Bricks and tomatoes — just a part of the history of Prohibition

If you watched the Ken Burns “Prohibition” series on PBS, you probably noticed that most of the bootleg alcohol people drank in the U.S. during those years was hard liquor rather than wine.

As a confirmed wino, I felt a little let down.  I’d certainly like to have heard about
a colorful wine-runner (as opposed to rum-runner).  And while we saw some shots of champagne and wine in fancy places, where was the photo of a dancing flapper with the wine-bottle shaped flask strapped under her clothes?

Gotta love the flask! First Vine friend Garrett Peck’s book on the Prohibition era in Washington, DC is filled with great stories and is fascinating even if you don’t live in DC. (Photo courtesy of Garrett Peck)

Of course, while moonshine was the main focus, there was some information about wine.  Particularly the loopholes for homemade and sacramental wine that were in the law enforcing Prohibition.  These made wine a little easier to get, provided you wanted to make your own or call yourself a priest or rabbi to get the real stuff that was still being made for religious purposes.

As we heard in the show, it was legal to make wine at home, but not beer or liquor.  You just couldn’t sell it.  Grape growers could sell grapes as long as they could disavow any knowledge of their customers making wine.  A few companies produced “bricks” of what were essentially raisins and “instructions” disguised as telling you how not to make wine.  (“Do not place this brick in a crock, add sugar and water, cover, and let stand for several days…”)  If you the customer decided to ignore that dire warning, it wasn’t the companies’ fault, now was it?

This is a photo of a wrapper for a brick used to make wine (or not, if you observed the warning on the label…)

Not that it would necessarily be good wine, mind you.  My grandfather made his own wine at home, and my mother says it was so bad she had to mix it with cream soda to make it drinkable.

But hooch vs. wine was really a matter of economics.  While hard liquor is more complicated to make – you have to distill it after fermenting it – one ounce of hard liquor has as much alcohol as five ounces of wine.  So a bootlegger only had to carry a half-cup of hooch to provide as much buzz as a regular 750 ml bottle of wine (around two and a half cups).  Much lighter to transport, and it takes less room to store it, too.

Drinking hard liquor carried over after Prohibition because people were used to it, which   was one of the reasons the the U.S. wine industry barely existed post-Prohibition until the 1960s.

Bottles from Woodrow Wilson’s wine cellar. He asked for and got an Act of Congress to transport his wine collection from the White House to his home in Washington, DC just before the end of his presidency. (Photo courtesy of Garrett Peck)

Garrett Peck, a writer relied on by his friends (including us at first vine) as an expert in all things alcoholic, has written two books on Prohibition.  His latest, Prohibition in Washington, DC:  How Dry We Weren’t, is an entertaining look at what made DC different from the rest of the country during that time.  I asked Garrett to clue us in to a little of that history, especially with regard to wine:

“A fascinating wine story comes from right here in Washington, DC. The president when Prohibition began was Woodrow Wilson. He left the White House in March 1921, but didn’t want to leave behind his wine collection for his successor, Warren Harding. Yet it was illegal to transport alcohol. Wilson requested and got permission from Congress to take his wine collection with him to his new house at 2340 S Street, NW in Kalorama. The wine cellar still exists, that rare Prohibition-era gem, complete with original wine bottles.”

A gem is right.  Not much is left of Washington’s alcoholic past, especially from before Prohibition.  Many of the speakeasies were in what are now private homes and can’t be visited, and blocks of old non-residential buildings in the city that existed in the 1920s got torn down decades ago.  Several times each year, Garrett leads The Temperance Tour, a walking tour of Prohibition-related spots in DC.*  The last stop on the tour is the Wilson house and, while visitors to the house don’t ordinarily get to see the wine cellar, you do as part of the Temperance Tour.  That and the wealth of information make for a fun few hours, so definitely check it out.  And of course, buy the book too — even if you don’t live in DC, you’ll be fascinated by how Prohibition played out in our nation’s capital.


All that talk about alcohol and wine made me wonder what people ate in the 1920s.  I have a fun cookbook called Fashionable Foods:  Seven Decades of Food Fads, by Sylvia Lovgren, that examines food in the U.S. by decade.  In the chapter on the roaring twenties, Ms. Lovgren says that Prohibition “destroyed the last vestiges of fine dining in the United States.”  Private clubs were allowed to serve wine they already had on hand when Prohibition started, but not restaurants.  Wine and alcohol sales accounted for a large part of the revenue at top-notch restaurants, so many of them couldn’t keep afloat.  Plus there wasn’t wine to cook with, either.  Although some so-called cooking wine could be found, it was heavily salted (you can still find this in grocery stores today) and didn’t taste good in food.

Now that we know that Wilson didn’t want Harding getting his hands on Wilson’s White House wine stash, you can just picture what was going through Wilson’s mind on this ride to Harding’s inaguration, can’t you?

But there was one upside to food during Prohibition – better Italian-American cooking.  Ms. Lovgren recounts tales of speakeasies run by Italian immigrants who not only made their own wine, but made pasta dishes that weren’t overcooked in what was the typical American style.  While today we can easily have or make authentic Italian food, that wasn’t the case in the 1920s.  Not only weren’t the “real” ingredients available here, but the native cuisines of Sicily and southern Italy, where most of the immigrants came from, were a little austere for American tastes.   Meat and cheese were expensive over there and used sparingly, and pasta dishes were mostly pasta with just a little sauce.  In the U.S., meat and cheese were plentiful and cheap, so the tomato-based dishes got modified into the “red sauce” classics we know and love.

I grew up with the Italian-American style of cooking, and I love to make meat sauce that cooks for hours.   That recipe’s a family secret so I’m not giving it to you here.  But when I want pasta and meatballs on a weeknight, I make this quicker version that I developed over the years.  I can go from walking in the door to having it on the table in 45 minutes.

A few tips:  1) Use good canned tomatoes.  I like San Marzano brand for the crushed tomatoes and Muir Glen for the diced.  It makes a difference.  2)  You’ll definitely need a heavy, non-stick pot that’s at least four quarts in size.  You’re only going to cook the
sauce for a half hour and you’re going to boil it pretty hard, so a splatter screen helps too.  The non-stick pot keeps the sauce from scorching so you don’t have to stir constantly, and you can easily stir in anything that caramelizes.  3)  You’ll also notice that the meatballs are pretty wet.  This allows you to mix them more easily without them getting tough.  Still, be gentle and don’t squeeze the life out of them.  And since you drop them off a teaspoon onto a baking sheet and bake them, you don’t have to worry about forming perfect little balls, either.

My go-to wine with this meal is French, believe it or not ;-).  Cave la Romaine Côtes du Ventoux Rouge Volupté ($12) is 70% Grenache, 30% Syrah.  It’s light- to medium-bodied, has a good balance of earthiness, fruit, and spice, just enough tannins to stand up to the tomatoes and meatballs, and you can use it in the sauce, too.  I think it makes the meatballs taste meatier, so there’s no downside.

This dish might be a little messy to try and eat standing in a crowded speakeasy, but there’s no reason you can’t have it for your own Prohibition dinner party at home.  Keep
the wine in a paper sack, turn the lights down, and make your family use the secret word at the door.  Corny, but it beats trying to make wine from raisin bricks, right?

Buon Provecho!


*Check out Garrett’s website for more information on the Temperance Tour and his two books on Prohibition.  Garrett will be speaking at the Library of Congress at noon on October 26 (a free event open to the public), and will sign books at the National Press Club’s Book Fair on November 15.

Weeknight Pasta and Meatballs

Serves 4-6

Before you start the recipe, arrange two oven racks evenly spaced, then preheat to 375 degrees F.


1-1/4 pounds lean ground beef (at least 90% lean)

2 garlic cloves, finely minced or crushed in a garlic press

¾ cup fresh bread crumbs (plus more if needed)

½ cup freshly-grated parmesan cheese (or half parmesan, half romano)

1 large egg, beaten with 3 tablespoons of milk (plus more milk if needed)

1/8 teaspoon dried fennel seed, roughly ground in a mortar and pestle or chopped with a knife

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon dried oregano (or 1 teaspoon fresh)

½ teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon crushed hot red pepper flakes

¼ teaspoon sweet paprika

Cover two baking sheets with parchment paper and set them aside.  Break up the ground beef and put the pieces in a large bowl.  Sprinkle the bread crumbs evenly over the meat, then the cheese and garlic.  Combine the fennel seed, salt, oregano, black and red pepper, and paprika in a small bowl.  Sprinkle the salt mixture evenly into the bowl with the meat.  Pour the egg/milk mixture on top.  Then, using your hands, gently mix everything just until it’s fairly uniform.  It will be wet.  If it looks runny, add some more bread crumbs, and if it seems dry and not nice and mushy, then add a little milk.

Using a teaspoon (not a measuring teaspoon, but one you’d actually use for tea) drop one-inch pieces of the meatball mixture onto the prepared baking sheets.  You’ll have between 40 and 50 small meatballs.  Put the sheets in the oven and cook for 30 minutes.  The meatballs should be cooked and a little browned.  Let the meatballs set for a few minutes to firm up a little, then put them in the sauce and mix gently.


1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)

1 15-ounce can small-diced tomatoes (preferably Muir Glen)

1/3 cup dry red wine

2 garlic cloves, finely minced or crushed in a garlic press

1 tablespoon tomato paste

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

½ teaspoon dried oregano (or 1 teaspoon fresh)

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly-ground black pepper

A large pinch crushed hot red pepper flakes

In a large non-stick pot (at least four quarts in size), heat the olive oil over medium heat, along with the red pepper flakes, oregano, salt, and a few grinds of black pepper.  Add the garlic and stir for 30 seconds, then stir in the tomato paste and cook for a minute until the tomato paste is a little less red.  Stir in the wine, then the crushed and diced tomatoes.  Bring the sauce to a boil, and reduce the heat to where it’s perking nicely – more than a simmer but not a full-out boil.  Stir the sauce every few minutes to keep it from sticking (it will still stick to the pot a little, even though the pot is non-stick) and be sure to stir in anything that gets a little browned too.  If you have a splatter screen, put it over the pot to keep the sauce from sending little jets of itself onto your stove.  Cook for at least 20 minutes until it thickens nicely (it shouldn’t take more than 25 minutes), and taste for salt and pepper.

Pasta and finishing

1 pound small pasta (such as penne, ziti, or gemelli)


Parmesan cheese (of a mixture of parmesan and romano) for serving

While the meatballs are in the oven, heat a large pot (5 quarts or so) of water.  When it boils, add at least a tablespoon of salt, and cook the pasta.  Ladle out a cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta in a colander.  Add the drained pasta to the pot with the sauce and meatballs and cook for a minute over medium-high heat.  Add some of the pasta water if it seems a little dry.  Serve topped with extra cheese.

This entry was posted in Cave la Romaine, Côtes du Ventoux wines, DC, Garrett Peck, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Prohibition, recipes, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Bricks and tomatoes — just a part of the history of Prohibition

  1. Sue says:

    A Southern friend gave me some authentic moonshine, which I tasted exactly once. I did keep it in the cupboard for months, with a big magic markered X on the label to stop anyone from drinking it. Finally, I decided to get rid of it to avoid any really pernicious hangovers.

    The one time I cooked meatballs in the oven instead of frying them, the oven got so spattered with grease that I decided it was easier to clean up the top of the stove. I like both recipes and I bet they improve with age.

    • firstvine says:

      Hi Sue,

      I’ve never had authentic moonshine, but it sounds like you should have kept it under the sink with the drain opener instead of in the cupboard!

      These meatballs don’t seem to splatter too much, although it would be hard to tell in my oven anyway…


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