Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Conspicuous Consumption.

March 26 ...

The most enthusiastic guilders of already golden lilies during the Golden Age were the Vanderbilts. Mrs. Vanderbilt held the party of the season at their home on Fifth Avenue at 53rd street on this day in 1883. Twelve hundred of the social elite were invited, and the town was a-buzz with anticipation for six weeks. It was to be a costume ball.

The idea had been announced a week before Lent, and since then, said the New York Times, ‘It has been on every tongue and a fixed idea in every head … It has disturbed the sleep and occupied the waking hours of social butterflies, both male and female, for over six weeks, and has even, perhaps, interfered to some extent with that rigid observation of Lenten devotions which the Church exacts. … Amid the rush and excitement of business men have found their minds haunted by uncontrollable thoughts as to whether they should appear as Robert Le Diable, Cardinal Richelieu, Otho the Barbarian, or the Count of Monte Cristo, while the ladies have been driven to the verge of distraction in the effort to settle the comparative advantages of ancient, medieval, and modern costumes …..’

The newspaper devoted many inches of column to the individual costumes, which were, as would be expected, of great and shining magnificence. Fancy dances (including a hobby-horse quadrille) were to be the main fun of the evening, and to that end ‘The drilling in these quadrilles has been going on assiduously in Mrs. William Astor’s and other private residences for more than a week …’. The floral arrangements were suitably fantastic with ‘vases and gilded baskets filled with natural roses of extraordinary size …. as were the rest of the decorations. The gymnasium was converted into the supper room, and was particularly spectacular:

‘ .. the gymnasium, a spacious apartment, where supper was served on numerous small tables. But it had not the appearance of an apartment last night: it was like a garden in a tropical forest. The walls were nowhere to be seen, but in their place an impenetrable thicket of fern above fern and palm above palm … two beautiful fountains played in opposite corners, … the doors of the apartment, thrown back against the walls, were completely covered with roses and lilies of the valley.'

The New York Times columnist was clearly not inclined to describe the food, (or perhaps that might have seemed vulgar?) other than to say that the catering cost $65,000 of the total of $250,000 for the event. I was then, at the end of the lengthy article, forced to make an alternative choice for the recipe of the day.

It was common at the time for chefs to invent new dishes (or variations on old) and name them in honour of the rich and famous. Alexander Filippini, one-time Delmonico chef, wrote several cookbooks, and there are a set of recipes in The table: how to buy food and how to cook it, published in 1889, which are styled ‘a la Vanderbilt’. They consist of a garnish, and two egg recipes based on the garnish. I like to think that the name came from the large amount of green peppers used, which was reminiscent of a large amount of some other green stuff that the Vanderbilts threw around like confetti.

Garnishing Vanderbilt.
Peel one green pepper ; chop it very fine, and place it in a stewpan with one tomato cut into small pieces. Add an ounce of butter and eighteen canned, picked, and chopped-up shrimps ; season with a third of a tablespoonful of salt and a scant teaspoonful of pepper. Cook for ten minutes, and use for garnishing.

Omelet a la Vanderbilt.
Take two fine, sound, green peppers, plunge them into hot fat for half a minute, then take them up and lay them on a dry cloth; skin them neatly, remove all the seeds from the insides, and when emptied cut them into small slices. Put these into a saucepan on the hot stove with two medium-sized fresh, sound, slicedtomatoes, twelve nicely shelled shrimps, and three tablespoonfuls of Madeira wine sauce (No. 185), then season with half a pinch of salt and a third of a pinch of pepper; cook slowly for fifteen minutes. Break twelve fresh eggs into a bowl, season them with half a pinch of salt and a third of a pinch of pepper, and beat well for five minutes. Put two ounces of good butter in a frying-pan, place it on the hot stove, and when the butter is melted drop in the eggs, and with a spoon or fork mix briskly for two minutes. Fold the opposite side up with a skimmer, lift up the thick part of the prepared sauce, and place it in the centre of the omelet, fold the other side either with a knife or fork, and let it cook for two minutes longer, then turn on a hot dish; pour the rest of the sauce in the saucepan around the omelet, and send to the table very hot.

Eggs a la Vanderbilt.
Place one ounce of good butter on a silver dish, set it on the hot stove, and break in twelve fresh eggs, being careful not to disturb the yolks; season with a light pinch of salt and the third of a pinch of pepper; then let cook slowly for four minutes. Pour over the eggs a pint of hot Vanderbilt garnishing as for the omelet, and serve immediately.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Unconspicuous Consumption.

Quotation for the Day …

Have wholesome, but not costly Food, and be rather cleanly than dainty in ordering it. William Penn (1644-1718)


Anonymous said...

our dear Foodie:

have you read Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, which I think is on the same era? this post reminded me of a passage...

Mr. Jackson, if perfection had been attainable on earth, would also have asked that Mrs. Archer's food should be a little better. But then New York, as far back as the mind of man could travel, had been divided into the two great fundamental groups of the Mingotts and Mansons and all their clan, who cared about eating and clothes and money, and the Archer-Newland-van-der-Luyden tribe, who were devoted to travel, horticulture and the best fiction, and looked down on the grosser forms of pleasure.

You couldn't have everything, after all. If you dined with the Lovell Mingotts you got canvas-back and terrapin and vintage wines; at Adeline Archer's you could talk about Alpine scenery and "The Marble Faun;" and luckily the Archer Madeira had gone round the Cape. Therefore when a friendly summons came from Mrs. Archer, Mr. Jackson, who was a true eclectic, would usually say to his sister: "I've been a little gouty since my last dinner at the Lovell Mingotts' — it will do me good to diet at Adeline's."

i enjoy the dinner scene that follows; it's nothing special, except that Mr. Jackson is so balefully disappointed by everything upon the table. and it took me ages to figure out what "canvas-back" meant.

The Old Foodie said...

Dear g(A)stronomer; I am so glad you stopped by again, and especially glad that you reminded me of this lovely book: I read it so many years ago that I cant remember it well, but now that you have pointed me to this passage, I will read it again. Thankyou.