In 1851, fifteen wealthy New Yorkers wanted to show a group of Philadelphia friends just how impressive a meal could be and took them to Delmonico’s, New York’s finest restaurant. However, not to be outdone, the Philadelphia men invited the New Yorkers to a meal prepared by James W. Parkinson in their city. In what became known as the “Thousand Dollar Dinner,” Parkinson successfully rose to the challenge, creating a seventeen-course extravaganza featuring fresh salmon, baked rockfish, braised pigeon, turtle steaks, spring lamb, out-of-season fruits and vegetables, and desserts, all paired with rare wines and liquors. Midway through the twelve-hour meal, the New Yorkers declared Philadelphia the winner of their competition, and at several times stood in ovation to acknowledge the chef ’s mastery. The Thousand Dollar Dinner: America’s First Great Cookery Challenge tells this unique story, presenting the entire seventeen-course meal, course by course, explaining each dish and its history. A gastronomic turning point, Parkinson’s luxurious meal helped launch the era of grand banquets of the gilded age and established a new level of American culinary arts to rival those of Europe.
Excerpt – “An Invitation”
A cool spring breeze swept over the Camden and Philadelphia Steamboat ferry as it chugged its way across the Delaware River toward the city of Philadelphia. That evening in April 1851, many of the ferry passengers were on the final leg of their journey from New York City. Among those who had made this excursion were fifteen impeccably dressed New York gentlemen. They had accepted an invitation to dine at an exclusive Philadelphia restaurant called Parkinson’s.
After the boat docked at the Walnut Street wharf, the men collected their leather travel cases and stepped off the ferry. They located the livery drivers who had been hired to meet them and were soon riding in three sleek black carriages, the horses’ feet clip-clopping on the cobblestones. As the carriages reached Eighth Street, they turned south and stopped in front of number 38, a three-story brick building displaying a large sign with “PARKINSONS” in block lettering. Gleaming white marble steps led up to the restaurant’s front door, which was surrounded on either side by a storefront made completely out of clear glass, with etched detailing at the top.
The headwaiter came out to meet the gentlemen and led them up the stairs into one of the restaurant’s richly furnished front salons. Decorated in deep shades of burgundy, the room featured Wilton carpets, marble-topped tables, and ornately curved mahogany furniture. Waiting to greet the New Yorkers were their Philadelphia friends. While they made light conversation, several waiters approached with aperitifs on silver trays—cognac and wine bitters, with Madeira and sherry—designed to stimulate the appetite. Unknown to the guests, this was the first taste of a meal they would remember for a lifetime.
Soon the headwaiter directed them up the stairs into the banquet room where they would be dining. Thirty place settings of the finest china, silver, and crystal were situated around the enormous mahogany table, covered with a cloth of freshly starched white linen. A table fork and a fish fork were placed to the left side of each plate, and to the right lay a table knife, a silver fish knife, a soup spoon, and a small fork for oysters. Small individual saltcellars were above each plate on the right side.
To the left of each plate a silver stand held the bill of fare, a large booklet beautifully printed in gold and decorative colors. Mounted pieces of ornamental confectionery, statuettes, and striking flower arrangements were artfully displayed down the center of the table. The light of dozens of candelabras mixed with the glow from three gas chandeliers. Tall, exquisitely decorated cakes, meringues, and colorful confectionery were arranged on the massive carved sideboard. The long buffet held rows of wine and liquor bottles, ice buckets of champagne, and pitchers of water. These thirty men were about to experience a meal of extraordinary proportions.
By the mid-nineteenth century, restaurants were popping up by the dozens in cities throughout the United States, where demand was the highest. Both Philadelphia and New York were leaders in this restaurant revolution and developed a culinary rivalry. Upper-class residents of each city felt their metropolis had the best chefs and superior restaurants. This competitiveness was the driving force in bringing these fifteen wealthy New York gentlemen to dine at Parkinson’s.
This culinary duel began a few months earlier, when the New Yorkers wanted to show a group of Philadelphia friends just how impressive a meal could be had in their city. These two “clubs of good-livers” apparently “spent one day in every year and all their spare cash in trying to rival each other’s banquets.” To pull off this feat, they went to Delmonico’s, New York’s finest restaurant, and requested the services of its host, Lorenzo Delmonico. They told him they wanted to “astonish our Quaker City friends with the sumptuousness of our feast,” assuring him that money was no object and instructing him to do “his level best” as their honor and the honor of New York were at stake.
Lorenzo Delmonico agreed, and he treated the New Yorkers and their fifteen invited Philadelphians to a magnificent banquet at his restaurant on South William Street, much enjoyed by all. However, not to be outdone, the Philadelphia men politely invited the New Yorkers “to drop in upon them some evening and take pot-luck with them.” They then contacted their best caterer and restaurateur, James W. Parkinson, and asked him to create a similar dinner.
They set the date for April 19, which made things rather tricky for Parkinson, as it was between seasons. But Parkinson successfully rose to the challenge, creating a seventeen-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.
Parkinson’s dinner paired different rare wines and liquors with each of the courses, which included such delicacies as fresh oysters, green turtle soup, game birds, diamond-back terrapin, out-of-season fruits and vegetables, pièces montées, 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.
The meal was astonishing, unlike anything the New Yorkers had ever experienced. Three different times during the meal the New Yorkers stood in appreciation, not only to acknowledge that the Philadelphians had “conquered them triumphantly,” but also to unanimously declare that the meal “far surpassed any similar entertainment which had ever been given in this country.” This was not a light compliment. Delmonico’s set the tone for nineteenth century fine dining in New York City, and the rest of America as well.
But at the same time Delmonico’s was firmly entrenching itself as the place for elegant dining in New York, Parkinson’s was establishing a similar presence in Philadelphia. James Parkinson had a creative, innovative way with food, such as the invention of Champagne frappe à la glacé (a semi-frozen froth made with the sparkling wine) and the creation of elaborate ice cream sculptures. In addition to his fine dining establishment, he had a highly successful catering business and was nationally known for his ice cream and confectionery. It was no surprise then that this group of fifteen wealthy Philadelphians would choose Parkinson’s restaurant to host their banquet. They knew James W. Parkinson had the culinary prowess to win over their New York friends. And on a seasonable April evening in 1851, the history of American cooking would be changed forever.
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Copyright 2015, Becky Libourel Diamond