“Over the river and through the wood to Grandmother’s house we go” was sung frequently by carolers in the late nineteenth century. If these singers were proceeding toward Prairie Avenue, they may indeed have crossed the Chicago River, and traversed through the considerable woods that were still in existence.
Once they arrived at their destination, family and friends were in for holiday treats that would be rare delicacies for most of Chicago’s population. Several of this hallowed street’s residents founded or were in upper management in grocery firms, or meat-packing barons. They were well-suited to provide feasts. Samuel Tolman, who lived at 2031 Prairie, was the vice president of the grocery company that bore his family name. John Wesley Doane, at 1827 Prairie, presided over his family’s tea company. Marshall Field, whose mansion stood at 1905 Prairie, was known to have private rail cars of exquisite food shipped from New York City’s most elegant restaurants. He also stocked fine food in his own wildly popular department store. Finally, some of the best cuts of meat to be found anywhere would be prepared by the cooks at the 1215 Prairie home of Philip D. Armour.
Prairie Avenue families typically consumed meals that were considered quite upscale for the time. During the holiday season, their cuisine existed on a grand scale that few of us can imagine today. Why and how did wealthy Chicagoans celebrate with meals fit for royalty? As mentioned above, many of the city’s founders made their fortune in providing food. Naturally, meat packing barons and grocery store founders had the wherewithal to eat well. With wealth came the privilege of having lots of help. As those of us who followed Downton Abbey know, affluent families had a retinue of staff to assist them in every conceivable way. Although Prairie Avenue residents many not have had the sheer number of people “downstairs” as did the Earl of Grantham, they would have had a well-equipped kitchen crew. Chicagoans most desirous of impressing their guests went out of their way to hire French chefs, as Parisian cuisine was then very much in vogue.
A typical holiday meal was served in many courses with libations to accompany each course. Women in their tightly-laced corsets would likely gaze in fear at the sheer amount of food they might be expected to consume. A visitor not educated in the complex etiquette of the time would be mystified at the intimidating array of silverware and wine glasses at each place setting. Specially printed menus would be placed at each seat, so guests would have an idea as to what to expect and eat accordingly.
Not surprisingly, Chicagoans had a wealth of choices for the many varieties of meat and seafood that were expected at a special meal. When Prairie Avenue was at its apex as a residential area, oysters were a prized delicacy, and no meal was complete without them in some form. Herewith is a holiday dinner, with actual recipes courtesy of the Prairie Avenue Cookbook. Click on each link for the recipe.
Raw Oysters with Relish
Soups and Garnishes
Sweet Potato Balls
Baked Shad with Shad Roe Sauce
Roast Goose with Apple Stuffing
Young Roast Pig
English Walnut Cake
Coffee, Crackers, Cheese
Amontillado, Chateau Rolland, Mumm’s Extra Dry, Cognac, Liqueur
A cautionary tale, depending upon your choice of animal companions: According to the Prairie Avenue Cookbook, “the Harvey children” (1722 Prairie) “had a pet piglet at the family’s summer home on Mackinac Island, which, unbeknownst to them, was being fattened for slaughter. The children remember with horror seeing their piglet, roasted, arrive at the Christmas table on the festive board garnished with mistletoe.”