Food & Drink Updates
Join myFT Daily Digest to be the first to know about Food & Drink News.
Gertrude Stein had the right idea about parties. When the poet and modernist art collector invites artists to her Paris apartment, she hangs their paintings on the wall opposite their seat and lets them cherish in the glow of their own genius.
My dinner is going to be full of writers, so I’ll either have to beat pages of their work, or think of another way to keep things cheerful. Luckily, Stein is my co-host for the night and he steps in early, much happier than Picasso’s serious portrait makes her appear. She looks approvingly at the guest list, declares the group completely dissonant and begins rearranging the furniture.
I want a cozy and dark place to gather, so we travel back to the haunting summer of 1816, when we came ash from the ashes Mount Tambora volcano blocked the sun in many places around the world, and there was little to do but sit inside, eat and tell stories.
We eat in a villa near Lake Geneva, which fends off the cold with fire and candlelight. We did not invite our neighbors, the most famous group of travel writers of the year. Although Stein Lord Byron would like to focus on his poetry and poor Mary Shelley can do it with pleasure, we agree that tormented twenty things can spoil the mood.
But a kitsch cocktail should start the evening nicely. Tonight we have a fairy-pink Femme Fatales, a sweet champagne-based cocktail wild strawberry cream and cognac, which I once drank in Phnom Penh’s fancy Raffles Hotel Le Royal and have not thought of since. Stein accepts her hair without looking, and is already leading the conversations. Nancy Mitford appeared at my elbow and screamed over the nice drink.
The novelist is arrogant, full of jokes and compliments. But she can not help noticing material that is ripe for ridicule in future stories. Her eye ends up on the walls. ‘Did you save these pages of my novel yourself, honey? This is a funny thing to do. “Before I can answer, country music treasure Dolly Parton burst through the door – a small, laughing face in glittering sequins – connecting arms Frank O’Hara. The American poet hums a Marlene Dietrich song and is ready for gossip.
Last, and a little surprised to be here, is Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious computer programmer who created bitcoin. The search for Nakamoto was a decade-long game for the obsessive cryptocurrency community. After explaining that he is not Elon Musk, Nakamoto takes a hard conversation with the poets about the similarities between decentralization and the death of the author, until Parton points out that the food has arrived.
On the table sit buckets of icy champagne and carafes of a peculiar purple and yellow plum liqueur that Stein brought from home. There are dishes of Morecambe Bay shrimp in pots, covered with a thick layer of butter and served with toast. Mitford declares it to be a favorite food of the British royal family. Oh, but not the queen mother, who calls her ‘cake’.
Stein has no patience for royal chats, and any hope she cultivated of a sober dissection about art was wiped out by this tumultuous crowd. O’Hara begins to read one of his poems aloud and asks Parton to sing along.
I excuse myself for watching Samin Nosrat, the California-based chef and author. I see her take a pan of fried chicken out of the oven, the skin brown and crunchy. We bring it to the table with bowl of salad and rice flavored with saffron and sweet onions. My guests, who have taken in a lot of champagne, all rejoice.
I lean over to Parton over her role in funding the Covid-19 vaccine, but Mitford and Stein, who were not told about the current pandemic, confuse it with reference to the 1918 flu and start a conversation about losing generations. Hoping to prevent the night from getting tired, I rush our last course, a steaming bowl with my mom’s bread and butter pudding, served with cold custard.
Pudding or dessert? Mitford denies having an opinion, despite the satirical “U and non-U” article on class distinctions in speech she wrote in 1955.
“A pudding is a pudding is a pudding,” Stein shouts. I do not know if this is an example of her infamous use of repetition or just of the plum liqueur, and I hand out cups of strong coffee and small popcorn cookies. The morning harvested from Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree, they burst into your mouth and are full of honey. Someone give Stein some lemons, the craze that Amy caused so much trouble Little Women. They are so sour that she immediately starts to get sober.
Suddenly she catches a glimpse of Nosrat through the kitchen door and rushes away to argue about Oakland, California, where Nosrat happily lives and Stein, who grew up there, once described in a dark way as ‘there where there is no’ .
Parton and O’Hara start dancing to the door. Someone has revealed that a group of young artists live next door and that they are determined to keep the party going. Parton winks as she hands us our coats. “Come on, dear men, let’s see what this evening has to offer.”
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to learn more about our latest stories first.