Original Waldorf-Astoria on 33rd Street
One of the great bashes of the 19th century, the Bradley-Martin Ball set the opulent tone for the Waldorf-Astoria in 1897 –– the best of everything. Pretty much all of Gilded Age society poured through the Waldorf’s doors and sashayed down its famed “Peacock Alley” (a gorgeous, 300-foot-long marble hall that ran between The Palm and The Empire Room where the rich would parade in their finery to see and be seen).
Peacock Alley in old Waldorf-Astoria
Fin de Siécle society enjoying Peacock Alley
1898 Worth Gown
The Waldorf before the Astoria addition
John Jacob Astor (1864-1912) William Waldorf Astor (1848-1919)
The hotel was named after the Astor family’s hometown, Walldorf, Germany and built by Astors on Astor land (William Astor built the Waldorf and John Jacob Astor built the Astoria). In fact, one of the Astor family houses was demolished to build the luxury hotel –– way out up on 33rd Street and 5th Avenue. But The Waldorf may never have happened if luck and a generous heart hadn't intervened.
George Boldt (1851-1916)
George Boldt became the proprietor of the Waldorf thanks to a good deed. A relative of the Astors took a sick child for a cure at the Jersey Shore. Although there were no rooms at Boldt’s small hotel, Mr. and Mrs. Boldt gave up their own rooms for the family and the child recovered. You could say the Waldorf Astoria was born from a generous act. Boldt was introduced to the Astor brothers by the grateful parents and his reputation for excellence did the rest. Within no time the deal was struck, the hotel was built and leased by Boldt from the Astors.
I read all about the hotel in a charming short version of Edward Hungerford’a 1925 book, The Story of the Waldorf Astoria. Would you believe that it was a huge gamble to open the Waldorf? In 1893, New York business and social activity was much further downtown so many wondered who would want to stay so far away from the action in a residential neighborhood (in an upper-class neighborhood that wasn’t amused with a giant hotel in their midst)? It was doomed to fail they said.
At first it seemed the naysayers were right, on its first day in 1893, the hotel had 32 guests. That summer The Waldorf had 40 guests with 970 servants on the payroll. So many bad ideas! Because of the odd choice of location, full electrification, not to mention the bold extravagance of installing bathrooms and a phones in most of the rooms –– the hotel was called Boldt’s or Astor’s Folly. The laughing stopped when the Winter season rolled around and the hotel filled up, the Waldorf-Astoria made $4.5 million its first year – an enormous amount for the time. People liked the lavish modern amenities that had been laughed at. Pretty soon all hotels were built with them. Success came without advertising –– Boldt promoted his new hotel by showing off its quality to people of quality.
Dancing at the Waldorf, Soulen (1896)
Boldt was one of the first hoteliers to subscribe to the customer is always right policy. The rich liked it, a lot. Since Boldt tried to have the best of everything in his hotel, I imagine they didn’t have to bow down terribly often.
Henry IV drawing room
The rooms were fairly spectacular at the Waldorf but the Astoria addition was over the top. It seems Mr. Boldt had hit it out of the park with his hotels –– his crazy idea turned out to be brilliant. Not only did NYC move uptown with lightning speed, New Yorkers were moving out of town into giant estates and wanted an urban haven for the city side of their lives. Hungerford reflected, “ Sharp observers of our social customs began to perceive a definite tendency on the part of well-to-do folk to make their real homes in the country, coming to New York for but three or four or possibly five or six months in the winter…. Gradually it was to become slightly less a hotel for the mere feeding and housing of travelers and considerably more a semi-public institution designed for furnishing the prosperous residents of the New York metropolitan district with all the luxuries of urban life.”
The hotel was beautiful, the service perfection –– so what about the food?
Boldt was a perfectionist in all things. “In no department of the hotel – not even the office – did Boldt show a keener interest than in the cuisine. Here his stickling for detail became almost a passion.”
To that end, he made sure all the waiters could speak French, German and English. He once said, “I intend to have my force so selected that a man from Berlin or Paris can come to the Waldorf fresh from the steamer and have his orders perfectly understood.”
Oscar Tschirky (1866-1950)
To accomplish this perfection of service he wooed Oscar Tschirky away from Delmonicos to come to the Waldorf as the maître d'hôtel. He stayed there for decades and became know as Oscar of the Waldorf. He was famous for inventing Waldorf salad, veal Oscar, Thousand Island dressing and Eggs Benedict (for that alone he should be canonized). His Oscar of the Waldorf's Cook Book is jam packed with lovely recipes.
The dinner for Prince Henry 1902
Waldorf Ballroom set up for Prince Henry
According to a book devoted to Prince Henry’s visit to the United States, “The banquet was held amid a perfect wilderness of flowers and greens, and no small part of the decorations was the brilliant assemblage of women in the balconies. The decorations of the banquet halls, for there were several of them, were declared to be the most brilliant ever seen in New York….
“The guest table was literally piled with American Beauty roses. They were in heaps a foot high, and at intervals enormous sheaves stood four or five feet high…. The boutonniere at his plate was of white orchids and hyacinths while all the others were white roses. At the guest table the service was of gilded Dresden china, and the cut glass was traced in gold.”
Lamm Dresden china of the period
Baccarat glasses of the period
Silk Menu for the Dinner for Prince Henry
There was a lovely silk menu that announced the dishes for the dinner. It began with oysters that were followed by clear green Turtle soup. Next was a Mousse of Ham-Venetian Style was followed by Terrapin–Philadelphia style, then Sweetbreads-New Century, Breast of Chicken Financier, and new peas sauté. Sherbet Admiral came as a palate cleanser before the canvas back duck with lettuce salad and the meal finished with fancy ices and cakes. The book described these beautifully, “The punch was served with souvenirs in the shape of small plaster bust of the Prince, but the serving of the ices evoked that greatest enthusiasm. The army of waiters filed in with miniatures of the German Emperor, Prince Henry, President Roosevelt, that latter both in civilian attire and as a Rough Rider: Liberty, Columbia, Germania, crowns and mitres, and many huge German coats of arms –– all done in Ices.”
I’ve done a duck financier for you and canvas back duck is a lost delicacy (the wild celery that made it famous isn't around much anymore). I’ll never do Turtle soup because, well, I’m terribly fond of turtles. I've made wonderful sweetbreads but what caught my eye on the menu was the mousse of ham. I am very partial to ham dishes and always love to find ways to use left-overs creatively. I’m crazy about devilled ham but this intrigued me. I looked at Oscar of the Waldorf's cookbook and there was no ham mousse to be found. I hit pay dirt with Escoffier. There were a few ham mousse recipes both hot and cold. Looking in my little magic book of cooking terms, Le Repertoire De La Cuisine, I discovered that something ‘Venetian’ would have a wine sauce made with tarragon vinegar, chervil, shallots and green butter (a spinach-dyed butter) –– that made me think it was a hot mousse. The Escoffier mousse that I decided on was cold, Mousse Alsacienne. To a ham mousse is added a foie-gras parfait and the whole is covered in aspic. It’s pretty easy to make and delicious with a light texture and fabulous flavor from that magic Escoffier spice mix. Even if it's not exactly what was served that night, it's a wow of a dish.
I think it will give you a taste of the Gilded Age to get you ready for the new series, and hopefully have you curious for more gilded age cuisine which will be forthcoming.
Ham Mousse Alsacienne from Escoffier
Take a deep, square dish and garnish it, half-full, with fine, ham mousse. Even the surface of this layer of mousse, and, when it has set, arrange upon it some shells, cut by means of a spoon dipped in hot water, from a foie-gras Parfait. As soon as this is done, pour over the foie-gras shells a sufficient quantity to cover them of half melted succulent chicken aspic with Madeira, and let this jelly set. When about to serve, incrust the dish in a block of ice
Ham Mousse Alsacienne (based on Escoffier's recipe)
½ pound D'Artagnan Applewood smoked ham, skin removed and roughly chopped
1/3 c velouté or meat gravy
½ c aspic (recipe follows)*
2/3 c heavy cream, whipped
½ to 1 t Escoffier spice mix (recipe follows)
salt to taste (some ham is very salty so you may not need it)
½ to 1 c D’Artagnan foie gras medallions with truffles (depending on size of your mold)
Put the ham in a food processor and process till finely chopped. Add ¼ c of the aspic, the velouté and the heavy cream with the spice mix. Process till smooth. Taste for seasoning and spread smoothly in a dish. Chill. While this is chilling, take the foie gras and put into a mold. Put into the freezer for about 20 minutes. Take the ham mousse out of the fridge. Warm the mold with your hands or a hot towel and then tap the foie gras onto parchment -- smooth any rough bits. Use a wide spatula and place on the ham mousse. Pour the remaining aspic over the mousse. It will just cover the molded foie and pool on the ham mousse. Chill until the aspic is set and serve with cornichons, mustard, green peppercorns and bread or toast.
* If you don't want to make aspic, you should add 1 T Madeira to the ham mousse. The aspic is delicious though so I do encourage the extra step.
1 cup of chicken stock
1 package of gelatin
1 egg white and shell
salt to taste
1 T Madeira
Put ¼ c stock in a pan and warm and add the gelatin. Stir till dissolved. Add the rest of the stock, the egg and the shell, stir and simmer for 15 minutes. Pour the stock and egg through 2 thicknesses of cheesecloth. DO NOT SQUEEZE. Just let the stock drip to keep it clear. Add the madeira and reserve.
1 T butter
1 T flour
1 c stock
2 mushrooms, chopped
pinch of salt to taste.
Put the butter and flour in the pan and cook for a few minutes, add the stock slowly, stirring until all the stock is added. Put the mushrooms in the veloute and simmer at very low heat for 15-20 minutes. Strain.
Escoffier Spice Mix
1 bay leaf
3 pinches thyme
3 pinches coriander
4 pinches cinnamon
6 pinches nutmeg
4 pinches cloves
3 pinches ginger
3 pinches mace
10 pinches pepper
1 pinch cayenne
Blend all in a spice grinder or mash the bay leaf and blend with the rest.