/ by Lynn Greenlaw   / photography by Chelsey Ashford

Book discussion groups such as the one I belong to have been popular for quite a long time.  Ours is called the Random Readers and it has been in existence for more than 25 years.

Typically, our group will read and discuss a novel, but every now and then we pick a non-fiction book for a change of pace. When we meet, we usually bring our lunch with us and the hostess provides beverages and perhaps a dessert. However, this meeting embraced the golden age of the Vanderbilts; it was quite different from the norm and took place before this virus interrupted our ability to meet in person. The book, The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan, is a chronicle of Biltmore, America’s largest home and the personal story of love and loss to those who built it and occupied it. Eventually it became one of the most visited homes in America.

Deborah Maybank, who welcomed us into her lovely home, and Betty Teague, our co-hostess, prepared a spectacular tea party to replicate what would have taken place in the late 1800s-early 1900s if we had been fortunate enough to receive an invitation to the Biltmore. They were creative in their presentation of the type of pastries, finger foods and, of course, tea that would have been a part of such a glamorous event. It was certainly comparable to anything that the Vanderbilts would have provided to their guests. Our hostesses thought of every detail and here’s just a sampling of what we enjoyed.

Golden Era Reads

When hostesses think of every possible detail for a book club, it includes passing around even more books that encircle the meeting’s theme. We enjoyed perusing these titles and if you are fascinated by the Biltmore epoch too, you may wish to turn these pages as well.

  • Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt by Arthur T. Vanderbilt II. Arthur writes of his family’s vast wealth from the industry and philanthropy of Cornelius to it’s squandering of inheritance.
  • The Biltmore Estate, Garden and Grounds as well as The Biltmore Nursery, a Botanical Legacy both by Bill Alexander. These books were written by the historian and gardener extraordinaire of Biltmore, Bill Alexander, who served the great estate for more than 30 years.
  • The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola. George Vanderbilt read Zola’s book when in Paris with his friend Billy Field and it left an indelible imprint on him. The library at Biltmore contains multiple volumes of Zola’s work.
  • Janice Meredith, A Story of the American Revolution by Paul Leicester Ford. The novel, a sensational love story of a Tory and a Rebel, was written by George Vanderbilt’s best friend, Paul Leicester Ford, and includes a dedication to Vanderbilt.



Coronation Sandwiches

Recipe adapted from Martha Stewart Living


3            Tbsp sliced almonds

13          ounces cooked chicken breast

1/4       cup plain yogurt

1/4       cup mayonnaise

2            Tbsp curry paste (or up to 2 tsp curry powder)

2            Tbsp mango chutney

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1            Tbsp honey

8            slices white bread

Watercress leaves

1 3/4   Tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature


Toast almonds in a small, dry skillet over medium-low heat for a few minutes, shaking the pan as needed. Remove from the heat.


Shred the chicken. Place in a bowl with yogurt, mayonnaise, curry paste and chutney; toss to incorporate and coat evenly. Stir in the toasted almonds. Season with salt and pepper, then taste. Stir in the honey, if desired.


Butter all eight slices of bread lightly on one side. Divide the chicken mixture evenly among the four slices and top with watercress leaves. Place the remaining slices buttered side down to create 4 sandwiches. Trim the crusts off the bread. Press slightly, then cut each one in half.



Hummingbird Cupcakes

Recipe adapted from Southern Living

Makes 24


1            cup butter, softened

2            cups sugar

3            large eggs, room temperature

2            tsp vanilla extract

2            cups mashed ripe bananas

½           cup drained canned crushed pineapple

3            cups all-purpose flour

1            tsp baking soda

1            tsp ground cinnamon

1/2       tsp salt

1            cup sweetened shredded coconut

1            cup chopped walnuts



1            package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened

1/2       cup butter, softened  3 3/4   cups confectioners’ sugar

1            tsp vanilla extract


In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 5-7 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla. In a small bowl, combine bananas and pineapple.


Sift flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Add to the creamed mixture and beat to incorporate. Add the fruit and beat to incorporate. Fold in coconut and walnuts.


Fill paper-lined muffin cups about two-thirds full. Bake at 350 degrees until a toothpick comes out clean, about 20-25 minutes. Cool the cupcakes for 10 minutes before removing from pans to wire racks.


In a small bowl, beat cream cheese and butter until fluffy. Add confectioners’ sugar and vanilla and beat until smooth. Frost cooled cupcakes. Top with chopped walnuts or toasted coconut.




Petite Quiche

Recipe adapted from Just a Pinch

Makes 50


1 1/2   packages cream cheese,  three ounces each

1 1/2   sticks butter

1 1/2   cups flour

1/2       pound bacon, fried and crumbled

1/2       pound swiss cheese, grated

1/2       cup finely chopped green onions

3            eggs

1            Tbsp Dijon mustard

1 3/4   cups half and half

1            tsp salt

1            tsp Worcestershire sauce

1/4       tsp seasoned pepper

Parmesan cheese, grated,  as needed


Soften cream cheese and butter to room temperature. Blend flour, cream cheese and butter into a mixture and form into a ball and chill. Roll dough into nut-sized balls and press into muffin tins to form pastry shells.


Beat eggs and add half and half, salt, Worcestershire, pepper and mustard. Combine well. Place a small amount of bacon, cheese and green onion into each pastry cup. Fill each with one to one and half teaspoons of the egg mixture. Sprinkle with a bit of parmesan cheese.


Bake at 450 degrees for five minutes, then reduce heat to 300 degrees and bake for an additional 15 minutes. Cool slightly before removing from pans but best if served hot.

Components of an inspired book-themed tea party


The Tea

Offer a sampling of tea, both bagged and some loose teas for those willing to tackle the process. Our table included Forntum and Mason Wedding Blend and other teas from Paris, a clever nod to the Paris marriage of George and Edith, and then later their daughter Cornelia to Jack Cecil.


The Spread

An offering at teatime must include scones and clotted cream, several types of curd, jam and honey. Tea sandwiches sit pretty on trays as well as assorted sweets. Our hostesses turned Edith Vanderbilt’s favorite hummingbird cake into cupcakes for the meeting.


The Libation

Serve a glass of champagne as guests arrive. Our book club was offered bubbles in the foyer to kick off the sparkling event.


The Goodies

Nothing tops off a get together like a treat to take home. Chocolates from the Biltmore Confectionery were handed to guests as they departed. As a fun game, we had a drawing too. The prize: Vinolia botanical soap reproduced in replica to what was provided to passengers on the Titanic.