Truman Capote's Valentine's Dinner
Editor's Note: This essay is a re-publication of one written in 2014, but the messages are still true.
I spent the Christmas holiday in Italy where we rented an apartment, visited frescoes and salumerias, cooked most of our meals, and read what seemed like a year's worth of New Yorkers. Coming home from such a long trip always means a greeting of overdue tasks, made worse if it's been the end of one year and the start of another. But that's my excuse for this long silence.
Despite a month-plus of no newsletters, I have been busy in my kitchen. I've been cooking a lot, especially soups, stews and braises, and I finally got around to making David Chang's outstanding bo ssam, the Korean 6-hour pork roast that Sam Sifton so enthusiastically wrote about in The Times Magazine two years ago. We've added a link to the recipe.
I ended up skipping the last step of lacquering the roast at 500° F; my oven wasn't all that clean and I knew that high a temperature would not only set off my smoke alarm but probably most others in our building. But nonetheless the skin was crispy and the recipe was a triumph. Buying the right cut of meat is key to success; I bought an 8-pound Boston butt at my Whole Foods but only after having a chat with the butcher to make sure the skin and fat were left intact. And yes, it takes six hours. At least six hours. I used an instant thermometer to make sure the meat had reached 190° F -- well past a conventional done point. It's counter-intuitive but a shoulder cut of pork must be cooked long and slow to make sure it's tender and flavorful. Undercook a Boston butt and it will be dry and tasteless.
I've also been using this winter's many stay-indoors snowy days to do some kitchen triage, including culling the cookbooks that had started to pile up. One that I couldn't quite manage to relegate to the bookcase in another room where I keep my cookbook overflow is Food In Vogue. It was first published in 1941 by Condé Nast and I bought my copy of the 18th edition published in 1981 from a used bookseller.
Maxime de La Falaise is credited as the author but because the book is mostly a compilation of celebrity recipes and pieces that had already appeared in Vogue, I expect her job was more arbiter and editor than writer. Every few years after that first volume, the book would be revised and re-issued so to credibly fulfill its purpose of reflecting the style and culture of the moment.
Simply reading Food In Vogue is to enter a time machine of food, domesticity, and aspiration, one that offers me some odd comfort. The faster things seem to change around us, the more I find myself trying to hold on to how we got here, if only to remember, like when I'll try to recall when there were no cell phones, just a few extra quarters in my wallet and functioning pay phones, plus the sweet quiet of no intrusions. Food In Vogue's time machine helps me keep in mind that striving to eat well and enjoy the pleasures of hospitality didn't begin with the Internet.
Maybe that's why I appreciated Condé Nast executive William Rayner's forward to the 1981 edition: "For the better part of a century (if a century, like valor, can be said to have a better part) Vogue has been offering its readers a unique selection of culinary suggestions contributed by artists, writers, designers, actors, and professional cooks from about the globe. While this long effort has had the effect of helping to make dining a more pleasant interlude, it has, on reflection, also reinforced the belief that eating habits, like fashion are willfully subject to social influence."
The volume that follows his words is one part cultural artifact, one part snapshot of celebrity appetites, and also an insight into how we aspired to eat. The contributors form a list of mostly boldface names from thirty years ago: such as David Niven, Clare Boothe Luce, Princess Grace, Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, or Hiro; plus a few that are still around, like Amanda Burden; and even fewer from the culinary pantheon like Julia Child and Dione Lucas. While their recipes are often archaic, reflecting the style of the La Côte Basque-like French restaurants that dominated New York in 1981, a few can still pique an appetite. As with Geoffrey Beene's crabmeat soufflé, Lady Bird Johnson's peach ice cream, and raw spinach soup that you can believe was made often by the composer Virgil Thomson.
On the other hand I doubt whether Mrs. Brooke Astor actually cooked any of the book's five recipes credited to her, including a decidedly non-Côte Basque chicken hash. Claus Von Bulow's recipe for rissoles of foie gras made with cream-butter-whole truffle-foie gras-4 eggs and deep-fried can't help but make me wonder if he cooked for Sunny, or if Vogue editor Diana Vreeland practiced any of her tips for saving electricity: "Do buy a pressure cooker; they rarely explode.… Don't open the refrigerator door unnecessarily.… Do remember that uncooked food is colorful. Think color! .… Do learn to cook in the fireplace.…". (The emphasis was added by Mrs. Vreeland, not me.)
Some of the entries are silly, but others can make us sentimental for more naive times, as with this contribution from Truman Capote, a gifted writer who could certainly recognize allure and practice seduction.
My Favorite Supper For Two By Truman Capote: This always makes a success and leads to interesting things.
4 baking potatoes 1 pound fresh caviar
1 pint dairy sour cream 2 bottles Champagne
Bake the spuds, split them, and mash them about a bit with gobs of sour cream. Stuff the whole mess with masses of caviar, and devour between gulps of freezing Champagne.
No matter your dinner plans, romantic or not, enjoy this Valentine's Day.