Saturday, September 1, 2012

William Waldorf Astor’s World’s Fair Dinner

This article was first published in the 2010 summer issue of Gastronomica. It is posted here as a prelude to the essay titled “Chauncey Depew’s Big Day.”

New York City,

William Waldorf Astor
At grand dinners of the Gilded Age, canvasback duck was an upper-class autumnal dish, much appreciated for its subtle flavor of celery. In the fall of 1889, however, the species was suddenly scarce. There were reports from Havre de Grace, Maryland, a small town at the mouth of the Susquehanna River, that storms had driven mud over the wild celery upon which the canvasbacks liked to feed.1 Some feared the ducks had been overhunted.1 Whatever the trouble, Charles Ranhofer, Delmonico’s longtime chef, could not get his hands on them—not even for someone the New York Times would shortly proclaim “the wealthiest man in the world.”2

On October 9 of that year, William Waldorf Astor hosted a dinner for fifty politicians, financiers, and other leaders at Delmonico’s overlooking Madison Square. The purpose was to discuss how to get New York City selected as the site for the upcoming World’s Fair. Originally scheduled for 1892, the fair would celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of the landing of Christopher Columbus—a theme reflected on the menus made by Tiffany & Co. Tied together at the top with two silk ribbons to allow it to stand upright, each menu bore Astor’s monogram, the name of the guest for whom it was made, and its own distinctive, hand-painted scene depicting the explorer’s voyage of discovery.  Delicately rendered by the stationer-turned-jeweler were the approaching ships and subsequent feasts that would eventually spell near-doom for the Canvasback. For this evening Chef Ranhofer improvised by substituting the smaller teal duck and accompanying it with celery mayonnaise.

New York, St. Louis, Washington, and Chicago were all attempting to convince Congress to choose their city to host a fair. It was an opportunity for prestige and profit, especially for those with investments in railroads and hotels. Many of Astor’s guests (whose names were listed on the back of the menu) were working to build the case for New York, such as Chauncey Depew, president of the New York Central Railroad who was acting as the chairman of the World's Fair Committee,and Cornelius Vanderbilt II, scion of the wealthy family whose business interests Depew had long served. Astor's dinner provided an opportunity to discuss the fair over a refined meal where the regimented service stood in marked contrast with the messy political process in which the gentlemen were engaged. No matter how carefully orchestrated, however, neither the dinner nor the fair was destined to unfold without surprises.

Delmonico’s third-floor banquet room was festooned with flags and banners for the occasion.  Plants and shrubs were arranged in the hollow center of a large circular table and an orchestra was engaged to provide musical interludes during the evening. As the host, Astor sat facing the door with the guest of honor, former President Grover Cleveland, seated by his side. Cleveland moved to New York earlier in the year after losing his bid for reelection. In 1892 he would run again and win, becoming the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms. In the meantime, Cleveland had the dubious pleasure of looking over the foliage at the current Vice President, Levi Morton, who was seated on the opposite side of the table.
The menu shown above was specifically made for William Russell Grace, the former mayor of New York, who only a few years earlier had formally accepted the Statue of Liberty from France. During his first term of office, President Cleveland, along with others at the dinner, presided at the 1886 dedication ceremony of the statue. That project had also been a source of civic pride and expression of American optimism.

This wealthy and powerful group shaped fin-de-siècle New York—adorning it with their art, bestowing it with their vision, and stamping it with their likeness. The menu shown below, which now resides in the New York Public Library, was made for General Horace Porter, a major force in the construction of Grant’s Tomb in Riverside Park. Another Union general in attendance, William Tecumseh Sherman, was destined to leave his mark on the city’s landscape as the model for the gilded-bronze equestrian monument in the Grand Army Plaza in Central Park.3 Earlier that year banker Henry G. Marquand donated Vermeer’s iconic Young Woman with a Water Pitcher to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A grand banquet typically lasted about two and a half hours, allowing ten to fifteen minutes for each course. The service began with the prescribed sequence of dishes, starting with oysters and followed by a soup, a light dish, a fish course, and entrées.  In a departure from protocol, a joint of meat called the remove was served between the two entrées (on menus of the era the remove course was also called the relevé). The remove was a saddle of mutton that was presented, sliced thin, and plated with a little gravy. Royal Charter Champagne, a brand that no longer exists, was served with the fish course, both entrées, and the remove. All of the wines at the dinner were routinely stocked in Delmonico’s wine cellar.

It was unusual to situate the remove between the entrées that were typically served consecutively from the heaviest to the lightest. Chef Ranhofer adjusted the sequence to provide a suitable transition for the pâté de foie gras, Bellevue. Normally the cold dish, which was regarded as the “most elegant and artistic” of the culinary arts, was served after the game dish in the second service.4 For this special occasion, Ranhofer created a rich and elaborate pie by layering aspic-glazed slices of goose liver terrine and truffles in an intricate, pre-baked pastry shell.5 It was the pièce de résistance of the dinner.6

Pâté de foie gras, The Epicurean (1893)

In the late 1880s, it was common to hand out cigarettes when the sorbet was served (and there were no ladies present). However, it was unusual to include them among the dishes. The decision to put cigarettes on the menu was perhaps influenced by the attendance of tobacco magnate Pierre Lorillard IV.7

After the sorbet came the roast game dish—in this case, the teal duck. The serving of this dish may have brought to mind the disquieting situation in the Chesapeake, momentarily shifting the conversion to the plight of the Canvasbacks. The cheese course and a simple dessert brought the meal to an end.8

Columbian Worlds Exposition (1893)

In the end, the powerful New Yorkers were out-maneuvered by retailer Marshall Field, industrialist Cyrus McCormick, Jr., and meat-packers Philip Armour and Gustavus Swift who convinced Congress to award the World’s Columbian Exposition to Chicago.  By the time the fairgrounds were completed behind schedule, President Cleveland had returned to the White House for a second term. The newly elected president traveled to Chicago to open the fair on May 1, 1893—four hundred and one years after Columbus’s voyage.

When “Manhattan Day” was  celebrated at the fair, General Horace Porter, one of the invited speakers, graciously declared: “Our cities were contestants for the exposition. Chicago fairly won the prize. Today the people of New York come to greet you, not only through their representatives, but they come themselves with hearts untouched by jealousy. With souls unmoved by rivalry, to cry out to you with acclaim, God bless Chicago!” The fireworks in the Windy City that evening included sparkling displays of the Brooklyn Bridge, Father Knickerbocker, and the Statue of Liberty.

1. Canvasbacks are large migratory ducks found throughout North America. They will feed on mollusks when they unable to find their preferred diet of wild celery, however, this change in diet adversely affects their unique flavor, causing them to taste much like other species. In the fall of 1889 the canvasbacks did not arrive in large numbers at the Susquehanna Flats, the twenty-five thousand-acre water area normally abundant with wild celery. The problem was caused by floods from the river which covered the aquatic plants with mud, prompting the ducks to fly farther south looking for food. During the season from September 1889 to April 1890, the canvasbacks were hunted in North Carolina and shipped to New York via Havre de Grace in an effort to deceive the buyers. Given the lesser quality of these ducks, the best chefs in New York removed them from their menus that year. The situation fueled a growing concern that the species had been “shot out.” New York Times, 17 December 1889.
2. New York Times, 27 February 1890. William Waldorf Astor (1848-1919), the only child of John Jacob Astor III, inherited an enormous personal fortune upon the death of his father in early 1890.
3. Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens created a bust of William Tecumseh Sherman in 1888 that became one of the preliminary works for his larger-than-life equestrian monument that was unveiled in Central Park in 1903.
4. Charles Ranhofer, The Epicurean, 1893, p.723.
5. Although Ranhofer did not include the recipe for the Bellevue variation of Pâté de foie gras in his cookbook, he  described the process for making a cold dish glazed with aspic jelly in his recipe for galantines de perdreaux en tranches et en Belle-vue (The Epicurean, No. 2494.)
6. In the days before refrigeration, a complex cold dish was created in advance so that the multiple steps of the process were not hurried. There is evidence to suggest that the pâté de foie gras, Bellevue at the Astor dinner was prepared on the previous day. As luck would have it, there is a menu in my collection which shows that petits aspics de fois gras (The Epicurean, No. 2412) was served at an unrelated banquet at Delmonico’s on October 8, 1889. This simpler dish was made by molding slices of goose terrine and truffles in aspic using small, flat timbales. Considering the cost of these expensive ingredients, and the fact that no food was wasted in a commercial kitchen, even at a luxury establishment like Delmonico’s, the petits aspics de fois gras was probably made with the trimmings leftover from the preparation of the more elaborate pâté de foie gras, Bellevue.
7. Cigarette production increased in the early 1880s with the introduction of automated rolling machines, although per capita consumption was still low compared to the phenomenal increases of the twentieth century. Although not the largest manufacturer of pre-rolled cigarettes, Lorillard produced an early brand called Taylor Mades.
8. According to the custom of the time, the fancier, more elaborate desserts were only served when women were present at the dinner.


Jan Whitaker said...

It seems odd to me that the teal duck is so far down on the menu.

Deana Sidney said...

Another gorgeous post, Henry. I remember reading about the dearth of canvasbacks and read a few old NYT articles crying about it. Conservation was urged by the wealthy to preserve their favorite dish. Perhaps not a great reason but a good outcome. I am still waiting to find someone who will get me a canvasback fed on wild celery... a dream of mine.

Fabulous menu.

Andrea said...

So wonderful to read this post, after I took notes on what you had told me when I came out for a visit this summer! Your writing and sleuthing skills are both terrific. Thanks!

Todd B Richard said...

Great blog I enjoyedd reading