New York’s St Regis Hotel plays a small role in James Bond’s adventures. Bond stays there during the events of Live and Let Die (1954) and, among other goings-on, is treated to American cooking at its best: soft-shell crabs, hamburgers, french fries and ice-cream with butterscotch sauce.
Author Ian Fleming’s choice of hotel may not have entirely random. As Henry Hemming has revealed in his stunning new book, Our Man in New York, the hotel played its part in the British war effort, being the scene of some crucial meetings over lunch or dinner between MI6 station head William Stephenson and key individuals in intelligence, military or government circles, plausibly including Ian Fleming, who regularly met Stephenson during his visits to New York in his capacity of assistant to the director of Naval Intelligence.
William Stephenson was an unlikely-looking spymaster who was sent to New York by C, the head of MI6, to run an influence campaign with the aim of bringing America into the Second World War. Early on, Stephenson cultivated a friendship with William Donovan, a man who had the ear of the president and would later head-up the forerunner to the CIA. As Henry Hemming explains, the two would enjoy martini suppers at the St Regis and dined there to celebrate the end of the war. Stephenson also had lunch there with Alice and Harold Hemming, Henry’s grandparents, whom Stephenson recruited to his campaign.
So, what sort of food was on the menu? The New York Public Library is home to a vast collection of historical menus, many of which are now online. Trawling through the collection, I’ve found several menus that are broadly contemporary with Stephenson’s time in New York. These naturally reveal some of the food being cooked up in the hotel’s kitchens.
For example, attendees of a dinner to celebrate the centenary of the publishing house G P Putnum enjoyed oysters, Madrilene (a cold tomato soup) with dumplings, filet mignon, green beans in butter, potatoes Macaire (a kind of fish-cake without the fish), salade Flamande (a vegetable-based salad) and ice-cream.
Green beans with butter and potatoes Macaire were also served at the annual dinner of the University of Michigan Club of New York in 1949; the vegetables accompanied breast of capon Bercy on ham with mushrooms.
At a lunch in 1933, salade Flamande was served with a mixed grill à l’anglaise (something resembling a ‘full English’, perhaps?). The meal also included broccoli Polonaise – broccoli with a crispy breadcrumb topping.
Broccoli Polonaise was again on the menu in 1937 during the annual luncheon of the National Association of Book Publishers, where it accompanied grilled chops and potatoes au gratin.
While these menus are by no means identical, there are common elements, with salade Flamande, broccoli Polonaise and green beans with butter being something of a kitchen standard. Did William Stephenson’s meals include these items? More to the point, did James Bond’s meal include them? Apart from the burger, crabs and ice-cream, we know that Bond has a mixed salad and broccoli. It’s notable that in the historical menus, broccoli Polonaise is paired with grilled meat. As Bond’s hamburger is from the charcoal grill, it’s reasonable to assume that, if the meal is based on one Fleming ate, his broccoli is prepared in the same way.
Our Man in New York, by Henry Hemming, is a fascinating read and deserves a place on every Fleming aficiando’s bookshelf. It’s published by Quercus and available, as the saying goes, from all good booksellers.