Thanksgiving at Winterthur

Chinese Parlor

Henry Francis du Pont enjoyed fresh floral arrangements in the house, Chinese Parlor

Winterthur founder Henry Francis du Pont was known as a great entertainer. He meticulously planned his dinner parties, overseeing every detail, from the china, silverware, and table linens to the floral arrangements and menu courses. It would be reasonable to think that Thanksgiving would be similarly grand, but at Winterthur, Thanksgiving was dinner for two, a low-key affair.

Every year, Henry Francis and his wife, Ruth Wales du Pont, went out to a Thanksgiving lunch, about which little is known today. We do know that it was tradition for du Pont’s cousin Irénée du Pont to host a Thanksgiving lunch for the du Pont cousins at his home, Granogue, which is actually located right behind Winterthur. So it is most likely that Henry Francis and Ruth would have attended this lunch.

Irénée’s large family of ten children and dozens of grandchildren would sit at one long table, covered with a giant and heavily starched cloth. Almost every year, one child would pour a cup of water on the tablecloth and then, giggling, would pass it along carefully down the table until it fell onto an unsuspecting adult lap. The children also liked to pass all the salts, cruets, and silver whatnots to the head of the table in front of their grandmother. She usually did not notice until she was completely taken over by them.

It is quite possible that this sort of roiling boil of a family lunch explains why H. F. and Ruth preferred a more civilized dinner on Thanksgiving night. Although the two rarely dined alone, they always did so on Thanksgiving. The cook’s orders every year were: no lunch and a 4-course dinner for two at 8:00 pm. The two would have a martini in the drawing room and then move into the dining room, where dinner was served by the butler. It is possible that since this was such a small dinner, the butler’s staff of three footmen were given the evening off.

Baltimore Drawing Room

Baltimore Drawing Room

In 1955, the cook’s orders were for soup, then lamb chops, green beans, and corn, then Roquefort in aspic and finally chocolate roll. In 1956, sorrel soup, then guinea, carrots and eggplant, then salad, cheese, and fruit. In 1957, orders for the 4-course meal included cream soup, vegetable course, then wild duck and salad, and pumpkin pie. In 1958, clear soup, crabmeat, vegetable salad, snow pudding, and cookies.

Where was the roasted turkey you might ask? In fact, the du Ponts ate lots of turkey, usually small ones, often with hominy, a continuation of the 19th-century Winterthur menus served by du Pont’s parents. The du Ponts were proud of growing most of their food. In addition to the well-known dairy cattle, the 2,000-acre Winterthur estate supported beef cattle, sheep, and hogs for meat; a poultry operation, including turkeys; a five-acre vegetable garden; extensive orchards; fields of hay, wheat, barley, corn, and alfalfa to help feed the livestock and everyone living on the estate, including the help. Enough turkeys were hatched on the farm every year so that all the employees were given them to enjoy for their Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

Winterthur staff's Thanksgiving, 1956

Winterthur staff’s Thanksgiving, 1956

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