The Inimitable Lake George Chowder Party
By Lisa H. Hall
Friday, April 22, 2011
“Lake George Casual” – inscribed across invitations today – had a somewhat different meaning in the 1890s, when John Boulton Simpson issued invitations to his “Lake George Chowder Parties.”
Simpson, as most people know, was the New York City businessman who, along with four other investors, purchased Green Island and built the Sagamore Hotel in 1882. They also built cottages for themselves on the island, and spent the long summers entertaining themselves and one another with regattas, cruises, balls and informal parties. Simpson’s “Inimitable Chowder Parties” as the Lake George Mirror called them, were among the latter. By 1891, they were “Regular features of life at this popular resort.”
Preparations for the chowder parties began early in the day. Levi Pratt, the “boss” chowder manufacturer of Warren County, according to the editor of the Lake George Mirror, brought the ingredients – for the chowder as well as the party – to the Sagamore docks. With the aid of six men and a corps of waiters, mostly African-American, Pratt loaded the 12 foot long trestle tables, linens, silverware, glasses and dishes, including the huge bowls from which the chowder was served, into Simpson’s steam launch, the Caprice. Everything was then transported to the site of the party, Gull Bay, Tongue Mountain or Indian Kettles. At 11 am, some thirty guests, each given a boutonniere on arrival, would board Simpson’s “flag ship,” the 80-foot Fanita.
“Commodore J.B. Simpson of the Lake George Yacht Club does nothing by halves, and when he purposes giving a party on board his handsome steam yacht, guests may rest assured nothing will be lacking to make the affair the most enjoyable. Wednesday of this week, the Fanita steamed down the lake, skirting the east shore in and out among the emerald gems scattered through the Narrows. The day was glorious. The sun shone over the waves, gilding their crests with bright touches of gleaming splendor as sparkling as diamonds.” Thus wrote the editor of the Lake George Mirror about the start of one such chowder party, held in September 1891.
Once Levi Pratt and his crew arrived at the site selected for the chowder party, the tables were erected, places set and the branches in the trees above strewn with pennants, burgees and bunting. Then the Fanita and Simpson’s guests arrived. “A landing was effected and the chowder compounded,” to quote the Lake George Mirror.
Although the parties were informal affairs when compared with the balls at the hotels, the chowder parties were not like picnics of today. The table settings were formal, the men attired in three piece suits, and the host outfitted in his commodore’s uniform.
“The eatables and drinkables were the best the market afforded,” the Lake George Mirror routinely reported. A bottle of champange was placed before each man. Not surprisingly, “Speeches were made after the inner anatomy of mankind was satisfied and many interesting stories told by the chowderites.” The party would last through the early evening, when the guests would return to the Fanita for the trip home, “well pleased with their trip, commodore Simpson’s hospitality and the chowder.”
Should anyone wish to revive the tradition of John Boulton Simpson’s Chowder Parties, we provide this local recipe from 1890.
A local chowder recipe, circa 1890:
4 lb. Perch or other white fish
4 cups potatoes cut in 3/4-inch cubes
1 sliced onion
1 1/2 –inch cube fat salt pork
1 tablespoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons butter
4 cups scalded milk
8 common crackers.
Order the fish skinned, but head and tail left on. Cut off head and tail and remove fish from backbone. Cut fish in two-inch pieces and set aside. Put head, tail and backbone , broken in pieces, in stewpan. Add two cups cold water and bring slowly to boiling point; cook twenty minutes. Cut salt pork in small pieces and try out, add onion and fry five minutes ; strain fat into stewpan. Parboil potatoes five minutes in boiling water to cover; drain and add to fat; then add two cups boiling water and cook five minutes. Add liquor drained from bones, then add the fish; cover, and simmer ten minutes. Add milk, salt, pepper, butter and crackers split and soaked in enough cold milk to moisten, otherwise they will be soft on the outside but dry on the inside. Remove crackers, turn chowder into a tureen, and put crackers on top. Pilot bread is sometimes used in place of common crackers.