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.
The menu below makes a good first impression. It opens with the beloved native delicacies—oysters, diamondback terrapin, canvasback duck, and wild turkey. Following the custom for a late-night supper, the bill of fare mostly comprises ornamental dishes in aspic, cold roast birds, and an array of desserts that included six flavors of ice cream, still an upper-class luxury. And yet something about the menu seems amiss. Dishes are repeated to make it look more lavish, such as the chicken salad which is variously described as “decorated,” “ornamented with jelly,” and “bordered with jelly.” Pickled oysters appear as a discordant note on a silk menu boasting truffles with Périgord sauce.
Harper’s Weekly recounted the supper with extravagant overstatements, not meant to be taken literally, and labeled the meat and game dishes in terms of place. The feature article proclaimed “it was a banquet that would have gladdened (Roman gastronome) Lucullus, and Soyer (the celebrated French chef in Victorian England) could not have prepared a more elaborate repast à la Francaise, while there was also terrapin from the Potomac, oysters from the fundum of James’s River, canvas-back ducks from the Delaware, reed birds from the Savannah, wild turkeys from Kentucky, prairie hens from Iowa, mutton from the Cumberland, venison from North Carolina, and other ‘native American’ dishes…” While parts of this imaginative commentary were undoubtedly correct, the menu contains no mention of these locations, nor of the reed birds that local epicures considered an approximation of the ortolan in Europe. Nevertheless, the cuisine was portrayed in a way in which the country could be proud. Twenty years later, Mark Twain, the literary master of the national identity, used this concept to create a list of eighty iconic American foods for his travelogue A Tramp Abroad.
1. The well-liked diplomat was called home at the request of President James Buchanan. Miffed by the rebuke, the president’s political rivals were said to have organized the ball in retaliation. Whatever its impetus, the social affair was a great success. It received wide coverage in the press and was talked about for weeks afterward.