Too Pretty To Eat: Creating Faux Food For Our New Exhibition

Estate History 02/28/19

Written By Jean Sexton

With all the glamorous details for A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age, including clothing reproduced from the Vanderbilt family’s photos and portraits, the stunning array of crystal and china place settings on the Banquet Hall table, and the new custom Audio Guided Tour, you may have overlooked one of the most fascinating aspects of the exhibition: the food!

Banquet Hall table set for A Vanderbilt House Party

Biltmore House Party

“In keeping with the house party theme, we wanted the foods we featured to be visually interesting and representative of a “typical” dinner at Biltmore. We also wanted to showcase some of the Vanderbilts’ favorite foods, and some that are unfamiliar to most of our palates today,” said Lauren Henry, Associate Curator.

“We chose the dinner menu from November 12, 1904, because we have a detailed record of what was served on that date from the archival 1904 Menu Book, kept by Biltmore cook Esther Anderson.”

Biltmore House 1904 Menu Book

1904 Biltmore House Menu Book open to November 12 date

Too pretty to eat

Lauren discovered New Jersey artist Sandy Levins who researches, designs, and creates historic faux foods and room settings for museums and exhibitions. She crafts beautiful reproductions of everything edible from spices to smoked sausages using materials such as Crayola Model Magic, papier maché, plaster, antique molds, and non-toxic acrylic paints.

“Sandy’s work is not only unbelievably realistic,” noted Lauren, “but it’s also designed to be museum-safe so that it doesn’t release any harsh chemicals that might damage our collection. Each piece is a true work of art on many levels.”

To create the replica of a roast turkey—one of George Vanderbilt’s favorite dishes—Sandy Levins applied a silicone mold over a real turkey, then filled the mold with plaster. The beautifully detailed faux turkey was then painted to complete its appetizing appearance.

Latex mold opened to reveal a plaster turkey

Unpainted plaster turkey from silicone mold of a real turkey; photo by Hoag Levins

Among the dishes Sandy created for A Vanderbilt House Party is a white fish mousse that she cast in a fish-shaped copper mold, very similar to the way the real item would have been prepared during the Vanderbilt era. The mousse is displayed with star-shaped crackers and very realistic lobster claw garnishes

White fish mousse reproduction for A Vanderbilt House Party

White fish mousse with lobster claw garnish

“We’ve staged it in the dumbwaiter,” said Lauren, “as if it’s ready to go upstairs to the Banquet Hall table.”

Full-course menu

Because Lauren wanted to show some of the dinner courses in different stages of completion, the Main Kitchen features a raw beef tongue on a butcher’s block.

“While the beef tongue would have been cooked before it was served, Sandy did a spectacular job on the raw version and that helps us show how much work went into a grand dinner party,” said Lauren. “Everything had to be made from scratch, and much of the food served at Biltmore during the Vanderbilt era came from farms on the estate—a tradition we continue today in our restaurants.”

Another delicacy of that day and time was braised calves’ brains served on toast rounds; you’ll also find that dish in the Main Kitchen.

Charlotte Rousse dessert in Pastry Kitchen at Biltmore

Charlotte Russe embellished with a ribbon

According to Lauren, other faux food highlights include a stunning Bavarian cream Charlotte Russe dessert in the Pastry Kitchen and two 20-pound roast turkeys.

“The turkey in the Rotisserie Kitchen is missing a leg,” notes Lauren. “You’ll find out who the culprit is by listening to our new audio tour!”

Mannequins of chef and assistant in Main Kitchen of Biltmore House

Main Kitchen scene featuring a variety of foods, including roast turkey

Plan your visit today

Experience A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age, now through May 27, 2019. Receive the custom Exhibition Audio Guided Tour FREE with your valid Biltmore Annual Pass or when you purchase estate admission tickets online.

Featured blog image: Recreations of Biltmore House staff clothing and food in the Main Kitchen

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