The Thousand Dollar Dinner: America's First Great Cookery Challenge
When I first heard the title of this book, I thought it was something of a joke. In this day and age of golden toilets and private planes at the whim of top CEOs, it would seem almost barbaric to imagine one of those captains of industry having a dinner that would cost merely $1,000. More is spent on liquor at a typical high-style event, and even the most average Joe can save up and enjoy a special chef’s menu at the nation’s hottest restaurants. Good food is still expensive and can be made more so by the way it is disseminated to the general public.
However, THE THOUSAND DOLLAR DINNER is not about our disgustingly crass and money-crazy world. It harkens back to the origins of such living --- to a time when robber barons and other waistcoated fat men decided that they would take advantage of all the riches they could get their hands on and show the world just how remarkable they were, at least in the ways they would imbibe and ingest the things that most tenement-dwelling immigrants were not enjoying in their lesser realm.
"Diamond’s literary skill carries this story beyond a simple how-to-impress and into the how-well-we-shall-all-remember tome... THE THOUSAND DOLLAR DINNER is a delightful book to read by the fire."
In 1851, a group of well–to-do members of New York society life decided to impress a group of equally wealthy friends from Philadelphia with a beyond-belief meal at Delmonico’s, the famous steakhouse. Asking the stellar Lorenzo Delmonico to “astonish our Quaker City friends with the sumptuousness of our feast,” they assured him that no expense should be spared and no greater thing than New York’s honor as a city was on the table. The banquet was like nothing any of the participants had ever experienced.
As reciprocation, the New Yorkers were invited by the Philadelphians to experience a meal by chef James W. Parkinson in the City of Brotherly Love. This was the “Thousand Dollar Dinner,” in which Parkinson served a 17-course smorgasbord of the best possible meat, fowl, fruits, produce and rare wines and liquors he could get his hands on. A most impressive event, it lasted over 12 hours. Their admiration complete, the New York contingent declared this meal the best of the two and stood in ovation to celebrate Parkinson’s culinary acuity. And then their meal entered the history books.
Becky Libourel Diamond is a journalist and research historian who specializes in reconstructing 18th- and 19th-century recipes. What a fascinating way to relive a time gone by, through the gustatory treasures and delights that a long-ago generation considered among its best. Diamond’s literary skill carries this story beyond a simple how-to-impress and into the how-well-we-shall-all-remember tome, even though this is several generations away from even her oldest readers. The story of the genesis of this type of rich living is fascinating, her details complete and vivid.
By the time you’ve turned the final page, you will want to recreate this event when you win the lottery (or maybe get that big promotion) with your own family and friends. Every detail of each meal is given its own historical investigation, and it will keep you on the edge of your seat waiting to see how all these details come together in the end.
THE THOUSAND DOLLAR DINNER is a delightful book to read by the fire. And if you get the inkling to do this yourself, let us know about it. Perhaps an invitation would not be a bad idea either.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 15, 2016