Edith Wharton: Christmas Pudding

Edith Wharton Christmas Pudding Recipe

Holiday parties usually follow a traditional recipe:

  1. Take several people who know each other either a little too well (friend parties with potential romantic prospects) or not well enough (anything work related).
  2. Add copious alcohol, perhaps with a brief food afterthought—a few Christmas cookies or maybe a random ham if you’re being fancy about it.
  3. Mix well.

The result is frequently uncomfortable, both emotionally and physically. The solution, as Edith Wharton deduced, is simply putting food first.

Wharton “liked rich and choice food and a good deal of it”; her favorite dishes included mock turtle soup, roast chicken, strawberries and cream, and lobster any which way. Dinner parties at the Mount, her estate from 1902 til her move to Europe in 1911, were lavish affairs, requiring a staff of 10 to prepare the elaborate menus.

The same servants were also charged with keeping Wharton’s guests fed throughout the day, including picnics on the grounds and snacks around the clock. “You needn’t bring supplementary apples or candies in your dressing bag,” Henry James wrote to a friend about his stay at the house, adding that as a hostess Wharton was “kindness and hospitality incarnate.”

At holiday time, though, Wharton took it to the next level, food-wise. A few recipes of her household recipes are preserved in Yale’s Beinecke library, including one for “Mrs. Wharton’s Christmas Pudding,” a dish that George Orwell later called “extremely rich, elaborate and expensive.” Maybe the most vocal author advocate of puddings in general, Orwell published his own pudding recipe; Wharton’s version, from across the pond, is very similar—in fact, nearly identical—except for her addition of glace cherries, a special touch for her high society friends.

Picking that perfect group of friends, of course, is the other necessary ingredient for a successful holiday party, another thing Wharton knew well. Her frequent guest Vivienne de Watteville noted that food at the Mount was only rivaled by the stimulating company: “Dinner was a poem to which brains and palate equally combined to bring a fitting appreciation.” Wharton was more blunt about how she settled on a guest list; when asked why her table only sat eight, she retorted, “Because there aren’t more than eight people in New York I care to dine with.”

Edith Wharton's Christmas Pudding Recipe

wharton1
Continue reading “Edith Wharton: Christmas Pudding”

The Cocktail Hour: Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh Stinger Cocktail recipe

Note: Read on for the winner of the Laurie Colwin Home Cooking giveaway.

A strong cocktail is a popular cure for a variety of troubles, both physical and more … situational. Have a cold? Try a hot toddy. Feeling anxious or restless? A nip of bourbon will fix that right up. Spending the holiday season with your significant other’s extended family? I suggest a giant eggnog, double the brandy.

Of course, these treatments aren’t officially doctor-sanctioned (Disclaimer: Please don’t use this post as your personal WedMD). In the early 1900s, if you suffered from nerves or insomnia, they’d instead prescribe you a mixture of bromide and chloral, sedatives that also helped relieve pesky aches and pains. But what if you were really nervous or particularly achy? In Evelyn Waugh’s case, you’d just combine the two methods and see what sticks: the drinks or the drugs.

Waugh was a devotee of the cocktail cure for a number of life’s ills. “You must not think I am leading a dissolute life quite the reverse except for being drunk a lot” he wrote to his friend, the London socialite Diana Cooper. He soon became associated with several drinks that appeared frequently in his fiction as well as on his bar tabs, among them the Noonday Reviver (Guinness, ginger beer, gin), the Brandy Alexander (brandy, crème de cacao, cream). But the one drink he designated his “signature” was the Stinger: one part brandy, one part crème de menthe.

Although the cocktail combination was a favorite of many writers, including Somerset Maugham and Ian Fleming, Waugh took it a step further, using crème de menthe as a mixer whenever the opportunity presented itself—and sometimes when it shouldn’t. When doctors suggested he try the bromide cure, Waugh prepared the drugs just like a Stinger, shaken up with a liberal helping of crème de menthe.

The result? A night of hallucinations that haunted Waugh for years, and inspired a similar episode in the novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Cooper, in one of her letters back to Waugh, recalled with horror “whatever that dread concoction was you did not know you were Wrong til madness claimed you.” She warned him against the “the drink-drug-escape addiction” that would continue for the rest of his career. Only someone with a Stinger on the brain could describe an unpleasant train ride as “exactly like being inside a cocktail shaker”?

waugh2 waugh3

waugh5

Continue reading “The Cocktail Hour: Evelyn Waugh”

The Cocktail Hour: Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe - Eggnog

With apologies to T.S. Eliot, April is not the cruelest month. That honor belongs to January. After a month of presents, family merriment, chocolate advent calendars and that great pine tree smell, we’re supposed to calmly accept the bleak grayness of winter for three more months?

This is where brandy comes in handy.

Getting a bit tipsy has long been a preferred cure for dreary days. For Edgar Allan Poe, a student at the University of Virginia in the 1820s, drinking apple toddies and eggnog was the extracurricular activity of choice (definitely better than marching band). According to his biographer James Albert Harrison, “a sensitive youth, … surrounded by the social circle that thought convivial drinking and card-playing ‘at Homes’ indispensable to remaining at all in polite society, would easily fall in with the habits of his ‘set,’ and perhaps cultivate them with passion or excess.” In other words, Poe was a lush, but it wasn’t his fault. He just went to a party school.

Poe’s taste for brandy, in particular, became legendary after he left Virginia and entered West Point in 1830. His roommate there, Thomas W. Gibson, recalled that Poe was “seldom without a bottle of Benny Haven’s best brandy. … He had already acquired the more dangerous habit of constant drinking.”

The reputation followed Poe for the rest of his life, and it was long assumed that his taste for drink was what killed him. Modern doctors believe he actually died of rabies; according to Jeff Jerome, curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House in Baltimore, Poe “may have had problems with alcohol as a younger man … but by the time he died at 40 he almost always avoided it.” Still, until just two years ago, a masked man would stop by Poe’s grave on the writer’s birthday, leaving a bottle of cognac on his tombstone for a toast in the afterlife.

* * *

poe images 1

Brandy, EAP's favorite

Continue reading “The Cocktail Hour: Edgar Allan Poe”

Henry James: Vanilla Ice Cream with Brandied Peaches

vanilla ice cream brandied peaches recipe

Around the middle of August, when vacations are past and sunset creeps up noticeably earlier every evening, end-of-summer anxiety sets in. How could I have let this happen? I didn’t have nearly enough picnics! Or take enough strolls through the park! Or eat all the corn, cherries, and peaches that summer demands! Suddenly, every weekend is wasted unless it includes at least one rooftop meal and one — okay, two — stone-fruit desserts.

If that seems overly dramatic, you should hear Henry James tell it. Born and raised in Manhattan, he would run errands with his mother to Washington Market, where farmers unloaded their produce onto the Hudson piers. He was struck by the bounty of summer there, “bushels of peaches in particular, peaches big and peaches small, peaches white and peaches yellow,” he wrote in A Small Boy and Others. “Heaps of them, the high-piled receptacles at every turn, touched the street as with a sort of southern plenty.”

When James wrote about losing the fruit of summer, though, he wasn’t just bummed there’d be no more pie for a while. In typical Jamesian fashion, the end of the market was a reminder of the passing of youth and (if we want to get really profound) of a bygone era. “What did the stacked boxes and baskets of our youth represent but the boundless fruitage of that more bucolic age of the American world …? Where is that fruitage now? Where are the peaches d’antan?”

Elegies like that make me feel like I should get to pondering Questions of Significance, not of granita recipes. But then I remember that James’ love of summer produce wasn’t entirely symbolic. In 1874, preparing to return home from a trip to Germany, he implored his mother, “Be sure about Sept. 4 to have on hand a goodly store of tomatoes, ice-cream, corn, melons, cranberries and other indigenous victuals.” Whenever I visit my family in California, I make practically the same request. And every Sunday, my mother and I make a run to the farmers’ market. There, even in winter, when my New York market stalls are all brown root vegetables, the stands still overflow with the colors of an everlasting summer.

* * *

peaches farmer's market

Continue reading “Henry James: Vanilla Ice Cream with Brandied Peaches”

The Cocktail Hour: E.B. White

Learning about the drinking habits of your favorite children’s book author is both disconcerting and a little thrilling. It’s like that teenage realization, so obvious yet somehow inconceivable, that your parents likely were sloshed at some point during your early years and you didn’t even notice.

When you’re raised with Charlotte and Stuart Little, it’s harder to remember E.B. White’s other pursuits, ones that make him a more likely candidate to kick off a cocktail feature. Besides revising that English-major staple The Elements of Style, he was one of The New Yorker’s top contributors for an incredible 50 years. After a half-century in that crowd, you’re bound to pick up a few mixology tricks.

Writers are a notoriously well-soused bunch. But a martini probably has the most literary pedigree of any drink in the repertoire: the publishers’ three-martini lunch, Dorothy Parker’s poem, James Bond. White was one of its most vocal devotees, praising it as “the elixir of quietude. … Martinis, if anything, have a muting effect on the constant ringing in my ears.”

It’s still hard for me to picture White, martini glass in hand, writing the words I would later read with a flashlight under the covers. It’s easier to imagine him early on: just out of Cornell and working at an ad agency, looking for a newspaper job on his lunch breaks. “I wouldn’t mind going without the food if I could have a little luck with the jobs, but it’s damn hard to have neither success nor sandwiches at noon,” he wrote in 1921. When his first New Yorker piece was published, four years later, I envision him sitting down with a celebratory turkey club and pouring out a much-deserved drink.

* *  *

Continue reading “The Cocktail Hour: E.B. White”