Photo: Keri Wiginton / Chicago Tribune
The buck stood in the doorway of the dinning room atop a thin layer of leaves. He was hulking, weighing in at 250 pounds, and looked as “natural as life.” A quail pecked at food around his hooves, unbothered by the orchestra pumping in the background or the hungry aristocrats streaming past. The crowd had traveled in from New York City, Montreal, Paris, and Vienna, with meat on their minds. They were in town, as the New York Times reported on November 21, 1886, for Chicago’s Greatest Feed.
Long before Charlie Trotter diced vegetables or Grant Achatz picked up a blowtorch—hell, before the railroad companies opened up the Union Stockyards—John Drake turned Chicago into a foodie destination. The Ohio native was an unlikely gastronome, in that he spent virtually no time in a kitchen. Instead, Drake operated hotels, originally in Cincinnati and then as steward (and eventual owner) of Chicago’s Tremont House, described in Edward Wagenknecht's 1964 book, Chicago, as the city's "first hotel of metropolitan proportions."
Between 1860 and 1880, Chicago's population would more than quadruple, but in 1855, when Drake arrived, it was still very much a frontier town. And it was teeming with game. Hunters didn't have to travel further than the modern city limits to find an abundant supply of wild geese, turkeys, and prairie chickens. According to Edwin O. Gale’s "Reminiscences of Early Chicago," a local pioneer once killed a 400-pound bear that occupied a tree near where LaSalle and Adams now intersect. The Tremont's earliest guests, from the hotel's front steps, could shoot shoot ducks swimming in the surrounding marshland.
What better way to harness those local resources and build his reputation in a new city, Drake thought, than by hosting an elaborate dinner party for elite guests? The menu would feature the region's finest game, in quantities and variety unavailable anywhere else—Manifest Destiny on a plate, served up by Mr. Drake.
The first meal, in 1855, drew just 40 people. But what started as a relatively modest affair grew quickly in both popularity and culinary ambition. On a Sunday afternoon in 1860, for the fifth anniversary, the proprietors of the Tremont supplied 20 different meats. In 1864, the menu featured 25 cuts. Three years later, Drake served up 26. Basically every newspaper article published about the event included a variation of this phrase: "the dinner is bigger and better than the year before." Invitations, meanwhile, were rarely turned down. "To be invited to one of these dinners was a sign that a young man had been accepted by the business community," wrote Emmett Deadmon in his book, Fabulous Chicago (1983). "Which in Chicago was identical with being accepted socially."
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was both a blessing and a curse for Drake. Like 17,500 other buildings torched by the inferno, the Tremont House burned to the ground, and its owner was only able to salvage the money from the safe and a few pillowcases full of silver before the gorgeous structure collapsed. His game dinner, scheduled for the next month, was postponed indefinitely. On Drake’s walk home, however, he passed the Michigan Avenue Hotel at Congress Street (where the Congress Hotel now sits) and noticed that it was still standing. Feeling ambitious, he strolled into the lobby, found the owner, and plopped $1,000 in cash from his moneybox on the man's desk—enough to cover an advanced payment on the hotel’s lease and furniture. The startled hotelier, convinced the flame would engulf his property like everyone else's, hastily drew up a contract handing control over to his competitor before fleeing to safety.
Drake was rewarded for his courage. The next morning, when he strolled down to the edge of the burned district, he found the Michigan Avenue Hotel standing along the boulevard, still untouched. Immediately, Drake renamed it the Tremont House and enlarged it by taking in some adjoining buildings. Because so few hotels were still operational, the new Tremont faced very little competition; between 1871 and 1875, Wagenknecht writes that Drake "did a rushing business." Those new profits allowed him to purchase, in 1874, the lease of the famous Grand Pacific Hotel. They also subsidized his game dinners, a tradition he would resume at the new location—and with renewed enthusiasm—the following year. "The game dinners given heretofore by Mr. Drake at the old Tremont House was one of the features of Chicago and the West," the Tribune wrote on November 7, 1875, "and we are glad to see he intends to keep up the custom."
So were the lucky invitees. For 18 years, beginning in 1875, Drake threw an annual party like nothing the city had ever seen (or would ever experience again). The guest list was massive. By the mid-1880s, over 500 people routinely attended, including luminaries like former President Ulysses Grant, Gen. Philip Sheridan, and Marshall Field. Every nook and cranny of the Grand Pacific ballroom was covered in flowers, ferns, and smilax, simulating the forests from where their food was gathered. Stuffed birds and fowl were perched above the greenery, their wings outspread. Tables were set with the "daintiest of china and glass" (Tribune; November 22, 1885). A game piece and an elaborate display of confectionery served as the centerpiece. "In a conspicuous place of honor," the Tribune noted in 1888, "was set a cute little black bear cub, harnessed in dainty scarlet ribbon, and was ridden by a squirrel which announced itself the prize ‘bare’ back rider."
The menu was just as outrageous as the decorations. Under Drake's exacting supervision, a well-drilled army of waiters—often more than 100—brought out course after course of the rarest meat imaginable: ham of black bear, leg of elk, loin of moose, buffalo tongue, ragout of squirrel à la Francaise, roasted Sand Peeps. Diners could sample over 40 different animals. It was an orgy of flesh, or a "saturnalia of blood," as Stefan Bechtel wrote in his book Mr. Hornaday’s War. Deadmon pit it more delicately: "The standards of Chicago were those of the gourmand rather than the gourmet."
What made the later banquets even more impressive was the increasing lengths to which Drake had to go to procure his food. Game was much more scarce in 1890 than it was in 1855, particularly in Chicago, which developed rapidly after railroad companies laid tracks around the Chicago River. Instead of hunting in his own backyard, Drake contacted suppliers by telegraph, who would then kill and ship the animals to Chicago in refrigerated locomotive cars. Each November, the meat would pour in—at great expense—from the Rockies and Catskill Mountains, the shores of the Chesapeake and the swamps of the Carolinas. "A game dinner," a Tribune reporter observed in November 1885, "now means a great deal more than an expert shot and a good cook."
By 1894, the advance planning needed to pull all of the ingredients together proved to be too much for the elderly entrepreneur. "With the glory of the World’s Fair full upon it," the Chicago Tribune wrote on November 14, John Drake decided to discontinue his celebrated game dinner. The following November, he died.
Fifteen years later, members of the Union League Club attempted to revive the tradition, throwing a dinner for 300 men that "furnished a menu that compared favorably with those old times" (Tribune; December 9, 1909). The reboot lasted just one year. In a letter to a friend, printed by the Tribune in 1957, Drake-era regular Martha Freeman Esmond said her husband "came home somewhat disappointed," adding that the Union League's shindig was "a fair substitute … for those who hadn't had that privilege" of eating with Mr. Drake.
For those who had lived to experience Drake's feasts, anything else was just a mediocre imitation.