The inmates of Sing Sing who lived on what would become the Waldorf-Astoria’s famous clam chowder.
America is fascinated by prison lore. Some of the most popular new scripted shows make prison life into entertainment – series like Orange is the New Black and Oz. And then there’s movie classics like Shawshank Redemption and Green Mile. Something about the constant risk of getting shanked, and the down-low black market trade in prisons fascinate us. But what about the food?
My company has supplied ovens to the prison market, which has very specific guidelines for manufacture to avoid inmate issues. No locking door handles (to prevent cooking of your inmates) and no sharp temperature probes (to prevent shanking) are a few standards. Prison food, just like school cafeteria food, is a big production. And both have a longtime reputation of being terrible.
Apparently the inmates of Sing Sing prison, in Ossining on the Hudson, New York, ate well in the early 20th century. So, well, in fact, that New York’s most upscale hotel, the Waldorf-Astoria borrowed and used one of their recipes.
Swiss immigrant, Oscar Tschirky, was maitre d’hotel of the Waldorf-Astoria from its opening. He was responsible for setting the rules and trends that would become standard for upscale dining and hospitality in American hotels. He was the one to introduce the velvet rope to exclusive events and many other small things we now take for granted. Oscar planned visits from international dignitaries and celebrities, and knew personally some of the movers and shakers of American wealth.
So when Oscar was invited by his friend, the Warden James S. Kennedy of Sing Sing, who served from 1911-1913, to inspect the kitchens and dining rooms of the great penal institution, he did it out of friendship and his own curiosity. The visit was planned at lunchtime. As he was being shown the mess halls, the cooks were carrying out big steaming tureens of clam chowder to serve the inmates. Oscar’s well trained nose got a whiff of the aroma and he commented to the Warden. He was offered a bowl, and after tasting, realized he had just sampled the best clam chowder of his life.
Oscar asked for the recipe, which the Warden had a cook write down for him. Luckily for Oscar, the large scale of the recipe coincided with the volumes Oscar served at the Waldorf’s high end restaurant. It included five hundred pounds of beef and beef bone, two hundred pounds of salt pork, and thirty gallons of soft shell clams. He carried it back to the Waldorf and passed it along to his chef, who began making it in large quantities for hotel guests.
A few days later hotel patrons were enamored with the new soup entrée to the menu, many asking for second and third helpings. Oscar kept the recipe but never named it Clam Chowder a la Sing Sing, and often wondered if he did, if it would have had as much success with hotel guests.
A very short time later, Oscar was surprised when a man with a note from his buddy, the Warden, came into his office asking for the Waldorf’s recipe for hash. Apparently the hash as Sing Sing was nearly inedible, and many inmates refused to eat it. They even said the bread and water was better. Oscar returned the favor, and the cook returned to Sing Sing to serve the convicts ‘Hash a la Waldorf-Astoria, and again the convicts were eating like Rockefellers.
From “Oscar of the Waldorf”, Karl Schriftgiesser, New York, E.P. Dutton & Co, 1943.