Picture the fanciest party imaginable. We're talking Vanity Fair Oscar Party meets Met Gala, with a couple of royal weddings thrown in the mix.

Fountains of champagne? Check. Platinum bracelets as parting favors? Check.

A sculpture of Hercules holding a steak on his shoulders and a monkey outfitted in a tailored suit sitting at the head of the table? Welcome to the Gilded Age.

In "The Gilded Age Cookbook: Recipes and Stories From America's Golden Era," author Becky Libourel Diamond gives readers a peek into the opulent ballrooms, tea parties and railroad cars where the richest of the rich — socialites, debutantes, magnates and robber barons — dined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Recipes for Waldorf salad served in tiny cups carved out of apples, potatoes á la Parisienne, lobster fricassee spooned into puff pastry and rosewater-almond "lady cake" are her own adaptations of popular dishes of that time, which she tested over years as a blogger.

An era defined by extravagance — a distraction from the corruption beneath the surface — the Gilded Age was a period of unfettered economic growth in the United States for a small portion of the population. New money flowed into society as railroads connected cities, the United States expanded west, natural resources were exploited, industrialization made a few men unbelievably rich, and food became an art.

"There was a culture of, if you've got it, flaunt it," said Alex Weston, program associate at the James J. Hill House and the Alexander Ramsey House, two St. Paul examples of Gilded Age luxury. "They were proud of their wealth, and their older attitudes that lingered from the Puritan founding of New England were now gone. If you had money, you built the biggest mansion possible."

And you threw the biggest dinner party possible. Course after course would be served deep into the night, to a vulgar degree. "The more food that's tossed in the slop bucket, the higher the status," Weston said.

Libourel Diamond isn't encouraging such obscene hedonism with her book. Instead, on the heels of the popular HBO television series "The Gilded Age," she is offering home cooks an attainable way to host their own high-society dinner party, suitable for modern sensibilities. Monkey not included.

Ahead of two upcoming engagements with the Minnesota Historical Society, we spoke to Libourel Diamond about how the railroads changed what we eat, easy ways to think about presentation and the environmental impact of all those extravagant dinner parties. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How'd you get interested in food from the Gilded Age?

A: I've always been a foodie, and I read in a cooking magazine that the first cooking school was in the early 1800s, in Philadelphia. I grew up in New Jersey and Philly was close, and I never knew that. I moved to Pennsylvania and there was a publisher right around the corner and he liked my idea of writing about cooking schools. Then it pivoted to this first cooking school, Mrs. Goodfellow. And in researching her I just learned so much about food history and Philadelphia and the 19th century.

I always say to people, there's so much history we can learn through food: What didn't we eat? What did we eat? What was overconsumed? There are so many different angles. So after that book ("Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America's First Cooking School"), I found out about this dinner that took place in 1851 called the Thousand Dollar Dinner that was like a 19th-century "Top Chef" competition. This was the prelude to the Gilded Age, and these men of means could try to one-up each other by putting on this really fabulous meal. I wrote about these 17 courses that this meal ended up being, and it was really unbelievable ("The Thousand Dollar Dinner: America's First Great Cookery Challenge").

The whole time I'm writing these books I was researching recipes and deconstructing them and making them myself. And I was blogging about it. You can't just take a 19th-century recipe and make it as it's written because ingredients are different, measurements are different. And I was learning all about that and eventually I thought, I have all this on my blog, why not put this into a cookbook?

Q: Your book is not connected to "The Gilded Age" television show, right?

A: I had heard of the TV show because I always loved "Downton Abbey" and everything that Julian Fellowes did. The TV show had been in the works for a while, and I thought, this is great because I can tag team what he's doing. It worked out beautifully, because my book came out right before the second season. I really think it's helped with the interest in the era and in these recipes.

Q: What are some of the defining characteristics of food during that era?

A: It was definitely an era of innovation and technology. The railroads really built the Gilded Age. There were other industries as well, like steel and even some food things like the cattle industry and canned goods, but the railroads really helped connect all of that and get food on the tables that maybe they wouldn't have had before, like foods that were out of season. Food was much more of a differentiator than it is today. I mean, it still is now, especially with food deserts and such in big cities, but if you had these fine foods and certain things that were out of season, you were much more ahead of other people.

But I also have to preface that the Gilded Age — and I don't want to be a downer about it — but it isn't necessarily an endearing term, because it was gilded on the surface and then underneath there was this layer of corruption. There were people having all these fine meals and the craziness, but then there was also the servants that were making all of that possible. And people living in tenement housing. It's important to realize that it wasn't just the glam.

Q: There are a lot of rich stories — and outlandish stories! — about dinner parties in your book. Someone even brought a monkey to be the guest of honor. It just seemed like there was no limit to what was possible.

A: It was all about, 'How can I one-up the person that had the last dinner?' They would hire personal chefs and they would often steal them from each other. And that's why women were going to these cooking schools to know what they should they be putting on their tables that would make them rise above everyone else and be talked about for months afterward. That's when they incorporated live animals into it, which was kind of bizarre. I don't know why they thought that was a good idea.

It was all about presentation, too. Ornamentation on foods, like having a game bird with its feathers still attached, where they would reattach them after cooking, or the head was still attached on a platter. And the gelatin dishes are the ones that are so different than we think of today. Everything would be coated in a clear gelatin and then you would see the sparkling colors underneath. It was almost like museum pieces under glass.

Q: I didn't notice a lot of gelatin-encased recipes in your book.

A: What I wanted to do with this book is make it accessible. I knew if I included so many of the over-the-top things, nobody could make those. And I wanted it to be where people could actually enjoy them. I do have one gelatin, it's a chocolate jelly, which is actually really good.

Q: Were the people who were hosting the dinners actually making anything?

A: Not at all. It's the people behind the scenes.

Q: Did you represent in this book the other side of the coin, what the servants or the people living in tenements were cooking and eating?

A: Not a whole lot. I do mention stories about the Black elite, and one recipe I have was from a cookbook written by the first formerly enslaved woman in the U.S. Her name's Abby Fisher and it's the ginger cookie recipe. I wanted to make sure that her story was known. I did try to include a few things that would highlight people that weren't necessarily that upper echelon.

Q: What can we learn about food by cooking the recipes of that era?

A: One is to know that things evolve over time, like techniques. And if there is a newfangled ingredient or kitchen tool, go for it. I mean, that's what made their lives so much easier, to have egg beaters instead of whipping eggs by hand. Baking powder changed the game for tall layer cakes, because before that they just had to either beat eggs to make the cake rise or use yeast. For people to embrace technology, but also be mindful of sustainability. I don't want to be environmentally preachy here, but some of the dishes that they really loved so much got overconsumed, like lobster and turtle, and even oysters to an extent. Luckily, we've been able to figure out how to replenish some of the supplies, especially seafood. But just to be mindful that sometimes it is just a special dish that we have once in a while, you know, everything in moderation. I feel like that's something that I've learned researching the 19th century, that we just want to make sure that things don't become extinct because we're eating so much.

Meet the author

Becky Libourel Diamond will be appearing at two events with the Minnesota Historical Society:

March 2: "The Gilded Age Cookbook": Baking Lab Demo at 1 p.m. at Mill City Museum, 704 S. 2nd St., Mpls. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. Find more info at mnhs.org/millcity.

March 3: "The Gilded Age Cookbook": Author Talk and Treats from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the James J. Hill House, 240 Summit Av., St. Paul. The historic mansion is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays. Find more info at mnhs.org/hillhouse.

The talks are free, but museum admission, which ranges from $8-$12, is required. Signed copies of the author's cookbook will be available for purchase.

Crispy Potatoes à la Parisienne

Serves 4.

Also called Parisienne potatoes, this dish was fashionable throughout the Gilded Age, often served alongside filet of beef, beefsteak, chops or game, or even as a part of Christmas dinner. New York Cooking School founder Juliet Corson featured it as part of the "Fourth Lesson of the Ladies' Course" in her 1883 Cooking School Text Book. From "The Gilded Age Cookbook" by Becky Libourel Diamond (Globe Pequot, 2023).

• 3 lb. waxy potatoes, such as Yukon Gold

• 1/2 tsp. salt, plus 3/4 tsp., divided

• 3 tbsp. unsalted butter

• 3 tbsp. vegetable or canola oil

• 1/4 c. fresh minced parsley


Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Wash and peel the potatoes. Use a vegetable scoop or melon baller to cut ball-shaped pieces out of each potato that are about 1 inch in diameter and place them in a large stockpot of water. (The remaining potato pieces can be placed in a container of cold water to prevent browning and used later to make mashed potatoes or add to soup.)

Add 1/2 teaspoon salt to the stockpot and bring to a boil. Cook for 5 minutes. Drain in a colander and set aside.

Place the butter and oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Once the butter is melted, remove from heat and add potatoes, turning them gently so they are coated on all sides. Sprinkle with 3/4 teaspoon salt.

Place the skillet on the center rack of the oven and cook for 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and turn the potatoes so that they can brown on the other side. Return to the oven and cook for an additional 10 to 15 minutes.

Remove the potatoes from the oven and transfer to a large serving bowl or platter. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

Lady Cake

Serves 12 to 16.

Lady cake is a rich pound cake flavored with almonds and rosewater, made snowy white by using only egg whites. Its white color and delicate texture were considered so exquisite and elegant that it was often used as a wedding cake in the Gilded Age, frosted with pure white icing and decorated with white flowers. From "The Gilded Age Cookbook" by Becky Libourel Diamond.

• 6 egg whites

• 2 sticks (1 c.) unsalted butter, softened

• 1 3/4 c. sugar

• 2 3/4 c. cake flour

• 2 tsp. baking powder

• 1 1/4 c. milk

• 1 tbsp. rosewater

• 2 tsp. almond extract


Butter a 10-inch Bundt pan, dust the inside with flour, and set aside. Adjust the oven rack to the lower position and preheat to 350 degrees.

Place the egg whites in a large glass or stainless-steel bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat on low speed until soft peaks form, about 3 to 4 minutes, then increase speed to medium and continue to beat until stiff, about another 5 to 8 minutes. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, cream the butter on medium-high until very fluffy. Slowly add the sugar, about 1/4 cup at a time, until the mixture has a creamy texture.

Sift the flour and baking powder together. Alternately add the dry ingredients and the milk to the butter mixture, mixing between additions.

Add the rosewater and almond extract. Stir and scrape the batter down. Gently fold in the egg whites (best done by hand).

Spoon the cake batter into the Bundt pan and smooth the top. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for 20 minutes, and then run a sharp knife around the edge to loosen. Invert in a plate to cool completely.

Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve with fresh fruit and/or whipped cream, of frost with egg white icing (see recipe).

Egg White Icing

Note: Icing should be used within a day. For those leery of using raw egg whites, you can substitute 1/4 cup meringue powder and 1/2 cup cold water for the egg whites.

• 2 egg whites, room temperature

• 2 c. powdered sugar

• 1 tsp. rosewater


Using an electric mixer, whip the egg whites in a medium bowl on low speed until they form soft peaks, about 3 to 4 minutes. Increase the speed to medium and gradually add the sugar, 1 cup at a time. Add rosewater and beat on medium-high speed for another 5 to 8 minutes or until the icing forms medium to stiff peaks.