Calves brains and consommé: What Biltmore Estate Thanksgiving dinner looked like in 1904

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
Biltmore starts getting ready for the holidays as soon as Halloween ends.

If you were a guest for Thanksgiving dinner in 1904 at the gilded Biltmore Estate in Asheville, Edith and George Vanderbilt, the home's immensely wealthy owners, would have shown you the royal treatment.

Thanksgiving's eight courses are detailed in a replica of a menu book kept by a former estate cook that year, now on display in Biltmore's kitchen. Full of menu items like oysters and ice cream made with then-rare pineapples, the book helps tell the story of the extravagant meals the Vanderbilts hosted.

George Vanderbilt first opened Biltmore's doors to guests as a bachelor on Christmas Eve 1895. He married Edith three years later, and entertaining became even more of a central focus. Using the railroad and shipping fortune the family had amassed, they imported luxury items into the mountains like coastal seafood and foie gras for their many opulent dinners. 

A classic Thanksgiving spread, Biltmore style

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“Dinner at the turn of the last century was an important form of social interaction,” said Darren Poupore, Biltmore’s chief curator. “A dinner party was an opportunity to see and be seen and to practice the art of conversation."

Dining etiquette, he said, had become formalized to the highest degree, with strict rules demanding elegant manners and proper etiquette. Depending on the number of courses, a guest of the Vanderbilts would need to know how to navigate as many as 40 pieces of porcelain and crystal.

The 1904 menu book, which records meals eaten throughout the fall, shows the Vanderbilts hosted only two guests for Thanksgiving that year. Among other courses, they were treated to oysters, consommé royale and Spanish mackerel with a salad of cucumbers. 

George Vanderbilt was born in 1862, the year before Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday, but it was a well-established tradition by 1904 — long enough for turkey to become a staple on wealthier Thanksgiving tables.

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Elegant dishes included calf's brains and celery

In 1904 the Vanderbilt's Thanksgiving guests were served a course of estate-raised turkey with cranberry jelly, peas and beets. 

Though that sounds rather commonplace, the rest of the meal was a parade of elegant dishes of the era, including calf's brains with mushroom sauce and a fashionable salad of celery served with Virginia ham.

Celery, a fickle slow-growing vegetable, was once difficult to obtain. That made it an irresistible status symbol during the Gilded Age when it was often shown off in specially made glass vases as an edible arrangement.

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"The celery vase was a thing," said Lauren Henry, associate curator at Biltmore. "It was something that was a very a show-off kind of thing, though to have celery on your table sounds funny to us now."

Dessert was mince pie, a Thanksgiving favorite, served with pineapple ice cream. There was also an assortment of cakes, followed by coffee, which was considered its own course.

The Thanksgiving page from the 1904 menu book.

"The pineapple ice cream was likely prepared by grating the pineapple and blending with egg yolks, sugar, boiled cream and placed in a mold before freezing," said Biltmore communications manager Marissa Jamison.

'An interesting combination of people'

Though the identity of the guests is unknown, the Vanderbilts often invited people known as interesting conversationalists for dinner. "George loved artists, intellectuals and diplomats," Henry said.

In 1902, one dinner involved 16 guests — not even enough to fill the home's 33 well-appointed guest rooms — including famous Beaux-Arts architect Charles McKim, conservationist George Dorr, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and author Edith Wharton. Several stained glass artists were also in attendance.

"It was such an interesting combination of people," Henry said. "I just want to be a fly on the wall and hear the conversations they had." 

the Library at the Biltmore house in Ashevill, N.C., is especially beautiful at Christmas time. Biltmore Estate Photo.

The Vanderbilts would bring in extra staff for the most extravagant dinners, with a chef overseeing cooks and kitchen maids in the lower-level kitchen. Meanwhile, upstairs a team of under butlers, overseen by a proper English head butler, would make sure the table was perfectly set. Often, the team of butlers would stand at attendance throughout the meal in full regalia, complete with knee breaches and gold garters.

"They would be on hand to plate each course and bring it out to each guest and be there to assist with anything," Henry said. "It was very effortless for the Vanderbilt's guests." 

Local grocers managed to pull in a surprising array of luxury items for those guests, with archived estate receipts showing orders from oysters placed with a local supplier named J. F. Miller, Henry said. Asheville vendors also supplied mackerel, pineapples, lobster and Virginia hams, though the Vanderbilts had to source their foie gras and truffles from a New York vendor, she said. 

Though your holiday will not likely be quite as opulent, nor as effortless, you can still try eating like a Vanderbillt, thanks to the recipe adaptations from Executive Chef Sean Eckman of the Dining Room at The Inn on Biltmore Estate, who created the following recipes, which riff off menu items found in the 1904 menu book.

Try these holiday recipes from Biltmore

Simple Brined Roasted Turkey

Bittersweet Cranberry Sauce

Green Beans with Pancetta and Hazelnut Brown Butter

Pumpkin Pecan Layer Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

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Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South Region. She's the editor of Southern Kitchen and a correspondent for The American South.

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Reach me:  mlunsford@southernkitchen.com