“The British are coming” is the warning shouted in Washington County as the British TV Chef Gordon Ramsey comes to the historic Cambridge Hotel this week. Ramsey is expanding his Fox TV shows beyond cooking to remaking hotels in a new program called Hotel Hell. The concept of the show is “help fix struggling, privately owned hotels, inns and bed-and-breakfasts in destination towns across the U.S.”
“The Cambridge Hotel holds 126 year history of housing local celebrations and so seems to have a very permanent part in the memory of the people of our community,” explains General Manager Shea Imhof. “Often folks stop in to see us and share pictures and stories from their 1960’s wedding or speak to how the whole family gathered for an elders passing. These memories are made stronger by sharing them in the setting in which they were made which is in part why we strive to exist.”
Today, the Cambridge Hotel is a hotel run by the Imhof family. It is best known for inventing pie a la mode, (French for “according to the fashion”) apple pie with vanilla ice cream. In the 1890s, Professor Charles Watson Townsend dined regularly at the Cambridge Hotel. He would frequently end his meal with an ice cream topped apple pie, which another diner called “pie a la mode.”
While dining at the famous Delmonico’s restaurant in Manhattan, Townsend requested his favorite dessert and was met with blank stares from the waiters. Townsend was quoted as saying “Call the manager at once. I demand as good service here as I get in Cambridge.” Townsend was overheard by a newspaperman from the New York Sun, who reported in the next paper about Delmonico’s working to recreate the dessert served in Cambridge Hotel. The story was repeated and pie a la mode became a standard menu item at restaurants across the country.
Townsend died in 1936 at the age of 87 and his New York Times obituary notes that he “inadvertently originated pie a la mode.” There are some conflicting reports including Barry Popnik’s The Big Apple that mentions the dish appears to have been first served at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. However this being a New York History site, we are going to stick with the Cambridge Hotel as the inventors of pie a la mode.
The other little tidbit is that apple pie isn’t American, it’s British. There were no apple trees or pies in America before the British settled according to a recent Historic Foodways blog posting from Colonial Williamsburg.
It may be just dessert that a British Chef is helping to remake a historic American hotel best known for pie a la mode.
Sean Kelleher is the Historian for the Town of Saratoga and Village of Victory in the Upper Hudson Valley. He served as the Director of the Washington County Fair Farm Museum, and worked with a number of Champlain, Hudson and Mohawk Valleys historic sites on grant writing, interpretive planning, and marketing.