Monday, October 27, 2014

An Onion Dinner, 1925.

Lew Cody (1884-1934) was a popular American movie actor of the silent and early talkie era. He specialised in the role of the handsome, debonair - but occasionally villainous - man-about-town. He played this role to popular perfection in Cecil B. de Mille’s 1919 film Don’t change your husband. In this movie, Gloria Swanson was a bored housewife lacking attention from a busy husband, and is pursued by the tall, dark, and handsome man played by Cody. She divorces the bore and marries the attentive new lover – eventually only to find that he too neglects her. He also turns out to be a bit of a slob with an over-fondness for smelly-on-the- breath onions, and to make matters worse, he has another lover on the side.

Several years later, in 1925, Cody played the character of Prince Carlos in the silent movie, The Sporting Venus, and naturally the media were all agog at his appearances around town. The onion-eating habit was still associated with Cody, as is shown in a New York Times piece about him at the time.

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By Alma Whitaker.

No, it isn’t credible. Could a sophisticated villain like Lew Cody have such deplorably low tastes? How dare he be so disgustingly human? Why, he ought to have breakfast in evening dress and live almost exclusively on caviars and truffles. Just see him in “The Sporting Venus” at Loew’s State Theater this week – man-of-fashion, wealth stuff – and who, I ask you, could believe that he entertained as recently as last Wednesday night with corned beef and cabbage – and onions enough to spread the tale back in New York.

This is how the menu read – to all intents and purposes: Pickled onions, young green onions, boiled beef with cabbage and onions, onion salad with a dash of garlic, beer (as near as obtainable and … )
“Good heavens, what dessert could you ever serve with a dinner like this?” I ask?
“Bicarbonate of soda and sensen, [?]” he informed affably.
But that isn’t all. Menus were printed on paper bags – for the convenience of guests wishing to take home anything they could not stoke away on the premises!

Now, you might suppose that was a freak dinner – nothing of the sort. Lew Cody, host, specializes in just that effluviatic type of formal banquet, and a cook is hired specifically on that plebeian understanding.
But the really harrowing part of last Wednesday’s event is that the patrician, lordly, supercultured  John Barrymore was the guest of honor at a function that also included Seena Owen, Marshal Nolan, Frank and Mrs. Borzage,  James R. Quirk, Lowell Sherman, Jack Gilbert, Mabel Normand, Renee Adoree, Mae Ayer, Mr. and Mrs Roscoe Arbuckle, and several others. Can a Barrymore feast thus vulgarly and live?
“Why, I thought you were an epicure, supercultured palate gourmet, a connoisseur de luxe …” I murmured anxiously.
“I am,” he reassured me, “especially when it comes to onions. I am very fussy about my onions.”

I was disappointed that the architect of this menu did not come up with an onion dessert for this meal. The cook would only have had to go to William Ellis’ farming and household manual The Country Housewife’s Family Companion published in 1750 to find the perfect recipe:

Onion Pye made by laboring Mens Wives.
They mix chopt Apples and Onions in equal Quantities,and with some Sugar put them into Dough-crust and bake them: This by some is thought to make as good a Pie as Pumkins do. It is a Hertfordshire Contrivance.

P.S. Previous post ‘Knowing your onions’is here.

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