Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Alienist, Delmonico's Squab Fritters with Port Sauce

Nearly a quarter century ago, I read a New York Times book review that made me rush out and buy a book – back when you had to physically run out to buy a book at a brick-and-mortar store (Amazon had only just been born in 1994).

The book was The Alienist. I devoured it in less than 24 hours.

I re-read it a few months later after purchasing a few coffee table books on 19th century culture and design because, well, I have always been a bit of a nerd and I thought the 19th century was seriously amazing (this was the pre-Google infancy of search engines - they were sloooww and dial-up was super expensive so books were still the way to go).

Herter Bros. table for William Vanderbilt (1879-82)

Some of the books were filled with contemporary photographs and paintings. Others captured authentic museum-houses or period furniture from furniture makers like Herter Brothers (they worked on the White House for Grant and Teddy Roosevelt as well as for the Vanderbilts on 5th Avenue). All of the books helped me to better immerse myself in The Alienist’s 19th century. The more you know, the more vivid history becomes.

Sylvan Terrace, Photo Stribling and Assoc.

If you are willing to do some leg work, Manhattan today does contain pockets of the 19th century –– some small streets like Sylvan Terrace in Harlem, scattered stretches of row houses in the Village and a few commercial buildings that have escaped grotesque modernization (there are historical tours available in NYC if you are interested).

John Belter's Roccoco Revival room at the Metropolitan Museum (1850-60)

Rockefeller Dressing room decorated by George A. Schastey (Herter alum)  Metropolitan Museum

There are also whole 19th century rooms in the Metropolitan and Brooklyn Museums (however, then as now, real houses aren’t always furnished in the moment – antiques and heirlooms can dominate the style of the decoration so an elderly matron may have a living room full of 1860’s Belter furniture).

You can almost smell the scent of violets as you turn the pages (sweet ephemeral scents like violet and lilac were the rage as were the oriental musky scents like Musk (1896), Cefiro Oriental (1896) or Phul Nãnã (1891) for the more adventurous).

Gratefully, in The Alienist, the 20th century’s modernization/desecration of the city is still far in the future. It is the supremely organic ‘world before’ that Carr evokes so superbly.

                                                      Caleb Carr – then and now

Caleb Carr started out as a military historian who loved being buried in books and old maps. His background couldn’t have been a less hospitable medium for nurturing such inclinations.

  Lucian Carr
                                      Lucian Carr with Ginsberg                                           

Caleb Carr was the son of Lucian Carr, a member of the East Coast Beat Movement . He grew up with Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs as a mad trio of roiling unclets.

His father killed a man who had been stalking him in 1944 and went to jail for 2 years (a vile retelling of the story came out in a pretentious film, Kill Your Darlings, in 2013)

Lucian and Caleb Carr with Kerouac

Carr did not grow up like a normal kid in so many ways – and not just because of the infamous men in his orbit. Both his father and his father’s friends were often drunk and violent -- yet wars and battles were his favorite subjects when Caleb withdrew to his fantasy worlds. His passion for warcraft didn’t abate even as he attended a Quaker high school in Manhattan. This probably didn’t help his reputation there –– he was deemed ‘socially undesirable’ by the Quaker school advisors –– a black mark that kept him out of Harvard (he thought it was rather unfair other kids were selling hard drugs and didn’t get the bad rep he did for his bellicose leanings). He ended up going to college in the Midwest and finished at NYU. He lived in a tiny flat in the East Village for decades. From there he honed his skills writing about military history and statecraft.

He worked with James Chace, joined the staff at Foreign Affairs  and became an editor at The Quarterly Journal of Military History He also dabbled in scriptwriting before embarking on The Alienist (I got through about 15 minutes of his sci-fi film – not his finest hour). The novel drew strength from many of his passions including a fascination with serial killers that was stoked by the Son of Sam killings  in NYC in the 70’s (the alienist Kreizler’s character was formed with the help of many interviews with killer David Berkowitz’s psychiatrist, Dr. David Abrahamsen.

 Arthur Conan Doyle                                          Wilkie Collins

I would imagine Carr’s knowledge of military strategy as well as his love of Victorian detective-writing gods like Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins made him the perfect man for the job of planning a complex, 1894 mystery –– at one point the walls of an entire room were plastered in note cards for the book to keep the facts straight (you can learn more about Carr and The Alienist on a website called 17th Street).

The Alienist’s plot revolves around a serial killer who is obsessed with rent-boy prostitutes – young boys dressing as girls who mostly work out of a notorious homosexual brothel, Paresis Hall in NYC. The killer lures them, kills them and dismembers them – removing hands, genitalia and their eyes – he cuts out their eyes and keeps them.

Paresis boys 1893

Still of a ‘molly’ at Paresis Hall from The Alienist

Biff Ellison who ran Paresis Hall (among other things….)

Three old Harvard friends, John Schuyler Moore, Alienist Lazlo Kreizler and Theodore Roosevelt join forces with Sarah Howard (a very modern woman who works at police headquarters with Roosevelt), and 2 young detectives using then-revolutionary forensic techniques like dactyloscopy (fingerprinting) and anthropometry (the Bertillon system of physical measurements and classification) to catch the madman committing the crimes.

808 Broadway – the office of the crime solving team.

The Renwick, 808 Broadway next to Grace Church (photos Daytonian)

The book weaves elegantly between fact and fiction in a very dexterous way. On our heroes’ journey, they rub elbows with notorious criminals of the day and trade theories with the likes of William James, the first man to teach psychology in the United States(for some reason, James was replaced in the film by a character with a slightly altered background,  becoming a Harvard Professor named Cavanaugh––played by the inestimable David Warner).

In fact, Theodore Roosevelt did attend James’ class at Harvard. In the book, all three men took his class together. Kreisler disagrees with James’ theories of pragmatism and free will – Kreisler believes the killer they are pursuing has been broken by a childhood trauma -- physical and/or mental violence at the hand of a parent that cracked and bent him and drove him to do monstrous things – exacting revenge over and over again.

Delmonico's private dinner

The main characters swing between damask-tablecloth society with servants, running water and private telephones, and the terrifying world of utter destitution that Jacob Riis portrayed so superbly in his photographs.

Bandit’s Roost on Mulberry Street photograph by Jacob Riis

The squalor is palpable and Carr leaves out none of the horrifying details – from the rats to the unimaginable stench of waste and filth.

Mulberry Street 1890s

Close by the great houses on Washington Square were the tenements of the Lower East Side where life was crowded, noisy and dangerous. Neighborhoods like Five Points were full of thugs who would kill you as soon as look at you.

For low-cast victims like the dead boys, no one cared or investigated until Kreizler stepped in to stop the killer’s crime spree (Kreisler worked with damaged children at an institute that he founded –– he cared for the forgotten). The only reason some of the constabulary are remotely interested in the atrocities is because it is thought a scion of a wealthy family might be involved. They are interested in protecting the rich son and not the murdered children

5th Avenue 1890’s

Royal Suite at Astoria Hotel

For the upper classes in 1896, life was sweet. All the more reason it is remarkable that these gentlefolk would descend into the pit to stop the violence. Their world is orderly, starched and scented. There are servants to attend to their every need. Their streets are open and uncrowded. There are people to pick up the trash and clean the streets. Instead of 2 families in a room, 1 person lives in a 4 or 5 story house full of beautiful things.

Kreisler’s home

But descend they did, and we get to come along for the ride – in Kreisler’s calash (driven by Stevie Taggert, his able young henchman), elevated trains, railways and on foot, traversing the city and passing places we know as well as others that are only legend like the fabulous Croton Reservoir -- a 4 acre lake with 50’ high and 25’ thick walls that stood where the 42nd Street library does today (the reservoir existed from 1842 -1899).

Croton Reservoir, 42nd Street and 5th Avenue

I won’t tell you much more about the story so that you can enjoy its twists and turns yourself – it wouldn’t be fair to spoil the suspense.

Delmonico’s Restaurant on 26th Street 1890’s

I will share one of the delights in the book that won’t give away any secrets – that would be the passages/scenes about late 19th century New York food. The book does not ignore the importance of food when it creates its 1896 world.

The most important dinners in The Alienist are held at Delmonico’s on 26th and Fifth (where it was located from 1876 until 1897 when it moved uptown to 44th Street while still keeping the family's restaurants going down in the Wall Street neighborhood for the financial community). "Dels" was the epicenter of gastronomy and society in New York City at the time and everyone was treated the same when they walked through the door - from high society matrons to Tammany Hall crooks. Carr observed Delmonico’s practiced ‘egalitarianism’. There were no reservations so everyone waited for a table unless they had booked a private room. In The Alienist, both on the page and on film, an amazing dinner takes place in which delicious dishes are served as the group discusses murders and crime solving techniques. It’s a remarkably cheeky combination.

Street Level dining room at Delmonico’s 26th Street

The beginning of the chapter on the big dinner explains Delmonico’s well:

“It is often difficult, I find, for people today to grasp the notion that one family, working through several restaurants, could change the eating habits of an entire country. But such was the achievement of the Delmonicos in the United States of the last century. Before they opened their first small café on William Street in 1823… American food could generally be described as things boiled or fried whose purpose was to sustain hard work and hold down alcohol - usually bad alcohol. The Delmonicos, though Swiss, had brought the French method to America, and each generation of their family refined and expanded the experience. Their menu, from the first, contained dozens of dishes both delectable and healthy, all offered at what, considering the preparation that went into them, were reasonable prices…. The craving for first rate dining became a kind of national fever in the later decades of the century – and Delmonico’s was responsible.”

Delmonico’s was extraordinary in many ways. One of the most important was that when they couldn’t get the fine ingredients that they needed for their French cuisine, they bought 220 acres in Williamsburg and started growing it themselves in the 1830’s. Imagine, fresh artichokes and asparagus in 1835 (by 1855 the land was too valuable and other suppliers had been cultivated -- the farm was sold).

Menus from Delmonico’s

I magine the Alienist’s menu could have had a small printed menu like one of these.  The last menu gives the prices –– which are amusing in the 21st century.

Charles Delmonico (“Charlie, who catered to all the whims of his customers)

The host was Charlie Delmonico, “…who couldn’t have been better suited to the task: suave dapper, and eternally tactful, he attended to every detail without a look of care ever narrowing his enormous eyes or ruffling the hair of his natty beard.”

Mark Twain in private dining room at 44th St Delmonico’s in 1905

Private dining room at 44th Street Delmonico’s 1899

Notice the avocados? (then known as alligator pears – they were brand new in 1894)

Delmonico’s dinner from The Alienist


1893 Delmonico’s menu from The Epicurean

The restaurant’s food in The Alienist, appears to have been selected from the above menu in Charles Ranhofer’s The Epicurean. Carr rejected the 2 soups on this menu and chose instead a clear turtle soup for the Alienist’s meal.

Some of the recipes for the dinner can be also found in Ranhofer's book, which is full of nearly 1200  pages of recipes, menus, tips and decorations from his years as chef of Delmonico’s.

Oysters with Amontillado sherry
Clear turtle soup
Aiguillettes of Bass with Mornay sauce served with Hochheimer (a German white wine)
Saddle of Lamb Colbert served with Chateau LaGrange Bordeaux
Sorbet Elsinore
Canvas back duck, hominy and currant gelée, served with a Chambertin Burgundy
Petit aspic de foie gras
Alliance pear*, steeped in wine, deep fried with powder sugar and apricot sauce
Petit Fours

*the Belle Alliance pear is called “a dumpy pear with a yellow and red complexion” in the 1864 Gardeners Monthly. The pear was named after an inn close to the Battle of Waterloo in Brussels.

Alienist breakfast

There are other meals that are mentioned and sometimes catered by Delmonico’s but aren’t described. Only one other,  a catered breakfast,  has specific foods given:

Cucumber filets
Creole Eggs
Sautéed potato with artichoke hearts and truffles

So what should I make?? There are so many great things to choose from.

I’ve made a fish with Mornay sauce before (sole Walewska) and didn’t want to do it again (I've made dozens of things from Ranhofer's book).

I couldn’t quite bring myself to do a whole saddle of lamb so that was out. Canvasback duck is very difficult to find unless you are a hunter so that wasn’t going to happen (although hominy with duck sounded awfully good). I moved to the breakfast menu and wondered what a breakfast squab would be like? I looked at the Delmonico’s cookbook and discovered a dozen or more choices.

The one that grabbed me was a recipe for squab fritters with a currant sauce. It is essentially like a fancy fried chicken and would be good with the cucumbers and potatoes well as the creole eggs which would an egg on top of rice, tomatoes and peppers. When you think about it, not really that strange for those of us that like fried chicken and waffles for breakfast.  Of course you can use chicken (2 small breasts cut in half) or cornish hen instead.

I also found the plate Delmonico's used -- although perhaps a few years later than our story. Not sure what the 1894 plates looked like because the photos are too indistinct.

The Squab fritter batter is shatteringly delicate – I’d never done a yeast frying batter before –– wow. The sauce is like a Chinese duck sauce in its sweetness, and delicious with the dark meat of the squab. I cooked it in the oven for a few minutes after frying since I only had room for 2 pieces at once in the frying pot and I wanted them all hot. If you have a lot of fry room for the whole thing – you might not need it.

Squab Fritters, Port Sauce

2 Squab or Cornish hens, each bird cut into 4 pieces


salt & pepper
¼ t nutmeg
½ t thyme
1 crumbled bay leaf
2 thin slices of onions
juice of ½ a lemon
¼ cup olive oil
port sauce

Put the squab pieces in the marinade and let sit for 2 hours.

Remove from marinade and dip into the batter, one at a time. Deep fry at around 350º till completely browned 10-15 minutes, turning once. Put on paper towels to absorb excess fat. Place in a 400º oven for 10 minutes then serve with port sauce.


4 oz flour
¼ t salt
2 T oil
1 t yeast
2 egg yolks

2 egg whites

Combine the flour, salt and oil with the egg yolks.

Put the yeast in about ½ c of warm water to dissolve. Add to the flour mixture and then add ¼ - ½ c of warm water till it resembles pancake batter. Cover and let sit for 2 hours.

Beat the egg whites until stiff and add to the flour mixture and use.

Currant Sauce with Port

½ c current jelly
½ c port
½ c demi-glace (espagnole sauce is what is called for if you are so inclined, meaning you must make a dark brown roux, then add it to stock and cook it for a few hours)

Cook the jelly, most of the port (reserving 1 T) and the demiglace for 10 minutes. Add the remaining tablespoon of port and serve

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