Most people who slap down upwards of $60 to tour the Biltmore home linger over the extravagant banquet hall with its organ loft and mid-sixteenth century Flemish tapestries, or the Vanderbilts’ separate bedrooms with adjoining sitting room.
Foodies, however, hang out in the basement, gawking at the kitchen facilities and admiring the cookware. Reminiscent of an episode from PBS’ Downton Abbey, Biltmore reflects the lifestyles of the times, starting at the turn of the 19th century. And that includes the downstairs lifestyles of the cooks, scullery maids, and other servants.
Although male chefs—typically from Europe—ran the Biltmore kitchen, women’s fingerprints show up throughout the estate’s culinary archives and beyond. Local cook Ellen Davis, for instance, introduced the Vanderbilts to turkey and dressing, which became a favorite of the family and their guests. In the year 1900, 12 women from ages 15 to 50 worked as cooks or cooks’ assistants at Biltmore.
Women, in fact, are responsible for the existence of the Biltmore back then and even to this day. It all began with Maria Louisa Vanderbilt, who suffered from chronic illness, according to her physicians, who prescribed Asheville’s mountain air as the sure cure. In 1888, her son George W. Vanderbilt brought his mother to Asheville and eventually bought the 125,000 acres upon which he built America’s largest home. He completed it in 1895, just in time for the first of many Christmas feasts at the 7.5-foot-long banquet table.
Farm-To-Table 1900s Style
In 1898, Vanderbilt married Edith Dresser. Despite her refined background from living in Newport and New York City, she immediately stepped firmly into her role as mistress of the mansion and massive farming operations that fed family, staff, and the many guests who visited.
The farm produced most of the dairy, beef, lamb, mutton, chicken, fish, vegetables, and fruit the estate required. Edith encouraged the families who worked the estate to vary their crops for improved nutritional value. She would host food fairs and award prizes to gardeners who demonstrated diversity. As president of the North Carolina Agricultural Society, she also provided prizes for superior livestock breeds.
Today, families can get a taste of farm life on the estate at the barn, farmyard, and playground that are part of Biltmore’s Antler Hill Village & Winery.
Edith was known to carry seeds in her pockets to freely hand out to the women of the estate. She regularly visited them to assist with medical supplies, money, and newborns. She was heavily involved in Biltmore Estate Industries, which fueled Asheville’s nationwide reputation for anti-industrialized handcrafts then and to this day.
To learn more about that facet of Biltmore’s local impact, visit the Biltmore Industries Homespun Museum at Asheville’s Grovewood Village. You can also see several handcrafted woodcarving and woven items on display in Biltmore house.
Today at Biltmore
The Biltmore’s fine agricultural ethic similarly influenced today’s renowned culinary scene. Stemming from Vanderbilt’s reach for excellence, mountain artisanal farms supply the region with everything from small-batch cheeses and hops for its famed craft breweries to rainbow trout and heritage field livestock.
Biltmore, though it has shrunk to a mere 8,000 acres, still raises its own sheep, cows, chickens, and produce. Visitors to the dining room at The Inn on Biltmore Estate and nearby Cedric’s Tavern can taste the goodness of the finest farm-raised food. A special Legacy of the Land Tour takes you by motor coach to parts of the estate not otherwise open to guests.
Because George Vanderbilt sought the highest quality in food, as well as architecture and gardening, Biltmore’s kitchens picture progressiveness. He boasted an early version of mechanical refrigeration in his walk-in coolers, elaborate dumb waiter and communication systems, a rotisserie kitchen, and a pastry kitchen in addition to the main kitchen hung with original shiny copper pots.
The downstairs portion of the house tour allows you to step back and behind the scenes, into those Gilded-Age times of extravagance despite the day’s rigors and demands. To best learn about these rooms and the grander ones above served by them, spring for the 90-minute audio wand at $10.98 each when touring.
The Legacy of Biltmore Women
Thanks to one more woman, who completes the Biltmore family portrait, the home is today open to public tours, along with its famed gardens and winery grounds. George Vanderbilt died rather young in 1914, leaving Edith to capably run the estate, with the help of their daughter, Cornelia. In 1924, Cornelia married the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil. They opened Biltmore to the public in 1930, and the Cecil family to this day—George’s fourth- and fifth-generation descendants—run operations.
Your admission to the house includes a tour of the vast gardens—visit the Conservatory first if time is short—and a free tasting at the Biltmore Winery. There you may feel inclined to offer up a toast to the women, the farmers, and the cooks who fostered Biltmore’s ongoing legacy.
IF YOU GO
Where to Stay
The Inn on Biltmore Estates, 800-BILTMORE. The ultimate luxury lodging experience, it offers fine dining, a spa, free shuttle to the house, and walking distance to the winery. Rates start at $169.
Village Hotel on Biltmore Estate, 800-BILTMORE. Geared more towards family, the hotel occupies the grounds of the winery and its shopping, playground, and historic farm components. Restaurants and free shuttle also available. Rates start at $129.
Grand Bohemian Hotel, 888-717-8756. In keeping with Asheville’s reputation for Bohemian style, this luxury hotel sits at the threshold to the Biltmore Estate and showcases local artistry. Part of the Marriott collection, it offers full services from dining to spa-ing. Rates start at $189.
Where to Eat
The Dining Room at The Inn on Biltmore Estates, 800-BILTMORE. This is as close as you can get to dining in Vanderbilt style, enjoying meals fresh off the farm in a setting of elegance. It serves breakfast and dinner. Dinner is $65 for three courses, $95 for five courses.
Gan Shan Station, 828-774-5280. Given Asheville’s stellar reputation for dining, you should travel the short distance to the downtown area. This raw gem occupies an old filling station with a kitchen adept at creative Asian fare. Open lunch and dinner; dinner entrees $14-$22.
Posana, 828-505-3969. In the heart of downtown, it embodies modern-day Asheville’s finely crafted farm-to-table movement in a posh, historic setting for weekend brunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Dinner entrees $18-$30.
What To Do
Besides estate tours, Biltmore offers biking, carriage rides, fly-fishing school, horseback trail rides, Land Rover experiences, sporting clays classes, and river rafting and paddling excursions.
Nearby Historic Biltmore Village concentrates local artist galleries, historic architecture, and fun restaurants in an easy-to-walk hub.
Downtown Asheville pulsates with youthful energy: spontaneous music, drum circles, craft breweries, clubs, pop-up restaurants, art and crafts galleries, and boutique shopping. Check out www.exploreasheville.com for a complete look at all the destination offers.