What Christmas dinner at the White House was like during the Victorian era (1889)

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Christmas dinner from the White House (1889)

Note: This article may feature affiliate links, and purchases made may earn us a commission at no extra cost to you. Find out more here.


What the Leading Ladies of the Land Recommend


Mrs Harrison’s Sausage Rolls — Mrs Noble’s Sauce — Mrs Kenna’s Regent Punch — Mrs Cullom’s Chocolate Creams

By Miss Grundy, Jr.

The leading ladies of Washington have been called upon to furnish a special dinner for your readers. They have responded nobly, and from the wife of the President to the leading society cooks of the congressional circles, have with their own hands written out recipes for Christmas dishes which their own kitchens have proved good.

The dishes they recommend are not expensive, and the dainties here described are all within the limit of a family with an income of $1200 a year or less.

State Dinner During the Cleveland Administration, 1889 - Courtesy White House Historical Association

The Christmas dinner of the President and his cabinet will be like yours. They will have their turkey and their plum pudding, and at the White House, the menu, which has been written out for you by the President’s cooks, will be as follows:


Blue Point oysters, half shell.

Consomme royal.

Bouches a la reine.

Turkey, cranberry jelly.
Potatoes duchesse. Stewed celery.
Terrapin a la Maryland.
Lettuce salad, plain dressing.

Mince pie. American plum pudding.

Ice cream. Tutti frutti.
Lady’s fingers, macaroons, Carlsbad wafers

Apples. Florida oranges.
Bananas, grapes, pears.

Black coffee

The cabinet officials will eat nearly the same, only Secretary Rusk will have to omit the mince pie, for that robust genial gentleman has dyspepsia.

Vice President and Mrs Morton tell me that their Christmas dinner will not include much more than turkey and plum pudding. “It is children’s day with us,” said Mrs Morton, “and we have a simple menu. We have few relatives to invite, and we give the day and the dinner to our five daughters.”

10 Victorian Christmas side dishes from the 1800s - most of which actually sound pretty good

Christmas dinner from the White House (1889)


Caroline Lavinia Scott HarrisonI begin my recipes with two from the White House. Mrs President Harrison has kindly written out directions for making delicious sausage rolls, and Mrs Mary Harrison McKee furnishes me a recipe for escalloped oysters prepared with macaroni. Mrs Harrison’s recipe is on a sheet of White House paper of the size of an ordinary business envelope. It is written in her own hand and it is as follows:


Make a light biscuit dough made with milk and let it rise overnight. In the morning, roll out thin and cut into shape with a biscuit cutter. In the centre of each, place a roll of sausage the size of a good-sized hickory nut and roll it up in the dough. After letting them stand in the pan for a few minutes, bake and serve hot.

These rolls are also good cold, and when children, we used to have them to take to school for our luncheon in bad weather.


Boil the macaroni soft, put a layer into a baking dish. Cover with oysters, pepper, salt and butter then another layer of macaroni, then a layer of oysters until the dish is filled. Bake.


The favorite breakfast dish in the chief justice’s family on a Christmas morning are cod fish balls. They will be made in a way undreamed of. Mrs Fuller learned the art when a bride visiting the chief justice’s Maine home. Two of his old aunts taught her. She prefaces the recipe with an injunction that the codfish should be carefully picked. Here it is:

Equal parts of cod fish and mashed potatoes, thoroughly mixed with cooked red beets chopped fine. Mold into balls, brown in the fat of salt pork, and garnish with the crisp bits of fried pork.


Mrs Justice Field’s Maryland Eggnog recipe

Mrs Field also gives the method of preparing a turkey for a Christmas feast:

The turkey should be cooped up and fed well some time before Christmas. Three days before it is slaughtered, it should have an English walnut forced down the throat three times a day and a glass of sherry wine once a day. The meat will be deliciously tender and have a nutty flavor. [


In connection with this, I give you a recipe for Regent’s punch, which Mrs Senator Kenna uses at her receptions. It is taken by her from Marion Harland’s cookbook, but Mrs Kenna uses it and she writes that it is delicious.

One pound of loaf sugar or rock candy, one large cup of strong tea (made), three wine glasses of brandy, three wine glasses of rum, one bottle of imported champagne, two oranges (juice only), three lemons, one large lump of ice.

“Tell your readers,” said a man, a gentleman of the old school, and in beverages as of cookery, “Tell your readers that better punch was never brewed.”


Now the English of it in a charming note from Mrs Hawley. She writes:

I had a plum pudding made last Christmas and followed my mothers recipe exactly, but somehow it did not taste like the English plum pudding. This, I think, was the reason. In England, the last Sunday in Trinity is “stir-up Sunday,” and everyone in the family — from the grandmother to the two-year-old — stirs the pudding.

Phipps has a picture showing this custom, where a little baby is held up by its grandmother who holds the ladle in its hand and guides it while it stirs. Each one, as he stirs, puts in a new shilling or sixpence for the cook, and the mistress of the house drops in a ring and a thimble. The one who gets the ring in her piece Christmas day will be married within a year, but the one to whom the thimble falls will be a spinster all her life.

The pudding is boiled the Monday following “stir-up Sunday,” but it is not touched until Christmas day. Then comes the poetical part of it: The butler brings the pudding in on a great platter and it is surrounded by delicate green flames made by burning the brandy which has been poured over it.

Now comes the test of the service. If there are a score at the table, each one must receive a piece that is still surrounded by flames. It has to be speedy work, and when accomplished is a beautiful sight to see at every plate a spiral flame, and in the platter, flames surrounding the bit of holly with which it is decorated. These things are the making of English plum pudding.


Mrs. Roger Q. Mills’ barbecued mutton has gained more votes for Corsican’s statesman than his free trade speeches. It is always prepared by Mrs Mills’ own hands, and the Texan who eats it never swerves from his allegiance. Mrs Mills has written it out with her own hand. It is as follows:

“Take a nice tender forequarter or only the ribs of lamb or mutton. Cut it across three or four times to break the bones so as to carve it easily. Put it in a flat stove pan, or better, on a broiler in front of the fire. Let it boil slowly. Take a pint of vinegar, add to it two tablespoonfuls of red pepper pods (cut up fine, much the best), teaspoonful black pepper, salt to taste, and two tablespoonfuls of butter. Keep this hot. Make a sponge of a piece of soft cloth, and all the time the meat is cooking, mop it with the dressing. When ready, pour on the rest of the dressing and serve hot.


Gumbo okra and gumbo file smack of the far south. The first is made in every southern household — the second only the Creoles of Louisiana know the secret.

Mrs Senator Walthall of Mississippi gives the recipe for the okra, and her daughter Courtnay, who spent some time in New Orleans, tells how the Creole gumbo differs from the other. Mrs Walthall says:

Cut up a fine-sized chicken as for fricasse, carefully picking it of bones. Fry with one half pound of bacon, finely chopped, and then add four quarts of water, one quart of tomatoes, one quart small okras. Season highly with red and white pepper and salt and simmer for four hours. Before serving, put one tablespoonful boiled rice in each plate and pour soup over it.

Says Miss Courtnay: “Gumbo file differs from this only in the adding of the tender roots of the young sassafras and the higher seasoning. Sometimes also Lima beans and green corn cut from the cob are added.”

Decorations and treats for an old-fashioned Christmas table (1910s)


Mrs Secretary Noble has a brown book with crinkly yellow leaves. She guards it carefully, for it contains the recipes garnered in twenty five years. She has copied them all herself, and here is her favorite and the secretary’s:

It has driven epicures to whom she has served it to rise and exclaim, “With such sauce one might eat one’s grandfather.”

“Sauce for pheasants, roast quail, croquettes or chicken” is the label, and these are the directions:

(We whisper in confidence to housewives that water does as well as broth, although she said Secretary Noble claimed he could tell the difference.) Heaping tablespoonful butter, tablespoonful sifted flour; rub well together. One half pint broth, two teaspoonfuls mushrooms, two teaspoonfuls catsup, two tablespoonfuls cream, two teaspoonfuls lemon juice. Put on to boil, stirring well. Then add yolks of two eggs beaten light, constantly stirring and never allowing to boil or it will curdle. When thickened by the eggs, serve or place in hot water until wanted.



Mrs Justice Miller is one of the most famous cooks in Washington. One of her favorite dishes she makes with her own hands, and no French or native cook has ever been allowed to touch the Christmas mince pie, fruit cake or fig pudding in the Miller household. Her mince pies are known everywhere, and lucky is the larder that will have one the night before Christmas.

She learned how to make them in St Louis years ago, and she especially demands of all who follow her that they use raw instead of cooked meat. Just there the Miller mince pie differs from that the world has known under the name. The best of the recipe Mrs Miller says she can not give to the public — that is the art of tasting. She can tell to a currant whether it is right, and acknowledges that at the last she often adds a grain more cinnamon or lemon juice.

Her recipe is as follows:

Two pounds raw beef chopped fine. Two pounds suet chopped fine. Four pounds good tart apples. Two pounds currants. Two pounds raisins. Two pounds citron. Two pounds brown sugar. One quart good New Orleans molasses. Four ounces of salt. One and one-half ounces mixed spices, cinnamon, cloves and allspice with preponderance of cinnamon. One half ounce of white pepper. Two nutmegs. Juice of choice lemons. One quart of brandy. One quart of cider. Mix dry parts with salt — that is, meat, suet and spices. Then put in apples, then fruit, then liquors, then sugar. Make two, and if possible, six weeks before using.

(Signed) E W MILLER


Vintage Christmas plum pudding


The wife of Congressman Burrows gives a recipe for Plum Pudding, and Mrs Senator Hawley tells how to make it. First the recipe. It is as follows:

Ten eggs, three loaves of stale bread (grated), one and one half pounds of beef chopped fine, one cup of sugar, one glass of brandy, one nutmeg, one pound of raisins, one pound of currants, one-half pound of citron — all chopped.

Beat the eggs, then add the sugar, grated nutmeg, and brandy. Beat all till very light. Mix the grated bread with the suet and fruit and put in the eggs next, etc. Boil three to four hours.


(Editor’s note: Yes, beef is mentioned in the ingredients but not the instructions, and suet appears in the instructions but not the ingredient list. Unfortunately, Mrs Burrows is no longer available to clarify.)


Here is a delicate morsel from Maine: It is Mrs Senator Frye’s recipe for spiced ginger bread.

Three eggs, one cup of molasses, one cup of sour milk, one cup of chopped raisins, one heaping teaspoonful of soda, two cups of flour, spice to taste.



Sweetbreads will make a good entree for any Christmas dinner, and there is not a better recipe than that recommended by the wife of ex-Postmaster General Hatton. It is as follows:

Boil the sweetbreads ten or fifteen minutes and put in cold water to take off the skin, When cold, cut in two, put in egg batter and roll in breadcrumbs. Put plenty of butter in frying pan and fry a light brown. Put on platter.

Put a pint of milk in a pan, thicken very slightly with cornstarch, let it boil up. Add a wine glass of sherry and pour over the sweetbreads.


Victorian era White House - Washington DC


Nearly all the Senators will eat their Christmas dinners at the capital, and to give an idea of their likes, I send you a sample menu. It is that of the Christmas dinner Mrs. Cullom has decided upon:

Raw oysters.
Clear soup.
Fish and cucumbers.
Sweatbreads and peas.
Roast turkey. Mashed potatoes.
Baked sweet potatoes, corn, celery.
Olives, cranberry jelly.
Timbales de macaroni.
Game and salad.
Mince pie.
Ice cream cake.
Fruit bonbons.


Mrs Senator Cullom is an expert in candy making as well as a maker of wonderful pies. Her chocolate creams always form a part of her Christmas cooking, and they will probably be made by thousands of your readers after her recipe is read. She has written it out carefully and warrants it good. It is as follows:

Grate a package of sweetened chocolate. Add two tablespoonfuls of water and set the bowl in a tin of water on the stove to melt. While melting, roll some of the cream into balls. Dip these, one at a time, in the chocolate, lifting out with a fork. Put on a buttered dish to harden. Use any kind of flavoring desired in the cream.


Christmas at Red Butte: A short story by Lucy Maud Montgomery, the author of Anne of Green Gables (1909)


[This dish] is recommended to me by Mrs Senator Blackburn. It is Swedish timbales, and I give the recipe as Mrs Blackburn has written it out for me:

One pint of flour, one-half pint of sweet milk, three eggs, two tablespoons of salad oil, scant teaspoon of salt.

Stir the flour and milk to a perfectly smooth batter. Add oil and salt, then the eggs whipped very light. If too thick, add more milk until right consistency.


One pint of cream, one tablespoon of flour, one pint cooked chicken (cut in small bits), four tablespoonfuls of chopped mushrooms, salt and pepper.

Put one half of the cream on to boil, mix the other half with the flour. Stir into the boiling cream. When this has boiled up once, add chicken, mushrooms and seasoning.


I cannot refrain from adding…


Jessie is the fourteen-year-old daughter of the attorney general, and is especially proud of the candy, because the President has eaten it, and the boys at school where her brother is say it is the best they have tasted.

No one will be able to make it, as Miss Jessie says most of the recipe is in her head. This is the way she tells it:

A cup of brown sugar, a cup of black molasses, and a big piece of butter. Don’t use confectioners’ sugar, or it won’t be sticky enough, and will taste just like the kind you buy. Try it by blowing through a curled broom splint and by tasting. It is two kinds of candy — if you pull it, it is taffy; if you don’t, it’s butterscotch.

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