Saturday, October 10, 2020
One of the last glittering events of the antebellum era occurred in February of 1859 when a ball was held for British ambassador Francis Napier and his wife.1 The ballroom at Willards’ Hotel was festooned with flags and adorned with portraits of George Washington and Queen Victoria for the occasion. At midnight, a curtain was raised to the adjoining dining room where almost a dozen sugar sculptures decorated the buffet tables. However, there was some question about the quality of the food, at least according to the correspondent from the New York Times who reported it was “an intolerably bad supper, intolerably ill served…” For journalists who wanted to hail the ball as a triumph, describing the problematic supper would require a fair amount of artistic license. Americans had become sensitive to the negative perception held by many Europeans about the eating habits in the United States. The Washington Evening Star put a positive spin on this gastronomic inferiority complex, reporting “the supper and wines were upon a scale of magnificence…rarely seen at such an entertainment on this side of the Atlantic.” One publication employed so much hyperbole that it unwittingly articulated a new way to define the national cuisine.