The 12-hour, 17-Course Showdown

Author Becky Diamond, trained at Rider and Rutgers, recounts 1851's epic "Thousand-Dollar Dinner" pitting New York against Philly.

Philadelphia's triumphant chef, James W. Parkinson

On January 7th at the Princeton Public Library, author Becky Libourel Diamond will discuss a culinary competition that predates the Food Network by more than a century. In fact, it is legendary, and much more than ego was at stake. This was a battle between cities: New York versus Philadelphia.

Author Becky Libourel Diamond

Author Becky Libourel Diamond

Diamond will recount what was known as The Thousand Dollar Dinner, a 12-hour, 17-course grand bouffe to determine which city could create the most outlandish and unsurpassable feast.

In early 1851, 15 wealthy New Yorkers invited a group of Philadelphians to a sumptuous, money-is-no-object dinner at Delmonico’s, then New York’s finest restaurant, to prove their city’s culinary superiority. Not to be outdone, the Pennsylvanians commissioned chef James W. Parkinson to outdo the Delmonico’s dinner at his noted Philadelphia establishment, Parkinson’s.

The New Yorkers took a steamboat down the Raritan River to Amboy, then a train to Camden, then three carriages on a steam ferry across the Delaware River to Philadelphia.


thousand-dollar-dinnerOn April 19th, as Diamond writes in her book, The Thousand Dollar Dinner, “The guests sat down at 6 pm and did not rise from their chairs until 6 am the next morning.” The dinner “reputedly cost the Philadelphians $1,000, an enormous sum equivalent to perhaps thirty-two times that amount today.”

Diamond calls the meal a “gastronomic turning point [that] helped launch the era of grand banquets in Nineteenth Century America.” Occurring at a time when each city had only a couple hundred restaurants, the news-making dinner was just one factor in the growth of restaurants across America.

“In 1850, Philadelphia had 254 restaurants,” she writes, “and New York City went from having about 100 restaurants in 1847 to over 5,000 by the 1860s.”

Diamond, a native of Medford, earned a journalism degree from Rider University and a Masters of Library Studies from Rutgers. Her first book was 2012’s Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School, about the widow Elizabeth Goodfellow, renowned as the creator of the first lemon meringue pie. Goodfellow in the early 1800s ran the first cooking school out of her Philadelphia pastry shop.

In Diamond’s new book, she uses her skills as a research historian to examine the food and wines of each course of the magnificent Philadelphia meal and explain the historical and cultural significance of ingredients like turtle, which appeared in multiple dishes.

“The turtle was so popular in the Nineteenth Century,” she says. “Sea turtles were so big they could serve a crowd; turtle soup, turtle steak, they were eating this huge animal and making all these different dishes.”

Sea turtle. Photo:

Sea turtle. Photo:

Like many Victorian dinners, the meal began with oysters, Diamond devotes her first chapter to a discussion of the history of the American oyster and why Parkinson chose to pair them with a Sauterne.

From there the meal ambled through soups, fish, boiled and cold dishes, two entrees, a roast course, vegetables, a palate cleansing ‘coup due milieu’ sorbet, game, turtle, pastry, confections, ice cream, fruit, nuts and, finally, coffee served at dawn. Diamond discusses each course in terms of how it reflects the cuisine and customs of the era.

The second half of the duel, in Philadelphia, took half a day to complete, but midway through the meal, the New Yorkers stood, declared the Philadelphians the winner and gave them a resounding ovation.

Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, details of Becky Diamond’s 7 pm talk HERE

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