Gene and I were newly married, newly moved to Manhattan. Gene’s favorite U.C. Berkeley philosophy professor and his wife were in town and we wanted to give a dinner party in their honor. It would be my first. But I’d grown up at my mother’s knee giving dinner parties and felt comfortable at the prospect. The only people we knew to invite were an ex-girlfriend of Gene’s (she was an Admiral’s daughter) and her husband, a distinguished surgeon at Sloan Kettering. Too, we’d made the acquaintance of a fascinating neighbor one flight up: the poet Muriel Rukeyser—
“If you stretch your hand, you touch the slope of the world
reaching in interlaced gods, animals, and men…”*
(The way the world winds, at the time Muriel was on the faculty at Sarah Lawrence College, colleague of a professor of 18th-century English Literature to whom I am now blissfully married.)
I also wanted to invite Craig Claiborne. That culinary legend lived on the first floor of our apartment building on East 88th Street. I subscribed to Gourmet magazine where Claiborne was a mover and shaker and I was star struck. But as often as I lingered by the mailboxes, I never caught a glimpse of him. And at an unfledged twenty, I didn’t have the aplomb to knock on his door and say, “Hi, I’m Sylvia Thompson, I think you’re wonderful, Gene and I are one flight up, I’m a good cook…could you come to dinner this Saturday? Mrs. Rukeyser’s coming…”
So we’d be seven, which was all our boxy living room at the end of our railroad apartment accommodated. And we’d be dining on trays, as the alcove intended for dining was Gene’s study—nights and weekends my husband worked on his novel.
As a wedding gift we’d been given the handsome 781-page Gourmet Cookbook (published in 1950). For my first dinner party, a recipe caught my fancy: Lobster Absinthe Gourmet. California girl that I was, lobsters were a rare luxury. And I’d never tasted absinthe, but in Paris I’d seen paintings of absinthe drinkers, the dreamy look in their eyes made me flush with anticipation.
First thing was to obtain the lobsters. A subway ride home from the Fulton Fish Market with a basketload of live lobsters was not my idea of how to spend the morning of our party. After calling around, I found an adorable Italian named Tony who didn’t mind delivering uptown. Tony said for seven guests I needed seven of his succulent lobsters. Gourmet said one lobster for every two servings. Tony said the book was crazy. I didn’t want us to look chintzy so I agreed.
Tony told me how to cook them: “Grab ‘em behind the ears, Signorina.” “I didn’t know lobsters had ears, Tony.” “They don’t, Signorina, but that’s where you grab ‘em anyway, then just push ‘em into a pot of boiling water and when they turn red, take ‘em out again. All there is to it.”
The morning arrived. I got my shopping cart and last-minute list and was halfway out the door when I stopped. “But you’ll have to buy the liquor, Gene, I can’t—” “Honey,” said my worldly husband, “in New York you don’t have to be twenty-one to buy liquor.” “Oh. Good.”
The liquor man on First Avenue and I discussed the wine. All I knew was it had to be dry white and all he knew was Graves. The week before he’d sold Gene a bottle of French Graves: “Look, darling, only ninety-nine cents!” It tasted like it. Then I remembered that my mother liked Wente Brothers—memorable name—so I chose two fine slim bottles of Wente Brothers Chablis. Then I remembered the recipe called for the lobsters to be covered with dry white wine in the pot. I added two bottles to my order.
“Yes, thank you. And a bottle of absinthe, please.”
Ringing up the wine on his cash register the liquor guy said in a bored tone, “Ain’t none.”
“Oh. Can you tell me where I might buy some?”
“Pardon me? The recipe says—”
“Girlie, it’s against the law.”
“Excuse me.” That was absurd. Gourmet magazine wouldn’t ask readers to… I was not just thwarted but mystified. “What sort of law?”
“American I guess.”
“But it’s an American cookbook.”
“I don’t care if Abraham Lincoln wrote it, absinthe is illegal. Now these’ll be twelve dollars and twenty-one cents.” Beat. He studied me. “Wait a minute.”
He grabbed a flat pint-size greenish bottle from a shelf, with a corner of his shirt wiped dust off it, dropped it in with the wine, “Happy party,” he turned and disappeared behind a curtain into the back of his shop.
I was too distressed to see what the bottle was. After all my careful planning of the menu, no absinthe?
I suddenly realized my confused state was because I didn’t want to go home and cook innocent creatures in a pot of anything. How in hell did I get myself into this? Why hadn’t I decided on good old-fashioned pot roast? Maybe it wasn’t too late…
At the greengrocer’s, after selecting scented melons for our first course, I asked if I could use his phone (remember the days when you had to use a public telephone to make a quick call?).
“Have they come yet, darling?”
“Yes, they’ve come,” he said.
“We just need you, darling.”
When I opened the door, I found Gene (ever the drama king) sitting on a kitchen stool, cookbook open on his lap, reading the recipe to seven green lobsters scuttling their way across our linoleum kitchen floor.
I flashed on a chapter from The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook called “Murder in the Kitchen,” where Miss Toklas dispatches her first carp, then sinks back into an armchair, cigarette in her shaking fingers. I had a way to go before I could sink back into anything. Now, tiptoeing my way between waving antennae, I set down the sack of bottles and told Gene about my debacle at the liquor store.
“I was really looking forward to the absinthe.”
“Oh, darling, wish you’d told me…it’s my understanding the only thing the League of Nations ever accomplished was outlawing absinthe…”
“You’re kidding. Why?”
But he just handed me the big book, went to his typewriter.
I looked down at the recipe…it said, “…pour over the lobster sections 2 ounces slightly heated absinthe or Pernod.” Hadn’t noticed that. I pulled out the green bottle. Pernod. I owed the liquor guy a pot of jam.
Reading the recipe, the first thing that stopped me should have been a red flag–except I was just beginning my life of intense cookery and wasn’t accustomed to paying attention to details: “Place 3 medium-sized lobsters in a large saucepan and cover them with cold dry white wine.”
Saucepan? Saucepan? The OED defines saucepan as “a deep metal pan, typically round with a long handle.” I was experienced enough to know that you use a saucepan to whisk sauces…not polish off bulky sea creatures. Well too small a pan for three lobsters was of zip importance because I had SEVEN to cook.
Suddenly the gravity of my situation struck me. I was not prepared for making this dish.
Desperately, hopefully, I pulled out our largest pot, wedding present from Aunt Cleo and Uncle Dave, beautiful two-gallon spaghetti pot. I put it on the stove and, remembering what Tony said, grabbed one lobster ‘behind the ears,’ and dropped it gingerly into the pot.
“My god, he barely fits!” Six to go.
Now I sank into a chair. My mind raced scanning the apartment, taking stock of suitably sized receptacles: the bathtub—couldn’t light a fire under it…the great tin tub filled with earth and herbs on our fire escape—I’d punched drainage holes in the bottom…suddenly, I had it.
A galvanized tin garbage can!
Our can was plastic.
Serendipitously—a genuine mercy–it was trash day. Surely one of our fellow tenants had a metal can the right size. I dashed out the front door—taking care not to let anyone escape.
The landlord’s downstairs was also plastic. Craig Claiborne, a bachelor, evidently ate all his meals at the magazine because there was no can by his door. I ran up the stairs past our apartment, saw that the MacDougalls’—dear young couple across the hall–was also plastic. Raced up to the top floor and there it was. In front of Muriel Rukeyser’s door the most beautiful tin garbage can I’d ever seen. Brand new. Probably six-eight-ten gallons! Holding my breath so I wouldn’t make a sound, I grabbed its loop of a handle, ran back downstairs terrified I would trip, fall, and clatter my way down the stairs—announcing to Mrs. Rukeyser a thief had copped her can.
I jammed the garbage can into our kitchen sink, gave it a thorough scrubbing and triple rinsing, set it on the stove—it covered two burners. How noble it looked in its silvery stature. I tippytoed around the kitchen, gathering up the creatures, apologizing to each as I tucked it into the can. Where was Gene? Didn’t matter. I pulled out the corkscrew, emptied in the two bottles of Chablis. That barely moistened the bottom of the can. “Cover them with cold dry white wine” indeed. That did it. I began to curse Gourmet magazine, happy indeed Craig Claiborne wasn’t coming.
All we could do was pour in the two bottles I’d bought for the table. The lobster on the bottom was now afloat. I had to throw in Cellini’s ring: I yelled for Gene to come uncork the two bottles of Mumm’s champagne given us as house-warming presents. He ceremoniously emptied the treasure over the sea creatures. They were settling down. I turned on the burners, all business now. The carapaced creatures floated lazily in the lukewarm wine. I tried to remember who met his famous end in a keg of malmsey.
Setting the timer, heaving a sigh, dearly wishing I could have drunk two–no three–glasses of the Mumm’s, I lit a cigarette à la Toklas and sank into a chair.
But no time for the weary. Dessert!
Quickly I got out the cupcake papers I’d bought for the Colettes (yes, another Gourmet recipe). I melted sweet chocolate and with the back of a spoon made a thin but even layer by swirling it around and coating the inside of each crinkled paper case. I tucked the chocolated cases into an ice cube tray and slid it into our tiny freezing compartment. Next I made the cream for filling, an airy thing of far too many egg yolks and a jot of rum—I don’t think I’ve had rum in the house since, but then rum seemed very sophisticated.
Lobsters were out of the pot by now, their composition awaiting preparation… I made wedges of the first-course melons, sprinkled them with chopped candied ginger (still a favorite combination)…washed and dried endives and lettuces and put together a classic 3-to-1-oil-and-vinegar dressing…measured the rice…got the frozen peas ready (added ribbons of lettuce for Frenchness), arranged the sets of “Please take your own service into the living room”…tucked a new bar of soap and fresh hand towels in the bathroom… dashed about the apartment seeing to the final cleaning up…asked Gene to scrub Mrs. R’s can so I could zip it back up before she arrived…
Gene never got around to the garbage can and I was frantic with “…when they are lukewarm, remove them from the pan…split the shells in half and crack the claws, discard the black vein running from head to tail and the small sac back of the head…” I wished I’d never heard of lobsters. This wasn’t luxury, it was…
Of course I’d planned to put the lobster dish together before everyone arrived…expected to be able to sit down in the living room the way all the How to be A Hostess books tell you you should—the way my mother always did…(but then Ma had ME to help get everything ready). But that would be impossible. I am always late. I will always be late. There is something about the mechanism of timing in my head that simply cannot adjust to Time-As-It-Is. My internal clock runs on Time-As-It-Would-Be-Nice-To-Be. So while at the other end of the flat Gene and our guests would be schmoozing, enjoying, I’d be laboring over the Lobster Pernod et seq.
A frightening prospect loomed. In our flat, the front door opened smack into the middle of the kitchen. By the time she arrived, Mrs. Rukeyser would probably have discovered her new garbage can was missing. It would be hard, even for a poetess–however bemused–to walk into someone’s kitchen and not notice the large new galvanized steel garbage can sitting on the stove that matched the one for which she was looking. We couldn’t put it in the bathroom—no space. Our closet? No space—besides, I discovered it was going to take a deal of baking soda to get the tell-tale lobster scent out of the tin. No space anywhere in the apartment. My husband’s solution was succinct: “The hell with it!” I threw dish towels over it and–we practiced–when the bell rang, Gene would open the door to greet the guests and I’d throw open my arms—ample yards of caftan–in a gesture of welcome, standing spread-eagled in front of the camouflaged can as he quickly escorted them into the living room. I intended to sprint back upstairs with her can the minute we had Mrs. R. safely seated.
At last Muriel Rukeyser arrived, was so busy warmly greeting each of us she never looked in the direction of the kitchen, she was a tall large woman and she sailed like a great ship into the living room. I nearly burst into tears of relief.
Our guests had their drinks, settled behind their trays, I served the melon with ginger, then excused myself airily throwing away, “Got to assist the cook…”
Frantic, in cutting the lobster tails into pieces, with my sharpest knife I succeeded in piercing my thumb as well. That I shed a drop or two into the lobster coral had to be ignored. I was so slap happy by then I just laughed…I mean, the alternative was to throw the whole thing out! Thank God my blood was the same red…
Just then Ellen Pepper (septuagenarian New Englander, capricious Ellen loved meeting new people and extending her hand in greeting, “Hello, I’m a Hoar,” which, of course, made for double-takes…), a superb cook, the sort who always made her own ice cream—came in to help. But I creamed butter, flour, some of the lobster’s wine, chervil, and fresh tarragon into a sauce…dumped the baby peas into a pot, saw the rice was nearly ready… Ellen briskly uncorked the Chablis Gene had had to dash up to our First Avenue purveyor’s and buy. And now the Moment Supreme: arranged hot buttered lobster pieces in a heated copper chafing dish (wedding present), warmed the Pernod in a small pot, set it aflame then poured the Pernod over the lobster…spooned the sauce over that…
Carried everything into the living room and served. Gene poured the wine as though he always poured wine for his guests on Saturday evenings.
Tony must be called in the morning and thanked.
After serving the salad, with sticky brown fingers I relieved the cupcake papers from their fragile chocolate shells—that was the most frightening part of all the cooking, filled the Colettes with the rum cream, perched a candied violet atop each (ah, the confectionery at Chartres!), arranged them on an oversized doily-covered round tray (wedding present). Exquisite.
Gene had cleared the plates and taken in coffee. Everyone was having a before-dessert cigarette (what different days) when in breathless anticipation I sailed in with the tray of Colettes…caught my heel on an edge of the carpet, fell on my face, Colettes shot forward, slide off the tray, soared into the air, landed face-down on the butter-colored rug. Every single one.
Stunned, I fled in tears.
Gene came after me. “Ruined!” I exclaimed, crying into Muriel’s (we were now on a first-name basis) garbage can as I scrubbed away.
“Not at all, darling,” he said. The guests had dived after the chocolate cases, skimmed off the butter-colored fuzz, and scarfed them down.
“Really? They ate them?”
“Come on, Sylvia, into the living room.” Didn’t want to go. But I went back to our guests, wiping away tears. Ellen, Stephen, Mary, Bill, and Muriel applauded.
Muriel was the first to leave. As she rose, I leaped to my feet. Gene caught my eye. Smiling, he said, “All clear.”
Mrs. R. said in her rich voice, “Thank you, my dear, lovely evening.” I had the feeling she sensed this was my very first dinner party.
“Thank you, Muriel,” I answered. “For everything.”
*From Ajanta…you can hear Muriel Rukeyser read her poem about Buddhist paintings in the Ajanta caves in India recorded at the Whittall Pavillion, the Library of Congress, April 5, 1965: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzNNxK_9fuw… (accessed 17 November 2022)