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Updating the Vanderbilts’ 1904 Thanksgiving menu

Posted on 11/18/2013 by Judy Ross

Thanksgiving is a food-focused holiday; a tradition as true today as it was in 1904 when George and Edith Vanderbilt celebrated the day with a multi-course dinner.

In the Biltmore Archives, a handwritten menu for Thanksgiving Dinner 1904 includes time-honored favorites like turkey, ham, and sweet potatoes, plus more unusual offerings. Cutlets of calves’ brains, anyone? 

Knowing that tastes have changed in the last century, we asked Biltmore's experts to look at the 1904 menu and suggest updates for 2013 celebrations. To see the recipes, just click on the links below.

First of all, the original menu topped out at eight courses. "While it seems like a lot of food, the portions were fairly small,” said Leslie Klingner, Curator of Interpretation. "It was also common for a formal dinner of the era to last two hours or more."

David Ryba, Hotel Chef for the Inn on Biltmore Estate, notes the emphasis on meat on the Vanderbilts’ menu—both roast turkey and Virginia ham were served (in addition to the previously noted calves’ brains). "While turkey is the main feature at Thanksgiving, we give more attention to the accompanying dishes," he said.

Smoked oysters and boiled shrimpThe 1904 celebration began with oysters on the half shell, followed by “Consomme Royal” and broiled Spanish mackerel. Our modern take continues the seafood theme with an appetizer of lemon- and olive oil-marinated smoked oysters and boiled shrimp with Louisiana seasonings—especially nice since you can make it a day in advance!

We know from archival information that George Vanderbilt loved roast turkey and it was frequently served at Biltmore. Chef Ryba recommends brining your bird for the ultimate moist, tender turkey. 

Cranberry jelly and a medley of vegetables appear on the 1904 menu. Chef Ryba’s modernized dinner brings brighter flavors to the meal with two styles of cranberry sauce--one spiced with red wine and one with sophisticated flavors--alongside green beans elevated with brown butter, pancetta, and hazelnuts.

Cake was one of Edith Vanderbilt’s favorite desserts, so the inclusion of pineapple cake (along with mince pie) on the 1904 menu is not surprising. Our updated interpretation of classic holiday flavors presents pumpkin and pecan layer cake with cream cheese frosting—a great combination to end your holiday meal in style!

Whether your Thanksgiving table is laden with tried-and-true classics or modern new dishes, we hope your holiday is filled with fellowship and good memories.

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