Christmas in the White House: President Benjamin Harrison’s Carlsbad Wafers and His 1890 Christmas Dinner

President Benjamion Harrison
President Benjamin Harrison

President Benjamin Harrison, being a card-carrying participant of the Gilded Age, and his wife Caroline Scott Harrison served an unusual dinner on Christmas day, 1890. (The menu follows below.)

Carlsbad Spa Wafer
Carlsbad Spa Wafer

Unusual in one way. Carlsbad Wafers.


The mention of Carlsbad Wafers stopped me in my tracks for a minute. Like a curious cat, whiskers trembling, I dug a little bit in the darkness of Google and came up with a most interesting  historical blurb, found on the California Wine Wafer Web site. These nearly paper-thin wafers (lázeňské oplatky) supposedly originated in the spa town of Karlovy Vary in Czechoslovakia. Apparently, the oplatky, as they are called in Czech, date back to 1640. Sudeten Germans disagree. THEIR ancestors invented the cookies.

Karlovy Vary (Used with permission.)
Karlovy Vary (Used with permission.)

Served at the spa, the wafers became a favorite of the well-heeled people who “took the waters” there. What track did these award-winning wafers take to cross the “great water” and end up on the table of an American president? (The cookies won an international culinary award in 1890.)

What’s really fantastic is that you can still buy these cookies and order them on the Internet.* And today there’s even a fight going on over  Protective Designation of Origin (PDO) status.

Nathan Shepherd wrote about Carlsbad wafers and their role in the nineteenth century in Saratoga Chips [Potato Chips] and Carlsbad Wafers. The Pursuit of Happiness and Health at the Two Great Mineral-Water Resorts of America and Europe, published in 1887. According to Publishers Weekly of July 2, 1887, this treatise resulted in “a quaint and humorous description of life at Carlsbad and Saratoga.”

I suspect there’s some connection to Roman Catholic communion wafers in there somewhere, as the Poles produce special Christmas wafers that look uncannily similar. But that’s another story for another day.


Blue Point Oysters, Half Shell


Consommé Royal


Bouchées à la Reine**


Turkey      Cranberry Jelly

Potatoes Duchesse     Stewed Celery

Terrapin à la Maryland

Lettuce Salad, plain dressing


Mince pie       American plum pudding


Ice Cream    Tutti-fruiti

Lady-fingers  Maccaroons and Carlsbad Wafers


Apples        Florida Oranges     Bananas

Grapes         Pears

Black Coffee

Caroline Scott Harrison
Caroline Scott Harrison

Signed by Caroline Scott Harrison

larousse-gastronomiqueAccording to the bible of French cooking, Larousse Gastronomique, the classic recipe tends to hold either diced chicken or mushrooms (anointed with truffles if one’s purse bulges with a large amount of gold, so to speak).

The following recipe comes from an old cookbook by a Mrs. Brian Luck. The Belgian Cook-Book. London: William Heinemann 1915.

bouchees-a-la-reine-1**BOUCHÉES À LA REINE (Queen’s Mouthfuls)

Get some little cases from the pastry-cook of puff paste, which are to be filled with sweetbread cut in dice. It is a good plan to heat the cases before filling them.

The filling mixture. Cook the sweetbreads in water with pepper and salt, till done, skin them and cut in dice. Prepare a good bechamel sauce, seasoned with the juice of a lemon, and add to it a few mushrooms that have been fried in butter. Heat the dice of sweetbread in this sauce and fill the cases with it. Put them back in the oven to get quite hot.

© 2008 C. Bertelsen