FDR presiding over one of the first known “toga parties.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)
After my experiment with a Greek Symposium (where we did at one point shout “Toga! Toga! Toga!”), I got curious about the origins of the modern, pseudo-Greek, fraternal Toga Parties. And I found the photo above.
Yes. In the middle, that is indeed President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In a toga.
FDR’s critics often compared him to a dictator, going as far as to refer to him as “Caesar”. To poke fun at the name, his wife Eleanor threw him a “Dear Caesar” themed birthday on January 30th, 1934, his 52nd year of life. The costume pictured on the left is from the FDR Library & Museum and was worn by a friend of the Roosevelts to the ball. According to Henrietta Nesbitt, head of the White House housekeeping and cooking staff, the birthday cake was a fruitcake, made with dates, raisins, almonds, citron and orange peel (source).
Did Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt throw the first toga party on record? Perhaps.
I have found one earlier reference in the novel Vile Bodies, published in 1930 (although it takes place in 1914). The book is an account of the Bright Young Things, a group of Londoners in the early 20th century perceived as “the most glamorous, influential, self-absorbed, quasi-bohemian and overeducated creatures in existence. During their flickering moment they were adored and despised in almost equal measure. (source)”
In Vile Bodies, the protagonist Adam complains ‘Oh Nina, what a lot of parties’ and the narrator elaborates:
…Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity … Those vile bodies …
Were Greek-themed toga parties actually a thing in pre-war London? I’m uncertain.
Although the idea of a college fraternity stemmed from the Greeks, togas are Roman. So how did one become associated with the other? It’s believed to have been invented in the 1950s, but the only source is a self-referencing reference about a party at Pamona Collge in 1953. I apparently need to start doing oral histories with Pamona College alumnus (know any?). But this lineage may be entirely made-up. The toga party simple may have been a creation of popular culture.
The 1978 film Animal House had a famous Toga Party scene which over the next year, created a fervor for toga parties on college campuses. Both the Washington Post and Newsweek reported on the new phenomenon and allegedly the movie’s promoters were going campus to campus throwing toga parties. The best article I’ve found on all this comes from the Princeton Weekly newsletter, written in in the midst of the toga frenzy in 1978. A few select quotes:
Toga is wild and crazy…Toga is an excuse to let loose. Toga is bed-sheet chic and drapery decadence.
‘What do you think all this toga business means?” I asked.
“Nothing really. For a lot of people, it’s key to have a crazy time is all.”
My favorite part is when he describes a campus-sheet shortage due to over-zealous partiers and wary linen franchises. Read the whole article here.
The Official Preppy Handbook, a parody published in 1980, gives this advice: “Toga party- Girls wear designer sheets, men wear the kind from the linen service. If accompanied by a Roman-style dinner, these sheets may go home stained with red wine, though serious drinkers might switch to a grain alcohol punch around 10 o’clock. Since dancing in a toga is impossible, getting drunk is the primary activity.” In just two years, toga parties went from the height of college fashion to passé enough to be parodied.
There are a lot of gaping holes in the story of the toga party. The frustrating part about researching the history of alcohol is that apparently people were too drunk to remember.
A slave helps a drinker to vomit. (National Museum of Cophenaghen)
The Ancient Greeks loved to drink. They called wine “The mirror of the mind” and believed the way you behaved when you drank was revealing of your innermost nature. As a result, the Ancient Greeks invented a celebration of wine: a male drinking party called a Symposium.
I first read about Syposia in Tom Standage’s book A History of the World in 6 Glasses; classically, the event was written about by Plato. In Standage’s chapter on wine, he describes the symposium: an evening of food and wine that included games, philosophical debate, and tended to end in a riot or an orgy. Sounds like a party worthy of reenactment.
An ideal symposium was thought to have between 12-24 drinkers; 16 being ideal. Originally all the drinkers would be men, with women only present as entertainers: musicians, dancers, and high-end prostitutes. Since sticking to this rule would exclude my own presence, I decided to open up the party to men and women alike. The Facebook invitation went out with great fanfare.
You know I love a good theme party. So Brian and I are hosting a Symposium: An Ancient Greek Drinking party! The evening will include:- drinking wine (everyone please bring a bottle, red or white)
- ancient Greek snacks
- a “symposiarch”, chosen at random, who is responsible for deciding how drunk the party will get.
- serious discussion of philosophy or not.That’s all I got. Just come over, drink, and indulge my nerdiness
Two types of bread were served: flatbread for scooping up food and small, yeasty rolls. There was also olive oil for dipping and olives for snacking.
We known a lot more about Ancient Roman cooking than we do about the Ancient Greeks. Much of what we do know comes from Archestratus’ The Life of Luxury, a poem written sometime in the mid-4th century BC. In essence, it’s a guide book on where to find, and prepare, the best food in Greece. You can read it here, and read a great article about it here.
The symposium was preceded by a meal, full of foods that laid down a good base for a night of drinking. From various sources, I assembled this menu:
First Course: Fish and Lentils – The Ancient Greeks ate very little meat; their diet was based largely on fish, legumes and grains Lentils were a staple of everyone’s diet–I slow-cooked mine with salt, vinegar and coriander. For the fish, I prepared salmon–not a fish that I know would have been available to the Greeks, but my friends in Alaska had sent me a package of beautiful, fresh caught, wild salmon fillets. So I had good fish, so I was gonna cook it. I prepared it the way Archestratus suggests, with a little olive oil and a dusting of salt and cumin. I broiled it for a few minutes and it came out flaky, flavorful, and perfect. The cumin matched the fish wonderfully. It was the best fish I’ve ever cooked.
Each course was served with bread: the Ancient Greeks ate primarily two types, a soft and fluffy roll and flatbread for scooping up food. They did not use silverware–only bread and their hands. I also set olives on the table, for snacking.
Later in the evening, I lost my ability to take decent photos. I should delegate. But you get the idea. Clockwise from top: pistachios, a bowl of lentils, olives, grapes, a pitcher of water (the traditional accompaniment to dinner), broiled salmon with cumin, figs, dates, almonds drizzled with honey, bread, feta drizzled with honey.
Second Course: Cheese, Fruits, and Nuts – I served feta, the most commonly available Greek cheese in the States, and very similar to the sheeps’ milk cheese the Ancient Greeks would have consumed. Almonds, pistachios and grapes were grown in Ancient Greece, and dried dates and figs were imported from the Middle East. The entire platter was drizzled with Greek honey.
Third Course: Olive Oil Cake – Although the Ancient Greeks did not cultivate sugar, they were fond of sweets, and made many types of honey cakes. Although I found many mentions of cakes made of barley or wheat ending a meal, I could not find any historic recipes. So I used this modern recipe, and used only ingredients the Greeks would have had available to them: wheat, yogurt, olive oil, and honey.
In a traditional symposium, the guests don’t start drinking until after the meal. But as people started to trickle in, I realized there was no way to convince anyone to stick to that rule. Additionally, the Greeks always drank their wine mixed with water–they saw drinking it straight as both barbaric, and only fit for the gods. Only Dionysus, god of wine, was strong enough to drink wine unmixed. Mere mortal man could go mad.
Wine and water would be mixed at varying proportions in a special bowl called a krater. When one krater of wine was finished, it was the Symposiarch who decided when another would be mixed. The Symposiarch was the leader of the party–elected either by votes or by chance–who decided the topics that should be debated as well as the level of drunkenness the party would attain. The ideal was to keep people tipsy and loose lipped without having the party descend into drunken chaos. One symposiarch said that three kraters of wine was just enough–and after the third one is drained “…wise men go home.” Drinking after that point leads to fights, breaking of the furniture, depression, and ultimately madness.
Our symposiarch was unanimously elected: old Roommate Jeff, who has been a part of this blog from the beginning. He donned a toga and took to his duty, doling out wine (“When this bottle comes back to me, it better be empty!”) and suggesting topics of discussion (“What happens after you die? Discuss.”)
More togas were donned, wine was imbibed, food was consumed, and our true personalities began to shine through. Traditionally, drinking games like kottabos could be played: the dregs of your wine were hurled at a target. I wisely didn’t tell my guests the Ancient Greeks hurled wine around their homes, thus saving the carpet.
There was talking, belly aching laughter, and a few card games as well. We celebrated a birthday. We toasted the symposiarch, the Ancient Greeks, wine itself. Sometime in the night– 3am? 4? – -the drinkers trickled out, praising the symposiarch for his good judgement, and ending the night in whichever Ancient Greek themed way they saw fit. In Plato’s symposium, Alcibiades showed up drunk and mostly naked.
I have never participated in a classier excuse to binge drink. Like a grown-up toga party, the Symposium combined an appreciation for the effects of alcohol with an easily enjoyable theme. We all celebrated, learned, and ended the night happy.
But this party got me thinking: when did the college-style Toga Party originate? That’s the subject of my next post.
“It’s sugaring time, it’s sugaring time!’ My mom chriped. ”My heart always gets glad this time of year. I think it don’t want to do it ‘it’s cold, it’s muddy’ but then I head out there and the sun is shining and the birds are singing fee-bee feeb-bee!” That was the start of the most recent phone conversation I had with my mom. Yeah, she’s pretty cute.
My latest post for Etsy is all about the maple sugaring season–an annual event that might be entirely foreign to you if you’re not from New England, the Midwest or Canada, where sugar maples grow. My parents tap their backyard maples on their four acres in semi-rural Ohio. You can read all about it here.
The cold, snowy spring has been ideal for sugaring–my parents have collected almost 100 gallons of sap this year already. But some interesting research has recently been done into historic “sugaring seasons.” Here’s a bit of food for though that comes via The Farm at Miller’s Crossing:
I recently read an article by Tim Wilmot, a specialist with the University of Vermont Extension and Proctor Maple Research Center in Underhill VT, which put this discussion into some perspective.
The entire maple syrup industry depends on temperatures. Maple syrup producers can only harvest when the mercury goes below freezing at night, then above freezing during the day. This freeze/thaw event forces the sap in the trees to run, which can then be harvested by the taps drilled into the trees.
Recent discoveries of old records indicate that in 1870 a normal tapping in central Vermont season began on April 1, and ended on May 7.
Fast forward 60 years, and the average start date in 1930 was March 13, with an April 15 finish date.
Fast forward again to the spring of 2012, and most serious maple producers were tapping in early January and finishing in February or early March! Last year we actually were in the high 80’s in March.
Vanilla: A History
Thursday, 28th @ 6:30 or 8:30
At the Brooklyn Brainery, 190 Underhill Ave. Prospect Heights, Brooklyn
$15 – Buy Tickets Here
In this class:
-Learn the history of vanilla and its culinary uses
-See how vanilla is farmed and processed
-Taste three different regional vanillas and one “pre-vanilla”flavor.
All in all, you’ll be filled with facts you can bust out at your next dinner party and dazzle your friends, as well as make better informed choices when using vanilla in your kitchen.
(Class size: 15, lecture + discussion w/ samples)
At the Lower East Side Tenement Museum with a photo of the historic character I portray (far right). Photo by Will Heath.
Happy Passover, everyone! Tonight, millions of Jews are sitting down to a sumptuous meal of religious significance–and then a week of yeast-free food.
Even if you’re not Jewish, you’ll enjoy my most recent Etsy article about Bimuelos, a Pesach-friendly dessert made by Sephardic Jews, who are descended from Jews of Spain. You’ll also get a behind the scenes look at my life as an educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum playing a Sephardic Jewish character. Read all about it here.
And if you are Jewish, you’re probably going to be sick of matzo by Thursday or Friday. So allow me to recommend Manishevitts’ 1944 cookbook,
Ba’ṭam’ṭe Yidishe maykholim (Tempting Kosher Dishes). Don’t worry, it’s in Yiddish AND English. Need to liven up your matzo meal regime this week? Try Pumpkin Pancakes, Matzo Meal Polenta, or Boston Pie.
To celebrate its one year anniversary, this month’s Masters of Social Gastronomy Podcast takes on its namesake: monosodium glutamate (MSG)! Savory spice or fatal flavor?
Sarah Lohman of Four Pounds Flour will track MSG back to its source in traditional Japanese food, showing how time and money can turned an innocuous plant into the darling of mass production
Soma will take on modern-day interpretations of MSG, from its role in “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” to its many relatives hiding in everyday foods. Science fact will be separated from science fiction as myths are deflated and truths laid bare.
BONUS TRACK! “Storytime” from the Monosodium Glutamate lecture. Soma and Sarah toast to one year of MSG talks with fish sauce diluted to the color of “honey wine.” Sarah bitches about the deception propagated by chic kitchen product “Umami Paste #5.”
At this month’s Masters of Social Gastronomy, we’ll look at the culinary world’s experiments with illicit substances.
Let’s get high with the Victorians! From patent medicines to absinthe, Coca-Cola to laughing gas, we’ll look at all the forms of socially acceptable substance abuse during the 19th century.
Later, we’ll fast-forward to modern-day America, where quasi-legal marijuana has spawned an industry of cannabis edibles. We’ll survey the range of altered-state culinary concoctions and see what both science and chefs have to say about epicurean euphoria.
For Storytime, we’ll explore the 1971 cookbook “Supermother’s Cooking with Grass,” and this mama’s not using lawn clippings. For those preferring to stay on the good side of the law, we’ll also see if vodka sauce can make some seriously drunken noodles.
Welcome to the world of early 20th century sandwich making, when the advent of sliced bread gave birth to a booming sandwich culture. The first bread-slicing machine was installed in a factory in 1928; within two years, 90% of store-bought bread was factory sliced. Standardized and convenient, housewives focused their creative energies on what went in between the bread.
1001 Sandwiches, published in 1936, is the expanded edition of 700 Sandwiches written about a decade previous. To give you a sense of common of ingredients in a 1930s sandwich, here are the “ sandwich ‘makings’” author Florence Cowles advises you to keep on your emergency “sandwich shelf”:
Peanut butter, packaged cheese, potted and deviled ham, corned beef, chicken, tongue, dates, sardines, lobster, salmon, pimientos, pickles, olives, salted nuts, jams and marmalades, honey, horse-radish, mustard, bouillon cubes, Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces, mayonnaise and crackers. With a good selection of these ingredients you can calmly meet any sandwich emergency which may arise.
I taste-tested four sandwich creations from this book, choosing recipes that sounded bizarre but potentially tasty. I also subjected Jonathan Soma, co-founder of the Brooklyn Brainery, to my sandwich antics. The recipes, and the results, are below.
Cheese and Cornflake Sandwich
This was a crunchy sandwich; definitely very auditory. And scratchy–it really tears up the roof of your mouth. Soma is crazy for cream cheese, so he said he would make it and eat it–he votes yaaay! I vote boo!
Potato Chip and Olive Sandwich
I was out of mayonnaise when I assembled this sandwich, so I substituted tartar sauce. Soma thought it looked like Thai food and tasted “like all of its ingredients individually.” Very non-harmonious.
I liked it–it was super salty! It would fix a hangover in no-time flat. I vote yaaay! This was my favorite overall. Soma votes boo.
Bacon and Prune Sandwich
Soma informed me that prunes are no longer called prunes. They’re now “dried plums.” So this is a Bacon and Dried Plum sandwich, which sounds very sophisticated. We both agreed this was not bad–although I wouldn’t eat it willingly. This was Soma’s favorite hands-down
Ham and Banana Sandwich
This sandwich was promptly re-named the Hamana Sandwich.
We tested these sandwiches in front of a live studio audience, and someone screamed out “It looks like someone already ate it!”
The weird part is really expected this one to be good. It was instantly repulsive. Soma described it as “Not the worst thing I could of had.” I was nauseous. Horrific. Horrendous.