Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Booknote: The Thousand Dollar Dinner

Becky Libourel Diamond, The Thousand Dollar Dinner: America's First Great Cookery Challenge. Yardley: Westholme, 2015.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: foodie, cooking and cookery, celebrity chefs, U.S history
Format: hardcover
Source: Berea branch of the Madison  County Public Library 

Before we had the celebrity chefs of today and snobbish finicky celebrity eaters, we had men like Lorenzo Delmonico and James W. Parkinson, the star of this book. The story is as follows: the year is 1851. A group of wealthy New Yorkers invite a group of wealthy friends from Philadelphia for a fancy meal. The New Yorkers took their friends to Delmonico's for a feast meant to "astonish our Quaker City friends." Lorenzo Delmonico was told that money was no object; it was for the honor of New York. After that fine dinner, the Philadelphians invited the New Yorkers to Philadelphia for a feast of their own. The Philadelphians hired James W. Parkinson to create what later became known as the Thousand Dollar Dinner. It was 17 courses; it lasted 12 hours, and at the end, Philadelphia was victorious. This is the story of that epic dinner for wealthy people.

The book is also a story of high society in the Eastern United States at the time. Additionally, the book is a culinary history as it looks at the courses and the food served. The author brings it all together in a book narrative.

The book is arranged based on the menu of Parkinson's 17 course event. After a short introduction opening the story we get the menu (La Carte). The menu is 17 courses, so we get one book chapter for each course. The book ends with "An Ovation," which  serves as an afterword. To conclude, the book includes a section on notes about sources so you can see the documentation the author used, and a bibliography.

Each book chapter is like a small history lesson. The author describes the course, how it would have been served, techniques the chefs of the time used, and even where Parkinson varied from traditions. You also get a small history of the ingredients used. In addition, it is interesting to note that some items we do not eat anymore, like some of the small game bird or terrapin. We may not eat some items due to lack of availability, rising costs, or simply tastes have changed over time. The menu truly gives a glimpse of a different and interesting piece of Americana. The author put together a very well researched history and made it fun to read.

Overall, this was an interesting and entertaining read. Chapters are not too long, just enough, like a good course. If you are a foodie reader, you will probably enjoy this book. History readers, especially of social histories, may find it interesting as well. It is a well researched book with lots of notes, but it is for general readers. I'd say this is definitely a good acquisition for public libraries. Some academic libraries may want to consider it, especially if they have strength in 19th century U.S. history, culinary sciences, and/or pop culture. It was definitely enjoyable.

4 out of 5 stars.

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Additional reading notes:

A bit  of what was happening in 1851:

"It was 1851, a time of significant progress and change. That year, Britain's Great Exhibition-- the first of its kind-- displayed the marvels of industry and manufacturing from around the world, including the latest kitchen appliances, steel-making displays, textile looms, and firearms. The specialty grocery story, Fortnam and Mason, debuted their famous ready-prepared hampers packed with exotic foods, spices, and drinks to the delight of exhibition visitors. In America, the restaurant industry was experiencing rapid growth, where some of the foods displayed at the Great Exhibition could now be found on menus" (xiii). 

The dinner's cost:

"But Parkinson successfully rose to the challenge, creating a seventeeen-course feast famously referred to by Philadelphia newspapers as the 'Thousand Dollar Dinner' (since it reputedly cost the Philadelphians $1,000, an enormous sum equivalent to perhaps thirty-two times that amount today). The guests sat down at 6 P.M. and did not rise from their chairs until 6 A.M. the next morning. A gastronomic turning point, this luxurious meal helped launch the era of grand banquets in nineteenth-century America" (xv). 

For those interested, the author does explain if it would be possible to replicate the dinner today and what it would take at the end of the book.

On what the dinner featured:

"Parkinson's dinner paired different rare wines and liquors with each of the courses, which included such delicacies as fresh salmon and baked rockfish, braised pigeon, turtle steaks, spring lamb, out-of-season fruits and vegetables, and several dessert courses showcasing rich pastries, ice cream, cakes, and puddings. Each of Parkinson's courses was designed to meld familiar dishes with novel presentations. Special praise went to an artful and luscious sorbet that he created using an expensive Hungarian Tokaj wine" (xv).

As reader and librarian, looking through the bibliography was interesting. I would love to look over all those old cookbooks and culinary histories that the author looked over. Here are a few selections from the bibliography I think I could pick up down the road:

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This book qualifies for the following 2017 Reading Challenges:


A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

I am going to check and see if my library carries this book. It sounds right up my alley. Thanks Angel.

Heather said...

That sounds really interesting. I love learning about history through food.

A. Rivera said...

Wendy: You are welcome and thank for stopping by. If you do read it, feel free to come back and let me know.

Heather: Thank you for stopping by. The book should be up your alley as it combines foods and their histories along with the banquet.