Book Excerpt: ‘Detroit’s Delectable Past’

A taste of Old Detroit

These excerpts about long-ago holiday culinary traditions in Detroit are from the new book Detroit’s Delectable Past: Two Centuries of Frog Legs, Pigeon Pie & Drugstore Whiskey (The History Press, $19.99), by Ann Arbor writer Bill Loomis. The elaborate Victorian Christmas feast served at the old Russell House Hotel in downtown Detroit included enough food to keep diners stuffed until New Year’s. (Reprinted with permission from The History Press.)


Celebrations of Christmas in Detroit over the centuries have been highlighted by feasts and charity, toys and trees — and fires caused by lighted candles on those trees. Although Protestant churches in Detroit did not embrace the Christmas holiday until the 1840s, it was long celebrated in the French Catholic churches, such as Detroit’s oldest parish, Ste. Anne’s.

Before Christmas trees became the rage, the French holiday tradition in Detroit was represented by Yule logs, réveillon feasting and horse races. Yule logs were enormous logs or sometimes entire tree stumps that filled the hearth, along with a half cord of wood to get them started. Holiday feasting began on Christmas Eve in a tradition called réveillon (pronounced ray-veh-yon), which is still celebrated in Quebec and New Orleans (at least for the tourists).

In Detroit, families would carry a lantern to midnight mass and leave it with a beggar at the church door. When the Christmas mass was over, they would pick up their lantern and give a Christmas tip to the beggar. They then would go home for the feast, which would last until 8:00 a.m. The réveillon supper was a sumptuous menu that included la tourtière — a meat pie made with pigeons in the nineteenth century and later with pork, veal or other game. Other dishes might include a stew of meatballs and pork, minced pork pie, turkey, pumpkin pie, mince pie and new cider. If turkeys were available, they were cleaned, seasoned, suspended from a cord over the hearth fire and then slowly turned and basted. They were wild turkeys and not nearly as big as current birds. “Too much for one, not enough for two” was a quote recorded by city historian Friend Palmer in his book Early Days in Detroit.

The men raced their French ponies up Michigan Avenue when there was snow. In 1851, Ulysses S. Grant was a lieutenant stationed in Detroit after the Mexican War. He was frequently seen racing horses during the holiday on the streets or on the frozen Detroit River. In the French homes, small gifts for children were put in shoes. Indians were also welcomed and exchanged gifts and food with Detroiters on both Christmas and New Year’s Day. Prominent early Detroiters Joseph Campau, Antoine Dequindre and Peter Desnoyer were among the generous contributors to the festivities of the day.


Much later in Victorian days, Detroit hotels competed for locals, and it became a custom for Detroiters to enjoy their holiday dinners at hotel restaurants. The following is the bill of fare from the famed Russell House Hotel [in downtown Detroit] in 1888. The meal was enjoyed with rousing Christmas music from the Russell House Orchestra:

Russell House Hotel menu, 1888

Mill Pond oysters on the half shell
Green turtle
Kennebec salmon broiled à la maître de hotel
Filet of beef larded with fresh mushrooms
Sweetbreads braised with French peas
Pineapple fritters, glace a maraschino
Roman punch
Christmas beef with horseradish
Turkey stuffed with chestnuts
Cranberry sauce
Hubbard squash. Green peas. Sweet potatoes.
Chicken salad. Boned turkey in aspic. Pâté fois gras.
Currant jelly. Apple jelly. Apple butter.
Prairie hen. Mallard duck. Partridge. Quail.
Cauliflower. Boiled potatoes. String beans.
Christmas pudding. Brandy sauce.
Apple pie. Mince pie.
Fruit cake. Angel food. Charlotte Russe.
Madeira jelly. Tutti frutti ice cream.
Roquefort. Stilton. Pineapple cheese.
Bent crackers [from the G.H. Bent Co. in Milton, Mass.]