A taste of 1854
By Brandy Welvaert, Staff writer
Photo: Todd Mizener
Willie Johnson, executive chef at Four Points by Sheraton, shows off the vegetarian meal that will be one of the three entree choices at the Henry Farnam Dinner Feb. 28 at the Rock Island hotel.
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The Mississippi River may be frozen over, but the cold weather isn't cooling the kitchen of Chef Willie Johnson at the Four Points by Sheraton in Rock Island. He's busy preparing for the Henry Farnam Dinner: A Countdown to Grand Excursion 2004.
The dinner will feature foods from an 1854 steamboat menu created for the original Grand Excursion, which celebrated the completion of the railroad line linking the Atlantic seaboard with the Mississippi River. Grand Excursion 2004 will re-create that historic celebration, which began in February 150 years ago. While participants can't ride a steamboat down the now-frozen channel, they can get a taste of the old-style steamboat fare.
The Henry Farnam Dinner -- named for one of the men who were instrumental in bringing the railroad to Rock Island -- will take place Feb. 28 in the ballroom at the Four Points by Sheraton. Sponsored by Quad Cities Grand Excursion Host Committee and River Action Inc., the event will begin with cocktails at 5:30 p.m., followed by dinner from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sponsors plan to use proceeds from the dinner to fund educational programs associated with Grand Excursion 2004.
After 150 years, more than the name of Grand Excursion is being revived; the menu's the same as well. After discovering a menu for a luncheon served during the inaugural Grand Excursion, committee members decided to replicate it for the Henry Farnam Dinner.
According to Chef Johnson, the menu will be conventional and delicious. "I think that things in the 1800s were simple," he said. "Foods that were popular then are popular today because they're traditional and just downright simple. Everybody likes them."
The 400-person sit-down dinner will begin with a tossed salad and a choice of dressings from ranch to vinaigrette, followed by a cup of steaming cream of celery soup. Guests also will enjoy a relish tray that includes pickles, cucumbers, green olives, green onions and cherry tomatoes.
According to the chef, fixing the relish trays will be the most time-consuming part of preparing the 1850s-style feast. He plans to start early the day of the dinner -- around 8 a.m. -- and he won't stop cooking and preparing until everything is done. He is the lone chef for the Henry Farnam Dinner, planning and carrying out the entire culinary part of the celebration on his own.
"He does it all by himself,'' said Jamie Derudder, director of catering at Four Points by Sheraton. ``Not a single sous chef. It's amazing."
Following the salad and soup, guests will choose one of three options for the entree: traditional spring chicken, a classic roast beef or vegetable lasagna. Of course, the vegetable lasagna isn't an exact replica of an 1854 menu item, but it provides a choice similar to the original lasagna for today's vegetarian diners.
The beef will be roasted, sliced and smothered with a rich mushroom sauce. It will be served with oven-roasted new potatoes with onions and garlic and green beans with onion and ham. The spring chicken will be a crispy, fried bird prepared with just the right seasonings and served with potatoes and green beans as well.
Dessert will be peach pie a la mode -- to tempt diners, perhaps, into dreaming of summer and Grand Excursion events to come?
From the soup to the pie, ``it's all easy to cook, although certain dishes take a lot of time in preparation,’’ Chef Johnson said. ``It will be a lot of fun because these are dishes I enjoy preparing."
The dinner will include a musical performance by singer/songwriter Henry Farnam IV and River Song Players, as well as contributions from Henry Farnam III, former Quad-Cities Poet Laureate Dick Stahl and Quad-Cities historian Roald Tweet.
Tickets for the dinner are $35 and include a choice of coffee or tea with the meal. A cash bar will be available. Contact the Quad Cities Grand Excursion Office at (309) 762-4500 or log on to www.grandexcursion.com for more information.
Following are two 1854 recipes provided by Chef Willie Johnson: Spring Chicken 1 whole chicken (2 1/2 to 3 pounds) cleaned, rinsed, and prepared for frying 1 cup Golden Dip Ready Mix 1 cup flour Vegetable oil for frying Salt and pepper Seasoning salt In a large bowl, mix together the Golden Dip Ready Mix and the flour. Roll pieces of cleaned and rinsed chicken in the mix to coat. Set aside. Heat on low a large skillet filled with enough oil to reach about half way to the top. Carefully increase the heat and add the pieces of coated chicken. Fry until golden brown and no longer pink inside. Remove from skillet to a serving plate. Cool for a few minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper or seasoning salt. Serves 4. Oven-Roasted Potatoes 12 red new potatoes, halved 1/2 onion, julienned 2 teaspoons chopped garlic Vegetable oil In a skillet, saute all ingredients until golden brown. Immediately transfer all ingredients to an oven-safe dish or pan and cook at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Potatoes will be soft to the touch when completely done. Serves 4.