There are several challenges incumbent upon those who try to recreate a meal from times long gone. First of all, the original ingredients might not be available. Secondly, trends and tastes have changed. Thirdly, you never really know exactly what the recipes were because they were written so imprecisely long ago.
Nevertheless, the folks who run Knoxville’s historic Mabry-Hazen House on Dandridge Avenue gave it the old college try last weekend when they invited guests to “dinner at the Hazens’ ” as it would have been served in an affluent Knoxville home in the 1920s. Nine of us guests attended and had a fabulous time — even if we did fudge a little on the details by making a run to buy wine during the middle of the dinner. (Knoxville, like the rest of America, was in the throes of Prohibition in the 1920s. Although illegal liquor often was served before and after dinner, there would not have been wine served with dinner, we were told.)
The Mabry-Hazen House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1858 and housed three generations of the same family from 1858-1987. It served as headquarters for both Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War. And today, the stately, elegant home showcases one of the largest original family collections in America of artifacts including china, silver, crystal and antique furnishings.
We have been to the Mabry-Hazen house before. Click here for a Blue Streak post about a scandal that made the house’s last resident, Evelyn Hazen, the first woman in the United States to win a lawsuit for breach of trust when she sued her fiance after he refused to marry her.
Last weekend’s visit was special because some of the velvet ropes were removed, allowing us to have access to several rooms not normally open for the public to enter. We actually ate at the real dining room table. And the food and drinks were not only interesting, they also were delicious. Dinner was by HeartFire Culinary. Libations were by Craft Accommodations.
Hollis explained some of the challenges of this meal prep. The chef was tempted to put a little horseradish in the plain deviled eggs, but Hollis said no. That would not have been done during the ’20s. Also, he had to insist that canned salmon be used for the salad — fresh salmon, which might be used today, was not available. Both appetizers were delicious, by the way.
The deviled eggs were creamy due to the use of mayonnaise, which started to be used as a binder in 1896. Canned salmon was available on the West Coast starting as early as 1864, Hollis said, and it gradually became more widely available. With the industrialization of the food processing industry, grocery stores sprang up. Piggly Wiggly came to downtown Knoxville in the 1920s, he said, citing a Knoxville newspaper ad for the store. Even so, Knoxville’s Market House on Market Square continued to thrive.
The next course was Cock-a-Leekie soup, a reminder of this area’s Scotch heritage. “It was thrifty,” Hollis said. “All you needed was an old rooster and some easily grown leeks.”
Speaking of Scotch heritage, this was a time during American history when immigrants were pouring in, bringing with them all kinds of new foods and new ingredients. There was, of course, a push-back, which was a rebellion against things that sounded too “high falutin’ ” or fancy. Thus, the next dish was called “Trout in Egg Sauce.” “Egg sauce” was just another name for “Hollandaise sauce,” which was too “foreign-sounding.”
At this point, Hollis explained, diners in the 1920s took about a 20-minute break and left the table. This gave the men a chance to step outside and smoke and the women time to freshen their makeup.
In our case, some of the men made a wine run, with Alan driving, to the Downtown Wine + Spirits store just a mile or two away on Gay Street. The rest of us explored the house.
Soon, we were called back to dinner — this time with wine glasses on the table!
Hollis said that many of the recipes for the evening were inspired by the “women’s sections” of Knoxville newspapers of the time. “The Household Hints column was a godsend,” he laughed.
Dessert was berry ice cream. “During Prohibition, ice cream became the new American vice,” Hollis said. “Soda fountains took the place of saloons.”
This charming evening was a fundraiser for the Mabry-Hazen House. Tickets were not cheap — they were $180 each. But it was a night we will not soon forget.