When the Victorian Society of America held its annual dinner on Capitol Hill recently, even Queen Victoria - portrayed by VSA member Ann Price Cannon - made an appearance.
Men in frock coats and women wearing their grandmothers' wedding dresses sat beneath the lofty, wood-beamed ceilings of St. Mark's Church, built in 1894. They dined at tables set for 210 guests, complete with lighted candles and compotes of fruit and flowers. Between courses, a kilted dancer did a sword dance to the music of bagpipes.
The dinner was meant to resemble a banquet Queen Victoria might have held at Balmoral Castle in the 1870s, explained Ronald Alvarez, president of the Washington chapter of the Victorian Society.
Only one thing failed to capture the opulence of the era completely - the food.
In today's terms, the Victorian Society's meal was more than adequate. Turtle soup, buns, lamb, pudding, dessert and wine were served. There were some nice, authentic touches, too, gleaned from recipes recorded in the 1860s.
But when the real Victorians decided to feast, they feasted.
Francatelli, head chef for Queen Victoria, thought nothing of serving a meal with 70 different dishes. Or take, for example, an annual Lord Mayor's dinner at Guilhall: 200 tureens of turtle soup, 35 roasted capons, 10 sirloins of beef, 50 hams, 40 tongues, 50 roast turkeys, 26 dishes of shellfish, 50 pheasants and 24 geese once were consumed, not to mention a dessert menu that started with 300 pounds of pineapple.
But perhaps no one ate that way at home. Au contraire!
In 1874 a magazine called the Young Housewife's Daily Assistant recommended the following menu for a fashionable sit-down dinner party of 18 to 20: First course - Coventry soup, flounder with stewed eels, curried lobster with salmon pudding, fried salmon, boiled trout, whitebait, bread and butter. Second course - fried sweetbreads, lamb cutlets with tomatoes, fricandeau of veal with spinach, saddle of mutton, french beans, potatoes, roast capon, ham, quail with pate de foie gras. Desserts - iced pudding, summer fruit salad, raspberry cream with pineapple jelly and savory macaroni.
You can understand why the Victorian Society trimmed down the menu.
"People today don't want to go to dinner and eat as much as the Victorians did," said Noelle Barry of Columbia Catering, who researched and coordinated the meal. "It would make them sick."
Barry patterned the bill of fare after recipes written by Isabella Beeton in "The Book of Household Management," first published in 24 monthly installments between 1859 and 1861.
The meal was served a la Russe , a style that was just gaining favor in England when Beeton was writing.
With this method, servants cut or divided the dishes at a sideboard, then took the individual portions around to the guests.
Before that, guests sat down to a table heavily laden with food. The soup would be served already, with the fish, bread, sauces and joints of ham and beef placed strategically around the table. Sometimes these dishes would be cleared away to make room for the second course: roasts, entrees such as sweetbreads and stews, side dishes of vegetables and puddings, game or poultry, plus desserts.
Service a la Russe gave the cook some extra time to prepare the different courses, and made sure guests got their food while it was still hot. It also gave the host some discretion about the size of the servings.
In either case, dinner lasted three to four hours.
The Victorians, not yet blessed with frozen food, varied their menus with the season. The menu prepared by Barry would have made an elegant light spring meal for Victorian family:
The turtle soup was followed by broiled lamb chops, brandied carrots, baked tomatoes filled with mashed Jerusalem artichoke hearts and asparagus pudding accompanied by a dry red wine. Next came the salad, eaten with Miss Acton's cottage loaf, a simple white bread and tasty Victorian buns.
For dessert, the centerpieces of fruit and cheese were passed around, and champagne was served with English trifle.
In Isabella Beeton's day, most of the dishes were roasted in front of the fire or boiled - the process which gave the British their reputation for bland, heavy foot.
That some people did pay attention to the skillful and varied preparation of food is demonstrated by Beeton's book. She tried to present "the theory and chemistry of the various culinary operations" with scientific explanations of why they did or didn't work.
While Columbia Catering chef Marino Starace spiced up some of the dishes to suit the palate of today's Victorians, many of Isabella Beeton's recipes, with minor adjustments, still appeal to modern tastes. The recipes that follow are adapted from "The Book of Household Management" by Isabella Beeton (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1969). BAKED TOMATOES WITH MASHED JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE (4 servings) 1 to 1 1/2 pound Jerusalem artichokes 2 tablespoons melted butter Salt and pepper to taste 1 teaspoon lemon juice 4 tomatoes
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Wash and scrub the artichokes and put them in a saucepan with sufficient cold water to cover. Add salt and bring water to boil. Boil the artichokes gently until tender (about 20 minutes).
Take them up, drain them and remove skins. Force them through a strainer and stir in melted butter, lemon juice and salt and pepper.
Take out the stalks of the tomatoes, and the pulp. Fill with the mashed artichoke and place in a buttered baking dish. Bake about 20 minutes and serve with any kind of roast meat. LAMB CUTLETS OR CHOPS (4 servings) 4 thick lamb chops or cutlets 3 tablespoons butter or oil, heated 1 egg 1 cup bread crumbs Salt and pepper to taste Clarified butter
Trim off most of the fat from the chops or cutlets. Brush the meat with egg, sprinkle with bread crumbs and season with salt and pepper. Now dip the meat into clarified butter and sprinkle over a few more bread crumbs.
Put in a pan with the hot oil and brown on each side over a sharp fire. Reduce heat and cook until done, turning when required (about 15 minutes in all). ASPARAGUS PUDDING (4 servings) 1 1/2 cups cooked asparagus 2 tablespoons flour 2 tablespoons butter 1 cup milk 4 eggs, well-beaten Salt and pepper to taste Nutmeg to taste 1/4 cup finely minced ham (optional)
Cut up the tender parts of the asparagus about the size of peas. Put butter in a saucepan and melt over low fire. Stir in flour and when well-blended, add the milk and season. Mix in remaining ingredients.
Take a greased pudding mold or 1-quart casserole dish with a tight-fitting lid and fill two-thirds full with the batter. Place on a trivet in a heavy pan with 1 inch of boiling water, cover the pot and let it steam for 1 1/4 hours over gently boiling water. VICTORIA BUNS
These are sweet and can be served either with the meal or as a dessert. This recipe was adapted by chef Starace. 2 ounces butter 2 1/2 ounces sugar 1 egg 1 cup flour 1 1/2 ounces ground rice 1 cup flour 1 1/2 ounces currants 2 teaspoons lemon peel, chopped or grated
Beat the butter to a cream, stir in the sugar, add a whisked egg and beat these ingredients well together. Stir in the flour, ground rice, currants and lemon peel. Roll into seven or eight balls.
Put these onto a buttered tin and bake them 1/2 hour. They should be put in the oven immediately or they will become heavy, and the oven should be tolerably brisk (preheated to 350 degrees).