Elizabeth David and the Mystery of Petits Pains au Chocolat

The pain au chocolat one sees in bakery displays in and outside of France is made with a flaky puff pastry dough also used for the crescent, or croissant.  I've always found the combination of puff pastry and chocolate a bit too rich and cloying.  If you've ever dipped a French baguette in melted chocolate, you might agree that a crusty bread dough, made without butter fat, is a much better match.  In her inspired classic, English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977), Elizabeth David (1913-1992) describes her memory of petits pains au chocolat while in Paris in the early 1930s:
When I allowed myself time, I could stop to buy a pain chocolat to eat in the tram on which I travelled from Passy to the Boulevard Saint Michel to attend lectures at the Sorbonne.  The chocolate in these rolls-- I have remembered it all my life-- was of that rough and gritty quality which no longer exists in France because the chocolate merchants have perfected their machinery to the point where all their products emerge smooth, bland, shining and uniform.  And nowadays, the bakers use their second-best flaky pastry or third-quality croissant dough to make their pains chocolat.

According to David, prior to World War II, French bakers typically used a simple bread dough to encase the bars of chocolate, and not puff pastry.  By the 1970s, when English Bread and Yeast Cookery was written, David observed that in France, this dough had been replaced with a lesser quality puff pastry, a shift she confirms by consulting recipes from "old French books on bread."  Since David does not cite which books she consulted or provide a publication date, it is difficult to determine whether she simply means pre-war cookbooks from the early twentieth century or earlier examples.  At what point in history did the chocolate rolls David describes arrive in French bakeries, and when did the the version made with croissant dough come to characterize the typical pains au chocolat?

A survey of the petits pains au chocolat in nineteenth century cookbooks suggests a different style of chocolate dessert.  For instance, in the 1868 cookbook, La bonne cuisinière bourgeoise, by Lina Rytz née Dick, a recipe for pains au chocolat instructs one to blend chocolate into a dough with sugar and egg yolks.  Stiffly beaten egg whites are then folded in, aerating the dough.  Almond flour is then incorporated and finally the mixture is baked in a buttered form.  This seems to be more in the style of pain à la duchesse and pain à la reine,  both likely antecedent to today's éclair.  It was not until the early 20th century, when a new method of bread baking came to France, that pains au chocolat took on a different meaning in French cookbooks.

Viennese Bread and Pre-WWII Cookbooks

French bread baking underwent significant adaptations in the mid-nineteenth century with the introduction of the Vienna oven, which redistributed the oven's heat through steam injectors and a sloping floor.  It was in conjunction with Vienna bread's yeasted milk dough that I began to notice David's style of pains au chocolat in French cookbooks.  The earliest mention I found of yeasted milk dough came in the 1928 (7th edition) tome, Gastronomie pratique, written by Ali-Bab (Henri Babinski).  The recipe is titled, Petits pains viennois, or Small viennese loaves, and includes flour, yeast, salt, milk and water.  Ali-Bab says they are served at buffets and "les five o'clock tea."

In 1933, a similar recipe for Petits pains au lait appeared in La boulangerie d'aujourd'hui by Urbain Dubois.  According to Dubois, this dough is also known as fougasse, although I'm not sure why, since pain fougasse is a regional French flat bread.  In Dubois's recipe milk powder replaces the milk and butter or margarine and one egg or yellow coloring are added as well.  After this recipe, Dubois describes a variation in which the dough is wrapped around a piece of baker's chocolate.  In the 1935 classic Traité pratique de panification française et parisienne, Émile Dufour explains that pain au chocolat is made with croissant dough or fougasse dough (i.e., pain au lait, or milk bread dough).  Thus, by the mid-1930s chocolate was being added to both croissant and milk dough, although according to David, the Parisian bakeries she frequented preferred the latter.  The pains au chocolat of Elizabeth David's memory were indeed short-lived, lasting only a few decades in the first half of the 20th century.  Fortunately they are easy to prepare.

Making Pains au Chocolat

The recipe below is based on David's and includes some additional points I have found useful. David says to follow the method for preparing English bap dough, found in another chapter, and I've condensed the ingredients with those instructions.  David's original recipe calls for 1/2 oz. of baker's yeast. If you are as naive about yeast as I am you will probably assume that this is a poetic synonym for Fleischmann's dry yeast.  It is not.  As David notes in her chapter on yeast, dry yeast is much more powerful than baker's yeast and as a substitute, one need use only about a half or one third of the amount of baker's yeast listed. Too much yeast yields a dense dough that stales quickly. Another important point: these are by far the most delicious pains au chocolat you may ever try but they must be eaten straight from the oven, so ignore the temptation to double the recipe and save some for later.

Petits Pains au Chocolat

1/2 lb unbleached white flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup milk, warmed
1/2 oz. baker's yeast, or 1/4 oz. dry yeast (1 packet)
4 oz. chocolate, divided into eighths (a good quality European milk chocolate or semi-sweet chocolate bar works well)

Glaze (optional but recommended)
2 Tbs milk
2 Tbs sugar

1. Sift the flour and salt in a bowl.  Pour warm milk into a large mixing bowl, sprinkle yeast on top and stir to dissolve.  Test yeast activity with a teaspoon of sugar if necessary.  If active, bubbles will begin to appear within 10 minutes.  Add the sifted flour and mix well.  The dough will be dry and shaggy.  Knead in the bowl or on a clean surface a few times to bring the dough together smoothly.  Do not over knead-- a few times will be sufficient.  Holding the dough in your hands, shape into a smooth ball about the size of a small grapefruit.  Place dough in a large bowl, cover with a lightly dampened cloth and set in a warm spot.  Rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

2. Preheat oven to 400-425°.  Divide dough into eighths.  Roll out and place a piece of chocolate into the center.  Fold the dough over the chocolate, pressing the seams to seal if necessary.  Place on baking sheet, cover with cloth and let rest 15 minutes.  Remove cloth, place tray on center rack in oven and bake 15-20 minutes, until tops are golden.  Meanwhile, prepare the glaze by dissolving the sugar in warm milk.  When the bread is ready, remove from oven. Chocolate will probably have spilled out onto the baking pan-- this is perfectly fine and will be very delicious to eat off the pan. Immediately brush pains with glaze until all glaze has been used.  Serve immediately.

For more on David, see this very informative, thorough, and well written article on Elizabeth David, in the excellent online magazine, British Food in America.

"And the Dish Ran Away With the Spoon": Mythical Foodscapes in Children's Literature Part IV: Raggedy Ann in Cookie Land

In Part IIIRaggedy Ann and the Magic Wishing Pebble, many adventures followed when Raggedy Ann found a magic wishing pebble and wished for a magic ice cream soda fountain and a lollipop field. The story takes place in the countryside, a make-believe tale in the setting of the physical real world. In Raggedy Ann in Cookie Land (1931), however, the Raggedys enter a fantasy world composed entirely of cookie dough. Indeed, the setting is strikingly similar to Bunbury, the dough-based village that Dorothy stumbles upon in the Wizard of Oz (1910) discussed in Part II.

Raggedy Ann in Cookie Land begins with a nod to Alice in Wonderland, when Raggedy Ann and Andy fall down a hole in an oak tree while in pursuit of a rabbit. They land in an ice grotto and quickly discover that all of the icicles are made of flavored soda water. As in Alice in Wonderland, when the Raggedys leave the real world (i.e., the nursery to which they belong) their first encounter is with something to consume. It is through this first taste of magic that the adventure begins, for the Raggedys find that the icicle water has gone right through their cotton stuffing, causing them to stick to the grotto's ice floor. As a result, they are at the mercy of Hookie the Goblin, who informs them that he will chop them with an ice pick and make noodle soup out of Raggedy Ann.

After the Raggedys' inevitable escape with the help of a kindly elf named Little Weakie, they enter a door which leads to a giant oven room, filled with the tantalizing smells of a bakery. Despite the group's innocent intentions, they are countered by a strange, stiff man who is very angry at the trespassers and says he will have to put them through a roller. In defense, Little Weakie strikes the man and he breaks in half. It is then that the Raggedys and Little Weakie discover that the man is a cookie man. Feeling very sorry that the man is broken, Raggedy Ann mends him with molasses and decorates him with some candy icing trim so that he looks much smarter. As the cookie man regains consciousness, he is so relieved to have been mended by the kindly group that he takes them home to meet his family-- Mrs. Cookie and their two children. It turns out that the Cookie family is deeply fearful that they or their possessions (all made of cookie dough or candy) will be eaten by interlopers, and are thus relieved when they do meet anyone who does not intend to eat them. It is surprising and unnecessary that anyone should want to eat the cookie people themselves because they are always baking more and more cookies and giving them away. And yet, there are numerous foes, such as Hookie the Goblin, who do attempt to eat the cookie people.

Left to right: Little Weakie, Raggedy Ann, the Howloon, Hookie the Goblin, Raggedy Andy, the Snitznoodle, Mrs. Cookie, and Mr. Cookie.

After arriving at Mr. and Mrs. Cookie's cake house, the Raggedys and Little Weakie sit down to dinner:
"It was a lovely dinner, for Mrs. Cookie had baked a chicken, nice and brown. It wasn't a real-for-sure chicken. It was a cake chicken covered with maple-walnut and chocolate icing to make it look real. And, it was stuffed with chopped cherries and pecan nuts. The gravy for the chicken was chocolate ice cream, just soft enough to pour over it. The Raggedys and Little Weakie enjoyed the dinner very, very much for it had been almost an hour since they had eaten anything. And then they had had only eleven cookies apiece, and those did not have icing on them. So they were quite hungry."

The abundance of food in Cookie Land attracts some very hungry lost souls, some who do not even know they are hungry until they have tasted some of Mrs. Cookie's baked goods. The Snitznoodle, for instance, soon becomes friends with the group. He is clearly not a threat for he says,

"But you know, I never eat anything but wind sandwiches."

"Wind sandwiches?" Raggedy Ann asked.

"I am very fond of them," the Snitznoodle said. "And, as they cost nothing, it keeps my board-bill down to a small amount each month."

The Snitznoodle then demonstrates how to prepare wind sandwiches:

"I'm going to show you how to make wind sandwiches. Then if Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy and Little Weakie ever get hungry they can find supplies almost anywhere."

The Snitznoodle took a knife from his pocket. "See?" he said. "First I cut two thin slices of air. And then I spread a lump of soft wind on each slice of air and place them together and I have a nice wind sandwich."

But when Mrs. Cookie gives the Snitznoodle an ice cream cone he admits,

"My! That is ever so much better than a wind sandwich!"

Having tasted the delicious ice cream cone, the Snitznoodle asks if he can live with the cookie people, who are very happy to welcome him to their home.

The Snitznoodle

In this way, the realities of hunger are very much a part of the story. Written in the early years of the Great Depression in the United States, when many had difficulty affording even basic provisions, the vision of Cookie Land presented children with a make-believe world of plenty where everyone learns to share and so might never be hungry.  Such stories of imaginary food are not unusual in times of strife.

When food is unavailable, it is the food of the mind that can offer a measure of sustenance. As one reader noted in Part III, this brings to mind examples such as the recording of recipes in World War II concentration camps.  This has been preserved in In Memory's Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezín by Cara De Silva (2006) which collects the recipes transcribed by Jewish women in the Terezín concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.

"And the Dish Ran Away With the Spoon": Mythical Foodscapes in Children's Literature
Part I: Utensia
Part II: Bunbury
Part III: Raggedy Ann and the Magic Wishing Pebble

Blancmange: Affordable Elegance

As promised in my post on the Cream Top Milk Separator, I've tested one of the recipes from the Cream Top booklet-- Vanilla Cornstarch Pudding. Also known as blancmange, this classic white dessert came to be known as vanilla pudding in the United States by the 1930s. The lovely and elegant blancmange was perfectly suited to the Depression era recipes of the Cream Top booklet and its pledge of "luxury without extravagance", as the only ingredients are milk, a small amount of sugar and salt, and cornstarch.  Instead of using cow's milk, I made the recipe with coconut milk. You could also try rice or almond milk, from which blancmange has long been prepared, or any other nut milk.  The cornstarch is used for firming and works wonderfully, without adulterating the taste of the pudding.  Although I haven't tried it, I'm sure arrowroot powder would work just as well.  Gelatin is often used in blancmange to create a densely moulded shape but I prefer the soft buoyancy yielded from cornstarch.  For a stiff mould, try using agar-agar instead of gelatin.  Blancmange is a very simple dessert and one of the most satisfying things to eat on a warm day because of its cold, slippery texture.  The taste is light and subtle, much like rice pudding without the rice, and therefore the perfect template on which to experiment, by adding flavors such as rosewater, saffron, and cardamom, or embedding ingredients such as edible flowers in the mould.

Vanilla Cornstarch Pudding
, adapted from the Cream Top Recipe Booklet


3 Tbs cornstarch
3 cups coconut or almond milk (original recipe uses cow's milk)
4 Tbs granulated sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup heavy cream, whipped (I omitted this)

Mix cornstarch, salt, sugar and 1/2 cup of the milk.  Meanwhile scald rest of milk in double boiler.  Pour little of scalded milk on the cornstarch mixture and blend.  Add this to remaining scalded milk and stir constantly until pudding thickens.  Remove spoon, cover double boiler and cook 25 minutes stirring occasionally.  Add vanilla, beat up well, pour into 6 cold wet molds, chill thoroughly, and then unmold.  Serve with whipped cream.  Add sliced fresh fruit, canned fruit or stewed dried fruit, if desired.  Serves 6.

To prevent skin forming on surface of pudding while chilling, cover top of glasses or molds with wax or parchment paper, transparent cellulose sheeting or aluminum foil.

I Made a Fool Out of Gooseberries

Like its close relation, the currant, the gooseberry (Ribes) grows in perfect harmony with the long days of summer. The fruiting season is slow and measured, beginning in the early spring, when the lanky bush sprouts tiny green shoots and eventually shy, white blossoms.  In the summer, the branches bend toward the ground with neat rows of green, delicately veined fruit, slowly maturing to purple orbs around midsummer.  It is always a little sad when you realize that the bush is suddenly bare, all the fruit having finally fallen or been eaten, as this marks the end of summer.

Indigenous to the temperate zones of Europe, the gooseberry is known to have been cultivated as early as the thirteenth century.  It became a conventional ingredient by the sixteenth century and was used in sauces and stuffings.  ("Gooseberry"  An A-Z of Food and Drink. Ed. John Ayto. Oxford University Press, 2002).  Because of their tartness, gooseberries will combine well with anything sweet, such as the custards and cream desserts with which they have long been paired.   Gooseberries can be eaten in both the unripe and ripe states, the latter being slightly sweeter and less acidic.

Beloved in Britain, gooseberries were put to good use in the classic fool.  The earliest extant English recipe for gooseberry fool is found in Hannah Glasse's Art of Cookery (1747) and has not varied much in comparison with present-day adaptations.   Below, I've featured the recipe I use, followed by Glasse's recipe.  Since gooseberries are not often seen in markets, they are worth growing yourself, producing an abundant, disease- and pest-free crop of ready to cook, vitamin-rich fruit.  This season, I'll also try the gooseberry and elderflower cake recipe from Fennel & Fern.

Gooseberry Fool made with ripe purple gooseberries.

Gooseberry Fool
You can use green or purple gooseberries for the fool. Since I have only made this recipe with ripe, purple ones, you may find that unripe, green gooseberries require a little more honey or sugar for the compote. Adjust with a teaspoon at a time until you get a nice sweet/tart balance.


1 pound green or purple gooseberries (about 3 cups)
1/2 cup honey
Juice and zest of 1 orange
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
pinch of salt
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 Tbs granulated sugar

1. Prepare gooseberries by removing the tiny tails with a sharp knife or fork tines.
Slice gooseberries in half and place in a heavy saucepan. Add honey, vanilla, and salt. Cover the pot and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring every couple of minutes. When the mixture is bubbly and the fruit has softened, remove from the heat and allow to cool. Pour into a bowl and refrigerate until cold, 30 minutes to 1 hour.

2. Whip cream and gradually add sugar. Continue whipping until soft peaks form. Reserve about 1/3 of the compote mixture for garnish and fold the remainder into the whipped cream until well blended. Spoon the fool into 6 serving glasses or bowls and chill for 1 hour before serving. Serve garnished with reserved gooseberry compote. Keeps up to 2 days refrigerated.

Period Recipe from The Art of Cookery (1747) by Hannah Glasse

To make a gooseberry fool.

Take two quarts of gooseberries, set them on the fire in
about a quart of water. When they begin to simmer, turn yellow
and begin to plump, throw them into a colander to drain
the water out ; then with the back of a spoon carefully squeeze
the pulp, throw the sieve into a dish, make them pretty sweet
and let them stand till they are cold. In the mean time take
two quarts of new milk, and the yolks of four eggs beat up
with a little grated nutmeg; stir it softly over a slow fire ; when
it begins to simmer, take it off, and by degrees stir it into the
gooseberries. Let it stand till it is cold, and serve it up. If you
make it with cream you need not put any eggs in : and if it
is not thick enough, it is only boiling more gooseberries, But
that you must do as you think proper.

The Cream Top Milk Separator

The Cream Top separator, a humble metal ladle, was designed for the purpose of separating cream from milk in a particular type of milk bottle. Before homogenized milk became widespread in the late 1940s, milk bottles typically featured a top layer of cream-- the fat that naturally rises to the milk's surface.  Cream Top bottles featured a bulge at the cream line where the ladle could rest.  The end of the ladle doubled as a bottle opener and hooked on to the bottle's rim, allowing one to tip over the bottle and pour out the cream using only one hand.

"Something More Than Just a Bottle of Milk"

During the first half of the 20th century in the United States, milk industry practices and the consumption of milk became increasingly standardized by the federal government.  After a century of  milk contamination scandals, measures such as the requirement of pasteurization and the institution of federal milk programs in schools sought to instill public trust in milk as a safe, nutritious food and thus increase consumption of domestic commodities. In early 20th century advertisements, milk is consistently billed as a pure, simple source of nutrition, yet each manufacturer emphasizes a quality that makes theirs different.  See my posts on Selling Milk Between the Wars, Parts I and II. With the Cream Top Corporation, it was the efficiency of their specially designed bottle and the quality of the cream ("so thick it whips instantly"), targeting 1930s housewives in charge of family meal planning.

Cream Top Advertisement, Good Housekeeping, March 1, 1940.
Photo: Gallery of Graphic Design. gogd.tjs-labs.com

Cream Top Advertisement, Good Housekeeping, March 1, 1940.
Photo: Gallery of Graphic Design. gogd.tjs-labs.com

Cream Top Advertisement, Good Housekeeping, June 1, 1935.
Photo: Gallery of Graphic Design. gogd.tjs-labs.com
"Luxury Without Extravagance"
During the Great Depression, Cream Top advertised the idea of cream as an economical luxury.  The recipe booklet below encourages home cooks to use cream in every meal, thereby adding an element of luxury to even the sparest of ingredients: "[cream] adds interest and flavor to soups, salads and even meat courses.  It often transforms left-overs into royal dishes as if by magic...yet it's so simple to use.  Without fuss or bother, you can quickly 'make' whipped cream."  As milk bottles were gradually replaced with paper cartons in the 1940s, the Cream Top bottle faded away.

Like the advertisements above, this 24-page booklet is associated with the magazine, Good Housekeeping.
Here, the recipes have been "tested, tasted and approved by the Good Housekeeping Institute.  Booklet circa 1930s
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Click here for a recipe from the booklet.

More on milk from the archives:
PET Milk and the Business of Feeding Babies
Selling Milk Between the Wars, Parts I and II

Culinary Ephemera: New York's One and Only President

From the humble Automat to the grand Delmonico's, many well-known New York restaurants and eateries have been remembered by history.  But there are still more stories to tell of others that have surpassed the brevity of the average New York restaurant's lifespan.  The President was one such place, lasting for over 40 years at the same location in midtown Manhattan.

President Restaurant Menu circa 1963-69. The cover reads, "Since 1788 the United States of America have had 35 presidents. Since 1930 the City of New York has had only one!" and "We are honored by your presence with us for Luncheon and wish You a Good Appetite! Yr. Obt. Svt., The President."
President Tavern menu, dated August 3, 1944.  New York Public Library. This menu can be studied via the NYPL's excellent digital menu platform, "What's on the Menu?" Click on any of the dishes listed in the menu to find books and ephemera from the NYPL and other online repositories that mention the dish, as well as restaurants that currently list the dish on their menu. 

In 1930 Charles Munves and Samuel Agran opened The President in a brand new building at 370 Lexington Avenue at 41st St.  A year later they leased the space and basement next door as well.  The picture below shows the two storefronts as they are today, occupied by a Cafe Metro and a Dunkin Donuts.  The President Tavern was located where Dunkin Donuts is now and the Cafeteria was on the corner, the two units divided by the building's front entrance.  The spaces were remodeled several times and at some point in the 1950s the name was changed from The President Tavern and Cafeteria to The President Restaurant (keeping the two distinct dining areas), as it remained until it finally closed in 1972.

370 Lexington Ave., New York, at the corner of 41st St., once home of The President Tavern and Cafeteria. Photo 2012.

Charles Munves was born in 1895 in Minsk, then part of Russia, and later emigrated to New York City.  Agran, previously affiliated with New York's Monroe Cafeteria, was also a Russian émigré, born in 1897, and joined the United States Merchant Marines after coming to the United States.  Munves was thus 35 and Agran 33 when the two jointly opened the restaurant.  They both remained active in the business, even after their sons, Gene Munves and Michael Agran, joined the enterprise in the 1950s.  After the elder Munves and Agran retired, Gene and Michael remained as joint proprietors until the establishment closed, ending a remarkable 42 year run.  The President's early years were at a time of economic instability-- the Great Depression had recently blighted the United States, and in New York, frequent restaurant workers' uprisings culminated with infamous corruption scandals between local gangsters and the leaders of the restaurant workers' union.

President Tavern and Cafeteria Postcard circa 1940. 

Some of the most enduring restaurants profit from cultivating a loyal clientele, coalesced from within a city's tacit divisions of race, class, and gender.  The President Cafeteria/Restaurant served a niche lunch group of white middle-class professional men working in the midtown area near Grand Central Station, much like Schrafft's and Longchamps catered to white middle-class "ladies-who-lunch."  Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner and open until 1a.m., the cafeteria advertised self-service hot meals "at reasonable prices" in a relaxed, casual environment.  The self-proclaimed largest restaurant in the Grand Central Zone, The President was a reliable staple of the Murray Hill neighborhood and was a regular haunt of soon to be luminaries such as the writer Charles Reznikoff, the cartoonist Harry Hershfield, and the aspiring actress Susan Hayward.  The Tavern section, decorated with wood paneling, mirrors, and white tablecloths, had a cocktail lounge and dining room with waiter service and was the more refined option, advertising "The finest wines and liquor" and "Where eating is a pleasure."  With its comfortable atmosphere and private dining facility, it was a popular meeting place for clubs, fraternities, and societies.  By offering two levels of dining in one trusted establishment, the President was able to appeal to a broader cross section of the public.   

The President had a relationship with the neighborhood it served.  As Linda Agran, widow of the late Michael Agran recalls, "During the 1965 blackout the restaurant remained open and served, free of charge, all food that did not require cooking.  When the food ran out they remained open so that stranded commuters had a place to wait until the power returned.  Michael and Gene used candles (donated by the local churches), cooking oil, just about anything that would create some light.  When Michael returned to our home in Rye Brook late the following morning he was covered with soot from the cooking oil lights but so happy that they had helped so many people get through that confusing night."

Reservation form from The President Restaurant, ca. late 1960s.  Note that parties could choose a presidential suite, the main dining room, the cocktail lounge, or the sportsman corner. {Click to enlarge}

370 Lexington Ave., New York, NY. Photo 2012.

President Tavern and Cafeteria Matchbook ca. 1930s.

My grandfather ate lunch at the President Restaurant nearly every day for the over 20 years he worked for an engineering company, at first when the firm was located in the same building as The President and then after his office moved to a building on Park Avenue.  He would lunch in the cafeteria-style restaurant, taking his tray past the assortment of hot food dishes behind a glass case.  Reflecting the standard American diet of the 1950s and 60s the offerings consisted mostly of meat dishes (see menu below).  A typical meal included a seafood or meat dish such as roast beef served with gravy, a side of potatoes, and cooked vegetables such as spinach or a salad.  My grandfather liked to get a few slices of roast beef and chat with the meat carver; he preferred the cafeteria because he liked being able to see and pick out the food he was about to eat.  He would entertain clients in the tavern section.  For patrons like my grandfather, The President offered a one stop dining experience.

President Restaurant Menu ca. 1963-69.

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President Restaurant Menu circa 1963-69. Back cover.

And of course, The President also had a theme, although it was not a "theme restaurant" per se; the staff did not dress in period costume and sing patriotic ballads or anything like that.  I don't know why Munves and Agran chose to glorify U.S. presidential personages on the menu.  Perhaps they liked the memorable and dignified sounding name and the idea that patrons might feel special dining there.  Perhaps, as recent Eastern European immigrants, Munves and Agran felt it was a kind of homage or good luck symbol for their new business venture in America.  Perhaps they were trying to project a patriotic, Americentric air in an effort to assimilate and seduce a variety of customers.  There is very little recorded information about the men who built this unassuming restaurant with a big name.  After opening The President, Munves married and settled down in Babylon, Long Island.  Sadly, in 1951 the Munves' first-born son, age 5, drowned in a boating accident near their home.  Eventually Munves remarried and had more children.  Certainly The President kept going.

The circa 1961 president-themed postcard below came from the President Restaurant and was designed by Hilborn Novelty Advertising, a company specializing in caricature postcards.  When I see this postcard, with its tiny presidents' head shots pasted onto the bodies of football players proclaiming "An All-American Team with Democracy their Goal," and the menu above decorated with presidents' faces, one empty box eagerly waiting to be filled, I sense the pride and great pleasure that the Munves and Agrans derived from the distinctive place they had built together.  When Michael and Gene decided to close the restaurant in 1972, ultimately pursuing other careers and focusing more on their growing families, Samuel Agran was 75 years old.  He died 9 years later.

Postcard from The President Restaurant, ca. 1961. Reads "An All-American Team with Democracy their Goal." 

As it happens, I've been enjoying The Bitter Season (1946) by Robert M. Coates, an articulate and sensitively written novel of a writer living in New York during World War II.  The book is filled with descriptions of the city at night, as the narrator takes the reader on a veritable street tour, glimpsing into darkened shops and the windows of eateries open past midnight, where estranged, lonely characters while away their time.  And here, amidst one street scene, is The President:
"Get ya late," cry the newsstand men up around Grand Central (it is dark, it is late, it is cold), and in the bar of the President Tavern two soldiers are standing laughing while a third holds the rim of the bar with both hands and (he laughing too) leans back drunkenly; in the window of Florists Funeral Designs next door they are featuring a set of big brandy snifter glasses, arranged carefully in a row and each one with a small cactus plant growing inside it: apparently it's the latest idea.  (pg. 50)
This description would be from around the same period as the NYPL menu above, dated 1944.  

This post was updated on June 21, 2013 with information provided by members of the Munves and Agran families.  My sincere thanks to everyone who kindly contributed details, particularly Linda Agran, whose memories have allowed for a much richer picture of this storied place.

For more on restaurant history, take a look at Jan Whitaker's authoritative blog Restaurant-ing Through History.
Ephemeral New York is an excellent blog on things New York. 

Book Review: Brazilian Cookery (1965)

Brazilian Cookery by Margarette de Andrade, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1965, 349 pp. 

When a friend of mine visited Brazil last year, her intrepid account of the trip on her always witty and entertaining blog, One for the Road Travel, brought to mind a classic cookbook that has long been out of print. Published in 1965, Brazilian Cookery: Traditional and Modern, written by Margarette de Andrade, describes the variety of cultural threads that run through Brazillian cuisine, mainly Native, African, and Lusitanian. Like many pre-1970s era cookbooks, the dishes are not photographed.  The charming illustrations of food-related activities in Brazil by the artist Hector Bernabó, known as Carybé, decorate the book throughout. Thoughtfully annotated recipes, many of which de Andrade transcribed from oral descriptions, are prefaced with essays on the role and development of foodways in Brazil. While many cookbooks are organized by course or a general ingredient category such as "vegetables" or "fish," de Andrade's chapters are structured around what she sees as important elements of Brazilian cuisine such as holidays, coconuts, Afro-Brazilian cookery, and beans and rice.  The intended audience is American, and de Andrade (neé Sheehan), a native New Yorker who married Brazilian journalist and diplomat, Gabriel de Andrade, makes every effort to facilitate an introduction to Brazilian food.  Detailed explanations are given of common Brazilian ingredients that were (and likely continue to be) exotic to most 1960s American kitchens, such as manioc, dendê nut oil, and malagueta peppers. There is also a listing of food importers and purveyors located in the U.S. (now mostly defunct) and an indispensable index of recipes that can be made with left-over egg whites or yolks. And, as I will show later, de Andrade is extremely generous to her readers.

In examining cookbooks, it is always instructive to read the introductory pages in order to see what the author chose to include and exclude. De Andrade chooses recipes that would "find acceptance to the American taste and, at the same time, be representative of an orthodox Brazilian cuisine." Although de Andrade mentions culinary contributions from German, Italian, and Japanese immigrants, as well as the popularity of nouvelle French cuisine, she omits such foreign sources from the recipes.  Portuguese recipes are exempt from this exclusion, however, which de Andrade explains, "in the final analysis cannot really be considered foreign."  De Andrade thus implies the existence of an essential Brazilian cuisine, identified exclusively as native-afro-luso.

There are some points raised by de Andrade that I wish had been explained more fully. For instance, in the section on feijoada, a favorite stew made of beans and meat, de Andrade vaguely states that there is no record of the stew in Brazil prior to the 19th century, but that it became increasingly popular and eventually became the national dish. What factors contributed to its popularity and its rise to fame?  Similarly, a mention of buying vegetables from Japanese truck gardens left me wondering more about such local vegetable-growing communities. According to The Japanese in Latin America by Daniel Masterson and Sayaka Funada-Classen (2004), selling vegetables from truck gardens (gardens growing vegetables intended for local markets) was a secondary source of income for immigrant Japanese coffee farmers, who grew the produce in their coffee groves.  

De Andrade describes the food of Brazil with genuine affection, the result of a long career in studying Brazilian culture.  In 1949 she was awarded the Brazilian Order of Merit and at the time of this book's publication had worked for the Brazilian Embassy in Washington for over two decades.  De Andrade's recipes are based on traditional Brazilian recipes that she began translating and collecting in 1927. Where possible, she lists the name of the recipe writer and her/his place of birth, solidifying the claim of authenticity. One of the most charming aspects of this book is the descriptive names of dishes, which de Andrade fondly explains are a hallmark of Brazilian cookery. "Old Clothes," "I Want More," "Mother-in-Law's Eyes," "Hurry," "Fatten Your Husband," "Nun's Sighs," and "Angel's Double Chins" are some of my favorites. De Andrade devotes seven chapters to Brazilian bread and confectionaries, of which many dishes were brought into circulation by Portuguese nuns, who made and sold the sweets.  De Andrade discusses the Brazilian flair for elaborately decorated cakes with particular attention to Cybèle Magro's Butterfly Cake, a two-page recipe requiring the use of a traditional butterfly-shaped cake pan. Can't find a butterfly-shaped cake pan? Not to worry-- de Andrade says she will loan you hers-- just call her up and ask her to send it to you.  Didn't I say she is generous to her readers?

The following recipe for Sonhos, or Dreams, is one of the book's many beautiful Portuguese egg-based desserts.  De Andrade calls them cookies but they are baked in muffin tins and, at least from my experience, have a cakey consistency.  Dreams are not at all like muffins or cake, however.  They are extremely light and not very crumbly, more like a steamed cake.  The most unusual thing about Dreams is that the exterior crisps ever so slightly, giving them a taste reminiscent of meringue.  The last line of the recipe is adorable.

Sonhos (Dreams)
1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 can [sweetened] condensed milk
2 Tbs butter
2 eggs, separated
1/4 cup chopped Brazil nuts
1/4 cup milk

Mix flour, baking powder and salt. Heat condensed milk with butter. When mixture is hot, add dry ingredients all at once, stirring rapidly. Return to low heat, stir constantly and cook for 5 minutes. Beat in egg yolks, then fold in stiffly beaten egg whites. Add the nuts and milk. Spoon into buttered small-size muffin tins, filling 3/4 full. Bake in preheated 400° oven for 8 minutes. Reduce heat to 300° and bake another 8 minutes. Yields approximately 30 small-size Dreams.