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

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. 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

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 from us!

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.”

There is speculation of 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.

President Benjamin Harrison’s Dinner Menu

MENU
- Blue Point Oysters, Half Shell

SOUP
- Consommé Royal

ENTRÉE
- Bouchées à la Reine

ROAST
- Turkey Cranberry Jelly
- Potatoes Duchesse Stewed Celery
- Terrapin à la Maryland
- Lettuce Salad, plain dressing

SWEETS
- Mince pie American plum pudding

DESSERTS
- Ice Cream Tutti-fruiti
- Lady-fingers Maccaroons and Carlsbad Wafers

FRUITS
- Apples Florida Oranges Bananas
- Grapes Pears
- Black Coffee

Story by Cynthia Bertelsen