Food cravings don’t always coincide with the season, as reader Marcia Chin discovered when she started hunting for beef Wellington.
Beef Wellington was almost certainly named for Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington, who 200 years ago this month defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. Yet Chin’s interest in tenderloin coated with pate de foie gras and wrapped in puff pastry had nothing to do with military history: She hoped to make a local restaurant version the centerpiece of her 25th anniversary celebration in August.
“I did a search on the internet and all the restaurants that popped up have closed,” Chin lamented in an e-mail soliciting help. “Does that mean no one in Charleston likes beef?”
Chin was first introduced to beef Wellington as a college student; it was served for Christmas dinner at her best friend Betty’s house.
“I had eaten chateaubriand many times at The Pillar House in Newton, Mass., but never had I tasted beef Wellington,” she recalls. “It was an amazing treat. The combination of melt-in-your-mouth beef, pastry dough, and mushrooms was unforgettable.”
Many elegant mid-century dinners featured beef Wellington, including White House meals hosted by the Kennedys.
“Beef Wellington was the premier party dish of the 1960s,” Sylvia Longren wrote in a “Fashionable Foods” passage quoted by The Food Timeline, an online food history site. “It was rich, dramatic, expensive, and seemed difficult and time-consuming to prepare. In short, it was everything a gourmet dish should be.”
The dish experienced a minor comeback in the 1990s, fueled by the new availability of frozen puff pastry and domestic foie gras. It’s now trotted out primarily for Christmas dinner; Circa 1886 sometimes serves it in conjunction with the holiday. The rich dish generally disappears entirely from menus once summer heat hits, though.
Yet chef Ross Webb of R. Kitchen, who makes Wellington in the winter, recently revived the preparation in response to a customer request.
“Because it was a day-of request, we wanted to go the extra mile,” says Webb, who changes his menu on a daily basis. “We used rib eye heart and phyllo dough. We still used mushroom duxelles, along with a Dijon demiglace.”
Chin says she’s planning to file a similar request. Her husband -- whose favorite show, Hell’s Kitchen, once featured beef Wellington – has never tried the dish.