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PARK AVENUE'S MOVABLE FEAST

 

By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 20 DECEMBER 2007— Just as it is hard to write a travel book without giving the pursuit of pleasure its due, it is difficult to create a cookbook without an overarching sense of optimism. At their most utilitarian level, cookbooks are simply how-to manuals for edibles. But food, more powerfully than anything else that the human hand can create, reaches quickly beyond its nominative function (subsistence), to grab hold of the soul. Cooking is the one craft about which everyone has an opinion; we admire those in our acquaintance who have a talent for it, just as we pity those who are on restrictive diets or whose temperament will not permit them fully to enjoy the results. Food is integral to personal and communal self-definition. It can prove simple ("Make that a burger and fries, please."), comforting ("Meatloaf with mashed potatoes!"), annoying ("Meatloaf with mashed potatoes?") or daunting, as anyone who has had to choose among Cantonese, Hunan or Szechwan can understand.

In light of the deeply held convictions that coalesce around food, an optimistic but prudent cookbook author is well advised to offer us recipes for those things we might plausibly wish to eat and can reasonably hope to prepare, though we lack talent and have no formal training. But editorial pragmatism is not enough these days for a cookbook to succeed. As in the rest of book publishing, you need an angle. There are general cookbooks out there, of course. Foremost among them is Joy of Cooking, the bible of what to do at stove and oven since its first appearance in 1931 in a self-published edition of three thousand. I’m no cook, but as a lawyer who represents the owners of the work, I have first-hand experience of its iconic status—as seen in the furious commentary that comes out each time a new edition appears, when both press and public scour its text and even its illustrations for minute comparisons against previous editions. "Bible" indeed: for all the fuss, you’d think someone had rewritten Leviticus. I’ve worked on other cookbooks, including The Waldorf =Astoria Cookbook, but only as a lawyer, never as a creator.

Florence Fabricant’s new cookbook, Park Avenue Potluck: Recipes from New York’s Savviest Hostesses (Rizzoli, 271 pages), therefore presented me with the rare opportunity for at least a secondhand appreciation of the creative process, since many of the contributors are people my wife and I come into contact with on the event circuit in Manhattan. Fabricant is a respected author of eight cookbooks and a regular contributor to The New York Times. In New York, the first part of that credit gives you the weight of authority and the latter conveys raw power. I last saw Fabricant at a crowded literary party in an East Side townhouse, where she was spoken of, softly, as you might whisper about a movie star in the room.

The idea behind the book is that Fabricant solicited recipes from prominent "Park Avenue" hostesses—broadly defined to mean A-list socialites—tweaked them a bit and then edited them into a book of fine entertaining. The first part of the book is a short but useful set of directions on how to entertain, offered in the manner of Emily Post etiquette tips. That’s a good idea. Many middle and upper-middle-class hostesses are better cooks than they are hostesses, and though I was skeptical about what Park Avenue hostesses can teach you about cooking, there is no question that America has plenty to learn from them about entertaining. The recipe portion is divided into sections that progress in logical order from aperitifs to desserts, but as anyone would expect from a milieu driven by the cocktail party in the way that social life is formed elsewhere in the country around children’s athletics, the recipes lean toward simple, easy-to-make pleasures—what Patsy on Ab Fab called "nibbly things."

It is easier to a get Park Avenue hostess to work for charity than for money, which is one of the reasons that New York is great: our most important institutions, from hospitals to the Metropolitan Museum to the Metropolitan Opera, were founded by private citizens spending their own cash. The beneficiary of Fabricant’s new book is Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. That was a shrewd choice; just as social life is about rank, the charities of New York have their own pecking order, and MSKCC stands high on the list. My wife and I have enthusiastically supported Memorial Sloan-Kettering for years, so has almost everyone we know, in part because nearly all of us also know people who would not be alive today but for the good work done there. For the cookbook, The Society of Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (its sorority of name-brand donors and volunteers) takes co-editing credit with Florence Fabricant—a polite way of allowing others to share a bit of glory.

All well and good, except for the one question that, to a New Yorker, is so obvious that, in failing to pose it, I’d be remiss: New York socialites offering up the results of their services as stay-at-home stove jockeys—is that really a cookbook or just a publisher’s gimmick? I rummaged among the invitations in our "Honey, did we accept anything for this evening?" stack, put on my party clothes and hit the circuit to find out.

The launch party for the book was being held the same night that much of New York’s publishing community was digging into Beijing duck at the annual Bookspan party at The Pierre and the uptown social set was joining Rachel Hovnanian at the opening of her exhibition of recent works at Jason McCoy, a nearby gallery. At the Bookspan party, I ran into agents that I know, editors that I know, authors who know me, an author who thought he knew me but was mistaking me for a William Morris agent whom I had negotiated against, a client who is an agent, and the principal of another agency that is suing a client of my client. It seemed like an ideal venue to learn more about what is happening in cookbooks, but most of the conversation that evening was about mysteries and Harry Potter.

By the time I got to Jason McCoy, entering behind Mark Gilbertson, alongside Jill Roosevelt and just ahead of Geoffrey Bradfield, the checklist for Rachel’s exhibition was already peppered with so many red "sold" dots, you’d have thought it had the measles. The showstopper was a room containing shadowboxes backed with mirrors and filled with empty Botox bottles; from each bottle sprouted an artificial narcissus flower fashioned with a Jeff Koons-like faux-sweetness . You could almost feel the sting of the plastic surgeon’s needle and smell the pollen of the flowers. Rachel, a gracious and soft-spoken woman appearing this evening in a simple black dress and black boots, was laying out a bit of her hand with that: as a woman who straddles both the art and social worlds of Manhattan, she was reminding us of the multiple vanities that travel with our movable feast; however elegantly the parties are done, however demure its references to wealth, and however subtle is that wealth’s display, narcissism remains all too near.

People soon streamed in from the launch party for Florence Fabricant’s cookbook. I was looking for women who contributed recipes, but crowds at galleries being what they are, I didn’t talk to any, except I did catch the ear of one mutual friend long enough to ask where Rachel might have got all those Botox bottles. "Well, I gave her a bunch," came the matter-of-fact reply. I kept trying but I couldn’t answer to my big question: did the contributors to the cookbook really, well, cook?

It was a week later that I finally scored. Memorial Sloan-Kettering had taken over the seventh floor restaurant at Bergdorf Goodman, with a party and silent auction of wreaths made by famous designers. I volunteered my untutored decorator services to Georgette Mosbacher; after she explained the motifs of her front door and entryway, I encouraged her to bid on a wreath accented with gently shimmering pinecones. The ever-dapper and gregarious Todd Romano appeared from behind and asked me to bid on his contribution, which featured a creature true to his Texas roots: a stuffed rabbit with antlers on its head—the mythical jackalope (a cross between a jackrabbit and an antelope). The room filled; New York’s most photographed women bottlenecked the entrance, peppered with multiple flashes by a man from Patrick McMullan’s platoon of event photographers.

The cookbook was on display; surely contributors and perhaps even the editor could not be far from reach. Indeed, Muffie Potter Aston was there, as engaging as always; she appears on page 148 of the book, with her chicken with mustard and lemon. But she was also co-hosting the evening: people greeted her, photographers were recording her every move—this was hardly the time to pull a lady aside for a private chat about her cooking. I was despairing of completing my mission when, as if on cue, a mutual friend introduced me to Kelly Forsberg, the "chairman of the cookbook committee," according to the credits page. (Note that her title is not the anatomically correct chairwoman, nor the burlesquing chairperson, nor the insipid and illiterate chair; The Society’s members have so much power and position, the pugilistic feminism of neutered titles and retained maiden names is simply unnecessary.)

No visitor to Delphi standing before the oracle could have had greater pleasure than did I in coming across the cookbook’s Madame Chairman. "Can the ladies who lunch really cook?" I asked Kelly.

"That was an absolute pre-condition," she said. "You could get the recipe from someone else, such as a family member or favorite chef, but you had to have made the dish yourself in order to qualify."

The recipes were apparently put through standard cookbook test-kitchen paces: prepared at ordinary temperatures and times and then undercooked and overcooked in order to account for variations in amateur talents and equipment. The book was already in its second printing, which, for a cookbook, is an achievement.

I was certainly impressed. A week before, if anyone had not understood Rachel Hovnanian as an artist to watch, that message had been duly delivered. And here were ninety women, who, if not exactly artists, could at the very least claim talent enough for the craft of the kitchen and salon for Florence Fabricant to deem their contributions worthy of publication.

I said that cookbooks are about optimism, and so with this one. It is not that, by picking up a copy of the book you are somehow grabbing a piece of New York social life; rather, it is the knowledge that, if women who ordinarily have others do their cooking for them can indeed whip up something good, so can we all.

Perhaps. In the twelve years in which I’ve lived in my current apartment, I’ve not cooked anything except an occasional egg-white omelette and my signature Poulet rôti avec rien . That means exactly half my culinary expertise concerns chicken, and so, with a copy of the recipe for Muffie’s chicken with mustard and lemon in my pocket, I headed for The Food Emporium, passing a cook at Jerry Speyer’s townhouse as he received party balloons for an at-home event; I troubled the supermarket staff to help me find the ingredients, acquainted myself with the nuanced differences between aisles one and six, then stood in the checkout line behind a Park Avenue chambermaid. I brought home the ingredients listed by Muffie and set to work.

The experience reacquainted me with the fact that, as with music, comedy and sex, in cooking, timing is everything. My wife got home just as everything came together. It helped that I was doing only one course, and the results were shockingly satisfying—a chicken dish that is fun and fragrant and, most important, so easy to make, even I couldn’t wreck it. The recipe calls for a mixture of lemon juice and dry white wine, so I chose the 2006 Edna Valley Chardonnay. The mustard, lemon juice and sprinkled lemon zest gave plenty of tang, and the wine, which has moderate oak for a San Luis Obispo Chard, insinuated itself into both saucepan and glass as a tempering presence.

It was two paws up at the Behr house, and to celebrate, I chased that with a glass of the 2001 Campo del Drago, a Brunello di Montalcino (a Tuscan Sangiovese) that nobly played off the verve of the meal, adding complexity and elegance atop the workaday satisfaction of the Chardonnay. For the finish, I moved toward sweetness, brewing us cups of Aiguilles d’Or, the most sublime Yunnan sold at my favorite tea store, the Mariage Frères flagship in the Marais district of Paris.

I remembered the time when, just after we had finished our meal at Oustau de Baumanière, in Les Baux de Provence, the maître d'hôtel asked how we felt.

      "I’m glowing from your wine, the food, and the sight of my beautiful wife looking so happy," I said.

      "Ah," he replied knowingly, "that is gastronomy."

      And so it is. Only this time, I got to do the cooking.

 

Park Avenue Potluck: Recipes from New York's Savviest Hostesses
By Florence Fabricant and The Society of Memorial Sloan Kettering

Hardcover: 272 pages
Rizzoli (October 2007)
ISBN-10: 0847829898
ISBN-13: 978-0847829897
$35.00

Alan Behr practices intellectual property law at the New York office of Alston & Bird LLP. He writes frequently on cultural affairs. His last exhibition was as part of the "Postcards from Paris" show at Leica Gallery in New York City.

External Links

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

The Society of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

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