In The New England Antiques Journal, Duncan A McKee wrote: “The number of articles that appeared on a properly set Victorian dinner table seems truly intimidating today. For the dinner hostess of the period, each piece of silver, china and stemware had its chosen place. In many cases, it was not unusual for as many as 24 pieces of silver to be at each place setting. As many as eight forks might be laid out, ranging from a fish fork and dinner fork to an ice cream fork. Knives could add up to eight more pieces for butter, cheese, game, roast, and fruit, all accompanied by individual knife rests. All the stemware that would be needed through the meal was placed on the table beforehand, arranged in two rows: a water glass, a glass for chambertin, a glass for latour, champagne, a green glass for sauterne, a sherry glass, and a red glass for Rhine wine. An unbuttered slice of bread rested on a napkin to the left of the plate with an individual salt close by. In the center of the table stood a sophisticated centerpiece.”
When reading up on Tiffany silver I found a surprising intersection of my interests in the giant character of J.W. Mackay. When I researched an article on food at the NY Players Club a few years ago (I’ve shared some of this with you on a few other posts and it was the genesis of this blog), the name came up in a great anecdote from club history.
J.W. MackayJohn William Mackay made his fortune with the Comstock Lode silver strike in 1873 near Virginia City, Nevada (partnered with William Randolph Hearst’s father, George) and became wealthier still after the mine dried up with his Commercial Cable Company. His Players’ Club friends (he had lived in NYC as a young man) decided against an opulent spread when they honored him at a dinner in 1893. Instead, they instructed the kitchen to produce a miner’s menu of a hearty soup, raw oysters and corned beef and cabbage -- much to the delight of Mr. Mackay. This simple meal brought back memories of his adventurous youth in the wild west of Virginia City as only food can do. Mark Twain arrived around midnight to join his old friend from his Roughing It days days and they swapped tall-tales till dawn while enjoying the humble but hugely evocative repast.
The truth is, Mr. Mackay did have opulent tastes and stands like a colossus in the world of silver for more than one reason.
Mr. Mackay, was called the “Silver King” or the “Bonanza King”. According to legend, when his wife, Marie Louise Hungerford Mackay, visited the mine, she decided to have a half a ton of silver shipped to Tiffany's with instructions to make an elaborate dinner service. “There, reportedly, two hundred craftsmen worked exclusively on the service for two years; a total of over one million man hours. When complete, Mr. Mackay purchased the dies so that the service could never be duplicated. The service was delivered to the Mackays in Paris” (where they had moved when NY society snubbed the shanty Irish parvenus), “accompanied by a silver clasped leather bound album of photographs and fitted in nine walnut and mahogany chests, each mounted with a silver plaque detailing its contents.”
Tiffany's silver exhibit at the 1878 Exposition Universelle (that saw Bell's telephone, Edison's phonograph, electric arc lights as well as beginnings of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower) in Paris included the spectacular Mackay dinner-and-dessert service for 24, one of the most elaborate silver table services ever produced, consisting of 1,223 pieces of which 305 were holloware items. Edward C. Moore of Tiffanys designed the pattern of flower-encrusted Persian and Indian motifs, with thistles, shamrocks, and American flowers. Nearly 100 years later, in 1990, the famous punch bowl from the set sold at Christies for $225,000. It had elephant trunks and tusks making up the feet and a Chinese dragon etched on the interior.
Many pieces are housed at the Keck Museum at the University of Nevada (Mackay endowed the Mackey School of Mines there). Much of the story of the Mackay silver and the photographs came from their website.
Melon en Nougat, Inspired by Queen Victoria’s Chef Francatelli
4 egg whites
pinch cream of tartar
½ c + 4T sugar
3 T port (it is really best to use a little of the good vintage port, the flavor is much richer)
2 c heavy cream, whipped( I use Milk Thistle Farm cream, the best ever!)
small Charentais melon or cantaloupe
2 pinches of black pepper & allspice
Mint for garnish
2 T ground almonds + 2 T toasted almonds for garnish
Take 4 T sugar and heat to caramel, remove from heat and slowly add warmed port and pepper. If caramel seizes, gently reheat to liquify(this is great stuff, you may want to double the recipe!). Toss 1/2 of the melon cubed in the syrup and allow to mellow.
Take 1/2c sugar and 2 T water and cook 4 minutes or till 238º.
Beat the egg whites with 1 tsp sugar. Mix in hot syrup. Fold in drained melon, add cream and powdered almonds and refrigerate.
Cook rest of melon, sliced thinly and decoratively, with a pinch of pepper and allspice for a few moments over a low heat.
Combine port syrup and cooked fruit. Spoon the nougat on a plate and surround with fruit and syrup, garnish with mint and toasted almonds if you like. You can also freeze this lightly for an unusual ice cream!
The nougat is an old-fashioned treat, encasing velvety melon in this incarnation. Imagine using those melon knives to slice the melon with stately, silver grace, But remember, as Eliza Leslie advised in 1864, avoid “all discussions of sicknesses, sores, surgical operations, dreadful accidents, shocking cruelties or horrible controversies” while dining… then as now, excellent advice.
Mackay’s 36” high candelabra, one of a pair with 29 candles by Tiffany
Mackay’s Silver Tureen by Tiffany
Honestly, wouldn’t any meal be extraordinary with this fabulous silver service? As long as you didn’t have to polish it!