For Gourmet Live's 2012 Holiday issue, we return to this midcentury account of Christmas celebrations at New York's original Ritz-Carlton—because nostalgia is always in season. The Editors
When the Ritz-Carlton opened its doors in New York, around the turn of the century, it bore the unmistakable imprint of its progenitor's faultless taste. Like every Ritz Hotel, it was small to encourage exclusiveness. It was elegant, down to the least important detail. It combined contemporary smartness and convenience with old-fashioned dignity. Staff members were so carefully selected and so highly trained that for most of them the Ritz became a career. Traditions that grow up in this milieu are not lightly discarded: it was natural that at the new Ritz-Carlton the Christmas traditions of the Continent should survive even as over the years they absorbed some of the flavor of the New World.
Christmas at the Ritz was a season, not just a day. The weeks before the twenty-fifth of December were the gayest and busiest of the year. Every night the Ballroom and the Crystal Garden saw débuts and dances; the annual Junior Assembly and the Knickerbocker Ball always took place during these weeks, and the hotel was alive with music and laughter.
No New York gourmet worthy of the name would let December go by without coming to the Oval Room or the Oak Room to lunch or dine on our holiday pâtés, truffled birds, or venison specialties. The public rooms were banked with greens and scarlet poinsettias, and holiday gaiety was unabated through Christmas Eve.
But on Christmas Day itself, the old Ritz became a quiet home for its permanent residents and for their families and friends. Many of these groups were served holiday meals in their own apartments, but even in the public dining rooms Christmas dinner was a family affair. In most cases dinner had been ordered in advance, and no menu was in evidence. Most of the guests went to church in the morning, and the gentlemen, still in the striped trousers, cutaway coats, and top hats which were de rigueur for church before World War I, were apt to go straight from church to the Oyster Bar, downstairs next to the big kitchen. Since these precincts were forbidden to the ladies, the gentlemen, top hats and all, could stay themselves until the dinner hour with a dozen or so freshly opened oysters on the half shell.
One of the many Continental customs which we observed at the Ritz, to the surprise and delight of foreigners visiting the hotel, was the buffet display. At one end of the Oak Room stood a table on which were arranged all sorts of birds; turkeys, geese, capons, pheasants, partridges, of many sizes, still raw, but already stuffed with rich foie gras or truffles. Although one could not see a break in the skin, the faint shadow of sliced truffles showed beneath the skin against the snowy breast. The host could choose a bird from the display. It was then tagged with his name and scheduled to be served, perfectly roasted, at the appointed time. Perhaps you are one of those who remember, as I do, this spectacular effect, each bird on its own platter, each platter bedded in cracked ice, and the whole fancifully and tastefully decorated with Christmas greens.
Meantime, behind the scenes, in the great kitchen, there was a bustle and a flurry that had little to do with Christmas dinner, although all the elaborate pâtés and terrines of the season, even the festive bonbons and chocolates, were made there. It was our custom at the Ritz to give plum puddings and other specialties of the kitchen to our regular guests; many of our guests, too, ordered food gifts for their friends, and special wrappings and boxes marked with the Ritz crest were part of the gift. For many years, too, we served dinner on Christmas Day to about fifty disabled war veterans, and this party was a high spot of the season for the hotel staff and for many of the guests. The members of the staff, in their turn, were presented with Christmas fruit puddings made in our own kitchens and with turkeys and bottles of whiskey as well. Noël à la Ritz meant Joyeux Noël for all of us.