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A Holiday tradition unlike any other: Bracebridge Dinner at Yosemite has been holiday tradition for nearly 90 years

Dec 21, 2015 03:42PM ● Published by Kevin

Gallery: Keeping the Faith - Bracebridge Dinner at Yosemite, Winter 2016 [7 Images] Click any image to expand.

I don’t really have a bucket list, but if I did, the Bracebridge Dinner at Yosemite would be near the top.

I’ve wanted to attend the elegant Christmas dinner and pageant that takes place at Yosemite’s historic Ahwahnee Hotel, ever since my old assignment editor Bill Murphy told me about it, in 1985. Back then, I could never have afforded it on my $5 an hour wages, and even if I could, chances were I wouldn’t have been able to get a ticket because attendees were selected through a lottery system.

Fast forward 30 years. My husband and I were fortunate to receive an invitation from Delaware North’s public relations manager Lisa Cesaro. A few weeks later, on Dec. 13, we drove into Yosemite Valley on a snow-covered road and checked into the newly renovated Yosemite Lodge at the Falls.

Cesaro met us for dinner at the Mountain Room, where we had a lovely meal of Onion soup gratinée, lamb shanks and blackberry cobbler. She filled us in on the history of the Bracebridge Dinner, which started in 1927. Yosemite Park and Curry president Donald Tresidder, who was also the president of Stanford University, hired pageant director Garnet Holme to create a Christmas event.

Holme based the production on Washington Irving’s “A Christmas at Bracebridge Hall.” When Holme died in an auto accident two years later, famed photographer Ansel Adams took over the job and the role of the court jester.

San Francisco choral conductor Eugene Fulton, who had been with the production since 1934, took over when Adams retired in 1973. Five years later, Fulton died, and his daughter Andrea, who has performed in the pageant since she was 5, became the director and producer. We chatted with her as she prepared for the evening’s performance.

“It used to be all men, a completely male chorus,” Fulton says with a smile. “It started with the Bohemian Club.”

She says the men were used to going to rehearsal and drinking. And that included Ansel Adams. When her father took over, he curtailed the scotch and whiskey during the performance, and the choral began to have a professional sound. Once Andrea was at the helm, she wrote a new script, adding women to the cast along with the chef and woodsman characters.

Over the years, Fulton says the menu has changed, but the presentation is the same as it was when the dinner began in the 1920s. The menu is created by executive chef Percy Whatley, who invited us into the Ahwahnee kitchen for a tour. 

Holme based the production on Washington Irving’s “A Christmas at Bracebridge Hall.” When Holme died in an auto accident two years later, famed photographer Ansel Adams took over the job and the role of the court jester.

The kitchen is immense, with two-dozen chefs, sous chefs, pastry chefs, line cooks and all of their assistants busily preparing dinner for 300 guests. 

Whatley says each of the seven courses is prepared fresh and plated just before it’s served. Nothing is placed in a hot box ahead of time. For example, the kitchen crew has just seven minutes to assemble 300 “Peacock Pies,” (Sonoma duck confit strudel) with apples, chestnuts, braised cabbage and chutney. 

New on the menu last year, for the fish course, was the chilled Rainbow Trout Mousse, a mixture of poached and smoked trout with a Chaud Froid sauce, also known as aspic, served with a refreshing citrus avocado salsa. Whatley shared the recipe for this dish (to serve 400!). I’ve broken it down to serve just four (recipe on page 18).

We returned to our hotel to dress for dinner. If you ever needed an occasion to pull out your finest formal wear, this is it. Many women wore floor-length gowns, and about half of the men wore tuxedos. We walked into the Great Hall, where hundreds of guests were sipping champagne and singing Christmas carols as two pianists played duets. 

If you ever needed an occasion to pull out your finest formal wear, this is it. Many women wore floor-length gowns, and about half of the men wore tuxedos.

A few minutes later, the trumpets sounded from above. We were ushered in to the Dining Hall, which had been transformed into a 17th century English manor. The dinner is a four-hour long, seven-course production. With each course, another part of the story unfolds, played out by singers from the San Francisco Opera.

Each of the seven courses is a major production, from the “peacock” pie with a peacock that has a wingspan of eleven feet to the boar’s head and baron of beef, which starts as an argument between Fulton, who plays a very elegant housekeeper, and the French chef. There are a few surprises involving an absolutely hysterical jester that I’m not allowed to share. The feast ends with plum pudding, mignardises (tiny, petit four-type pastries) and wassail, a spiced wine.

This year’s Bracebridge Dinner will be the last production under Delaware North Companies, which has run the Yosemite National Park concessions for the past 22 years. In March, Aramark takes over. Earlier this year, the Philadelphia-based company signed a 15-year, $2 billion contract with the park service.

Although the concessionaire is changing hands, the park service promises us Bracebridge is here to stay.

If You Go …

For some, the Bracebridge Dinner is a treat of a lifetime, and it comes with a hefty price tag. Dinner-only tickets cost $389 per person including gratuity. Hotel packages, which include dinner, start at $526 per person for a one-night stay and $614 per person for two nights.

Free shuttle bus transportation is provided from the Wawona and Yosemite Lodge hotels to and from the Ahwahnee.  There are now eight Bracebridge Dinner performances that begin Dec. 13 and run through Dec. 25. The lottery system is gone. With eight performances, tickets are almost always available.

For more information, go to:  www.yosemitepark.com/bracebridge-dinner.aspx

Fresh and smoked trout mousse with Chaud Froid sauce

INGREDIENTS

1 trout – steamed and flaked with bones and skin removed (about 8 oz. meat)

Smoked trout fillet, skin and bones discarded and fish broken into small pieces (about 4 oz. meat)

¼ cup cream cheese

2 T fresh lemon juice

1 tsp. tarragon (de-stemmed and chopped)

1 T parsley (de-stemmed and chopped)

1 T chives (minced fine)

¾ cup well-chilled heavy cream

1 tsp. unflavored gelatin (melt in ¾ cup cream from above)

1/2 tsp. coarse salt

White pepper 

DIRECTIONS 

Lightly oil a straight-sided 2-cup mold or soufflé dish.

Add cream to a small saucepan and warm over moderately low heat. Add gelatin and stir until dissolved. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.

Add steamed fresh trout, cream cheese, lemon juice, zest and herbs into food processor. Pour warm cream/gelatin mixture over and add salt and pepper.

Process until smooth and creamy on a combination of low and high speeds, stirring often. 

When proper consistency is reached, add diced smoked trout meat. Quickly fold in, stirring constantly on low speed. This step should be 15 to 20 seconds, so that the meat does not get ground up, but rather just folded into the mixture.

Remove from food processor and refrigerate immediately. Pour into mold and chill. Remove from mold and place each mousse on a dinner plate. Ladle the Chaud Froid over the mousse.  Let it stand until set. Serve immediately or keep refrigerated over night. 

Chaud Froid Sauce

INGREDIENTS

1-¾ cups heavy cream

5 leaves sheet gelatin

1-¾ cups mayonnaise

1 T parsley, finely chopped

1 lemon, zested and juiced, blended together and strained

Salt, White pepper (ground)

DIRECTIONS 

Place the gelatin leaves in a medium bowl. Add ½ cup water. Let stand until softened, about 10 minutes. Heat cream in a double boiler. Melt softened gelatin leaves. Remove from heat. Stir in mayonnaise, parsley, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Let cool to 100 degrees. Glaze should be about 100 degrees for proper consistency when glazing. Pour over unmolded trout mousse. Let chill until Chaud Froid has set.

About the Author

Faith Sidlow teaches broadcast journalism at Fresno State. She spent the last 28 years as a news reporter and morning anchor at KSEE-TV, where she produced a series called Extreme Faith.

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