January 12, 2010
Waldorf Salad is such a part of our culinary vernacular that it finds a home on holiday tables around the world.
It all began in March of 1893, on 5th and 33rd Streets in New York City–the location of the original Waldorf Hotel. Alva Vanderbilt threw a charity ball to fete the hotel's opening, drawing society A-listers from New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore and everywhere in between.
The New York Times reported that "The hand of Society greeted cordially all persons who entered the portals of that regal establishment and led them, not only into a realm of splendor and luxury, but into a genial atmosphere of restful enjoyment."
Imagine being a fly on the wall on that night!
The gala was held in benefit of Alva's pet project, the St. Mary's Free Hospital for Children. (This event set off a trend of hosting charity balls in Grand Hotels.) Attended by a crowd of more than 1,500, party-goers enjoyed the sumptuous decor of the new hotel, bouquets of fragrant American Beauty roses, tulips and orchids, and a concert given by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. There was no dancing as the Orchestra played pieces from Lizst, Tschaikovsky, Bizet, Rossini and Wagner.
The wet weather that night may have caused some guests to be late, but it didn't hinder the ladies from dressing in their finest. The mode of the day was wasp-waisted dresses with long skirts, full of late Victorian-era excess (furs, feathers and plumes). The Times article above described it well: "…the exquisite hues of the dainty gowns worn by an animated throng of attractive women, made the occasion a notable and memorable one." Indeed, the hotel's lobby was later referred to as 'Peacock Alley' for all of the folks strutting through in their finery.
The building was illuminated from top to bottom, and an army of maids in formal dress attended to guests' every need. Supper was served in dining rooms throughout the hotel, one of which was an exact replica of the prevailingly pink dining room of the old Astor mansion that stood on the site where the hotel was built.
Though the menu of that night has not survived, we may surmise a menu based on other details about the food at the Waldorf, which employed Swiss emigre Oscar Tschirky, the maître d'hôtel from 1893 until his death in 1950. During his time there, he was host to everyone from international royalty to the survivors of the Titanic. And though Oscar never cooked, he was responsible for all of the Waldorf's menus (tailored to famous guests' tastes) and signature recipes.
Waldorf Salad was invented for the opening of the hotel, and in 1896 Tschirkey penned an almost 1,000 page cookbook humbly called "The Cookbook, by Oscar of the Waldorf". (If you can believe, I found a reprinted edition of it on eBay!) He is also credited with inventing other American staples like Eggs Benedict.
Today you can celebrate Oscar by making one of his trademark dishes–in remembrance of one of our history's great 'behind the scenes' heroes. Or, at the very least, the next time it's served to you at a holiday meal, you'll be able to wow your compatriots with your vast historical knowledge of the origins of Waldorf Salad. Enjoy!
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2-3 green apples, cored and chopped
2 cups seedless red grapes, halved
1 cup celery, sliced thin
1 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon lemon juice
salt, to taste
lettuce, for serving
In a large bowl, combine the apple, grapes, celery and walnuts. Add the mayonnaise and lemon juice and stir to combine. Add salt to taste. Serve on a bed of lettuce.