extravagantly well. The Craig Claiborne dinner is one of the most extreme examples of this, with a menu composed of Beluga caviar, consommé of wild duck with shreds of crepes and herbs, parfait of sweetbreads, mousse of quail in a small tarte, Belon oysters with beurre blanc, lobster with truffle sauce, poularde de Bresse with wild mushrooms in a cream sauce, chartreuse of partridge, Limosin beef with rare truffle sauce, ortolans en brochette, wild duck in salmis, rognonette de veau, woodcock chaudfroid, all the magnificent vintage wines alongside, desserts, and dessert wines.
I’m not sure if I could manage to eat Claiborne’s feast, even if I really wanted to. Luckily there are restaurants in NYC where one can pick and choose from menus which still retain some of the foods of that time: Harry’s, which opened in Hanover Square in 1972, has recently been renovated to be just a bit brighter inside, which is great, but the Beef Wellington, Lobster Thermidor, and Duck a L’Orange are even better. La Grenouille also still remains, filled with flowers almost to the ceiling along with a quiet Gallic charm. The Quenelles de Brochet au Caviar are classic examples of a food that has traveled through time to be one with both the past and the present.
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If you’d like to cook in your own kitchen like it was that era again, here’s a great place to start: the Gourmet magazine archives for the 1970s.
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