Home > History of Wine, Tasting Notes and Wine Reviews > “light red wines are also appropriate because there is some dark meat, too”: The Thanksgiving day wine recommendations of Ruth Ellen Church published in the Chicago Tribune during the 1960s

“light red wines are also appropriate because there is some dark meat, too”: The Thanksgiving day wine recommendations of Ruth Ellen Church published in the Chicago Tribune during the 1960s


postcard-chicago-skyline-panorama-river-buildings-looking-north-handsome-1960s

Chicago skyline panorama from the 1960s. Image from https://chuckmanchicagonostalgia.wordpress.com/

Ruth Ellen Church was a food and wine journalist who published in the Chicago Tribune.  Across 38 years, articles appear both under her name and the pen name Mary Meade.  In the obituaries published in both the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times appears the statement “she became the first American to write a regular wine column” in 1962.[1]  The wine articles of Ruth Ellen Church are largely neglected.  For example, she is not mentioned in the main text of Thomas Pinney’s “A History of Wine in America”, rather her name appears in an end note.

I did not know of Ruth Ellen Church’s contributions to wine journalism until recently when I began researching Jane Nickerson of The New York Times.  This exploration put me in contact with Professor Kimberly Wilmot Voss, University of Central Florida (Women’s Page History) who pointed out Ruth Ellen Church to me.  Professor Voss will be presenting her paper “The First Lady of Wine Journalism: Ruth Ellen Church” next fall at the Food Studies Conference.

A year ago I published the post “Certain opinionated turkeys disdain red wines on Thanksgiving Day”: A history of Thanksgiving wine recommendations from the 1930s through 1970s.  In that post I focused on articles published in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.  This year I look at the recommendations of Ruth Ellen Church in the Chicago Tribune.  She began her wine column on February 16, 1962 during a period when The Washington Post and New York Times were largely silent about Thanksgiving wine recommendations.[2]

The Thanksgiving day wine recommendations published in both the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune are broadly similar during the 1960s. The decade begins through asserting the classic recommendations of American sparkling wine to start and American white wine with the largely white meat turkey.  Two distinct tracks soon form.  In the Los Angeles Times, pairing rules are embraced including rosé and light red wine both for the dark meat of the turkey and stuffing.  In the Chicago Tribune, white wine is paired with turkey and light red wine with game birds and ham.   The inclusion of various game birds appears to highlight the different menu trends in Chicago compared with Los Angeles.  When the classic pairing rules break in Los Angeles, it is to recommend Bordeaux whereas in Chicago the acceptance of dark meat in turkey brings forth the red wines of Beaujolais and the Loire.

In both papers, the wine recommendations are general.   American selections include both styles of wine mainly from California and New York, such as mountain white and sauterne.  For higher quality selections, specific varieties are suggested like cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel.  The eventual inclusion of European wines by Ruth Ellen Church focuses in on regions such as Moulin-a-Vent and Chateauneuf du Pape in France.  Specific vintages are not recommended and the names of any producers are largely absent.  I think this is a reflection of the time, the audience, and the style of Ruth Ellen Church.  There are specific vintages and wines mentioned in her regular wine column but typically in the frame of a personal experience.  She largely writes about wine regions and types of wine in an informative and appropriately detailed manner without making recommendations for specific bottles of wine.

In the years prior to her regular column Let’s Learn About Wines, when she published under her pen name Mary Meade, Ruth Ellen Church often mentions wine as an ingredient when discussing Thanksgiving.  For example, in 1957 she proposed “Beef Brisket In Red Wine” as an alternative dish to roasted turkey.[3]  In 1961, however, she recommends “Chablis, rosé, or a dry sauternes” with her “Roast Turkey with Walnut or Chestnut Stuffing”.  She continues her wine suggestions with “port or sherry with dessert or after”.[4]

The following year in 1962, Ruth Ellen Church sets the holiday mood in her wine column by publishing under her own name the article “Festive Season Is Time For Serving Champagne.”[5]  As I have detailed before, more Champagne was sold to celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve during the months of November and December than any other time of the year.  This is a broad piece, rather than recommending specific wines, she details the production and serving of Champagne based on her experiences at Moet & Chandon in France, Almaden Vineyards in California, and Taylor Wine in New York.  She found Champagne suitable throughout a holiday meal and even noted that one should not serve it after coffee for the tasting of the wine is killed.

Three days after recommending Champagne, Ruth Ellen Church recommends “American wine” for the “American holiday” of Thanksgiving.[6]  She picks “not over-cold” bottles of white wine as ideal for both turkey and any seafood.  Her suggestions are broad: dry semillon, mountain white, pinot chardonnay, pinot blanc, sauvignon blanc, emerald dry, folle blanche, chablis, sauterne, or Rhine all from California.  For dessert she switches coasts in recommending a sweet wine such as white port, tokay, pink Catawba, or concord from New York.  I find it great that she recommends “zinfandel, a truly American wine” for the guests that just drop in for wine and cheese.  The color is admirable, “its fruity aroma is pleasing”, and most importantly it can stand up to cheese.  This recommendation for transient guests predates Nathan Chroman’s suggestion of sweet wines for those who stop by for cookies, nuts, and fruit by nearly a decade.

The wine suggestions for the following year of 1963 are consistent in sticking with an American dry white wine.[7]  Ruth Ellen Church does expand to include sylvaner, Johannisberg Riesling, and chenin blanc but does note they might be hard to find.  Also of interest is that she recommends dry New York state sherry to start and New York rosé with turkey.  She even expands to red wine for ham and game birds including Ohio burgundy and the varieties gamay and gamay Beaujolais.  She does note only one specific wine, the Almaden blanc de blancs  champagne.

The Thanksgiving day wine recommendations largely thin out beginning in 1964.  They do however push new boundaries in a short article published under the name Mary Meade that same year.[8]  In continuing the support for New York state champagne and white wines, she makes a historical tie to colonists by suggesting a very dry Spanish sherry at the beginning of the meal.  The inclusion of red wine is expanded from game meat to turkey by concluding “[t]here’s no reason why we may not serve a red wine rather than a white one with turkey.”  She suggests a cabernet sauvignon from California.

During the Spring of 1967, Ruth Ellen Church traveled for several weeks throughout Europe.  Her culinary adventures were chronicled in the series of articles titled “What’s Cooking in Europe.”[10]  She was not solely excited about food for she led off a series of articles about wine with “There Are Wine Jewels in Europe”.[11]  There is no doubt that her experiences eating and drinking wine provided her the background to fully break with her traditional Thanksgiving day wine recommendations later that year.

In the Fall of 1967, Ruth Ellen Church acknowledged white wine with turkey was a “classical” Thanksgiving recommendation but the undeniable presence of the dark meat in a turkey and spicy stuffing mad light red wines “appropriate”.[9]  While the American white wine recommendations for white meat remain largely the same, the recommendations expand tremendously with French and other European selections.  More specific than generic Beaujolais is the inclusion of Fleurie, Julienas, Morgon, and Moulin-a-Vent.  In keeping with the lighter styles she recommends Saumur Champigny, Chinon, Tavel, and Anjou.   Sweet wines like Anjou were previously banned from the “turkey table”.   In recommending the later and sweet champagne, Ruth Ellen Church breaks another classic rule by admitting sweet wine “pleases a great many people.”  The recommendations continue with Valdepenas and Rioja from Spain, Valpolicella from Italy, and rose from Portugal.  Zinfandel is no longer relegated to drop-in guests.  It is seen as appropriate for game birds along with sparkling burgundy, Chateauneuf du Pape and Cote Rotie from France, Chianti Classico and Barolo from Italy.

Not all of Ruth Ellen Church’s recommendations focused in on which wines to drink.  She once detailed the “safe and sane” way to open a bottle of champagne.  This was in response to Dr. Theodore Van Zellen’s published review of a Lancet article on Champagne cork injuries in the Chicago Tribune.  I can only imagine the festive frenzy of champagne bottles being opened at the Thanksgiving table given that she concludes her article “BE CAREFUL!”


[1] “Ruth Ellen Church, Ex-tribune Editor”. By Jodi Wilgoren and Carol Haddix. Chicago Tribune. August 22, 1991.  See also “Ruth Ellen Church, 81, Food Critic and Authot”. The New York Times. Published: August 23, 1991.
[2] “New Column on Wines.” February 16, 1962. Chicago Tribune. URL: http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1962/02/16/page/29/article/new-column-on-wines
[3] “Roast Duck or Beef Brisket is a Delightful Entrée.” Mary Meade. November 27, 1957. Chicago Daily Tribune. URL: http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1957/11/22/page/39/article/roast-duck-or-beef-brisket-is-a-delightful-entree/
[4] “Plenty of Turkeys for Thanksgiving.”  Mary Meade. November 19, 1961. Chicago Daily Tribune. URL: http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1961/11/19/page/94/article/plenty-of-turkeys-for
[5] “Festive Season Is Time For Serving Champagne.” Ruth Ellen Church.  November 16, 1961. Chicago Daily Tribune. URL: http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1962/11/16/page/41/article/festive-season-is-time-for-serving-champagne/
[6] “Wine Can Grace the Festive Table.” Ruth Ellen Church. November 19, 1961. Chicago Daily Tribune. URL: http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1962/11/19/page/68/article/wine-can-grace-the-festive-table
[7] “Wines to Serve with Turkey.” Ruth Ellen Church. November 25, 1963.  Chicago Daily Tribune. URL: http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1963/11/25/page/29/article/wines-to-serve-with-the-turkey
[8] “Thanksgiving.” Mary Meade. November 23, 1964. Chicago Daily Tribune. URL: http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1964/11/23/page/43/article/article-1-no-title
[9] “What Wine with Turkey?” Ruth Ellen Church. November 17, 1967. Chicago Tribune. URL: http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1967/11/17/page/59/article/what-wine-with-turkey
[10] “Ruth Ellen Church Reports: What’s Cooking in Europe”. Ruth Ellen Church. April 30, 1967. Chicago Tribune. URL: http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1967/04/30/page/127/article/ruth-ellen-church-reports-whats-cooking-in-europe
[11] “There Are Wine Jewels In Europe”. Ruth Ellen Church. May 12, 1967. Chicago Tribune. URL: http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1967/05/12/page/44/article/there-are-wine-jewels-in-europe

  1. November 24, 2015 at 2:21 pm

    So glad you found Ms. Chruch. She certainly was ahead of the curve, especially with the upper Beaujolais recommendations.

    As you noted, unlike these days, wine writers back then refrained from making specific wine name recommendations, both because they were journalists trying to keep a distance and because they didn’t write as if they were know-it-all critics.

    • November 24, 2015 at 3:09 pm

      Thank you so much for reading my post and taking the time to comment. I agree, she was ahead of the curve for that time. I wonder what role the Test Kitchen played in her wine recommendations.

      There is an interesting difference between Ruth Ellen Church at the Tribune and Jane Nickerson at the NY Times. Jane Nickerson makes specific recommendations in her articles from the 1940s and 1950s. She frequently corresponds with Frank Schoonmaker, Alexis Lichine, Sam Aaron, Tom Marvel, and other importers in the area. From these men she learns and writes about the quality of vintages and regions. She also recommends specific wines and their prices, as well as where to buy them. As you write though, she never comes across as a know-it-all critic. Instead she readily quotes the expertise of those in New York City. Ruth Ellen Church’s expanded French recommendations follows from her trip to Europe in 1967. I have not studied the wine importing scene in Chicago during the 1960s but it is fascinating that she then writes from personal experience.

      Best,

      Aaron

  2. November 24, 2015 at 2:22 pm

    Oops. Make that Ms. Church!

  3. November 24, 2015 at 3:32 pm

    Aaron:

    In the 80s, along with Alexis Bespaloff, Frank Prial (NY Times) was among my favorite wine writers. We maintained a corresppondence that began in 1985. In the late ’90s, I knew his time had come when I read wine geeks online trashing the fact that Prial did not tell them what to buy. When the Times later told him to write more critic-like pieces. He quit.

    Prial was among the last of the non-know-it-alls.

    • November 25, 2015 at 7:50 am

      Yes, REC recommended one talk to their wine merchant for selections. I’m embarrassed that I have not read Alexis Bespaloff. That is an interesting observation about Frank Prial. I find his writing wonderful.

      Aaron

  4. November 25, 2015 at 1:21 pm

    Bespaloff’s writing was truly approachable, and he was one of the first on-air (radio) wine personalities to bring the subject to the general public’s attention. He had a daily spot on New York City radio in the ’70s. It was an era when the overall American public was discovering the wonders of wine at a fast pace.

    Yes, Prial was one of the best. After years of correspondigng with him without never having met in person, I was on a panel of judges in Manhattan in 2002 and did not know that Prial was on another panel seated at a table across from mine. Missed opportunity for me. He died recently from prostate cancer.

  1. November 24, 2015 at 1:06 pm

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