Buffet Line at the Castle
The guests were among the Hollywood elite and, one would assume, accustomed to doing what they wanted, when they wanted. But when they spent the weekend at Hearst Castle, they stuck to its legendary owner’s schedule--especially when it came to meals.
The Hearst family donated the castle portion of the Hearst estate to the state of California 40 years ago this summer, and its longtime housekeeper, Ann Miller Lopez, recently reflected on what those weekends were like.
Lopez joined the housekeeping staff Jan. 15, 1946, and continued running the household long after the state took over. In fact, she lived at Hearst Castle for 38 years, longer even than William Randolph Hearst.
Frequently there were as many as 35 visitors on weekends, including business associates of the media and film company mogul and Hollywood friends of his longtime companion Marion Davies.
Bing Crosby was a favorite of Lopez’s, but she enjoyed all the notable guests she met--David Niven, Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, Zasu Pitts, Van Johnson, Louella Parsons. Among her responsibilities was greeting the guests, getting them settled in their rooms and explaining the daily routine and house rules.
The three daily meals were served in the refectory, a room 72 feet long and 27 feet wide with a 27-foot-high carved wooden ceiling from Italy and a massive French Gothic fireplace. The guests ate at three antique convent tables placed end to end down the center of the hall.
Breakfast, a casual meal, was served between 9 and 11 a.m., Lopez said. Guests could order almost anything they wanted and enjoy coffee, juice and fruit while it was being prepared. Hearst had a tray brought to his room each morning but extended the same room service to guests only if they were ill. Lopez said the staff was known to bend the rule once in a while for one of his sons--but rarely.
The midday meal was served at 2 p.m. To alert those on the grounds, the butler stepped outside the front door and rang a brass cowbell. Hearst expected his guests to line up promptly for the buffet selections, Lopez recalled, but once seated, they were attended by the butler.
Cocktails were served in the Assembly Hall beginning at 7 p.m. Drinks were mixed by the butler--there were no open bars in the castle. Stories vary about how many drinks the guests were permitted, but Lopez said alcohol wasn’t limited as long as people conducted themselves appropriately.
Hearst and Davies, often accompanied by Hearst’s dachshund, Helena, typically joined their guests at 8 p.m., entering through a small door in the north end of the room. This was “his” end of the room, Lopez said.
The group moved into the refectory for dinner at 9 p.m. Hearst always sat at the center of the table, directly across from Davies. The most important guest was seated on his right.
Wines from his extensive cellar were served with dinner. Lopez said that when Niven was a guest, he often selected the wines and instructed the staff about how they should be handled and decanted.
After dinner, there usually was time for a game of billiards or cards before a movie was shown at 11 p.m. A driver brought a new feature film from Los Angeles each day. Lopez said it was shown to staff members earlier in the evening, but those involved with serving dinner were welcome to attend the guest presentation.
Hearst never stopped thinking of his Central Coast estate as “Camp Hill,” the place where he camped out with his family in the late 1800s. The castle may have replaced the tents, but commercial bottles of catsup and mustard shared the tables with giant silver candlesticks, and paper napkins were used with the gold-trimmed Blue Willow china.
Menus from the 1930s and ‘40s show surprisingly simple American fare. It wasn’t unheard of for Hearst to fly in lobster or other delicacies for his guests, but for the most part, the food served was raised on the 275,000-acre ranch.
Hearst, who liked his beef well aged, had a walk-in refrigerator built solely for aging the cattle slaughtered on the ranch. Poultry raised at the ranch included chickens, turkeys, pheasants, quail, guinea hens, partridges, geese and ducks. Hearst’s favorite dish was pressed duck, cooked very rare and squeezed in a silver press.
Vegetables were grown on the grounds, and acres of orchards produced nuts, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, tangerines, pears, apples, apricots, plums, peaches, nectarines, figs and avocados. The estate also raised its own berries, persimmons and kumquats.
The kitchen staff included a chef, assistant chef, pastry chef and dishwasher. A separate chef cooked for the employees. The spacious kitchen was well equipped for the time, with four large walk-in vegetable coolers below it in the basement, an ice maker, deep-freeze and five-gallon ice cream freezer.
According to notes in the castle archives, the chef had a choice of preparing chicken, game birds, turkey or goose on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Wednesdays and Saturdays, the menus were to revolve around beef, lamb, pork or venison. Fridays were reserved for fish. And even Hearst must have believed in using leftovers, because on Mondays the chef made meat or chicken pies or curries.
Judging from the stack of old menus in the archives, meats typically were roasted or broiled, and game birds were frequently served with bread sauce. Green vegetables were often topped with Hollandaise sauce, and baked tomatoes showed up regularly.
Lopez and Marjorie Collad, who joined the staff running the castle in 1958, used those menus when they compiled “The Castle Cookbook: Favorite Recipes of William Randolph Hearst,” (Central Coast Books, 1997). Collard was already familiar with the castle grounds because she and her husband had lived at a mining camp on the ranch during World War II.
In those days the kitchen wasn’t part of any of the public tours, and the drawers were still filled with items left by previous staffers. “We found all these menus,” Collard said, “and one day I said to Ann, ‘How would you like to make a recipe book out of this?’ And she said, ‘Fine.’ ”
The first edition, “Castle Fare,” was published in 1972 and sold for $1. There have been several revisions, each with additional photographs. The current edition is available for $9.95 at the castle gift shop.
William Randolph Hearst is said to have enjoyed making this dish himself in the wee hours of the morning. He had a private pantry that his chef kept well stocked. The Times Test Kitchen has made some adjustments to the recipe in “The Castle Cookbook.”
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons flour
2/3 cup beer, opened and warm
1 pound shredded Cheddar cheese
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Dash cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1 egg, beaten
8 (1-inch-thick) slices toast, crusts trimmed and cut on diagonal
Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Add beer and bring to simmer while stirring. Add cheese and stir until melted. Add dry mustard, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne and paprika and stir until mixed. Stir small amount hot mixture into egg, then return mixture to saucepan and cook, stirring, until just thickened, 1 to 2 minutes.
Serve hot over toast.
4 servings. Each serving:
563 calories; 849 mg sodium; 152 mg cholesterol; 34 grams fat; 32 grams carbohydrates; 28 grams protein; 0.20 gram fiber.