A few years ago, I attended A Splendid Feast at the Elling House in Virginia City. Held in the sprawling 1867 Gothic Revival home originally built and occupied by John and Mary Elling and their 10 children, the annual event is the primary fundraiser for the nonprofit Elling House Arts & Humanities Center. The stone home and its expansive yard occupy 26 city lots, providing a stunning backdrop for a festive meal.

Toni James, the long-time proprietress of downtown Virginia City’s Rank’s Mercantile, purchased the property and began restoring it in 1995.

“It’s a multiuse house at this point,” said James with a laugh, who lives upstairs in former maids’ quarters.

In addition to A Splendid Feast, the Center hosts a Chautauqua the third Saturday of each month from January through April, monthly literary events (Montana’s Poet Laureate Lowell Jaeger will give a reading on April 21), writer’s retreats and art shows from June through September. James also operates the Elling House Inn, opening four of her home’s elegant bedrooms to overnight guests.

A Splendid Feast kicked off in 2008, before James had even installed an adequate kitchen stove.

“Because of the stove situation, I had to cook off-premises for the first few years,” said caterer and chef Amy Kelley — a Virginia City resident who with her husband Scott owns The Gravel Bar and Banditos in Ennis, as well as the Wells Fargo Steakhouse (open May-September) in Virginia City.

Kelley has stepped up to cook for A Splendid Feast many times over the years and was at the helm when I attended (she made Wild Mushroom Bisque, Butter Lettuce Salad with Pears, Pomegranate Seeds, Red Onion, Blue Cheese and a Citrus Vinaigrette and served Cornish Game Hen with Huckleberry Port Glaze as the main entrée that year).

“I just love the Elling House, its history, its charm and this event embodies the whole spirit of Christmas,” said Kelley. “It’s 100 percent put on by small-town volunteers, and it just amazes me how so few people can pull together such a spectacular evening.”

Kelley is one of a handful of area chefs, caterers and gourmet cooks who have donated their time to prepare food for the event including Janet Marsh of The Shovel and Spoon in Sheridan, Kathy Shepherd of Sheridan, Jeanette Lynch (previous owner of the Virginia City Café as well as a former bakery in Laurin) and this year’s cook Carol Wilcox, who with her husband Steve owns and operates High Tower Ranch B&B and Farm Stay between Twin Bridges and Sheridan.

Held the third Friday and Saturday of each December, A Splendid Feast kicks off around 6:30 p.m. when guests park in the back lot and are lead to the house by dozens of glowing ice luminaries. (Valet service is offered as well.)

Bundled in heavy coats and snow boots and carrying bottles of wine, attendees walk up the steps of the twinkling porch and through the door where coats are taken. Bottles of wine are whisked away and tagged as guests are escorted into the glowing parlor and offered a glass of their wine or a cup of wassail. A fire crackles in the fireplace, the rooms — decorated by a team of dedicated volunteers — glow with golden light, sparkling evergreen swags, shiny glass ornaments and holiday cheer.

The décor changes from year to year; 2017’s motif will feature a “musical” theme with notes and sheet music incorporated throughout.

At 7:30, guests are ushered to seats around tables in the ballroom. Board members welcome the crowd with and a toast before giving a rundown of the menu’s courses. Each $50 ticket entitles diners to Wassail and a four-course meal, which changes annually. The first three courses of this year’s menu feature a Cranberry Salad, Shrimp & Corn Bisque with homemade rolls, an entree of Roasted Pork served with Roasted Garlic & Rosemary Potatoes and Gingered Carrots. Dessert is always local resident Marge Antolik’s famous Rum Cake, and an additional cake (this year’s is Chocolate Kahlúa Cake), which is seasonal and scrumptious.

Throughout the meal, conversation hums, glasses clink, wait staff buzzes back and forth filling wine glasses and baskets of freshly baked bread. Coffee is served and guests linger before once again piling on winter layers and heading out into the brisk night air.

As diners approach the door, each is given a handmade ornament: a perfect memento from a perfect evening.

“It’s truly a wonderful evening,” said Abby Thomas, current Elling House Arts & Humanities Board president, who said about half of their guests return each year. “Many guests have made the Splendid Feast their annual holiday tradition. It’s really fun to see their faces and watch them enjoying themselves year after year.”

Warm Cranberry Wassail

Makes 14 6-ounce servings

Ingredients:

1 64-ounce bottle of Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice Cocktail

2 1/2 cups apple juice

1/4 cup sugar, optional

3 3-inch cinnamon sticks

1 teaspoon whole allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Orange slices, garnish

Whole cloves, garnish

Combine all ingredients, except garnishes, in a large saucepan. Heat to boiling, reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes. Strain the punch to remove spices. Place in a heat-proof punch bowl. Garnish with orange slices studded with cloves, if desired.

Note from Rank Mercantile's Toni James: Use Williams Sonoma Mulling Spices and simmer the orange slices with the Wassail. Makes it tastier.

Montana-based photojournalist Lynn Donaldson-Vermillion shoots and writes for Travel + Leisure, FoodNetwork.com, is an official Instagrammer for National Geographic Traveler, and contributes regularly to the New York Times. She is founder and Creative Director of the Montana food + travel blog, TheLastBestPlates.com

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TheLastBestPlates.com is a digital destination that serves up Montana's tasty food, travel and culture stories … one bite at a time.

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