One of the most iconic images for conspicuous consumption has to be the 1903 Dinner on Horseback given at Sherry’s Restaurant in NYC by new Equestrian Club president, CKG Billings for 36 members of the club. Each new president was to outdo the one before with their parties, and Billings topped them all.
I had always been curious about what they were eating at the Dinner on Horseback but had never seen the menu!
Enter David Solmonson who runs a great blog called 12 Bottle Bar. It is the only drink blog I read regularly because it’s full of history and humor and he is a great storyteller… he also mixes great drinks! We hit it off and started corresponding about our mutual interests and came up with the idea of complementary posts -- David suggested a sports theme. I proposed Billings’ Dinner on Horseback (giving me an excuse to find the menu). This was our first (and hopefully not our last) effort. Honestly, I thought it was going to be a breeze to do yet the same sketchy details were repeated again and again…but no menu (more on that later). David gets to choose next time!
What do we know? For the dinner, Sherry’s Rococo ballroom was transformed from this…
to a horse drive-in! The New Zealand Newspaper, The Star , called the event “a costly freak” and reported “The 36 guests were booted and spurred and wore riding coats. A bed of roses was laid as a centre-piece in the open court of the establishment, and a broad border of greensward garnished the bed of roses.” “On white satin saddlecloths, bearing the monogram of The Equestrian Club, specially upholstered saddles rested. The trappings and the bridles were of heavy gold cord. There were individual tables for the guests 2 feet square, and fastened securely to the saddle.” “A groom stood at the head of each horse to remind him of his table manners”.
Former NYT’s restaurant reviewer, William Grimes, in his book Appetite City ( a magnificent book, by the way) wrote about the event:
“Billings guests gathered in a small banquet room, where, a stuffed horse making up the centerpiece, they enjoyed oysters and caviar. Unsuspecting, they were then led to a larger dining room, where the evening’s equestrian theme unfolded in full splendor. The room had been transformed into an English country estate, with imitation grass on the floor and burbling brooks flowing through lush meadows. Vine covered cottages struck a picturesque note.”
Word was the event set Billings back $50,000…. a drop in the bucket for Billings who had just paid $200,000 for his new, state-of-the-art stable that was to be christened by a luncheon at the stable following the famous dinner. He spent nearly $200,000 a year to keep his horses at his many stables (Madison Avenue, Lake Geneva, Chicago, Memphis and Cleveland in addition to expenditures for a famous yacht and a garage full of his new passion—cars!).
It was said a riot of press caused the event to be moved, secretly, from the stable to Sherry’s (the NYT’s article reports a luncheon did take place in the stable following the dinner at Sherry’s). The reason for the confusion was that Louis Sherry was having food deliveries made and had service staff arriving Saturday to fool the press so they would stay away from the restaurant on Saturday night! It turns out Billings was a very private person and abhorred publicity… who would have imagined??
There is also contradictory reporting as to whether the dining horses belonged to Billings or had been taken from a riding academy as the NYT’s wrote (one report had his horses, with hooves in cloth bags for stealth, being taken to Sherry’s under cover of night, another version had them running like mad downtown to tire them so they wouldn’t fuss—but who would want smelly, over-heated horses as dinner companions??).
As noted in the article above, the stables were built with well-appointed personal apartments (lined in Flemish oak) above the horse accommodations so Billings and could spend time there comfortably and not have to troop all the way downtown to his 27-room apartment on 5th Avenue and 53rd Street (for which he paid a staggering $25,000 a year!!!) to relax after playing with his horses. After all, he built the stables so he could be closer to the Harlem Raceway at the top of Manhattan (used for amateurs to run their horses). The palatial house came 4 years later.
CKG Billings (1861-1937) with his famous horse, Lou Dillon in 1903, photo from Billing’s private issue book
Who was Billings??? He was a Saratoga born millionaire who grew up in Chicago. His father made his money from his stake in Peoples Gas Light and Coke Company and was also a racing buff. CKG inherited a truckload of money and doubled his inheritance by 1905 by investing wisely and used his money to indulge his passion for horses. He retired from business at 40 but wrote “capitalist at large” as his occupation on his tax return in 1910 said the NYT .
The only picture of Billing's face I could find. NYT article June 25, 1905
In his lifetime he was called the “Grand Marshal” of matinee racing (what we now call harness racing) and owned many champion horses like Lou Dillon…he was very good at his hobby. There is still a harness race named after him, The CKG Billings Amateur Driving Series.
Tryon House around 196th Street in Manhattan—26 servants to take care of 4 people
In addition to the stables, he built a magnificent $2 million (that would be 40-plus million today) house called Tryon Hall in 1907 at the northern end of Manhattan (with a commanding view of all of New York City) that he sold with his surrounding land holdings to Rockefeller when he moved to Santa Barbara in 1917 (for $35,000 an acre). His land was turned into Ft Tryon Park in 1935. Rockefeller wanted to tear the house down but neighbors and design professionals rioted at the idea so it was allowed to remain and was rented out. Rockefeller got his wish when the house was leveled by fire in 1926 (reports had it that the turret ''spouted fire and smoke like a volcano” and the NYT’s said hundreds of thousands watched it burn
Tryon Hall Arch and Driveway from Washington Heights, Inwood and Marble Hill by James Renner
There are vestiges of his estate still there… the gatehouse, his $250,000 chamfered-brick driveway and those wonderful arches that you can still see from the Henry Hudson Parkway. A NYT's article from 1917 said that the brilliantly engineered driveway (he wasn’t satisfied with the easy entrance from Ft. Washington Avenue and wanted a Riverside Drive entrance for his four-in-hand carriage) had a singular and simple inspiration. When deciding how best to get up the hill to his house, a neighbor recommended sending a cow up the hill, “… she would soon trace out the easiest and best way to the top of the hill…” “The advice was followed, and the road built at a large cost on the path which the cow followed. "
But there was no information to be found on Billings’ menus at his house or the famous Sherry’s Dinner on Horseback menu -- he was notoriously shy of the spotlight and tightlipped with the society press (when his daughter got married they did release the details of her fabulous lace dress and that of her mother but that was it). No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find a menu from the event. Strange, right? The dinner was one of the most famous dinners of the 20th century and no menus extant to commemorate the event??? Go figure.
I went through a stack of Sherry’s menus from the New York Public Library’s collection (they saved everything but the “Dinner on Horseback” menu for gosh sake –from one for the Gas Light Association to one for a dinner for the Hardware and Metal Trades) and found nothing. I even contacted a Billing’s relative and someone who owns one of Billing’s houses in California… I was obsessed but came up short. Then my brilliant partner in this endeavor, David Solmonson, found the lost treasure in a 40-year old racing book, Their Turf. The book’s author, one Bernard Livingston, found the order for the dinner in the Louis Sherry Co. archive!!! The real menus were done in sterling silver in the shape of a horseshoe and that is probably why they weren’t in menu collections. Guests also got solid gold matchboxes and gold-initialed leather cigar cases to commemorate the event.
There were lovely things on the menu – lamb, guinea hen and flaming peaches but I decided on Truite au Bleu the minute I saw it. It was and is a dish to impress. I knew about truite au bleu because the food goddess, MFK Fisher, told the tale of this dish in The Gastronomical Me. Many years later I still remember her portrayal of the apparently hapless waitress who turned out to be a food sorceress in disguise. She had MFK completely in her thrall by the end of the lunch and this dish was one of the reasons. Here the waitress sells the dish to MFK:
“Any trout is glad, truly glad, to be prepared by Monsieur Paul. His little gills are pinched, with one flash of the knife he is empty, and then he curls in agony in the bouillon and all is over. And it is the curl you must judge, Madame. A false truite au bleu cannot curl.”
And for the sauce vert??
“Ah, she sighed at last… isn’t it the most beautiful sauce in the world with the flesh of the trout?”
“She wore the exalted look of a believer describing a miracle at Lourdes as she told me, in a rush, how Monsieur Paul threw chopped chives in to hot sweet butter and then poured the butter off, how he added another nut of butter and a tablespoonful of thick cream for each person, stirred the mixture for a few minutes over a slow fire and then rushed it to the table…
So simple, Madame! But she shrugged, you know with a master ---“
I imagine the crowd at the Dinner on Horseback felt the same way... it is spectacularly good.
I imagine the crowd at the Dinner on Horseback felt the same way... it is spectacularly good.
My sauce verte is a wee bit more complicated but ever so delicious. There is something about the green flavor and the sweet flesh of the trout that is like spring. Watercress grows next to trout streams and they are delicious together. If you want to simplify the choices for the sauce… I would say watercress and tarragon with parsley would do you well. Oh, yes, I didn’t scrub my trout (I read that was the secret) and it did turn a lovely violet blue—that’s not photoshop! I put them in a large saucepan and pushed them against the sides of the pan to mimic the curl of the true truite au bleu… mine was fresh but not alive just before I cooked it. It needs to be just-killed to curl naturally. Don’t cook it too much or it will not come out of the pan in one piece!
Potatoes are a classic accompaniment with this dish… and, well, I love purple with green!
Truite au Bleu
2 very fresh small trout (I got mine butterflied from Whole Foods)
1 quart court bouillon*
¼ c white wine vinegar
Few sprigs tarragon
Few sprigs basil
small handful chervil
4-5 sprigs of parsley
4-5 sprigs watercress
1 shallot, chopped
½ c white wine
2 Tb. White wine vinegar or verjus (the verjus is especially lovely with this if you have it)
4 Tb butter
2 T heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
extra herbs for garnish
boiled potatoes, sliced
Warm up the court bouillon and vinegar and poach the fish on medium boil, covered for 5-10 minutes (depending on size of trout and whether it was boned or not).
While that is cooking, Sauté the shallot in 1 T butter. Add the white wine and vinegar and reduce a little. Roughly chop the herbs (it’s around 1-1 ½ cups) and throw them into the pan with a little salt to wilt. Put the herbs and a little of the liquid in a blender with the remaining butter and the cream. Add some of the liquid to get a good consistency. Strain this through a fine strainer and add more liquid if necessary and check for seasoning. Put aside and keep warm.
Put some of the sauce on the plates. Add the trout and potatoes and sprinkle with herbs.
1 small carrot
1 small leek or onion
2 cups white wine
1 stalk celery
2 sprigs parsley
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
Chop the herbs and vegetables and add wine and 6 cups water Simmer for 30 minutes.
When you are done cooking the fish with it, freeze it and use it again… it just gets better. Add a little more wine and water when you use it again.
Bouchées Montglas were on many of the Sherry’s party menus that I found and they piqued my interest. They are little puff pastry shells stuffed with chicken or duck liver, tongue or ham and mushrooms bound together with a rich, creamy meat reduction—a rough paté. My recipe is a combination of many that I found… there was a lot of variety and no one iconic recipe. It’s a savory bite you could wash down with saddle-straw sips of good champagne… like an 1898 Krug!
10 small patty shells either pre-made or cut from puff pastry
You can make the puff pastry from scratch using my recipe HERE or buy them. Cut them into the appropriate bite-size or remove the patty shells. Bake 10 minutes at 425º covered with a piece of parchment paper. Turn oven down to 375º, remove the paper and cook for another 7-10 minutes. Turn the oven off and crack the door open and leave for a few minutes.
1 small shallot, chopped fine
½ c roughly chopped mushrooms
2 tb chopped leek
3 T butter (truffle butter would be great)
½ c smoked tongue or ham, chopped to a small dice
½ c chopped raw chicken or duck liver
1 T Madeira
1 t worchestershire sauce
½ t mustard
2 t chopped marjoram or thyme
s & p to taste
2-3 T cream
truffle oil to taste
Sauté the shallot, leek and mushroom in the butter until softened. Remove. Saute the tongue/ham on a low heat and remove.
Saute the liver until cooked through. Add the Madeira, mustard, worchestershire sauce, herb and stir. Add the cream and demiglace. Put liver in a blender of food processor for a few moments to make a liver mousse or leave as is for a rougher (and more authentic) texture.
Remove and add the cooked tongue/ham and mushroom mixture and taste for seasonings and add the truffle oil. Spoon into shells and top with herbs and slivers of the green of the leek. Serve warm or cold.