The Wine and Food Society, later the International Wine and Food Society, was founded in London, England in 1933 by André Simon, the marketing representative in the United Kingdom for the champagne house of Pommery. He set the official date as October 20, and plans for the first event were made over dinner as the home of the Dowager Lady Swaythling in Kensington Court on October 31. In attendance with Simon and his wife were A.J.A. Symons, who became the Society’s first Secretary, and Lady Swaythling. In January 1934, a society banquet for nearly 400 people was held at the Savoy in London.
The Society was the world’s first association of amateur gastronomic enthusiasts not associated commercially with the wine or food trade. Today there are many such organizations, but the IWFS remains the most widespread, independent gastronomic society in the world.
The very thought of a society for wine and food was, in the early 1930’s, a bold idea indeed. That period was not a propitious time in which to start an international association of gastronomes. Propaganda Minister Goering spoke of “guns before butter”; children were being told that nasty-tasting food was good for them, and anything that smacked of extravagance was distinctly unfashionable.
André rose to the occasion. Although some considered him eccentric, he espoused a philosophy that worked during that era of austerity and has continued appeal today. He urged high culinary standards while deploring waste, declaring it criminal to ruin valuable foodstuffs by bad preparation. He believed that quality could and should be maintained while adjusting to restraints imposed by economic circumstances. Wine, he insisted, was a natural beverage; dry martinis were not. His goal was an “institution” whose aim was to …bring together and serve all who believe that a right understanding of good food and wine is an essential part of personal contentment and health and that an intelligent approach to the pleasures and problems of the table offers far greater rewards than the mere satisfaction of appetites…”
His position was always one of moderation and simplification. Although he was brought up in France and accustomed to long, elaborate meals, he eschewed the proliferation of complex dishes, preferring a restrained sequence of wines to accompany a limited number of courses. He preferred his aperitifs (champagne, if at all possible) without hors d’oeuvres. A proper dinner, he insisted, should begin with soup, and the fish to follow required only the most basic preparation. He served lesser wines at the beginning and reserved the mature, noble ones for the main course and the cheese. It was always quality, not quantity, that mattered.
1933 was also the year, which marked the end of Prohibition in the United States. In December 1934, Simon visited America to test the idea of creating American branches of the IWFS. He described his visits to the United States in his autobiograph By Request. There was much he enjoyed about the United States, but he disapproved of the American’s affinity for iced water and hard spirits.
Simon's first stop in the United States was New York, where he met with people that shared his love of wine and food and quickly founded the first U.S. branch in December 1934. After New York, Simon proceeded to Boston where he found a small but active fine-wines dining group already in existence, which became the second U.S. branch, also in December 1934. December was a busy month for Simon, as he traveled to Chicago to meet with wine and food aficionados there and founded the Chicago branch. In January of 1935, Simon went to California and met with groups that would start the San Francisco and Los Angeles branches that month. These five branches make up the pre-war beginnings of the IWFS in the Americas.
There followed journeys to Australia and South Africa that endowed the Society with a healthy and vigorous worldwide representation, resulting in its name changing to the International Wine & Food Society in 1968. The network grew slowly under the direction of the founder with great help from his close friend, Symons. Symons died at age 41 in World War II. Thereafter, the Society was the child of André’s efforts alone. The Society’s journal, Wine and Food, which he founded and edited, was what kept the organization together during the war. Today the worldwide membership exceeds 6,000.