Cuisine of the Gilded Age

Eating Well Is the Best Revenge

By: - Dec 04, 2023

The Gilded Age Cookbook:
Recipes and Stories from America’s Golen Age: 1868-1900

By Becky Libourel Diamond
Photograophy by Heather Raub
Food styling by Dan Macy
Forward by Chef Walter Staib
242 Pages illustrated
Globe Pequot, Essex, Connecticut,
Copyright, 2023

What is it about the filthy rich that intrigue Americans?

F. Scott Fitzgerald is supposed to have said once to Ernest Hemingway, 'You know, the rich are different from you and me.' Hemingway allegedly replied, 'Yes. They've got more money

For five seasons audiences lapped up Downton Abbey on PBS.

When that well ran dry in ever more forced seasons and arid episodes Julian Fellowes moved the franchise across the pond. Now HBO is paying the bills for a lavish production in a lesser prequel The Gilded Age during the Golden Age of Old New York.

With mordant wit Mark Twain dubbed it the Gilded Age as it lacked the karats and luster and was more fools gold then Au with an atomic number of 79.

Henry James and Edith Wharton wrote about social privilege as insiders. Her last unfinished novel The Buccaneers (1938) chronicled the extravagant efforts of rich American families to marry their daughters to impoverished but titled aristocrats.

The party ended in 1909, when Republican president Teddy Roosevelt argued in favor of income and inheritance taxes, as they would promote, “equality of opportunity.”  The programs required a constitutional amendment, and by 1913, 88% of states agreed that it was time to tax the income of its citizens. But not all its citizens — instead the income tax burden fell solely on couples who made over $4,000 (in today’s terms, around $88,000). If you made less, you paid nothing. And the more you made, the more you paid.

The mansions of New York were razed for expansion and those in Newport and other wealthy communities devolved into neglect. A handful survived as elite private schools. In the recent decades, however, there is a new generation of oligarchs. In upscale regions fine homes have been replaced by McMansions.

An all star cast presents the salamanders of white privilege and greed. We are left to decide who is more contemptible, the old money or nouveau riche social climbers with wealth to leverage their way into social position. They are all so smarmy and outré  that,  at times, the drama and dialogue evokes an alligator farm.

The action plays out in mansions that face each other in a fashionable neighborhood. The Russels George (Morgan Spector) and Bertha (Carrie Coon) reside in an ersatz Stanford White, neo classical structure that’s cold as ice featuring a grand entrance and staircase, expansive dining room, and grand ball room. She is anxious to fill it with the 400 gleaned from a fictive list of the upper upper class. It was alleged to be all those invited to the soirees of Mrs. Astor on any given year.

Despite vast wealth the Russels are not on the list. They are rejected as the shallow social climbers which in fact they are. Mrs. Astor sees to it that they do not get a box at the Academy opera. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Russell counters by supporting an emerging company, The Metropolitan Opera.

She schemes to open the season, head to head, on the same night as her rival. With a Duke in tow she will preside over the central box. Or will she? There’s a tussle over that.

The current season is staged as The Opera War. Guess who wins?

Facing off from the Russell mansion is a somewhat more traditional and less flamboyant one. It is the home of a snippity widow, Agnes van Rhijn, played with a pinched, smelling-a-turd expression by the ever grating and socially correct Christine Baranski. Her spinster companion is Cynthia Nixon, now matronly as her sister Ada Brook. Their niece a young woman lacking prospects other than beauty and talent is Marian (Louisa Jacobson).

Much as I deplore the premise, plot and characters of The Gilded Age, it’s worth watching for the dresses, décor and decorum. On ever occasion, from a formal dinner to a stroll in Central Park, they are dressed to excess.

If the costumes are a feast for the eyes you will drool over how they dine. For the filthy rich eating well is the best revenge.

The high point of the Newport social season is a sit down dinner for 60 hosted by the Russells. The guest of honor is a British Duke. It matters what he is and not who he is. Bertha has snagged him from the clutches of her former lady’s maid who on her night out managed to snag a dottering old sugar daddy.

There is a vendetta between the women when it is revealed that the maid slept with Mr. Russell. It’s more complicated but he is guilty of not revealing the misadventure to his wife.

Mr. Russell’s defense to his outraged wife follows along the line of “I did not have sex with that woman Monica Lewinski.” Yeah, right.

Based on her marital status the other woman is invited to the gala but kept far away from the Duke. For the grand occasion Mrs. Russell has taken on extra staff for kitchen and dining room. Her rival uses this as a chance to plan spoilers. A cook to ruin a sauce and servant to foul the soup.

There is brilliant spectacle when 60 liveried footmen, one for each guest, swoop in to serve. That’s dining in the grand manner.

The plotters are revealed and the dinner goes off without a hitch.

What a grand feast it is. Becky Lobourel Diamond’s pithy Gilded Age Cookbook is a delightful companion to the HBO series. It takes us behind the scenes and into the kitchen for the grand cuisine of  Delmonico’s and the mansions.

To be sure the best chefs are French. It seems, however, that they are hard to come by. It is amusing when Diamond reveals that families had to resort to Irish maids.

Though signs in Boston revealed that “Irish need not apply” that domestic labor was abundant and cheap. But the maids lacked culinary skills. Serving under a chef, hopefully, they acquired some.

The richly illustrated book shows how to dine like a robber baron. If you can find the chef and staff.

The chapters are: Culinary Innovations, Outdoor Eats, Dining Out, By Invitation and Holidays. Now that we are in the season you might pay particular attention to the final chapter.

Some of the holiday recipes include: Plum Pudding, Sugar Plums and Twelfth Night Cake with Royal Icing.

There are vintage takes on Roast Turkey, Chicken Croquettes, Lobster Salad, Rabbit Hunter Style, and Crown Roast of Lamb with Mint Sauce.

We are told how to prepare a proper picnic basket for a cruise on a yacht. Or finger sandwiches for an afternoon tea.

With a bit of time and patience we can all aspire to the Gilded Age in our own way. With flair and fantasy we can live the lifestyle of the rich and famous on a budget.

When my foodie friends get their mitts on this book we will start to see these culinary gems popping up on Facebook.

As Julia would say Bon Appétit.