Becky Libourel Diamond


Becky Libourel Diamond’s new book, The Thousand Dollar Dinner: America’s First Great Cookery Challenge, relives an extravagant dinner shared by friendly culinary rivals.

Heather Raub

One April evening in 1851, 30 wealthy men sat down at 6 p.m. for a lavish 17-course dinner in Philadelphia—and didn’t stop eating until 6 the next morning. The dinner grew out of a friendly culinary rivalry among the men, half of whom were from Philadelphia and half from New York, each group vying to outdo the other in hosting and paying for extravagant feasts that featured sublime cooking and  elaborate presentation. “Every year, these two groups would try to best each other,” says Becky Libourel Diamond, author of a new book about the luxurious Philadelphia dinner, The Thousand Dollar Dinner: America’s First Great Cookery Challenge (Westholme Publishing, 2015).

The 1851 Philadelphia meal earned the nickname of “the Thousand Dollar Dinner,” bestowed by the city’s newspapers, because its literal cost of $1,000 was exorbitant—equivalent to about $32,000 today. The New York guests were sufficiently impressed; they conceded having been outdone. More important, though, the dinner “showcased regional specialties and laid the groundwork for a distinctive American cuisine that could rival those  of Europe,” Diamond SCILS’97 writes in the book.

The meal’s chef, James W. Parkinson, a well-known Philadelphia restaurateur, was an early advocate of American cooking, and the 17-course menu he created relied heavily on locally sourced foods such as game birds, Delaware Bay oysters, and terrapin.

Each chapter of Diamond’s book details a course and the wines paired with it. The amount of food prepared and  consumed is astonishing; courses often included several different dishes. The seventh course, for instance, consisted of braised pigeon, lamb chops, turtle steak, and chicken fricassee. Three other courses included large assortments of ice creams, cakes, pastries, and puddings.

The dinner helped change the public’s perception of American cuisine. “Parkinson was making a statement that American cooking could be just as innovative as Europe’s,” Diamond says, “and that we have all of these outstanding regional foods. I think the dinner led people  to begin to look to America for excellent cuisine.”