The Thousand Dollar Dinner America’s First Great Cookery Challenge


In 1851, fifteen wealthy New Yorkers wanted to show a group of Philadelphia friends just how impressive a meal could be and took them to Delmonico’s, New York’s finest restaurant. They asked Lorenzo Delmonico to “astonish our Quaker City friends with the sumptuousness of our feast,” and assured him that money was no object, as the honor of New York was at stake. They were treated to a magnificent banquet, enjoyed by all. However, not to be outdone, the Philadelphia men invited the New Yorkers to a meal prepared by James W. Parkinson in their city. In what became known as the “Thousand Dollar Dinner,” Parkinson successfully rose to the challenge, creating a seventeen-course extravaganza featuring fresh salmon, baked rockfish, braised pigeon, turtle steaks, spring lamb, out-of-season fruits and vegetables, and desserts, all paired with rare wines and liquors. Midway through the twelve-hour meal, the New Yorkers declared Philadelphia the winner of their competition, and at several times stood in ovation to acknowledge the chef ’s mastery.

In The Thousand Dollar Dinner: America’s First Great Cookery Challenge, research historian Becky Libourel Diamond presents the entire seventeen- course meal, course by course, explaining each dish and its history. A gastronomic turning point, Parkinson’s luxurious meal helped launch the era of grand banquets of the gilded age and established a new level of American culinary arts to rival those of Europe.


BECKY LIBOUREL DIAMOND is a journalist and research historian who specializes in reconstructing eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American recipes. She is the author of Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School, also available from Westholme Publishing.

Becky Diamond


A culinary rivalry between two of America’s great cities. Perhaps this might have been the forebearer of what is so common these days, a cooking competition. A unique cast of characters, in a time where women were not as welcome at the table, not to mention the scandalous price of $1,000 are just a few part of the story that Beck Diamond detail in her new book The Thousand Dollar Dinner. It seems that this is an event which I think people really don’t know about.

Becky Diamond: Yeah, exactly. That’s what I’m finding when they hear about it. They’re just shocked that they didn’t realize that … Especially the cooking competition started back in the 19th century. I mean even before I guess people did something like that, but that this was such a big deal for back then.

BAF: How did you come to hear about it?

Becky Diamond: My first book is called Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School. Mrs. Goodfellow was a pastry chef and a caterer in Philadelphia in the early 1900s. When I was researching her I found out about this James Parkinson. They kind of overlapped in the 1830s and 40s. They were both confectioners, both made these really find baked goods. I’ve heard about James Parkinson and the fact that he’s the most famous for this thousand dollar dinner. Philadelphia newspapers at the time are the ones who came up with that phrase because it cost $1,000 to put on. It stuck, the name. I just went from there. I think this is a fascinating subject, especially with all the interest in all these Top Chef competitions and Cake Wars and all that sort of thing.

As I delved into it more and realized I can’t just talk about the dinner. There wasn’t enough just to talk about the dinner. I went on about the different foods that he served, why he served them, why the order was such. It was a different sort of, back then there was a transition between the service, meaning the service all the France, all the French style. It was developing into the a la russe, or Russian style that we’re more familiar with today where things are served in courses and then taken away after each course is done. The French style was always just to kind of bring out a lot of food at one time and display it on a table really for presentation purposes.

It was a neat time because that was going on, that transition. There was the rise of the restaurant. I think that was another big deal. Delmonicos was in it beginning kind of hay day stages. The fact that the first part of this dinner, so it face Delmonico, this was a big deal too. There’s just a lot of neat little factors that I could delve into and just explain why the history of this is so important.

BAF: It’s interesting because there has always been a great rivalry between New York and Philadelphia so that plays on that certainly.

Becky Diamond: Right, exactly. We think of it as fourth teams now and other things. It was going on even before that. It’s interesting.

BAF: There’s a certain elegance to it. I almost get the feeling that these are private clubs which were doing this. I gather just a group of friends.

Becky Diamond: Exactly. Philadelphia especially from the beginning they had these gentleman’s clubs.

BAF: That’s what I was thinking of.

Becky Diamond: Exactly. That’s who these guys were. They had the money. They had the time to do this.

BAF: Are there any names that people might recognize from the people involved?©

Becky Diamond: I searched high and low to find the names of the gentleman at the dinner and I could only find two. One of them is, his last name is Valentine. For some reason right now his first name is escaping me, but I’ll look it up real quick. The other gentleman, too, for some reason his name is escaping me too. I mentioned it in the book. Valentine, actually we don’t know his, is RB. He goes by the initials RB Valentine. He was from New York. She was in the insurance industry. He wrote about the dinner later. That’s how we know so much about it because he wrote a reflective piece about it later on, which is great. That’s how I could get a lot of the information. The other gentleman’s name was Joshua Price. He was a wealthy gentleman from an old Philadelphia family. One New Yorker and one Philedelphian were known.

In the book I kind of imagined who some of the other men might’ve been. The high rollers at the time, but we don’t know for sure.

BAF: So like half the fun just imagining.

Becky Diamond: Exactly.

BAF: You’re right in the middle between the two cities so it’s perfect spot for all this.

Becky Diamond: Right, exactly.

BAF: How did you go about researching something that seemed so lost? How did you compile everything?

Becky Diamond: I’m lucky, I actually … Now I live in Yardley, Pennsylvania, which is in Bucks County. Not too far from Philadelphia. Philadelphia is just a wealth of research. They have the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Library Company, which Ben Franklin founded years ago. Both of them are right next to each other. They both have old books and manuscripts, maps and graphics, other print pieces. Both of them were very helpful in my research. The Free Library of Philadelphia is another great place. Frankly, I can do a lot online at home. Google Books is a wealth of scanned books, especially the ones from my time period that are out of copy right now. A lot of them are scanned into Google Books. I can do a lot just from home, which is fantastic. Some online newspaper databases now are available by subscription so I can do that from home too.

BAF: That’s the beauty of the internet I guess.

Becky Diamond: I did have to go … One of the publications I needed to look through called Confectioner’s Journal. That started in 1875. That was started by James Parkinson. He was the editor. Rutgers, on the Bush campus, they have an archival library. I was able to go there. They have a bunch of copies so I went through those. That was another journey I had to make one day. You just have to look around and see what’s available and then just talking to people too like some experts. I talked to a wine expert, and oysters was another thing I went down, it’s not Cape May but it’s down in Salem County, New Jersey where they have a research lab. I got a tour of that. They explained to me about the oyster situation and all that. It’s like doing some reporting and some archival stuff.

BAF: This Parkinson, he was, maybe you could touch on him. Sounds like an really interesting character. Maybe you could talk a little bit more about him. You said he edited a journal as well, and he also came up with these dishes?

Becky Diamond: He was the son of two restaurant people. His father and mother both operated this inn called the Pennsylvania Arm in Philadelphia in the early 1800s. His mother was a confectioner. It was actually her business. There was the tavern and then the confectionery next door. It was a confectionery shop that took off. They decided to abandon the tavern and then just sell the cakes and ice cream and all the sweet goods. I guess James was their only son. He was the only one that I could find. They just groomed him to follow in their footsteps. He became a confectioner too, and also ended up partnering with his mother after his father passed away. He’s the one who brought their restaurant to the next level. He opened it up as a fine dining establishment.

He had a lot of innovative ideas. He was the first one to introduce visits with Santa Clause at Christmastime for people to come visit. He did invent a number of creations like pistachio ice cream was one. A lot of drinks that we think of as slushy drinks, but they did that. It’s almost like an alcoholic ice cream soda. One was called champagne frappe al le glasse. Literally translated means champagne hits the ice. It’s like a champagne, water, ice, and then this really cold champagne poured on top.

He opened up restaurants in a couple of different locations throughout Philadelphia. He even at one point, his last restaurant there was huge. It had a really big back garden area where they would have free entertainment including balloon launches and fireworks, music. He was providing all these things for a wide range of people. Of course it was mostly upper class. He also had a room just for the ladies. They called it a ladies salon in that restaurant. The ladies could go and have tea and lunch and just socialize.

Before this time period ladies didn’t go out to eat.

BAF: No, scandalous.

Becky Diamond: It was only men. He was very forward thinking in that way. Of course women would want to go out and have a place to go. He provided that for them. What happened to him is he overextend, which I think what happens to restaurants today. He was providing all these things free of charge. He also didn’t have anybody to help carry on the business. His parents, he took the business over from his parents, but he didn’t have any children to help him along. He just got overextended and he had to close that restaurant. He actually opened up an ice cream place in New York after that. He had a business in New York for about 10 years, and then he came back to Philadelphia and opened up another restaurant. He did that confectioner’s journal for about 20 years, so since 1875 to 1895 when he died.

It was very important. It was a trade publication for restaurants, restaurateurs, and people that were confectionery, pastry making. He just would provide questions and answers. He would answer questions. He would provide all kinds of commentary, recipes, kind of like tricks of the trade kind of things. It was actually very important and through history. He wore many hats for sure. He had a full life. He did have one daughter that I found, but she just didn’t follow in his footsteps with the restaurant business.

BAF: I don’t know if women really would do that back then.

Becky Diamond: I guess they would be confectioners. Like I said the other woman I researched, Mrs. Goodfellow, they would do that. As far as running a restaurant, you’re right, I don’t even know when that would’ve really first happened for women to run a restaurant themselves.

BAF: He sounds like a really interesting character. That magazine, the journal, must’ve been one of the first of it’s kind I would imagine?

Becky Diamond: I think it was. It just was really well received, well done. It’s fascinating to look at. It’s really big in size. It’s almost like a tabloid newspaper size. It’s just full of all kinds of information and pictures. He would have people writing in and stuff like that. It was just really neat to look through it.

BAF: It’s interesting, we were talking a lot about Philadelphia. It’s almost as if they were the underdog in this in the sense that New York even then was the favorite and it’s just assumed that New York would win this friendly competition.

Becky Diamond: Right.

BAF: Delmonico’s at the time was probably arguably maybe one of the best known restaurants in the country or maybe hadn’t made that status yet.

Becky Diamond: I think it probably was because at that point it would’ve been around for about 20 years. They definitely were well thought of and just highly regarded. They didn’t introduce the idea of the upscale restaurant to the United States, but they definitely helped revolutionize and perfect the idea. They became the standard. It’s funny, I tell people this all the time because I learned this from researching my first book, Philadelphia was actually the original food capital in the US. Philadelphia is a little bit older than New York. It was a port city, but still is, but that was significant. The fact that it was getting all kinds of goods from the Caribbean like sugar cane and exotic foods like coconuts and other exotic fruits. Ships would go around Spain and Portugal and pick up citrus fruits and other goods and then bring them around.

They would trade the wheat that was grown here in Pennsylvania. It was a whole cycle. Philadelphia really for a long time was the premier place for food. After the civil war and the rise of the gilded age that New York really took over in a lot of ways. At this time I guess Philadelphia was an underdog in a way. Like you said, especially because Delmonico’s was so well known. At the same time Philadelphia was still regarded highly for food too. They both were definitely rivals in this competition for sure.

BAF: I was in Philadelphia last year. I was really impressed. It was a fascinating city with the history and everything. It’s really quite a remarkable food city. Even there it doesn’t seem to get the respect that, I mean everybody knows about the cheesesteak, but everybody seems to forget that there’s a really vibrant food scene going on.

Becky Diamond: Exactly. There were a lot of factors back then, too, because also it’s location. Back in the 19th center, even before that it started. There’s this street in Philadelphia called Market Street. It used to be like in England, they have a High Street which is the main street. William Penn designed it that way. They started calling it Market Street because twice a week it would be roped off and they would have these markets. People would come from Lancaster, like the Pennsylvania Dutch country, and bring in all their dairy goods and meats and produce. There would be fish from the Delaware and [inaudible 00:17:24] Rivers. South Jersey had a lot of produce that it was shipped across the Delaware River. They had these low boats that would bring that across.

There was all kinds of things coming together, plus the exotic foods that come from the ships overseas. These markets were such a big deal. That’s, I think, a big part of why the food scene was so vibrant. The other thing is I guess in the Caribbean the slave labor, unfortunately, took off because of the sugar cane industry. Some of those people fled up to the east coast cities. A lot of them started restaurants. A lot of them were mulatto. They were excellent cooks. They called it their turtle cookery. They cooked turtle, green sea turtle and also terrapin. They were famous for that. A lot of them became caterers.

There was this whole influence. That was like a lot of French cooking influence too from Haiti and those areas. There was just a lot of…America has always been a melting pot. Philadelphia was heavy with the Quaker influence. There was also other groups that played a big role into what the food culture was. It was just really an interesting mix at that time for sure.

BAF: That’s why I think it’s such a fascinating city. People know there’s a history, but there’s so many layers to it there.

Becky Diamond: Exactly.

BAF: Can I ask a little bit about the dishes they served? You were able to find the recipes for some of them, if not all of them I believe?

Becky Diamond: I didn’t include them in the book because James Parkinson himself never wrote a cookbook. I could get some of the recipes from his confectioner’s journal, plus his mother wrote a cookbook, and so I took some from there. I just found similar recipes from the time, especially Delmonico recipes, and just picked a style of cooking that was popular at the time. I mentioned turtle was a really big deal. Turtle’s on his menu in several different iterations. They had a cold dishes course where they would cook foods and then set them in aspic, which is a savory transparent gelatin. We know jello now, you just open a package and add water. This they had to make it from scratch.

BAF: Hoofs or something?

Becky Diamond: Yes, calf’s hoofs and fish trimmings, any kind of meat, they would cook it that would have like it’s a rottenness consistency after cooking. They have to clarify. It was a long process. They would cover these foods in that transparent gelatin and they would be on display. It would keep them from going rancid too because this was before refrigeration. That would help keep the bacteria from getting to them plus they looked really pretty. That was one course. A lot of things that we really don’t eat anymore.

BAF: Some of the meals then were just so elaborate and long and detailed.

Becky Diamond: Yeah, exactly.

BAF: I think that must’ve been part of the show was who could produce the biggest or fanciest dishes?

Becky Diamond: Exactly. That was big. It was a lot about presentation. How they’re presented. They had these other things called pieces montees. Those were just sculptures made out of edible ingredients. They weren’t meant to be eaten, but they were edible. It was almond paste and cake and sugar made into these elaborate sculptures. That was just really for show, and display them on the table. I don’t know how long it would’ve taken to make that. It’s just amazing. So much has gone away.

BAF: The thousand dollars, was that the budget for each side or it just would’ve came out to, just happen to be? It must’ve been quite scandalous too at the time I can imagine?

Becky Diamond: I think, my understanding was that’s just what it came out to be. The men from Philadelphia had to pay that fee to James Parkinson. Although apparently one record of it said that he didn’t take any money for what he did, which I can’t imagine how he could’ve. He had to pay all of this staff. Each person had their own waiter. That’s 30 waiters right there. All his staff in the kitchen and everyone to make it happen. I think it was scandalous, but at the same time people were aware that other people were spending a lot of money. It’s funny, food is always been the thing, especially in the past, that separates the wealthy from the not-so-wealthy. If you’re wealthy you can have these sorts of foods. If you’re not, well you’re eating brown bread and beans. Philadelphia had a lot of money at that time.

BAF: After the dinner in Philadelphia, did these dinners continue? Did the rivalry continue in any way?

Becky Diamond: Again, the way it was written about was that these two groups challenged each other every year. This is the only year that they really ever wrote about and made a big deal about. I don’t know how long it continued on. This whole idea of eating clubs in Philadelphia, and still continues today, and always were very exclusive. Gentleman’s clubs, I think they were exclusive in other ways too. You have to be from this certain background otherwise you can’t come.

Actually in New York at Delmonico’s I was reading, there were other culinary competitions with other, not these two groups per se, but other groups. I think the whole idea, the showmanship of the chefs definitely continued through the 19th century for sure.

BAF: I was always curious because Princeton University, they don’t have traditional cafeterias as such, they have dining clubs as well or eating clubs which I find interesting. I guess they do have a cafeteria, but that’s their big social thing of eating clubs.

Becky Diamond: Right.

BAF: That must be a throwback.

Becky Diamond: I think so too.

BAF: What’s next? What are you up to after this book? Any other things in the works?

Becky Diamond: My next book I hope to write about another chef who’s name was Pierre Bois. He came to New York from France a little bit later in the 19th century, so around the 1850s or 60s. He opened up what he called his culinary academy. It was a cooking school. Just really, again, very progressive. He was trying to teach women how to cook French meals. He was beloved. Everyone just raved about him. At first, actually, he couldn’t speak any English. It took him a little while to acclimate to America. He would write articles. This one publication called the Galaxy, it was all popular then. The New York Times loved him. They raved about him. He actually took his kind of cooking show on the road. That was something else that was popular in the late 19th century. Of course it was way before TV and even radio. This is a way for chefs and cooking instructors to, they would take their shows on the road. That was the way that they would broadcast them and let people know about them.

He did that even up in Boston and just around the east coast. Eventually he fell out of favor. It’s not really clear why. Eventually the public didn’t want anything to do with him. By the time he died he was basically nobody knew him kind of thing. They forgot about him. I just find it fascinating what happened there. There’s the whole thing about the gilded age and how cooking was changing at the time. A lot of times men would do the shopping actually, which is so funny. The women would … He was also kind of marketing to the wrong audience. He would have different cooking classes. Some for servants, some for the women. They couldn’t always duplicate what he was trying to do because it was so intricate.

BAF: That sounds like the perfect story.

Becky Diamond: I think he was slightly chauvinistic too. I think that played into it, although I don’t know.

BAF: Was it chauvinistic or was that just the attitude at the time?

Becky Diamond: I think that was it.

BAF: Not excusing it but just it seems like a speculation as chauvinistic, but back then it was probably normal.

Becky Diamond: Right, it was accepted. That’s why I thought that was funny too that it was kind of talked about that he was. I’m like I would think that that was expected.

BAF: It must’ve been pretty bad then if people were talking about it.

Becky Diamond: Exactly. I want to find out exactly what and when that happened. The fact his cooking school just sounded modern, really. We’ll see what I can dig up about that.

© 2023

“Drenched in Champagne and Cognac, The Thousand Dollar Dinner is a delicious taste of our country’s first restaurant revolution. An equally light and luxurious read, this book will leave every food fanatic and history buff hungry for more.”—Maureen Petrosky, author of The Wine Club and NBC Today Show Lifestyle Expert

“From the first chapter to the last, The Thousand Dollar Dinner captivates readers with a sumptuous feast that would top any modern-day event. In this well-researched book, Diamond shows how American cuisine was sophisticated, elegant, and show stopping.”—Walter Staib, proprietor of City Tavern and Emmy Award–winning host of PBS’s A Taste of History


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *