Peel an entire lemon and insert peel into glass, with one end hanging over the rim of the glass.
Add rye and bitters over a few cubes of ice.
Fill with ginger ale.
* * *
In the years bracketing the dawn of the 20th century, cocktails and horse-racing were inseparable. Every club, it seemed, boasted its own signature drink. There’s the Saratoga and a myriad of Turf Cocktails. The Kentucky Derby owns the Mint Julep, and I’m quite fond of the Preakness. A certain drink, however, is inextricably tied to one of the equine set’s greatest fêtes simply because, when the big moment came, the drink was not served – an oversight which was called out (somewhat jokingly) in the press. The event was C.K.G. Billings’ dinner to celebrate the opening of the new stables for his New York Equestrian Club, and the drink he neglected to serve was the Horse’s Neck.
Mr. Billings’ dinner was something quite extraordinary, and I have to take a moment to thank Deana Sidney over at LostPastRemembered for bringing it to my attention. Deana is an absolutely wonderful writer and culinary archeologist; when we agreed to do cross-posts on the Billings Dinner, I learned exactly how intrepid and delightful she was to work with. On this page, you’ll find part of the Billings tale. For the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey might say, please visit LostPastRemembered. You’ll be doing yourself a favor.
So, who was this Cornelius Kingsley Garrison Billings character? The short answer is that Billings was heir to the controlling interest in the Chicago utility People’s Gas, which continues to exist today (many mergers later). Organized in 1849, People’s was Chicago’s first gas company, and by 1907, it had a monopoly on the local market. A good deal of the company’s success has to be attributed to the young Billings, who, fresh out of college, took over the helm of the company from his father and ran it until he was forty (1901). Indeed, it was Billings who saw the future – the introduction of electricity at the Columbia Exposition – and, over the remainder of his career with the company, expanded its interests and reach to become People’s Gas Light & Coke Co.
But, as we said, in 1901, at the age of 40, Billings retired from People’s and moved the family East to Manhattan. Although the family had settled at 53rd and 5th (currently home to merchants including the likes of Rolex and Fendi), Billings spent a vast majority of his leisure time at the Harlem Speedway at the northern end of Manhattan. Running alongside the Harlem River and beneath the Washington Bridge, the horse speedway stretched two-and-a-half miles from West 155th Street to West 208th street. Today, the speedway has become the Harlem River Drive parkway and a bicycle path, but in a bit of incredible luck, I stumbled across video of exactly what it looked like on a day Billings might have been in attendance. Upon its construction, Harper’s Magazine (1897) proclaimed it “one of the finest roads in all the world, as fine as lavish expenditures can make it,” and the New York Times called it “the finest driveway for light speeding in the country”. Indeed, if you were a man such as Billings – a young millionaire with plenty of free time on his hands and a taste for horseracing – the speedway was the place to be.
Of particular interest to Billings was harness racing, in which the driver sits in a small two-wheeled cart, called a sulky, behind the horse. While the origins of the sport can be traced back to Greek and Roman chariot races, an 1897 New York Times article attributed the popularity of the modern sport to the Dutch, the original settlers of New York. The Dutch fondness for “hard drivery” stemmed from the fact that the sport bridged all social classes. As long as you had a fast trotter – not a thoroughbred race horse – you could complete. Poor farmers with well-trained horses were as likely to win as titans of industry, and it was the amateur racing, in which anyone could participate, that attracted Billings.
Billings’ fondness for harness racing – or matinee racing, as was the persuasion of the time – was such that by 1903, just two years after settling in Manhattan, he assumed control of the New York Equestrian Club and erected a magnificent stable alongside the Harlem Speedway. The stable, which was 250 long by 125 feet and two stories high, cost a whopping $200,000 at the time. A luncheon was held to celebrate its completion, and a Who ’s Who of the New York horse and pony set was in attendance. Also present was the formidable Harry Devereux, commander of the Cleveland social scene, and, along with Billings, one of the grand marshals of matinee racing. While the society luncheon played host to a bevy of big wigs, the real celebration occurred the Saturday night prior.
On March 28, 1903, just prior to the official opening of the stable, Billings threw an intimate dinner for 36 at Louis Sherry’s restaurant. Opening across the street from the legendary Delmonico’s in 1898, Sherry’s was still something of the new darling on the block. The restaurant took up twelve-stories and catered to just about every whim of which the New York elite could conceive. In the case of the Billings Dinner, that whim was pretty grand indeed.
As William Grimes tells us in “Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York”, guests arrived to find a small banquet room with a stuffed horse making up the centerpiece. Here, they enjoyed caviar and cocktails. Billings had announced a quiet dinner at Sherry’s, and, it would seem, that was exactly what he planned to deliver. It was after the hors d’oeuvres that true festivities were unveiled. As the guests entered the main dining room for the evening, they found that the room had been transformed into a bucolic countryside – with “grass” on the floor, a bubbling brook, waiters dressed for a fox hunt and – wait for it – a dozen live horses. The entire meal was to be eaten on horseback. Special saddles equipped with trays had been designed. Champagne bottles with long straws were fitted into saddlebags. And while chorus girls and singers were paraded out for the gentlemen’s entertainment, the horses gladly fed on oats.
Oh, the scandal it caused – a garish and obscene display costing $50,000. Remember, this was a changing America. The Gilded Age of the late 1800’s was no longer, and – just to give you a sense of the new era – the first line of the New York Subway was under construction at the time and would open the following year. As Grimes tells us:
“The scandal sheet Town Topics feasted on the Billings dinner for weeks. ‘Perhaps the only way to surpass Mr. C.K.G. Billings freak dinner on horseback is to have a dinner on horseflesh, à la Paris during the last siege,’ it wrote sneeringly. And how on earth, it asked, had Billings failed to serve the only appropriate drink for the occasion – a horse’s neck cocktail?”
How indeed? The Horse’s Neck is, according to Dale DeGroff, the only cocktail to be named for its garnish, a long peel of lemon rind which is placed in the glass with one end hanging over the rim. In George Kappeler’s “Modern American Drinks” (1895), the drink is comprised of nothing more than the lemon peel and a bottle of imported ginger ale. Sometime over the years, it would pick up the bitters and whatever choice of brown spirit the drinker desired, if any at all. There are as many, if not more, recipes for the Horse’s Neck as a virgin drink than as an alcoholic one.
In researching this story with Deana, we spent a lot of time digging for the Billings Dinner menu. As luck would have it, Deana discovered that the guests were given sterling silver menus in the shape of horseshoes – which obviously didn’t make it into the paper archives of Sherry’s. What we were able to uncover, however, was the hand-written order taken for the meal.
Among the beverages requested were: cocktails, ginger ale in bottles for Mr. Billings, Mr. (Richard) Halstead and L.S. (Louis Sherry), Krug 1898, and Rye and Scotch. Town Topics had gotten it right, not only should Billings have served a Horse’s Neck, he could have easily whipped one up on the spot. In fact, Deana uncovered that Louis Sherry offered his own private-label spirits, including Rye; there was simply no excuse not to make a Horse’s Neck. So, today, Town Topics, we give you what you asked for a little over a century ago – the Billings Horseback Dinner replete with a Horse’s Neck Cocktail. Score one for the paparazzi.
Esoterica: C.K.G. Billings’ passion for harness racing lives on today in the form of the C.K.G. Billings Harness Driving Championship Series, called harness racing’s greatest traveling sideshow. More information on the series and harness racing in general can be found at the United States Trotting Association site.