By Gerry Barker
Photos by Gerry Barker
“The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying their privileges.”
–Mike, played by Jimmy Stewart, “The Philadelphia Story”
There are few things more emblematic of the privileged class than the Gilded Age, a term taken from the title of the Mark Twain book by the same name. Generally covering that period of U.S. history from 1870-1900, it is associated with the wealthy “enjoying their privileges” in all manner of extravagance, including food and dining.
In fact, that’s the subject of food historian and author Becky Libourel Diamond’s latest effort, “The Gilded Age Cookbook.” Apart from the recipes that reflect what was being served on those white linen tablecloths adorned with fine crystal, it’s a detailed look at America’s culinary evolution, including the advent of cooking schools and new kitchen techniques.
Among the fascinating topics she touches on are the banquet dinners, where newly-minted tycoons pulled out all the stops to “one-up” the other. In one case, a ship-owner seated 72 guests around a huge oval table with a big lake in its center. Over the lake was “an ornate gold cage made by Tiffany” to hold four white swans. Things went awry when the swans started fighting. In another case, dinner guests had a multi-course meal while seated on horses, “to give the most memorable dinner that had yet been eaten.” No doubt.
While it would be hard to match either of those, Pam and I felt the best way to review “The Gilded Age Cookbook” was stage a Gilded Age dinner of our own, using recipes from the book. Pam took on the task of creating the table setting, while we both looked over the recipes for what to serve.
The table result was definitely Gilded Age-worthy: Ornate charger plates, Waterford crystal, gold-plated cutlery, a pearls-and-mask centerpiece, candles adorned with antique rings and napkins that included long, black satin gloves (wearing rings, no less). One touch I really liked was instead of nameplates, she had old family photos — her aunt and my grandfather. And we couldn’t go Gilded Age without a quality champagne, like Veuve Clicquot Rich.
For the food, we started with “Asparagus Salad With French Dressing,” which the author said was featured in the 1897 issue of American Kitchen Magazine. We wanted to stay true to the recipes, and were for the most part. Since we are asparagus lovers, this was a good beginning dish and fairly easy to make.
Moving on to the entrée, there were a lot of tempting choices, but we ultimately landed on the classic “Roast Chicken, Au Jus,” — “one of the dishes taught by Pierre Blot at his New York Cooking Academy” that dates back to 1868. A little butter, salt, pepper and a lemon inserted in the cavity and voila!
Now, side dishes. We love potatoes just about anyway you can make them, so we had to include one of those for the meal. How about “Bermuda Potatoes With Parsley Sauce.” It’s the sauce — basically a Béchamel sauce — that really makes this dish sing. For the other, Pam loves tomatoes, so she went with “Herbed Tomatoes,” cooked with white wine, parsley, scallions and spices.
Of course we couldn’t do a Gilded Age meal without dessert. For that we chose a snack introduced on Pullman train cars in 1883, and became immediately popular: Blueberry Cake. It’s your basic cake with fresh blueberries added, and instead of the streusel topping, Pam made a batch of homemade whipped cream. A great end to a great meal.
True to our Gilded Age theme, we also dressed the part — Pam aimed for “Gilded glamor” in a tulle skirt and crystal embellishments, while I donned a tux shirt, tie and white jacket. When we go in, we’re all in.
Whether you want to host your own Gilded Age dinner party, or just enjoy learning more about an era that helped shape our modern menus, add “The Gilded Age Cookbook” to your collection. Just make sure it isn’t mating season if you decide to include swans in a cage.
The Gilded Age Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from America’s Golden Era
Available on Amazon.