The American Gilded Age (1868 to 1900) and its extreme extravagance continue to be a source of wonder and fascination, particularly for foodies. The style and excessiveness of this era has ties to modern popular culture through books, films, and television shows, including The Alienist and the Julian Fellowes TV series The Gilded Age, on HBO.

The Gilded Age Cookbook transports the reader back in time to lavish banquet tables set with snow-white linen tablecloths, delicate china, and sparkling crystal glasses. Cuisine featuring rich soups, juicy roasts, and luscious desserts come to life through historic images and artistic photography. Gilded Age details and entertaining stories of celebrities from the era—the Vanderbilts, Astors, Goelets, and Rockefellers—are melded with historic menus and recipes updated for modern kitchens.

Becky Libourel Diamond is a food writer, librarian and research historian. She has been writing about food since 2008, parlaying her passion for food and history into the publication of The Thousand Dollar Dinner and Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School. She has also written about food and history for Eaten Magazine,Newtown Lifestyle, Dianne Jacob’s Will Write for Food blog, BookPage, Table Matters: The Journal of Food, Drink and Manners, The Historical Cooking Project, IFIS Food and Health Information, Prose Media and Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum. She lives in Yardley, Pennsylvania. Visit her at www.

Becky Libourel Diamond

It was a pleasure to have once again had the opportunity to chat with writer and historian Becky Libourel Diamond. We first spoke about her book The Ten thousand Dollar Dinner. It was a pleasure to talk with a second time about her new, immaculately detailed and research project, The Gilded Age Cookbook. (BAF) : Well, first of all, I wanted to congratulate you on your book, your new book.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Thank you. Yeah, I know and I’m really, and for this book, I’m thrilled that The Gilded Age TV show is supposed to come back in the fall for its second season, the one on HBO, and so I couldn’t have timed this better. And then with the holidays and everything, so hopefully, fingers crossed.

BAF: The holidays and everybody tries to cook fancy, somewhat traditionally.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Right, right. And I have that whole chapter on holidays, so that’s good too, yeah.

BAF: Well, did I read that you were somewhat involved with the TV show as a researcher?

Becky Libourel Diamond: I’m not. I wish I was. That would be my dream job. Yeah, I am not. And so this book is not in any way affiliated with the TV show. It’s just The Gilded Age in general, recipes and stories and such.

BAF: I should probably ask by getting a definition for your purposes and the book’s purposes of The Gilded Age.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yeah, so The Gilded Age, as we, not as we know, but it is known, from the book by Mark Twain, it was this period of time that it was golden on the surface. Everything looked great, gilded in that respect, but then underneath there was this level of corruption. The railroads were getting built out at a really quick rate, but there was no regulation in place. So that was happening and making people into millionaires. And then there was also, there were people living in tenements and squalid conditions and servants for the wealthy. So there was a lot of things going on that made it seem gilded, but then underneath, there were these shadowy, kind of undercurrents.

BAF: Well, what would the chronological time frame be, roughly?

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yeah, a lot of people say, I’ve heard it 1868 to 1900, 1870 to 1900. For my purposes, I kind of framed it from about that, 1870 to 1910, because I do feel like it goes into the next century and up until even the time of the Titanic, you know, right before that, so that’s how I’m defining it.

BAF: We’ve spoken in the past and you told me you live in Yardley, Pennsylvania.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yeah.

BAF: And so you’re living between two great Gilded Age cities.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Exactly. And that was really helpful and a great experience to write about those two cities. I grew up closer to Philadelphia because I’m from South Jersey originally, so that’s kind of my home city that I feel like is in terms of big cities. So I like to be able to put in things about Philadelphia in addition to New York, because everyone thinks New York when they think Gilded Age, I think. And it was, kind of the center in a lot of ways, but both cities played a large role in that era.

BAF: We’ve talked about this previously in your Thousand Dollar Dinner book where we really discussed just how big and how much money was in Philadelphia at the time. And it did rival New York, and I think you would even mention it had surpassed New York in a lot of ways for the elegance and for the tradition and the old money that was there.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Exactly, yeah. It really was this Gilded Age that kind of put New York more on the map as the food capital and a hotbed of culture and industry and everything. But before that, Philadelphia really was the kind of premier place. It was a little older, definitely old money, and that didn’t go away. It’s just that New York became a little more, I mean, it just had an overwhelming surge in population with the potato famine and a lot of immigrants coming in and everything. And then also coming out of the Civil War, people of color were moving north and had opportunities that they didn’t have in the past. So that was another… you know, that brought people to cities too.

BAF: Researching, you’re a research librarian by trade, and so I guess maybe came a little easier to you, but how did you go about compiling everything?

Becky Libourel Diamond:Yeah. Well, this book came about because in writing my first two books, Mrs. Goodfellow and The Thousand Dollar Dinner and just blogging all that time, I started a blog with the recipes. I was trying to recreate the historic recipes that I was reading about just to get a feel for them. And I had all these recipes gathered, and they were from this somewhat of a Victorian era too, which spans a little longer than The Gilded Age, but they overlap. And I just thought, why don’t I try to put all of this into a cookbook? I have these recipes done, and I really have done a lot of research on this era anyway for other things. So I just started with the recipes and tried to just pull out stories that I thought were really interesting and maybe not as well known in some cases and around food especially. And that’s just kind of how it came about.

BAF: Yeah. Well, I’m going to raise a point of contention in that this isn’t necessarily a cookbook as such. It’s a wonderful, I don’t want to say hodgepodge for lack of a better expression, but it’s part history, part trivia. I don’t want to, not trying to trivialize it, but it’s-

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yeah I know

BAF: …just a bit of everything thrown in there. So it’s more than a cookbook.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Right. And part of that is just because I write about what I like to write about and research, and I just thought, I always think to myself, if it’s interesting to me, then it has to be interesting to others, some other people anyway, so that’s how I kind of frame it. And this publisher, Globe Pequot, was all on board. I had this editor who just loved the concept of it. So it went from there. And I had the food stylist too, Dan Macey is a friend of mine, we’re both part of this Historic Foodways Society of the Delaware Valley. And he helped contribute some things too, ideas and recipes, and so he was great to bounce ideas off of. So it was a team effort in a lot of ways with the photographer too. This is a different type of book than my other two books where you need to have, I was almost like a project manager with, “Okay, we’re going to have a photo shoot here and this is what we need to do” and all of that. So it was a good… All the way around, it was a fabulous experience.

BAF: I was just going to mention, this book is a bit of a divergence story from your other two, which were just essentially books, stories, no real recipes.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Right, exactly. And so I’ll try my hands with this with the actual recipes, and then I also can put a little bit of history in there. But like I said, I thought, since I have these recipes already, I had done the work of taking them and recreating them, updating them for modern ingredients, all of that. So I thought, why not put it into a book? And my mother gave me, I have over here, these recipe cards that were in my family for generations, and I used some of those recipes too.

BAF: There’s certainly some marvelous recipes that really do, I think, in many ways, entail of what the age was about, things like lobster fricassee, which you just don’t see anywhere.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Right.

BAF: And you did touch on this where you didn’t just put the recipe in, these are somewhat updated and modernized so that they aren’t such a classic antique recipe.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Right, yeah, and you really have to do that because it’s not necessarily going to turn out the right way if you make it the way, exactly the way. And a lot of times their instructions are very vague. Recipes used to be written out, almost like a run-on sentence. So you need to specify measurements, the order of ingredients, something like we just take for granted today when we look at a recipe, we can kind of eyeball it, see the ingredients and how much, but they would be, put this here, here. I’m like, what? Go back to the beginning and what are they talking about? So it was just all of that to make it coherent and fit.

BAF: Well, certainly I think anybody who’s looked over Escoffier’s book, A Gilded Age, the man himself knows exactly what you’re talking about. It’s just a paragraph essentially.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yeah, exactly. And then things like cakes often call for 10 to 12 eggs. Well, eggs were a lot smaller then. So 10 to 12 eggs then might be a half dozen now or something like that, or not even. And then also, a lot of times they had a lot of eggs in them because the rising agents weren’t on the scene. Well, by The Gilded Age they were, but baking powder and soda, until that came in common use, they would use eggs to whip, to build a foam to make the cake rise. So there were more eggs in the cake too for that reason.

BAF: That’s something I would never have thought about is that the eggs were smaller. These must be some of the little details that you had to work out and it’s also a wonderful enlightening aspect of the cooking then?

Becky Libourel Diamond: Right, exactly. Eggs were smaller and milk, probably, was creamier and richer in a lot of ways. Now we have different grades of milk from skimmed to whole. There’s just a lot of things that would’ve… Chickens too would’ve tasted probably a little more gamey than now. Everything’s just so homogenized, which, not to get onto another subject, but that’s my next book, I want to write about processed food and how everything is not what it used to be. But yeah, so there was a lot of things that would’ve been different, and you just have to take that into consideration and ingredients that we don’t necessarily use today, but why not? Like rose water, orange blossom water, everything is chocolate and vanilla today as flavorings, but they’re were a lot of different, they used a lot of lemons. So yeah, things like that.

BAF:… it’s a wonderful thing to have.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yeah, absolutely.

BAF: It is unique and I think often underused.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yeah, I totally agree.

BAF: And now-

Becky Libourel Diamond: And you can’t  find it.

BAF: It’s mainly associated with more Middle Eastern food, but I guess it wasn’t always like that.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Right, exactly. And that’s the brand that I usually find in the stores. I think it’s all Alwadi or something and it’s great. It’s easy to find typically, or you can even get it online.

BAF: Well, we’re touching on these recipes. Were there any recipes you tried but were unable to really connect with or able to redo correctly simply because of the ingredient situation? Or you couldn’t quite get the measurements right?

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yeah. Probably the one that may have given me the biggest… I don’t know that there were any, I’m trying to think if there are any that I didn’t include all the way, but well, actually, so the lamb that we have in there, it’s a beautiful photograph that the photographer was able to capture, is like a rack of lamb. Dan, the food stylist, made it into a rack of lamb, and I think it was supposed to be originally some kind of roast in a different cut of lamb and you just don’t find that typical cut today. I forget if it was, I think it might’ve been a saddle of lamb, and it’s hard to find that cut and it just wouldn’t have presented as well. So we did it. And it’s not like they didn’t do a rack of lamb, but I mean, the way it turned out, it was beautiful. So yeah, something like that was probably where you might have to tweak it a little and still stay with the historical aspect, but just know that sometimes things change a little bit.

BAF: You were touching on the photography. There’s some great photos in the book. So you clearly had a great photographer, but you also mentioned you were the project manager.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Right.

BAF: Were you designing steps and things and concepts, or did you just let them do their work?

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yeah, I mean it definitely was a group effort as being the project manager, what some of that involved was, okay, can we take photographs at different locations? So Heather grabbed the photographer, hired some studio, and we did do two days of shooting there, and this is the difficulties of all the places where we found, there wasn’t a working kitchen necessarily where Dan could actually make anything there that he needed to do. But to backtrack, so Heather had things on her set that we could use as backdrops and whatever, but it was also the three of us, especially Dan and I, and again, my mother was so helpful with this because we have a lot of heirloom pieces that she has, China and dishes and such, that then we would use as the props.

Dan also has a ton of them just being a food stylist. So it was all about that. How are we going to frame the shot? And it was definitely a group effort. The two of them probably have a slightly better eye than I do, obviously, but it was a group effort, and if I didn’t see something the way I thought it, and I didn’t hesitate to say, “I don’t think we should do that.” And then in addition to her studio, we were able to take photographs at two offsite, well, actually it ended up being three offsite locations, but two with historic components. One was this Madison Hotel in Morristown, New Jersey and North Jersey that has two fully restored Pullman dining cars. And I wanted to have a section on the Pullman dining car because The Gilded Age wouldn’t be The Gilded Age without the railroads, so we had to include that and they let us film there. It was magnificent.

We’re actually going there next weekend ’cause I wanted to treat Heather and Dan and their spouses and we’re all going to go out to dinner. So that was one place. And then there was an Ebenezer Maxwell mansion in Philadelphia, which is a restored Victorian mansion that I’ve done work with them before. And their director, Diane Richardson, let us film there too, take shots there. So that was, again, just so, so helpful to do that. And then the last spot, we took some photographs one day at Dan’s, has a house in Chestnut Hill, and we took photographs there, out in his yard and for the summer entertaining section of the book. So yeah, I mean, all of that had to come together and we had to plan it ahead of time, and these are the shots we’re going to take. This is the food that we need to bring and all of that. So yeah, it was a lot.

BAF: The name Ebenezer Maxwell, I think more or less seems to define The Gilded Age. It’s a wonderful name.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

BAF: Well, was this a fun book to write? Because it was a departure from your previous works.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yeah, I mean, it definitely was fun and there was more research, like you notice, there is a lot of history in it. So all that research made it more, for me, like my other two books but then just actually weaving in the recipes and where they would go and the different events, Gilded Age kind of how does this relate to The Gilded Age? So it really was a lot of fun and interesting to do something a little bit different too.

BAF: Yeah, well certainly it came out very well I have to say.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Oh, thank you. Thanks, yeah.

BAF: Now, after doing all this work, hypothetically, and this is kind of a personal question, but would The Gilded Age be something that you would’ve been interested in visiting or inhabiting?

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yeah. Yeah, I would love to be just a fly on the wall at one of their balls, and mainly to see the food and just see, especially at these balls and these elegant dinner parties and everything, they just had these elaborate spreads. They show on The Gilded Age TV show with cold dishes, which would’ve been different fruits, vegetables, even meats set in aspic like a gelatin mold. And then they’d have embellishments with, they’re called Atèlettes with these skewers of little tidbits of food and just, they made things into a whole set. I think of it almost as, when I grew up, my grandfather had a miniature train display in the basement of his house, and the train would go through different cities, and that’s how I think of they would have these dinner tables laid out with a theme. One of Alice Vanderbilt had this 1888 dinner where it was just based on a theme of Roman mythology, and they had Neptune pulling his chariot and they had a real pond with real fish in it and just so over the top. And that’s what I would’ve liked to have seen, I think. Yeah.

BAF: That would be a fascinating time to have a seat at the table, at that one, for sure.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yeah.

BAF: I don’t know if I wanted to be a fly on the wall, I’d want to indulge in some of the food.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Right, yeah. I don’t know that I would’ve wanted to wear some of the dresses that the ladies wore because I always say, I don’t know how much the ladies were really able to eat ’cause they were so pulled in with the corsets and tightly wound there. So I don’t know how much they were actually able to eat at those things. But yeah, what I was going to say is the other place I would’ve liked to have seen, so cooking schools were a huge, really coming onto the scene, and I would’ve liked to have just participated in some of that to see the types of cooking that they were teaching at the time and how they were doing it, and the new technologies of the time. Like, look at this rotary egg beater, it does wonders you know? It would just be so interesting to me.

BAF: A meat grinder that clamps onto your table.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Right, right. Yeah, yeah.

BAF: Well, actually on a side note, again, I’ll edit this part out, but for my own curiosity. I was reviewing the interview we did before and you mentioned you were curious about a chef in New York, a French guy, who had a cooking school which catered to women and…

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yeah, Pierre Blot his name is, yeah, and I mentioned him in the book a few times, and I use a few of his recipes ’cause he’s just so fascinating. I still want to write a book about him. I’ve tried to pitch it in different ways, and at some point I’ve even thought about writing a historical fiction book about him, but it just… and I’ve tried different ways, but I just need to wait ’til I don’t have to have a real full-time, other day job to do, so I have more time to do that. Yeah, he’s fascinating.

BAF: Well, that was a good answer. Maybe I’ll leave it in. How’s that?

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yeah yeah.

BAF: I don’t know how you’re able to juggle everything ’cause this book must have taken a lot of time when you do, like you said, have a day job.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Right. Yeah, at the time when I was finishing this up last year, I was still part-time at Rutgers as a business librarian. Now, I’m full-time but I might, this is off the record, dial back to part-time again because I just… It is a lot and now all the promotion, but I get a lot of vacation time, so if I need to, I can just take a day here and there to do some things but it’s a lot to juggle for sure.

BAF: Well, are you having fun with the promotion?

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yeah, I’m really excited in two, well, it’s in mid-September. I’m going up to Newport to do a talk for the Newport Historical Society.


Becky Libourel Diamond: And then the next day I’m going to the Mark Twain Museum in Hartford. So that would be fun.

BAF: Newport has a couple of tinges of the Gilded Age.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yes, absolutely. So that’s a perfect place to go and just to see what else might come my way. Yesterday we had a fabulous event at this Elwood restaurant in Philadelphia. I know the chef Adam Diltz, and he and I have worked together before, and Adam did a five-course Gilded Age luncheon, and I spoke about the different foods and it was just so wonderful. A lot of friends came out and as well as people I didn’t know, some new faces, so it was just an amazing experience.

BAF: That looks like it was-

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yeah.

BAF: … that sounds like a lot of fun.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yeah, that was.

BAF: So what’s next for you?

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yeah, I mean, I think, well, and I do have a contract with my first publisher, Westholme, the one who, Bruce Franklin is the publisher’s name. He published my first two books and I set this up with him back probably during COVID time to write a book about processed food. But then this Gilded Age thing came in between and he’s fine. I mean, none of this, that’s the beauty of it, it’s not like it’s timely necessarily, it’s all history. But I know there’s been a lot written about processed food but what I want to do is, in doing all this research and when I go back in time to look at a recipe to kind of see how it evolved, it just made me think that if you go back 100, 150 years and just look at what people ate for breakfast and look at what we eat today, now we open a box and pour cereal or our coffee just comes, you know, all the convenience foods and how things became that way, how did we get from there to here?

And so that’s how I want to frame it is kind of the evolution of processed food. And luckily being at Rutgers, I can take what they call a short research leave to work on a chapter or something. And as long as I do a talk or write about it, to do something to prove that I’ve done the research and how it parlays to what I do as a business librarian. And there is a lot of industry involved in this processing. So I was going to do it for this fall, but I’m going to wait now because working on another chapter for Rutgers, for just a library-related book. So I’m doing that first, yeah.

BAF: It’s been great to talk to you in person, so to speak, because last time we were just on the phone, so it’s always nice to talk to somebody face-to-face.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yeah.

BAF: And it’s a wonderful book you have. I wish you all the success.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Thank you.

BAF: And I think throwing in my two cents, I think coming from an historical point of view and writing about food historically to talking about food of today, I think is an interesting combination.

Becky Libourel Diamond: Yeah, yeah. I always say there’s so much history we can learn through food. You know, in a classroom if you use food as a point to talk to your students because everyone has to eat and everyone likes food.

So it’s just interesting why did we eat something at a certain time and why did that fall out of favor necessarily? So that sort of thing.

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