J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, July 22, 2013

Joseph Corré: cook, hotelier, impresario

Yesterday I introduced the figure of Joseph Corré, President George Washington’s ice cream supplier in the spring and summer of 1790. At the time, of course, New York was the capital of the U.S. of A.

Here’s a profile of the man from William Dunlap’s 1833 History of the American Theatre:

Mr. Corré will be long remembered by the elder citizens of New-York as an honest, industrious, and prosperous man. He was a Frenchman, and is first remembered as a cook in the service of Major Carew, of the 17th light dragoons, the servant of his Britannic majesty.
Sir John Fortescue’s History of the 17th Lancers: 1759-1894 and other sources confirm that Richard Carew or (more often) Crewe was a captain in that unit starting in 1769. Crewe embarked for America with his troop in April 1775, spending several months inside besieged Boston, and was promoted to major there in February 1776. He participated in the New York and New Jersey campaigns of 1776-77, and Corré accompanied him, at least to winter quarters, as Dunlap vividly recalled:
The first time the writer saw Corré, he stood with knife in hand, and in the full costume of his trade, looking as important as the mysteries of his craft entitle every cook to look, “with fair round belly, with good capon lined,” covered with a fair white apron, and his powdered locks compressed by an equally white cap. His rotundity of face and rotundity of person—for he was not related to Hogarth’s Cook at the gates of Calais—with this professional costume, made his figure, though by no means of gigantic height, appear awfully grand, as well as outré, and it was stamped upon the young mind of his admirer in lights and shadows never to be erased.

When we say the costume of his trade, we mean such as we see it in pictures, and as travellers see it; the writer had at that time never seen other than a female cook, and such always black as Erebus. This was in the winter of 1776-7, before the New-Jersey militia and the great chief of our citizen-soldiers had driven the English to the protection of their ships and the safety of water-girt islands. It was at Perth Amboy that Corré stood lord of the kitchen, which his lord, the major of dragoons, had wrested from the black cook of the writer’s father, and held by the same title which made the Corsican lord of the Continent of Europe—military force. The gallant major occupied and improved the upper part of the house, and Manager Corré ruled below.
Maj. Crewe retired on 3 June 1778, replaced by Oliver DeLancey. The major returned to Britain, but Joseph Corré remained in British-occupied New York. He opened a confectionary and catering business, then a tavern, moving to different addresses as the years passed.

When the war ended, Corré chose not to evacuate with the Loyalists but to remain in his adopted city. In 1791, the city council even chose his hotel to host a banquet celebrating the eighth anniversary of the British military’s departure. That same year, Corré first advertised theatricals at the City Tavern on Broadway, establishing a new tradition in American theater.

Over the next two decades, Corré expanded his business, as Dunlap watched:
Mr. Corré afterwards kept the City Tavern, in New-York, with reputation and success, and established those public gardens [i.e., theaters] in State Street still existing, on the site of a part of what was Fort George when he first saw America. He was a thriving and worthy man, and his descendants have reason to respect his memory, although these situations in life might little qualify him to direct public taste, except in the way of his original employment. Mr. Corré and the writer were now, in 1800, both theatrical managers, and Mr. Corré proved the most successful manager of the two. In regard to literary qualifications, Mr. Corré was probably not far behind many other managers who have since ruled the fates of actors and destinies of authors.
In 1801 Corré and a rival theater manager got into a newspaper debate over whether they could mount productions on the same nights. Corré, who was infringing on the other man’s usual dates, made the free-trade argument: “The public in America are not to be told, on Monday you shall go here, and on Tuesday you shall go there…” Nevertheless, Corré’s Mount Vernon Gardens closed after three years.

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