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Roast Turkey with Dressing and Chicken Forcemeat Balls.

Featured Article

The Gilded Age Cookbook

The Author's Launch: Recipes And Stories From America’s Golden Era Updated For Modern Tastes

Article by Becky Libourel Diamond

Photography by Heather Raub/FrontRoom Images

Originally published in Newtown City Lifestyle

The Gilded Age era brings to mind visions of lavish banquet tables, fancy debutante balls, elegant tea parties and exclusive dinner parties. But it also was a time of invention and innovation, particularly in terms of food and cooking. Culinary roles for women and minorities became more significant, and revolutionary technologies, such as kitchen appliances and canned goods, were game changers.

When I began researching and writing about food more than 10 years ago, this “evolution in the kitchen” piqued my interest. I spent a great deal of time combing through historic cookbooks and updating recipes to fit modern ingredients and methods. The mid-to late-nineteenth century was especially fascinating, as I could see recipes changing in tandem with ingredients and technologies. 

I quickly realized reconstructing historic recipes required tweaking ingredients and measurements, as many are different today. For example, eggs used to be smaller in size (so more were used per recipe), and rising agents, such as baking powder, didn’t fully come on the scene until the mid-1800s (thus recipes often required whipping eggs to a foam to make cakes rise). In addition, recipe instructions and measurements weren't precise (wineglass or dessertspoonful, anyone?). To “modernize” a recipe, I needed to start with a historical version and trace its evolution over time. Sometimes a dish changed a lot, sometimes not much at all. The final result was not always what was expected, and that’s OK.

Eventually, I accumulated so many of these revised recipes that I thought, why not put them into a cookbook? And, seeing the popularity of television shows, such as Downton Abbey and HBO’s The Gilded Age, it became clear that history is as fresh and appealing as any other part of our pop culture. 

Blending historic details with recipes updated for contemporary kitchens, The Gilded Age Cookbook allows modern cooks to duplicate meals and gatherings from the past while celebrating today. This includes events that were gilded age mainstays, such as strawberry fetes, afternoon tea parties and Twelfth Night festivities, as well as those that have become fully ingrained in our culture, including Fourth of July picnics and Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. 

Thanksgiving and Christmas were typically the most carefully planned meals of the year for many gilded age households. Much of the cooking was done in advance to free up time on the holiday. Items like puddings and mincemeat were made at least a week or two ahead, which also allowed the flavors to blend.

The goal of the cookbook was to strike a balance between old and new traditions, much as many people like to do today. However, unlike many of present-day celebrations, Christmas dinner often featured an elaborate multicourse menu ranging from oysters on the half shell and turkey with all the trimmings to sugar plums and plum pudding. Another difference was that the festivities typically extended into New Year’s Day and Twelfth Night (Jan. 6), a time for parties, games and feasting on rich Twelfth Night Cake. 

It is my hope that The Gilded Age Cookbook provides the inspiration for others to host their own historically themed meals. As I mention in the book, don’t worry if you don’t have authentic gilded age dishes, glassware and serving pieces. Mix and match family heirlooms and vintage items from yard sales and thrift stores, or simply use whatever you have and make it your own. Enjoy traveling back in time to the Gilded Age!

Becky's book signings:

  • Commonplace Reader, Yardley; Sept. 2, 2-4 p.m.
  • Doylestown Bookshop, Sept. 9, 1 p.m. 
  • Newtown Bookshop, Nov. 18, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.

The Gilded Age Cookbook also is available online, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target or IndieBound.

  • Thanksgiving Dinner, on-site at Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion, Philadelphia.
  • Plum Pudding.
  • Roast Turkey with Dressing and Chicken Forcemeat Balls.
  • Deviled Spaghetti.
  • Peas served in turnip cups.
  • Becky Libourel Diamond, author of The Gilded Age Cookbook