I am, as many of you know, intrigued by the concept of ‘mock’ food. I am also, as most of you may not know, slightly worryingly interested in the concept of ‘freak dinners.’
The first topic is too well known to need an explanation, unless you have never been exposed to mock chicken (eggs and tomato), mock apple pie (made with Ritz crackers, please,) ersatz coffee, or the like.
Freak dinners are not so well known or appreciated. They are, or were, an American invention of the last few decades of the nineteenth century. The inventors had enough money to keep up with each other in exotic ingredients and fine wine. It must have been very frustrating, having the Jones’ always being able to keep up with one. Then someone, somewhere, with more money than they could count and more time on their hands than was healthy (and some say, more than a little bad taste) came up with a new idea.
Novel, or ‘freak’ dinners were born. They were dinners with a novel theme, a novel venue, a novel menu, or all of the above. Dinners were held in giant boilers, giant Easter eggs, and chimneys. Restaurants were re-fitted to mimic the desert, or the canals of Venice, or a stable. The guests dressed as babies, or zoo animals, or their own servants. The menus were in theme, of course.
One event should have satisfied both my interests, but has left me frustrated as I can find out nothing about it other than the teaser in the English publication, The Strand Magazine of May 1904.
THE OLD GUARDS' "MOCK-MENU" DINNER.
Another novel dinner was that given by a well-known New Yorker, Colonel O'Brien, to the Old Guard of Delmonico's, known to fame as the guard that "dines but never surrenders." For this affair two menus had been provided, one as a joke, the other for consumption. The mock bill of fare contained a list of dishes which might have been provided. For example, under the heading of oysters were the words "half shell," which the waiters solemnly set before the assembled gentlemen, minus the bivalves. These being removed made way for the next item, which, being "cream of celery" and presumably a soup, was found to be small tubes of celery with cold cream inside. Through all the regular courses the joke was carried, with amusing success, the joint being spring lamb with "string," or French, beans. What was the astonishment of the guests to find served for this course, a woolly toy lamb on a spring, which squeaked when pressed, and wore dried beans on a string around its neck! The humour of the dinner came with the continued surprise at the ingenuity shown by the preparer of the feast, and it can be truly said that each item tickled the guests immensely. With the woolly lambs this band of gastronomers were especially pleased, and it was at the moment when these ridiculous toys were handed round to the well-proportioned diners that our photograph was secured.
I am more than a little frustrated by the lack of inclusion of the ‘real’ menu here. From the grainy photo that accompanied this article, there seems to be about 50 men at this dinner (ladies did not attend public dinners.) I find it strange that 50 men in formal evening suits should find a toy woolly lamb on the dining table hilarious. And I certainly don’t believe their appetites were satisfied by empty oyster shells and celery sticks filled with cream cheese. What do you think?
There is no choice here, I have to give you a recipe for real spring lamb from The Epicurean (1894), the cookbook of Delmonico’s chef, Charles Ranhofer.
Lamb Cutlets, Plain, Yearling.
Five or six cutlets can be taken from a rack of yearling lamb, four or five from a spring lamb; remove the skin, cut them into any desired thickness, and should the rack be too thin, then cut them off on the bias. Remove and pare the bone from each chop, then beat down to flatten to half an inch in thickness, and trim them all around, removing the skin from each side of the rib bone; scrape about an inch of the end of the bone, clean off the meat and fat to enable it to be decorated with a paper frill; when cooked season with salt, coat over with butter or oil, place on the gridiron all on the same side and broil on a slow but well maintained fire. When cooked on one side, turn over and finish cooking on the other; the entire operation should take about six minutes; trim the handles with paper frills, dress and serve with a little clear gravy