Any story about the banquets of Chicago’s Gilded Age, should include Bertha Honore Palmer, the “Princess of the Prairie.” From Louisville, KY, Bertha was so smart, clear-eyed & precocious at 13 when Chicago’s most-eligible bachelor and real estate magnate Potter Palmer first met her, he swore off marriage until Bertha came of age. They married in 1870 when she was 21 and he was 44. Well-schooled and vibrant, Bertha was encouraged by her father Henry to be business-smart & wasn’t intimidated by Potter’s wealth or power. But the couple’s true mettle was tested early in a formidable crucible: The Great Chicago Fire of 1871. In one horrifying night, the Palmer House hotel—Potter’s just-completed wedding present to Bertha—burned to the ground. So did Potter’s 32 other Chicago buildings, effectively incinerating his $7 million fortune.
The Palmers borrowed and rebuilt. Within two years, Potter had reconstructed the Palmer House to be more opulent than the original hotel, reorienting Chicago’s main shopping district to run along the mile of State Street next to it which he largely owned. An 1883 insert describing the hotel put the total cost of land, construction and furnishings at $3,500,000. Advertisements reassured the public that the 8-story, 700-room structure was the first truly fireproof hotel in the world. It had a “perpendicular railroad” (the first public elevator), to transport guests. Thirty-four different kinds of marble were used in the wainscoting of the Grand Hall & Rotunda. And the grand staircase of Carrera marble was patterned after the one leading to the whispering gallery in the dome of St. Paul’s cathedral, in London.
Dining rooms featured vast menus—the poultry section, for example, had teal duck, mallard duck, tame duck with apple sauce, turkey with cranberry sauce, prairie chicken, partridge, quail on toast, chicken pie New England style, wild pigeon stuffed aux fines herbs, snipe on toast (!), spring chicken broiled or fried and served with cream sauce, capon, and broiled woodcock.
With the hotel open, Bertha became the social force that helped celebrate Chicago’s rise from the ashes, using her skills not just to create extravagant parties, but to empower women and improve their standing. Bertha believed that “culture and society itself is a business, and not a frivolity,” and that intelligent women could work with men to achieve their goals, using diplomacy to balance social and working worlds.
Berth’s banquets were hosted at the hotel, which, until the Potter mansion was built in 1885–truly was the Palmer’s “house”: Bertha & Potter lived there. Their two sons, Honore (1874) and Potter Jr. (1875) were born there, and when Bertha’s younger sister Ida married President Grant’s son, Colonel Frederick Dent Grant in 1874, Bertha threw the parties.
But Bertha’s banquet-to-end-all-banquets, “The Greatest Banquet in History,” happened in November, 1879, to honor President Ulysses S. Grant and General William Tecumseh Sherman. The party started as a parade through the streets of Chicago, led by General Philip Henry Sheridan on a big, black stallion. President Grant reviewed the procession from a balcony the Palmers had built for the occasion on the State-street side of the hotel. Writing in the 1925-published “Palmer House, Old and New,” author Wallace Rice described, a menu of “saddles of venison, roast prairie chicken, buffalo steaks with truffle sauce, breasts of wild duck and fillets of wild turkey.” All was served on 18-piece settings of gold-trimmed Havilland china that Bertha commissioned from France specifically for the event. The feasting lasted two hours, followed by 15 speeches that went on until two in the morning when famed American storyteller Mark Twain jumped up on a table to add his own closing remarks.
One hundred and twenty five years later, Chef Stephen Henry revisited the event with a special dinner. Studying original menus that included main course preparations of “larded” or “barded” beef, (beef threaded with strips of tenderizing fat), Henry created this modern update: Filet mignon-wrapped with flavorful prosciutto (paper-thin, dry-cured ham) grilled and served with fresh vegetables plucked from the Palmer House rooftop gardens. To make this dish year-round, Chef Henry suggests home cooks choose seasonal vegetables. “Root vegetables and potatoes in the Fall or Winter, and fresh garden herbs and produce—whatever you like from your garden or farmer’s market,” for the Spring and Summer. And to finish the meal? the Original Chocolate Fudge Brownie, which the Palmer House kitchens invented at Bertha Palmer’s request, for the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.
Makes 4 servings
Filet with Vegetable Ingredients
- 4, 10-ounce filet mignon steaks
- 4 paper-thin strips of prosciutto
- four purple or green mini bell peppers
- assorted herbs: four sprigs basil, four sprigs rosemary
- 1 small Japanese eggplant with four blossoms (Note: if not available, use other edible flowers such as borage, nasturtium or marigold)
- 1 medium zucchini squash
- 1 small head oak-leaf lettuce
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- drippings from the filets
- 2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
- salt and freshly-ground pepper
- Wrap one prosciutto slice around each of the filets smoothing to ensure the prosciutto adheres to the sides of the meat. Brush the top and bottom of each filet with olive oil. Set aside. Allow meat to sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes.
- Prepare grill.
- While grill heats, slice eggplant and zucchini into coins. Brush with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- Place the four filets on the grill. Grill for two minutes on each side just until marked
- Add the mini peppers, eggplant and zucchini to the grill. Grill on each side, about two minutes or until marked well.
- Remove vegetables and steaks from grill.
- Finish the steaks in a preheated 350 oven for 10 to 15 minutes to desired degree of doneness. Save the juices that collect as the meat finishes in the oven.
- On each of four serving plates, shingle the eggplant and zucchini in a circular pattern, a few slices per each plate. Add the bell peppers. Set the filets near the center of each plate. Place a small amount of oak leaf lettuce on each plate; decoratively adorn with sprigs of herbs and edible flowers. Sprinkle the lettuce with small amount of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Sprinkle entire plate with small amount of fresh cracked pepper and salt. Finish with a few spoons of the reserved steak juices on the plate, near the filet. Serve.