On of the many things that we invariably associate with this holiday period is food — and lots of it. Whether we are celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah, which this year began on the evening of Saturday, December 24 and ends on the evening of Sunday, January 1, 2017, the preparation and enjoyment of special dishes figures prominently in the lives of many of us in the Western world. The result in a bountiful spread and, when caution is ignored, to weight gain.
Conspicuous consumption may be the order of the day at this time of year, but in the homes of late-nineteenth-century wealthy Canadians it wasn’t restricted to festive occasions like Christmas and Hanukkah. In the Montreal mansion of Sir William Van Horne, for example, even non-holiday weekday lunches and dinners featured a super abundance of food.
Sir William, the CPR president and polymath, loved to entertain, both in Montreal and on his sprawling New Brunswick estate, Covenhoven. In Montreal, it was not uncommon for Van Horne and his wife Addie to entertain on weekdays. Nor was it uncommon for the couple to lunch with friends at 917 Sherbrooke Street and then meet the same people elsewhere that same day for dinner.
Whether a weekday meal or a Sunday luncheon at the Van Hornes,’ the menu was extensive. Thanks to a diary, kept intermittently by the titan’s sister, Mary, we know that on Tuesday, January 3, 1893, eighteen people assembled around their Montreal dining room table to consume a dinner consisting of consommé, boiled cod with anchovy sauce, partridge paté,, ox plates with mushrooms, saddle of mutton, turkey with celery sauce, potatoes, peas, celery root, English pheasants with port wine sauce, frozen chestnut pudding, celery and cheese, Neaopolitan ice cream, pineapple water ice fruit, coffee and tea.
Who would argue that today’s festive meals pale in comparison with those of an earlier era in the homes of Canadian magnates. To learn more about Sir William, one of Canada’s most accomplished builders, I invite you to read my award-winning biography From Telegrapher to Titan: The Life of William C. Van Horne.