What we now think of an a Waldorf salad began life as a simple fruit salad, a combination of apples, celery and mayonnaise, served chilled as a palate cleanser after the main course of large formal meal.  It was the creation of Oscar Tschirky, maitre d’hotel of New York City’s Waldorf Hotel (originally located where the Empire State Building now sits, the Waldorf was precursor to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, which came into being when the Waldorf and Astoria Hotels merged in 1930).  Oscar served as maitre d’hotel of the Waldorf from its opening in 1893 until he retired in 1943.  Most references say that Oscar created the Waldorf salad for a private “society supper” celebrating the Hotel’s opening. In any case, Oscar’s recipe appears in his cookbook,The Cook Book by Oscar of the Waldorf, published in 1896.  It reads as follows:

“Peel two raw apples and cut them into small pieces, say about half an inch square, also cut some celery the same way, and mix it with the apple.  Be very careful not to let any seeds from the apple be mixed with it.  The salad must be dressed with a good mayonnaise.”

Other ingredients, like chicken, grapes and nuts, came later (nuts had been added by 1928,when they appeared in a recipe in The Rector Cook Book).  The salad was so popular that Cole Porter included it in the lyric for his 1934 song “You’re the Top”, sung by Ethel Merman in the Broadway show “Anything Goes.”

Oscar himself was one of the most colorful characters in New York society in the 1890s.  Born in Lode, Canton de Neuchatel, Switzerland, he immigrated to the United States in 1883.  He found employment at Hoffman House, a hotel located at 26th Street and Broadway, by 5pm on the day of his arrival.  By 1891, he was on staff at Delmonico’s, then at 5th Avenue and Broadway, New York’s first and most famous restaurant, where he rose to head of catering.  

When the Waldorf asked him for employment references, he provided only one, a testimonial he drafted and followed with ten pages of signatures from many of the most famous people of the day.  The Herald described him as “a friend of gourmets and epicures, a confident of swelldom.”

It is unsurprising that the likes of J. Pierpont Morgan insisted that no one but Oscar wait on him in the Waldorf’s dining room.  Oscar once wrote that “To eat one’s fill merely to appease one’s appetite without finesse or selection is an avowal of barbarism worthy only of the wild beast or the savage.  To savor and enjoy a banquetone of our modern achievements of culinary art and imaginative effect exemplifies an enviable degree of race development in mind and manners….. I admit frankly that when I am called upon to tempt the appetite of a cultured gastronomic organ, where eye and ear must serve as a whet, I receive my greatest delight and inspiration.  Add to this order that other carte blanche which lays no limit upon expenditure then indeed one realizes that he has received a summons to create a work of artistic good cheer that should live in the memory of every participant.”

The fascinating part is that, although he influenced the Waldorf’s menu, regularly provided recipes to the press, and wrote a cookbook, Oscar was never a chef.  Despite his carefully cultivated image as a culinary superstar, his positions were always administrative or managerial; he supervised a staff of 1,000 at the hotel, including the culinary staff, and conducted the only school for waiters in the United States.

He weighed in on one of the major professional controversies of his day, the question of tipping, which had long been a custom in Europe, but which was not common in American restaurants.   Oscar argued that guests should never be compelled to tip a waiter, nor should a waiter ever indicate that he expected a tip.  Americans, a famously independent lot, would decide on their own what to do with their spare change; if a guest liked the service, he would tip accordingly.  Interestingly, waiters of the period also opposed tipping, on the grounds that “the waiter should not be dependent on charity for adequate compensation”, as the World newspaper put it.  They preferred higher wages. On the subject of “pooling” waiter’s tips, another common European practice, Oscar was even more adamant.  Not only would pooling result in an unjust distribution of funds (the careless worker would receive the same benefit as the conscientious) but, when a guest pulled out his wallet to pay the check, it would not be just a single waiter pausing to gauge the size of his tip, the entire dining room staff would stop to observe him.

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