Philadelphia’s reputation as a food-obsessed city is now well-established. The city teems with world-class chefs and restaurants, from Mike Solomonov’s love letter to Israeli food at Zahav to Cristina Martinez’s sellout tacos at South Philly Barbacoa.
But you might be surprised to learn that Philly’s foodie culture actually started in 1851, when two groups of wealthy Philadelphians and New Yorkers challenged each other to dueling dinners that would show which city had superior culinary talent. The cook-off resulted in the “Thousand Dollar Dinner,” a 12-hour, 17-course meal cooked by James Wood Parkinson at his Eighth and Ranstead Streets restaurant, regarded as the best in the city at the time.
Chef Adam Diltz and author Becky Diamond will re-create highlights from the meal at the Free Library’s Culinary Literacy Center this Monday. Fortunately, tickets to the sold-out talk and tasting only cost attendees a modest $25 (or $45 with a copy of Diamond’s book The Thousand Dollar Dinner: America’s First Great Culinary Challenge).
“There’s so much history that can be learned through food,” Diamond says. “When we talk about what was important back then, we can see how it’s important today, and understand how it parlays to today in Philadelphia.”
About a century and a half before the term locavore was coined, Parkinson was a champion of buying local. But because this April feast was between growing seasons, the chef had to grapple with a dearth of fresh Pennsylvania produce. That’s how he wound up sourcing many ingredients from the South and overseas. He sent telegrams and special express orders to Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia, racking up one grand (about $32,000 today) in expenses, thus giving the meal its name.
He started with oysters in the shell, followed by turtle soup — made with green sea turtle purchased at the High Street Market on what is now Market Street. There were salmon in lobster sauce, braised pigeon, filet with mushrooms, turkey with celery and oysters, lamb chops, spring chicken on toast, and cold dishes set in from-scratch gelatin. The guests provided wine pairings.
Parkinson specialized in sweets. He ended the dinner with four courses of desserts: coconut pudding, meringues, pastries, and a colorful array of ice creams. (The son of English confectioners, Parkinson also created pistachio ice cream and baked elaborate cakes for galas at the Franklin Institute.)
The men dined from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., giving Parkinson three standing ovations before declaring him the winner of the challenge. He beat out an equally lavish meal prepared earlier in the year by the chef at Delmonico’s in Manhattan.
Parkinson never wrote a cookbook, so in writing her book on the Thousand Dollar Dinner, Diamond based her best estimates of his recipes on material she found in a cookbook published by Parkinson’s mother. She’ll talk about her research methods at the Free Library event.
At this significantly more affordable take on the extravagant affair, Diltz will prepare modern versions of some of the original dishes. He’s making Kensington Snapper Soup with snapping turtles using a recipe from the Memorial Hall Cookbook, which was published by the Women’s Committee of Willow Grove in Philadelphia in 1919. He’ll also prepare braised celery, which was something of a delicacy at the time.
Celery "was a status symbol back then,” Diltz said. “It was hard to grow. Only certain people could buy it — and they would stick it in a vase, made specifically to display celery. I’ll stew mine with stock and broil it with some local cheese.”
For dessert, Diamond is contributing homemade vanilla ice cream.