The tradition of lavish, super-indulgent dinners in America, says Becky Libourel Diamond, author of the soon-to-be-published book The Thousand Dollar Dinner, comes from the fact that our country has always been known as the Land of Opportunity for Pursuers of Happiness.
Pass the champagne and caviar.
"Expensive dinners became a way for the upper class to show off their wealth and status in society," Diamond says. "An opulent dinner is more than just a meal; it is an experience. In the 19th century, presentation and entertainment were key factors in pulling off a successful fine-dining event."
And so we look back on four of those fine — well, at least, phantasmagoric — dining extravaganzas. As you will see, often the focus was on the fripperies and fineries as much as on the food.
1) The $1,000 Dinner, 1851. The affluent affair, explains Diamond — who explores the experience in her book — "had its origins as a culinary competition that took place every year between two 'clubs of good-livers' ... one from New York and one from Philadelphia." The two groups — with 15 men in each — staged one home-court banquet in each city. The goal: serve the most majestic and memorable dishes. It was a case of one-supmanship.
Early in the year, the gaggle of gourmands dined at the renowned Delmonico's Restaurant in New York. Then in the spring, they agreed on a rematch at James W. Parkinson's dining establishment in Philadelphia.
"They settled the date for April 19," Diamond tells NPR, "which made things rather tricky for Parkinson, as it was between seasons." One New York participant observed that the timing of the meal "took the caterer greatly at a disadvantage as to both game and vegetables. He could only obtain what he did by special use of both telegraph and express," Diamond says. "But Parkinson successfully rose to the challenge, creating a 17-course feast famously referred to by Philadelphia newspapers as the 'Thousand Dollar Dinner' — since it reputedly cost the Philadelphians $1,000, an enormous sum."
The dinner stretched on for 12 hours — from 6 p.m. on April 19 until 6 a.m. on April 20. "According to New York guest R. B. Valentine," Diamond says, "the New Yorkers stood up three different times during the meal 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.' "
The menu, Diamond adds, included turtle — which the eatery was famous for — and, according to Valentine, "a luxurious, rejuvenating sorbet Parkinson created specifically for the dinner using an extremely rare and expensive Hungarian Tokaji wine that was served during the coup du milieu, or midpoint of the meal." The pause refreshed the diners and enabled them to eat on and on.
2) The $5,000 Dinner, 1876. On Thanksgiving Day, 1876, the Reading, Pa., Times reported — a couple of weeks after the event — a wealthy man sent a holiday turkey to his daughter and her husband. Inside the bird, the generous father had stuffed a leather wallet containing a certificate for 100 shares of Consolidated Virginia mining stock — worth about $5,000. The old man forgot to jot down the number of the certificate, and all the stuffing and natural juices of the cooked bird "reduced the crisp certificate to boiled pulp." When the turkey was carved and served, the man's daughter said, "It tastes a little leathery."
3) The $10,000 Dinner, 1873. A rich German businessman threw a private get-together in February of 1873, again at Delmonico's. He secured the restaurant's banquet hall — famous for hosting British author Charles Dickens and Irish physicist John Tyndall — and invited some 74 guests. "For nearly a week, the employees of Delmonico were engaged in preparing the table," according to the Reading, Pa., Times of Mar. 17, 1873, and other reports of the day. The made-to-order table was 24 feet wide, with a pond full of swans in the center. The flowers cost $3,000. "Perfume fountains" were placed here and there. A 35-piece band provided music.
"The dinner commenced at 8 p.m. and continued for a couple of hours, after which dancing took place until after midnight, when the dinner, or supper as it was then called, was resumed for an hour or two, followed by dancing until four o'clock in the morning," the paper reported. "The bill for this dinner amounted to just $10,000."
4) The $20,000 Dinner, 1865. The facts surrounding this fantastic feast are suspect. Suffice it to say that the meal, hosted by Morton Peto, was extremely expensive and contained the stuff of which legends are made. An English businessman, Peto arranged the dinner — once more at Delmonico's in New York. He invited prominent Americans and scores of tea and coffee merchants.
One report — from the Norfolk, Va., Post of Nov. 2, 1865 — noted that some 500 men were invited, along with 20 women.
An 1876 profile of the Delmonico family — in the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette — reported that the Peto dinner fed 200 people and cost $15,000.
A New York Sun story — reprinted in the Decatur, Ill., Herald on Oct. 13, 1901 — said the mythic dinner cost a total of $25,000. "The rarest wines and the most elaborate decorations were mere incidents. The menu cards were of gold and the guests sat on silk cushions on which their names were embroidered," the Sun observed. Prima donna "Clara Louise Kellogg received $1,000 for singing two songs at this feast and a present besides of a diamond bracelet. The hall was smothered with flowers."