Hot-Pots and Hotspots

The other day the lovely Nina and I met a friend for some shabu-shabu at an outstanding Japanese eatery in Greenwich Village. Such “hot-pot” dishes, for those of you who don’t know, consist of meat and vegetables cooked in broth at the table on a little gas stove.

The waitress explained, as she placed a liquid-filled wok upon the stove, that the little bits we could see at the bottom were small pieces of pig’s feet whose purpose was to provide collagen to thicken the broth. Now I already knew, of course, that collagen was the essential ingredient of stocks, consommés, aspics, and gelatin, but it was only then that I made a obvious connection that should have occurred to me long ago: that the best-selling brand of canned chicken broth in these parts — College Inn — clearly must have taken its name from this important protein.

I often come late to such realizations, and assumed that it would already be common knowledge, and easily confirmed on the Web. But no! According to the manufacturer’s website, the product is actually named for the College Inn Restaurant, a former Chicago hot-spot. Here’s their story:

In Chicago, celebrities, high society and tourists flocked to the College Inn restaurant in the Hotel Sherman. There, they got their first taste of the devil’s music—otherwise known as jazz—along with the chafing dish specialties of Chef Joe Colton. Chicken shortbread. Lobster Newburg. And College Inn’s famous chicken a la king made with Joe’s secret recipe chicken broth.

The folks at the Sherman had the idea of offering Joe’s dishes in cans at specialty shops and by mail order. And in 1923, homemakers from Poughkeepsie to Portland were putting his chicken a la king on their table and his broth in their recipes.

Well, you can’t go to the College Inn restaurant today—the Hotel Sherman closed in 1973. And most of its line of prepared foods has gone the way of the flapper, with one notable exception.

Joe’s tasty College Inn® Broth is still the cat’s pajamas.

When I read this I was, to put it mildly, skeptical. While there is no question that there was indeed a College Inn at the old Hotel Sherman, and that the restaurant also appears, according to this single source, to have had a chef named Joe Colton, the entire College Inn line of products consists, as you can see here, solely of stocks and broths — in other words, things you make with collagen. (In fact, even the link to the ‘Products’ page just above ends in .aspx — which is suspiciously evocative of “aspics” — but I’ll let that one go by.) Furthermore, the picture on the College Inn logo is of some old colonial inn or farmstead, and is quite obviously not the Sherman Hotel.

Having digested, so to speak, all of this, I was well on the way to concluding that the official story was a pack of lies, that the brand name was chosen as a bit of creative word-play, and that the company, having settled on the name, had simply gone out looking for some historical “College Inn” to which they could attach their plausible and romantic back-story. (The Hotel Sherman, conveniently, was demolished many years ago.)

But now I’ve found pictorial evidence of the existence, as recently as 1968, of College Inn Chicken A La King — presumably the same dish that is documented (as we saw in the 1935 dining guide linked above) to have indeed been made by the College Inn Restaurant’s Joe Colton. This does rather seem to anchor the story in historical fact. So at the end of it all I really don’t know what to think.

But “College Inn” for a manufacturer of collagen-based chicken broth? It’s too pat. I still think there’s something fishy going on here.

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6 Comments

  1. chris g says

    Wow… you’ve cracked the code. I guess you know that shabu shabu is a japanese onomatopoeia for the sound of the meat swishing in the broth. Remember Taka? We used to eat at Shabu Tatsu on 10th street & 2nd ave. It was quite a feast on a cold night. They had pitchers of dry Japanese beer for a very reasonable price.

    Posted December 30, 2009 at 10:45 pm | Permalink
  2. JK says

    That’s actually surprising Malcolm, I may have to get over my jitters about visiting – especially now that I can find hog jowls too.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/30/dining/30peas.html

    Posted December 31, 2009 at 12:56 am | Permalink
  3. Charles says

    I think if it were true it would be incredibly clever–too clever for most marketers.

    Posted December 31, 2009 at 10:11 pm | Permalink
  4. Elisson says

    College Inn = Collagen? .aspx = aspics?

    That’s beautiful folk etymology, all right… and if I were running their advertising campaigns, I’d use it. But I think it’s just a beautiful coincidence… one that you were astute enough to catch.

    Now to heat up some nice broth. Goes well with my gruel.

    Posted January 3, 2010 at 6:38 pm | Permalink
  5. Coq Vin says

    In the film “Donnie Brasco,” Al Pacino shows Johnny Depp how to make coq au vin, and when he says to add a can or two of College Inn, the subtitles say “collagen.”
    Hmmm…

    Posted January 28, 2015 at 11:15 am | Permalink
  6. Mike says

    I thought the same. But one quick question. Does college inn broth actually contain collagen? I have made my own and reduced them to a glaze(sp?) and real broths always cool to a jelly based on their collagen content. Does college inn broth? Hmmm. Maybe I have a weekend project.

    Posted June 22, 2015 at 9:34 am | Permalink