Breakfast with Bette Davis and the Famous Three Minute Egg

You could assume a lot of things about Bette Davis. Perhaps you’ve watched her movies (all 100+ of them) and you know her characters… smart, complicated, dramatic… and you think, personally, she must have been like that too. Or maybe you’ve read her books and know that her life hasn’t always been charming or easy, and you might think she bravely dealt with a lot of disappointment. Or perhaps you’ve seen her past interviews on television or youtube and witnessed how funny and polished and magnetic she was even in the off hours of her professional life.

All those instances might lead you to assume things about Bette, making you define her as one thing more than another – brassy, smart, privileged, funny, vulnerable, demanding, narcissistic, intense, wise, melodramatic, sincere, even terrifying.  Thanks to Kathryn Sermak’s new book, Miss D & Me, we can put our assumptions aside and know first-hand that Bette was a little bit of all those things. And so much more.

It is always fascinating to me to read about the behind-the-scenes lives of people in the public eye. Especially those stories shared by people who worked closely with a celebrity on a daily, detailed basis. Mostly because it breaks down the perception barrier of thinking that famous lives are so much more different than our own. That somehow fame and notoriety have morphed them into other-worldly figures washed clean from weakness and frailties. We generally only get to see one side of a famous person’s life depending on which part the media chooses to focus on, but with behind-the-scenes stories, you are offered a glimpse into a much more diverse landscape than any two-minute news clip or ten-minute interview could provide.

Ordinary people that work alongside extraordinary people are witness to the three-dimensional side of stardom  – all the good and all the bad wrapped up in one experience.  Like the relationship between Katharine Hepburn and her cook Norah, or Frank Sinatra and his valet George Jacobs or Madonna and her brother Christopher we are offered the chance to understand that the lives of these seemingly mythical creatures are really just fellow human beings, both flawed and fabulous.

When Kathryn Sermak first came to work as Bette’s assistant in 1979, Kathryn was a young, carefree Californian who spelled her name the classic way – Catherine – and had just newly spelled out a dream of one day living in France. Bette was in her 70’s, still working and very much set in her ways. Kathryn thought she was taking a simple summer job that would enable her to fund her way to France – not even really aware of who Bette Davis actually was. In turn, Bette thought she was getting a competent, sophisticated assistant in Kathryn whom would be both professional and perfunctory. Both were in for a very big surprise.

In the early, uncertain days, Kathryn didn’t expect to eventually count Bette as one of her best friends and Bette absolutely never entertained the idea that Kathryn would become like a daughter to her. At first, everything was wrong for both women. On Bette’s side, Kathryn was not enough – she wasn’t cultured, she wasn’t able to anticipate needs, she wasn’t sophisticated, nor groomed for the level of lifestyle that Bette had grown into. On Kathryn’s side Bette was too much… too demanding, too overbearing and too controlling. Both thought they would never last the first week together.

The turn in their relationship from bad to better came down to one simple little thing – an egg. Bette’s breakfast most always consisted of a three-minute egg. The proper cooking of it was her litmus test as to the value of any good assistant’s worth. There’s not much to cooking a three-minute egg. It involves a pan of boiling water, an egg still in its shell and three minutes of simmering.   But Bette added a twist to this simple test. How do you cook a three-minute egg in a hotel room with no stove, no pots and pans and no kitchen? Perplexed, Kathryn had no idea until Bette motioned to the in-room coffee pot. Then hot water was brewed. The egg was placed in the glass coffee carafe and the time was monitored on a wristwatch for 3 minutes exactly. In this small test of skill, it wasn’t that Kathryn failed to quickly and cleverly assess the options of impromptu cooking in a kitchenless room, but instead, it was the trainability of her actions that caught Bette’s attention.

That was the beauty of their relationship and the bud that ultimately bonded them together. The fact that Kathryn was young, fresh and naive while Bette was experienced, opinionated and worldly proved a combination of character traits that formed a tight friendship that lasted the rest of Bette’s life. It wasn’t always easy for these two women learning about life and each other day by day, but by the end the experience was invaluable.

There were outlandish moments, like when Bette insisted Kathryn change the spelling of her name from Catherine to Kathryn so that she would be more memorable (which she did!). There were all the lessons Kathryn had to endure… etiquette, elocution, table manners,  how to walk properly, how to dress effectively, how to eat with decorum and how to hold court at a table full of strangers.

There were awkward moments, when Bette’s insistence on how to appropriately handle certain social situations was so outdated, that Kathryn would bear the brunt of the embarrassment.   This was especially apparent when Bette insisted on dressing Kathryn for a formal dance in Washington DC complete with fur coat, gloves, a designer dress, expensive jewelry and dance lessons only for Kathryn to encounter a room full of denim-clad twenty-somethings casually hanging out in a dance hall.

There were the vulnerable moments when Bette crumpled up in the face of public humiliation as her daughter wrote an unflattering tell-all book, or when Bette threw off her wig in the car one day and embarked on a temper tantrum that was heartbreakingly child-like.  There was oodles of advice about men and relationships and sticking up for oneself in the face of adversity. And there were the laughs and the conversations and the sweet letters that Bette would write to Kathryn expressing all the appreciation she felt for her darling assistant and her close friend. There were silent treatments and long work days, elegant cocktail hours and thoughtful gifts, tears and tenacity, laughter and luxury. There was life, with all its good and all its bad.

And there were eggs – lots of eggs. Bette and Kathryn traveled the world together and ate at many fine restaurants, but the food Bette would choose to make for herself or her family on days off was simple fare that harkened back to her New England roots. Homemade burgers, cucumber salad, cornish game hen, wine spritzers, clam bakes, fresh berries with cold cream… those are the foods that she liked to make. For this post, our breakfast menu inspired by Bette Davis includes the following:

A Bette Davis inspired breakfast!

It’s a simple menu symbolizing all that was Bette Davis – sweet, salty, fresh, traditional, colorful, warm, cool and classic. It takes just a few minutes to make and is so easy it doesn’t even require detailed instruction. Simply boil an egg for 3 minutes.  Slice some homemade bread and slather it with jam.  Bake a potato in the oven for an hour and then finely chop it up with some scallions and salt and pepper and add the mix to a pan with some olive oil and let it cook until it turns brown and crusty. Adorn the plate with fresh fruit. Tah-dah! Breakfast, Bette Davis style, is ready!

Kathryn would be the first person to tell you that life with Bette was extraordinary for her last ten years. That the talented movie star was never far from the actual woman. That there was a glamorous side to her, a practical side, a petulant side and a vulnerable side that made her interesting and unique and ultimately endearing. That she was far from perfect but perfectly real.

“That’s me: an old kazoo with some sparklers, ” Bette once said.

The many faces of Bette Davis throughout her 55-year career.

Cheers to Bette for tackling life head-on,  with grace and style and fortitude and being 100% unique about the whole affair until the very end. Cheers to Kathryn to giving us a very real look into the life of real woman and cheers to three-minute eggs – a new breakfast favorite here in the Vintage Kitchen!

This post is part of a blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood featuring the life and film Career of Bette Davis. Read more about this incredible woman and her work in a variety of posts contributed by a dozen different film bloggers here. 

Find the vintage cookbooks that contributed recipes to this post in the shop here.

Find the recipe for homemade brown bread from a previous post here.

Find out more about Kathryn Sermack and her book, Miss D & Me here.

Katharine’s Norah’s Cousin’s Irish Soda Bread: From the Kitchen of the Hepburn Household

If you’ve been a long-time reader of the blog, you’ll know what big fans we are of Katharine Hepburn.  Last Fall, we made her famous Lace Cookies. The ones that were in constant request at both her city house and her country house, so much so, that extra batches were kept on hand either freshly baked or on standby in the freezer. Was Katharine always the one baking away? Sometimes. But mostly it was Norah, Katharine’s longtime personal cook, domestic helper and treasured friend.

Norah Considine. Photo from the book At Home With Kate.

Norah Considine worked for Kate for 30 years, day in and day out, making the kind of food that Katharine loved best – simple, hearty and well-balanced. Sometimes though Norah would sneak-in her own recipes, a combination of food from her Irish heritage and dishes that she made up on the fly to feed her five kids. With guests continuously coming and going from the Turtle Bay city townhouse and from Fenwick, the Hepburn family compound in Connecticut, mealtimes were always eventful and Norah was always up to the task to make them as delicious as possble. Cooking for everyone with equal aplomb, making meals that were thoughtfully prepared and proven to please, Norah was accustomed to feeding an ever-evolving crowd that ranged from household staff to famous celebrities. In turn, she became a little bit famous herself, with returning guests regularly requesting her rum cake, or her beef stew, or her creamed chipped beef on toast.

Katharine Hepburn’s townhouse in the Turtle Bay neighborhood of NYC

Even though Kate liked to run a tight ship, she was generous with her friends and her staff. Every year on St. Patrick’s Day, Kate would leave New York City and head to Fenwick, so that Norah could have the townhouse to herself to entertain her friends and family for St. Patrick’s Day. This party was no small gathering, sometimes counting over 100 people or more.  But no matter what the attendance numbers were, large or small,  Kate always wanted Norah to be the star of the show for her special event, so she’d graciously leave in order to give Norah the run of the place.

For a change, Norah would cook for herself and her friends, and she would relax into the traditional celebrations of her heritage day.  At these parties, you didn’t always know who was going to be attending – friends and family flew in, drove in and walked over from all corners of the city, the country, and the world. There were homemade costumes and contests, musicians and dancers and tables full of traditional food and drinks. One of the edibles Norah always made for these parties was her cousin’s Irish Soda Bread, a recipe that traveled all the way from Ireland.

This was the soda bread recipe that was legendary in Norah’s family and in Katharine’s house. It has fed hundreds of people throughout hundreds of parties and like, Kate’s Lace Cookies, it represents wonderful memories and extraordinary experiences.  Not bad for a humble bread born out of lean economic times.  With a consistency somewhere between a fluffy cake and a crumbly cornbread, Norah’s cousin’s Irish Soda Bread is a decadent little treat both sweet and hearty in a satisfyingly nourishing way. One slice makes you understand how it fortified a country for two and half centuries.

Although technically, not really Irish in origin (the Native Americans were the first to come up with the general idea), Ireland has been proclaiming soda bread a national staple since the 1830’s. Because it contains no yeast, an expensive ingredient in times past, soda bread gets its bulk from baking soda which chemically raises the dough when combined with flour and any acidic property like sour milk, buttermilk, or in Norah’s case, sour cream.  Some people even add a touch of orange juice or lemon rind to their soda bread for an extra dose of certainty that the chemical reaction will yield a tall and fluffy loaf.

That are lots of variations on the traditional soda bread recipe, but Norah’s is interesting because it includes caraway seeds and sour cream and just a little bit more butter. Super fast and easy to put together, this recipe only takes about 15 minutes to prepare and bakes to a crunchy, golden brown within an hour. Norah recommended enjoying it warm, just minutes out of the oven, or if you want to wait a bit,  let it cool to room temperature and toast it with a little butter right before you are ready to serve it. The one drawback of Irish soda bread is that it dries out quickly – so if you are not going to serve it the day you make it, then it is best to freeze it and reheat it when the occasion arises.

Not as hard as biscotti and not as dense as cornbread, Irish soda bread lands somewhere in the middle as far as form. It pairs beautifully with any salty meat like ham, sausage or brisket for a savory-sweet combo, and would be marvelous with a soft creamy-textured cheese like Brie or goat cheese.  In an adventurous mood, we might even top a toasted slice with cream cheese and bacon and kale for an interesting brunch option or serve it alongside baked apples or a chopped salad of pear and fig.  In the next couple of months, we’ll be experimenting with Norah’s soda bread recipe, trying out some different food pairings. Once we’ve determined our favorites, we’ll post them here on the blog.

In the meantime, we encourage you to try this delicious holiday bread and look forward to hearing your thoughts on it.

Norah’s Cousin’s Irish Soda Bread

4 cups unbleached flour, plus more for dusting

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 cup granulated sugar

2 cups raisins

4 teaspoons caraway seeds

4 eggs

1 pint sour cream (2 cups)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 sticks, salted butter, plus more for pan

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large mixing bowl combine the flour, baking powder, sugar, raisins and caraway seeds.

Roughly chop the butter into the flour mixture and combine to the point that the mixture looks like coarse meal. You can do this with the tines of a fork, a wooden spoon or your own two hands. Set aside.

In a small bowl combine the sour cream, eggs and baking soda.

Mix well and then slowly add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients…

Mix until combined and until the bread is no longer sticky. You might need to add as much as 1/4 cup extra flour to this process, but be careful not to overmix the dough.

Ideally, you want the dough to be just smooth enough so that you can pick up in your fingers and transfer it to a lightly floured cutting board without it sticking to your hands.

On the board, shape the dough and then transfer it to a greased 2-quart baking pan. Keep in mind – the dough expands to fit its baking container and then rises – so if are using something other than a 2-quart dish – just be aware that it will grow in size.

Bake for 1 hour. Cool on a wire rack for a few minutes before removing from the pan and slicing.

However you choose to spend St. Patrick’s Day, whether it be at a big house party like Norah’s, or at a simple celebratory supper for a few (much more Kate Hepburn style) we hope you have a wonderful holiday full of good food, good friends, and good spirits!

Cheers to Kate and to Norah and to Norah’s cousin, whose family recipe has traveled across countries and continents and kitchens and time. Happy St. Patrick’s Day with much love from In The Vintage Kitchen.

That’s Norah (wearing the polka dot blouse) in the midst of her St. Patrick’s Day merrymaking.

Gender Discrimination in the 1940’s: Why a Correspondent Turned From War to Cookbooks

Betty Wason (1912-2001)

In Sweden, in 1939, as Nazi troops began their invasion of Norway, a young American journalist staying in Stockholm began delivering eyewitness accounts of the historic event.  She was 28 years old and the only correspondent in that section of the world broadcasting live stories for CBS Radio. Her name was Betty Wason and her vantage point was intimate. Her reports were well-written, authentic and timely in the transmission of details. She was brave, dedicated and determined, eventually getting close to Nazi troops in Norway in order to tell the stories of wounded British soldiers and all that they had seen.  She was a woman alone in a war zone, a thoughtful writer in a chaotic environment and a new traveler out discovering foreign lands. But for all the things Betty was, there was one thing she wasn’t. She was not a man.

And that affected everything.

Gender discrimination runs rampant in every field throughout history, except maybe one…. radio news broadcasting in the 1930s and the 1940s. Mainly because there wasn’t any argument against the discrimination. Things were simply done and not done and there were rules to abide by.  One of those rules concerned women. Women  simply did not, were not, allowed to read the news over the air.  It was firmly believed that the feminine register could not convey the seriousness and importance of hard-hitting news stories. Instead, women’s voices were relegated only to entertainment-type shows… cooking lessons, homemaking stories, commercial ads and literature readings. Anything more serious or historically significant was left up to men to communicate on-air.  This proved a problem, for our gal Betty.

Growing up in Indiana in the 1920’s, Betty was a creative spirit from the start with interests in music, art and fashion design. After graduating from Perdue University with a degree in home economics in the early 1930’s, Betty bounced around a few jobs in her home state before realizing she wanted a more exotic life than Indiana could provide.  As a young woman full of vivaciousness and adventure and a desire to see the world, Betty went to New York and settled into a two-year job working at McCall’s magazine. But even in the exciting city of New York, her wanderlust could not be quelled. Europe was calling and Betty wanted to travel.

Vintage 1930’s travel posters to Czechoslovakia show the beauty and attraction of foreign travel. This was one of the countries Betty would visit and report from.

Not having the financial means to live abroad without working, Betty contacted TransRadio Press who was willing to pay young journalists overseas for eyewitness stories concerning World War II. A brief stint in Europe trying to make a go of it as a correspondent didn’t yield enough money for Betty to live on,  so she came back to New York only to try again less than a year later. On her second go-around though, she worked with CBS who was desperate to get any and all international news they could get their hands on in regards to the war. That’s when Betty headed to Sweden, just before Hitler arrived in Norway.

Betty’s contact at  CBS was Paul White who was in charge of news broadcasting.

There were many male war correspondents living and working overseas at this time, but they were mainly focused on print pieces suitable for newspapers and magazine readers. Radio was becoming more and more popular in terms of delivering news, but the seasoned overseas reporters, so focused on their writing, were out of the loop on the fact that radio news was rising in popularity. There was a niche market blooming in quick, short news briefs for ears instead of eyes and Betty saw an opportunity to be a part of it.

A 1940’s radio

Since Betty was the only correspondent in the Scandinavian region, she was recording and filing her own reports for CBS and being paid on a weekly basis.  But quickly, CBS determined that Betty’s voice was a problem (too light, too feminine, too high in pitch).  It was believed, even in times of war, especially in times of war, that radio listeners didn’t want to hear a delicate voice reporting on death and destruction. Her reporting content was strong though, so CBS said that she had to find a male counterpart to step-in as the voice in front of her work.

Betty was upset that she couldn’t speak the words that she was writing, but she wanted to keep her job, so she trained Winston Burdett, an American newly arrived in Stockholm, in the art of journalism for a radio audience, and he read her reports for her. Incidentally, she trained Burdett so well that she wound up working herself right out of Sweden. Burdett was after all a man and now (thanks to Betty) a good broadcaster.

Winston went on to have a lengthy career as a broadcast journalist at CBS. In 1955, he admitted to being a communist spy during the 1930s and 1940s when Betty worked with him.

Trying to find another unique vantage point like she had in Stockholm, Betty went to the Balkan Islands, and to Turkey before settling in Greece where she again sent reports home to CBS. Again, CBS said she needed a male counterpart to vocally relay her stories. And again Betty complied, this time working with a male Embassy secretary, who, at least, introduced himself on-air as “Phil Brown speaking for Betty Wason.”

Betty Wason in Greece. She made her own uniform to appear more professional since there was no dress code for correspondents. Photo courtesy of Hard News: Women in Broadcast Journalism.

As the Nazis occupied Greece, Betty’s bravery was called upon again as she reported eyewitness occurrences on a regular basis through her Embassy mouthpiece. While there, she endured house arrest under Nazi supervision for two months before the regime flew her and several other journalists to Europe for questioning. Concerned that Betty might be a spy, the Nazis detained her for an additional week by herself before eventually allowing her to fly back home to the US, where she was greeted with fanfare for having endured captivity and detainment.

Invigorated by the attention she received upon returning home and by the contributions she had made to broadcast journalism overseas, Betty naturally went to the CBS offices in New York to inquire after more work or a new assignment. Shockingly, executives at CBS refused to acknowledge that she played any significant part in the broadcasting realm overseas and denounced her requests for more story assignments. In an instant, Betty was dismissed like she had never been a part of the reporting team in the first place. Immediately, her work was marginalized even though CBS had been using her content repeatedly throughout the war, finding it valuable enough at the time to pay her for it. But upon Betty’s return, none of that seemed to matter. Had Betty been a man she would have been offered a position like Winston Burdett or handed a new assignment and sent to another corner of the globe. She would have been encouraged and supported by her colleagues and eventually been able to dispel the ridiculous notion that women couldn’t vocally report the news. But that didn’t happen.

After being turned away by CBS, Betty left New York and went on to Washinton DC, where she joined forces with other women in broadcasting, collaborating on various news shows and continuing on with her writing.  Those few years of dangerous foreign reporting and her budding career of broadcast journalism didn’t turn out the way Betty expected, but ultimately, good things came out of this redirection in her life.  Her ability to believe in her own talents and to creatively work around roadblocks with persistence and perseverance led her to a fulfilling career as a writer, on her own terms.

A sampling of Betty’s cookbooks published from the 1950’s-1980’s

Inspired by her travels and her curiosity to learn more about local cultures and customs, Betty was devoted to exploring the history and the food scene in all the countries she visited, each eventually yielding their own distinct cookbook. Through her explorations in The Art of Spanish Cooking, The Art of German Cooking… of Vegetable Cooking… of Mediterranean Cooking…  Betty wanted readers to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of her favorite places.  That genuine, awestruck wonder led to over 20 beautifully written books that pull readers (and home cooks!) in from page one…

How I wish I were about to fly to Greece again, to relive once more that special thrill of seeing from the sky the ragged ochre shoreline with its-jewel-like border of turqouise merging into the royal blue of the Aegean…(from the introduction of her Greek cookbook)

In the Vintage Kitchen, we were introduced to Betty through her Greek cookbook simply titled Betty Wason’s Greek Cookbook, a stained and splattered edition worthy of it’s adventurous war correspondent author.

 

If a cookbook could ever be a travel guide, it would be Betty’s style of approaching food. Not only does she include authentic recipes, but she writes about them with the eye of a curious tourist learning a country in detail.  In her Greek Cookbook, published in 1969, in addition to 200 recipes, she also included a state-by-state reference guide on where to buy authentic Greek ingredients in the US, a glossary of Greek terms and special tips and tricks to make sure that the cooking experience remained as easily replicated as possible.

Yesterday, it was Betty’s birthday and today it is International Women’s Day. We couldn’t think of a better post to publish than this one on the forgotten lady of broadcast journalism and now the remembered author of important vintage cookbooks.  In celebration, we made her recipe for Spanakopeta from her Greek cookbook. With spinach now coming into season,  it is an ideal dish for Spring and a guaranteed crowd pleaser for upcoming holidays like Easter and Mother’s Day. If you have never had Spanakopeta before, it is similar to quiche…. a mixture of cheese and spinach and herbs stuffed between two layers of phyllo dough.

Betty Wason’s recipe for Spanakopeta, A Greek version of Spinach Pie

It’s light in texture and constitution so it can be enjoyed as a side dish or a small dinner or a brunch accompaniment. Betty suggested that it could be served hot or at room temperature, which makes picnic basketing an option too.  It reheats well and can sit in the fridge for a few days without getting soggy so if you are a make-ahead meal planner this recipe will be effortlessly easy and valuable.

Betty Wason’s SPANAKOPETA

Serves 6

12 phyllo pastry sheets

2 pounds fresh or frozen spinach (we used fresh)

1 teaspoon fresh dill, minced and chopped

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced

Salt to taste (optional)

2 eggs

1/2 lb. Gruyere-type cheese, feta cheese or dry pot cheese (* see notes)

1/2 cup melted butter or olive oil (we combined 1/4 cup of each)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

If frozen spinach is used, cook as directed on package and drain well. If fresh spinach is used, wash and clean the leaves to remove any traces of dirt and pat dry. Heat a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Do not add any butter, oil or water to the pan. Working in batches, add as many large handfuls of spinach as will fit reasonably in the pan and toss with a wooden spoon until all spinach is wilted (about 2-3 minutes per batch). You may have to do this step in several batches depending on the size of your pan. Spread each cooked batch of spinach out on a cookie sheet to cool.

Once all the spinach is cooked, it will look like this…

At this point, you’ll need to wring as much water out of the spinach as possible. The easiest way to do this is to grab clumps in your hand and wring them out forming tightly packed meatball-like shapes. The drier the spinach the better so wring as much water out as you can.

Next, on a cutting board roughly chop each of the spinach balls. Mix in the dill, parsley, and salt to taste and toss until combined. I found there to be enough natural salt in the spinach and the cheese, so we didn’t add any extra salt to this dish at all, but season it to your preference.

Add one egg to the spinach and herbs and toss to combine. Grate the cheese. We can only find Gruyere at our grocery store occasionally, so I used Danish Fontina which is similar. Other options are Jarlsberg, Swiss or Feta.

Add the second egg to the grated cheese and mix to combine.

Butter a square 9×9 baking dish and place 6 sheets of phyllo pastry in the bottom. Brush each sheet with the olive oil and/or butter. Then add the spinach, and top with the cheese.

Cover with six more sheets of phyllo, each brushed in butter/olive oil. Don’t forget to brush the top layer.

Ready for the oven!

Bake in a 350-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes until pastry is golden. Remove from the oven, let cool until the dish can be handled,

then turn out upside down on a baking sheet and return it to the oven so that the undercrust can become crisp and golden (about 15-20 minutes).

Back into the oven!

Remove from the oven, flip back over and cut into squares. Serve while hot or wait for it to cool to room temperature. We served our spanakopeta with a glass of sauvignon blanc and a simple side salad tossed in olive oil and lemon juice. Other additional sides that would be lovely with this include hard-boiled eggs, olives, mixed nuts,  prosciutto, or roasted sweet potatoes.

Light, airy and full of subtle flavors that are a little bit nutty (the cheese), a little bit zesty (the herbs) and a little bit earthy (the spinach), Betty’s spanakopeta is packed full of good, healthy nutrients, providing a simple introduction to the lovely world of Greek food.

It’s a good-for-your-spirit food mirroring Betty’s healthy outlook on life. She cast aside all the bitterness and resentment that could have filled her up in the post-CBS days and instead stuffed her life full of light, bright joy that enriched her spirit and fed her soul. Cheers and happy birthday to Betty for continuing to inspire women around the world with your writing.

Interested in learning more about Betty and her Greek recipes? Find her cookbook in the Vintage Kitchen shop here.

The Pineapple, The Sea Captain and How A Legend Began…

Sailors are known for their stories. You’d be hard-pressed to go to any ocean-enthusiasts house and not hear a tale of the extraordinary fish caught, or the summer storm turned sour or the port city that lured like a siren song.  But did you ever hear the story about the pineapple? The one that tells how it became one of the most iconic symbols in the world? Today in the Vintage Kitchen, we’ve got a legend on the table.

There are a few versions surrounding the pineapple and how it became known as the universal symbol of hospitality. Some stories claim it was a gift of peace offered to foreign explorers by local Caribbean tribes.  Other stories state it was a sought-after souvenir traded around South America until it eventually was welcomed in Europe for experimental gardening. Another explains that it was a status symbol of the very rich and the very royal who used it as a party decoration to signify the extent of their wealth, visually reinforcing the fact that they could indeed offer the best of everything to their guests, no matter what the cost. But our favorite version in the Vintage Kitchen, of how the pineapple came to be a hospitality icon, is the one that dates to the 1700’s in the time of the sea captains.

That legend states that merchant trading ships like this…

A Chesapeake Bay style sloop was a common merchant ship traveling between the West Indies and the Eastern Atlantic coast.

carried cargo (mainly sugar, tobacco, rum, and molasses) back from the Caribbean islands to various ports in New England. Included in their bounty was the exotic tropical pineapple, a fruit so unusual in its beauty, so incredible in its sweetness and so valuable in its price, it was treated delicately just like its most precious counterpart, sugar.

When the ship was back in port and safely unpacked, the captain would return home to his New England house with a pineapple in hand.  He would spear this fruit on the front garden gate to signify to friends and neighbors that he had returned from his ocean voyage and was ready to entertain visitors with good stories and good food.

The centuries-old houses of Kennebunkport, Maine where many a sea captain lived.

With just the right amount of whimsy and practicality, it is not hard to see how such a story and such an action could have spread throughout the village, and then the state, and then the coastline, so that within time, hundreds of garden gates across many states were bearing pineapples – a symbol of friendly invitation, warm welcome and kind generosity.

Pineapple gates in Odessa, DE

No one yet has accurately been able to authenticate the first-time connection between pineapples and hospitality, but this sea captain story may help explain why you’ll find pineapples incorporated into outdoor architectural details all over the East Coast from Maine to Florida.

Appearing in gardens both ancient and new…

Permanent pineapples in the garden.

…history tells of America’s long-standing love affair with this hospitable fruit.  You’ll see it on the front doors of old houses like this one…

The historic Hunter House in Newport, Rhode Island built in 1748.

 

There’s the pineapple above the door, welcoming all who enter.

and this one…

Virginia’s Shirley Plantation, completed in 1738, which boasts a three-foot tall pineapple in the middle of the roofline…

and in the decorative details of brand new, modern days houses…

Pineapple themed door knockers, welcome signs, doorbells, and house number plaques announce an age-old symbol on brand-new exteriors.

You’ll also find them indoors…

Most often as finials front entry staircases…

blending classic and traditional elements from past centuries to the present century…

Pineapples in all modern ways useful… ice bucket, lamp,bookends, flower vase.

Last week we added a new vintage pineapple to the shop…

This one was neither a finial nor an exterior facade detail but instead at one point in its life had adorned the top of a fountain.  The fountain wasn’t as big as Charleston’s famous Waterfront Park pineapple…

Waterfront Park, Charleston SC

but she is an ideal size for many design possibilities including lighting, decoration, and display.  And she carries forth the sea captain’s theme of good stories and good food in a most beautiful way.

Even though we might never be able to uncover where and how the pineapple became involved with the convivial idea of good hospitality, we still love the idea of one fruit bringing together three centuries worth of parties and people. Critics would say that the sea captain story is flawed because pineapples were expensive and traders wouldn’t put a small fortune out in plain view for anyone to steal. But hospitality is about extending and offering, not squandering and hiding, so clearly, the argument could go either way.

If you a were a sailor in the 1700’s, at sea for long stretches of time, with life and death equally close at hand, perhaps you needed a little frivolity upon returning home to family and friends and the pineapple provided just that. A simple yet beautiful billboard. One that symbolized rich with life lived instead of rich with monetary wealth.

Cheers to the legends that stick around and to the fruits that travel through time!

Channel your own inner sea captain and set the stage for your next nights of entertainment. Find the vintage fountain topper pineapple piece in the shop here!

 

 

Dinner Time Stories: An Extraordinary Evening with Le Petit Chef

An evening of Dinner Time Stories with La Petit Chef

It’s not every day that you receive an invitation to dine with the world’s smallest chef. But that is exactly what happened on Sunday night. This one-of-a-kind dinner took place at The Standard, a private cigar bar and restaurant located in a historic townhouse in downtown Nashville.

A foreigner to the country, the world’s smallest chef lives in France, but he’s just recently embarked on a world-wide tour of sorts that will take him to Stockholm, Cairo, the United Arab Emirates and all around the United States in 2018. Lucky for us, his first stop in America was right here in Nashville at one of the prettiest restaurants in town.

The Standard is an elegant splash of old-world glamour that naturally evokes daydreams of long-ago decades and previous merrymaking.  Although it’s only recently become a restaurant and cigar bar (in the early 2000’s) it is definitely not hard to imagine that this building has lived a flamboyant and glamorous lifestyle throughout its existence.

Built in 1843, it is a gorgeous example of antebellum Italianate architecture, the last of its kind on this city block that once held dozens of similar buildings all in a row.  With its exposed brick walls, moody lighting, leather furniture, big fireplaces and cozy nooks your imagination doesn’t have to run far to conjure up swanky scotch parties and charming tuxedo-types romancing dates and drinks throughout the past 175 years.

Scenes from the Standard

Originally a family home, then a bed and breakfast in the 1980’s, and now most recently a night-time restaurant and a private club, it is safe to say that this building has seen its fair share of special occasion dinners. This past Sunday evening was no exception.

Tucked into a private dining room with two long tables, white cloths and curious leather bound books placed at each setting,  dinner guests were invited to indulge in a bit of whimsy for a two hour stretch on a cold January night.

Photo courtesy of dinnertimestoriesusa.com

Our mysterious host, the little chef, was nowhere to be found at this point, but as the lights dimmed and the maitre d’ welcomed us, he magically appeared…

Bonjour! Meet the little chef with the BIG personality!

from inside the books placed before us!  As it turns out, the world’s smallest chef is no bigger than your pinkie finger. Mini in size, but mighty in personality, we quickly learned that Le Petit Chef is a BIG fan of a certain famous explorer…

Marco Polo (1254-1324), the famous Venetian explorer who traveled across Europe and Asia and published his experiences in a book called The Description of the World.

Marco Polo. By nature, the two have very much in common – they are both intrepid travelers, free spirits, and excellent storytellers. This very special dinner, hosted and prepared by the little guy himself, turned out to be a culmination of bold travel experiences inspired by his idol, Marco and his famous 14th-century explorations that changed the world.

Told through the use of 3D projection mapping, Le Petit Chef cooks and adventures right before your eyes pulling you into his engaging world of storytelling and food presentation in the most fanciful of ways. Over six courses, he takes dinner guests to a myriad of exotic lands, near and far, with stops in places like India, Asia, the Himalayas (and more!) all the while preparing signature dishes from each culture.  His adventures were so big in scale, he had to literally jump out of the book and walk around on the table in order to showcase the whole journey…

To give you a little perspective, that’s my wine glass in the top left corner and Le Petit Chef in the right-hand corner walking around on the tablecloth.

I realize this is a difficult situation to wrap your head around – a little guy walking and talking around your plate  while you are also eating – so we’ll share this video so that you get a better idea of how it all works…

Each course was presented in its own dynamic and interesting way. The first course for example, (Ratatouille  Terrine with Tomato Jam accompanied by a Roasted Green Slip Mussel with Garlic and Lemon) arrived in a mini suitcase just as the little chef was sailing across the ocean in search of the start of his trip.

As the story continued and the travel destinations became more exotic, the table landscape changed in a multitude of different ways…

Here we are in China!

In an instant, patterns and colors transformed into new shades and shapes…

while real food filled our bellies and visual artistry fueled a feast for our eyes. Magic met us at every turn.

Grilled Shrimp with Chili, Sriracha and Sesame, on the left and a dessert demonstration by Le Petite Chef on the right.

By the time the cloudy mountaintops of the Himalayas were presented, and real-life fog flooded our plates, in both food form and story form, we all, everyone at the two long tables, had completely fallen in love with the little chef.  When the last crumbs of dessert were whisked away and the little chef bid us good night, we knew we had experienced an incredible event. We had spent a glorious time with a new friend who not only fed ourselves but also fed our souls.

It’s the goal of the little chef to see as much of America as possible, which is good news for you. He might be heading your way next! Keep up with his city stops here… and if he’s in your neck of the woods, go and find him. Dine with him. Fall in love with him. And enjoy the enchantment he brings. It will be an unforgettable night full of magical storytelling.  And if there is anything more than we need in this crazy world right now, it is more moments like this in our lives.  Passion, excitement, and entertainment meet at the table of Le Petit Chef.  As Marco Polo once said, “You’ll hear it for yourselves, and it will surely fill you with wonder.”

Look for Le Petit Chef’s tour schedule here.

If you live in the Nashville area, book your Dinner Time Story night at the Standard here.

And if you haven’t already visited, all you Nashvillians, stop by the Standard for a cocktail or two. You won’t regret it!

Cheers to Le Petit Chef for a most marvelous night and to Marco Polo for continuing to inspire centuries of travelers the world around.

The Snow Day and The Simmering Stove: Ruth Reichl’s Chicken Fricassee

There is something magical that happens when your cooking and your reading and your weather all line up together. It’s 14 degrees today (for the high!) and it’s snowing big, fat flakes in every direction (for the second time this week!). With pure delight, I write this because it has been a very long time coming. Winter weather in the South is never usually this charismatic, so for an eternal snow lover like myself, these past few days have been absolutely fantastic.

I’m eighty pages into Ruth Reichl’s latest cookbook, My Kitchen Year, where it is also winter. Ruth is writing about the freezing temperatures and the snowy landscape in upstate New York and how the seductive aromas of long-simmering onions and butter and chicken and wine have the ability to both warm the stomach and the spirit.

From Ruth Reichl’s latest cookbook, My Kitchen Year, published in 2015

Today, its Ruth’s birthday, so we thought it would be fun to make one (or two) of her recipes to compliment both the winter landscape we are reading about and the winter landscape we are actually experiencing. If you are unfamiliar with Ruth Reichl,  she has been around the food scene since the 1970’s as a writer, chef, food critic, host and magazine editor in all realms of media from print to television to radio.

Ruth Reichl

I first heard of her when I was a teenager, riding up the West Side Highway with my dad and my sister. At that point, in the early 1990’s, Ruth was the food critic for the New York Times. Her restaurant reviews would air on the morning commute segment of the local classical music station favorited by my dad as he battled his way through New York City traffic. The spot, sponsored by Veuve Clicquot, contained her latest restaurant review and was, to put it politely, very honest. More often than not, she disliked a restaurant or the food or the service and she wasn’t afraid to say so. She’d sign off every review saying “I’m Ruth Reichl” and my sister and I used to mimic her voice in the car.

Growing up in New York, where most endeavors get scrutinized on a daily basis, I was used to reading about reviews and hearing criticisms on a variety of subjects when it came to the creative arts and emerging trends. But the way Ruth talked about food and service and presentation was elevated to a whole new level of description. Her words were candid but also sophisticated and humorous when it came to observation.  Each review was a brave, opinionated tale of her own experience that flew through the air seemingly without care as to whom it might affect at the restaurant of concern or what impression it might make of herself. The three us, my dad, my sister and I  thought she was pretty audacious. We used her name as our own descriptive tool when it came to trying out restaurants in the city…”Well it’s no Ruth Reichl…” and all of us made special note to remember the names of the restaurants she lauded because certainly, they didn’t come around often.

Fast forward a decade and a half later, I spotted Tender at the Bone, a memoir she had published in the late 1990’s, for sale at an outdoor book stall in Philadelphia.  I bought it,  took it home and immediately called my sister. “I’m Ruth Reichl”  she said and we both laughed over memories of driving with our dad on the West Side Highway. And then I actually read the book, which was marvelous and to my surprise, very vulnerable and humbling. There was no restaurant critic in her voice in these pages. It was all heart and humanity when it came to discussing family, food and growing up. And there were recipes – good ones, homey ones that everyone enjoyed – brownies, deviled eggs, pot roast, fruit tarts etc.  I loved it so much, I immediately read her other two books which followed – Comfort Me With Apples and Sapphires and Garlic. Those books covered her young adult years in food, job and relationship explorations and then those famous years as a restaurant critic when her job was no easy slice of pie.  These stories slashed through all my pre-conceived notions of who I thought Ruth was when I was a teenager and she was sponsored by a champagne company. And most importantly her books were my first introduction into reading food memoirs… not so much for the recipes but for the stories behind them.

For a long while, lots of things coming out of my kitchen stemmed from Ruth either in the form of recipes from her books or ones from her magazine, Gourmet, where she held down the fort as editor-in-chief.  The food she featured always contained simple elegant ingredients that looked pretty on a plate and satisfied all the senses in a most appealing way. Even though I’ve never met her, Ruth has been a reliable companion in my kitchen, which brings us back to this post featuring her birthday celebration on today’s cold winter’s day. I selected these two recipes because, like the lively lady herself, they are full of depth and require some care and attention in a fun and fulfilling way. Also, they make the kitchen smell like heaven.

Chicken Fricassee and Show-Off Salad

The vintage recipe, Show-Off Salad (aptly named because you prepare the whole thing at table in front of your fellow diners) is from Tender at the Bone and the classic yet modern day recipe Chicken Fricassee is from her latest cookbook My Kitchen Year.

Both recipes are a great representation of my memories of Ruth – they might seem a little fussy at first but at their core, they are just real, simple and basic dishes that have universal appeal. Hope you enjoy them just as much!

SHOW-OFF SALAD – Serves 4

2 cloves garlic

1/2 cup olive oil

1 cup cubed stale French bread

1 egg, organic, farm-raised

1 small head of romaine lettuce

1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire

1/2 teaspoon salt

pepper to taste

1/2 of a large lemon

4 anchovy fillets, cut into quarters

1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese or more if desired

Make the croutons. Crush one clove of garlic and add it to two tablespoons of olive oil in a medium size pan over medium heat. Add the bread cubes and saute until the bread is crisp and golden on all sides. Drain on a paper towel and set aside.

Set a small pot of water to boil on the stove. Once the water is boiling, coddle the egg by dropping the entire egg (in its shell) into the water and boiling it for 1 minute. Remove the egg from the water and set aside.

When you coddle an egg for a salad dressing like this you are heating it  (but not cooking it) really fast just below the boiling point, so it’s important to use a trusted organic farm egg as opposed to generic grocery store eggs for salmonella reasons.  Uncooked eggs are dangerous carriers of bacteria, so make sure your eggs are from clean, natural and reputable sources. Otherwise skip the egg part altogether.

Wash and dry the lettuce and then tear into bite-sized pieces.

This next step can be done in your kitchen – or in front of guests, it doesn’t matter either way. If you prepare it in front of guests, put all the salad components on a tray and carry it out to the table to make.

Ruth Reichl’s Show-off Salad

Peel the remaining clove of a garlic, cut it in half and crush one half in the bottom of a big salad bowl. Add lettuce leaves and remaining olive oil. Toss thoroughly until each leaf is coated. Add the Worcestershire,  and then the salt and pepper to taste. Break the egg over the lettuce and toss until leaves glisten. Stick a fork into the lemon half and squeeze the juice over the salad. Toss the leaves until the dressing begins to look creamy. Then toss in the anchovies and mix again. Adjust the seasonings (salt, pepper, lemon juice) if need be before adding the cheese and croutons.

Now that the salad is ready, consider serving it on individual salad plates rather than next to the Chicken Fricassee which is saucy and is more suited for the crunchy bread as far as plate companions go. In addition to a dinner side, this salad also makes a lovely meal just on its own too.

CHICKEN FRICASSEE – Serves 4

(A small note: I varied this recipe a little bit just because of what we had on hand as far as ingredients in the Vintage Kitchen. Find our modifications in italics)

1 whole organic, free-range chicken, cut into 10 pieces or 1 package organic, free-range skinless boneless chicken cutlets 

1 medium carrot, diced

1 celery stalk, diced

1 cup white wine

1/2 pound mushrooms, quartered

salt

pepper

5 tablespoons butter or 1 tablespoon butter + 4 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, diced

2 tablespoons flour

2 cups chicken broth

fresh parsley

1 bay leaf

2 egg yolks

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 lemon

Shower the chicken with salt and pepper. If using a cut-up whole chicken: Melt two tablespoons of butter and a tablespoon of olive oil in a large casserole over medium-high heat. Place the chicken skin-side down and brown for five minutes on each side. Remove to a plate. (If using boneless skinless chicken cutlets… melt one tablespoon butter and two tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add chicken and brown about 3 minutes on each side. Remove to a plate.)

If you choose the skinless boneless cutlet version, this is what your chicken will look like after the quick saute.

In the same pan where you cooked the chicken, add the onion, carrots, and celery and cook until vegetables are fragrant and soft- about 10 minutes – stirring occasionally.

Add two tablespoons of flour and cook, stirring continuously until all the fat has been absorbed. Add the white wine and stir until the liquid has thickened slightly. Return the chicken to the pan. Add the broth. Add a few sprigs of parsley, salt and pepper and a bay leaf. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Partially cover and cook for about 30 minutes – 45 minutes until chicken yields when you pierce it with a fork.

In a separate pan, melt two tablespoons of butter (or two tablespoons of olive oil) and saute the mushrooms. Salt to taste and set aside.

When the chicken is ready, remove the lid and remove the chicken to a separate plate. Discard the herbs. Let the sauce mixture simmer for few more minutes.

In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks and cream together. Slowly add a small amount (about 1/2 cup) of the hot liquid to the eggs and cream and whisk quickly to temper it. Stir the egg mixture into the pan mixture, stirring constantly for about a minute. Add the mushrooms and the chicken. Add the juice of the lemon. Add one tablespoon of butter (or one tablespoon of olive oil).

Ruth Reichl’s Chicken Fricassee

Remove from heat and serve in a large bowl for the table or plate individually. Pool extra sauce around the chicken. Garnish with fresh parsley sprigs. We served this with warm crunchy French bread, the show-off salad and chilled  Pinot Grigio.

In My Country Year, Ruth said this recipe reminded her of when she was living on an island (Ile d’Oleron) off the coast of France in the 1960’s. This recipe will forever now remind us of the back-to-back snow days that finally arrived after many years of anticipation. Cheers to good memories, good cookbooks, and long acquaintances. Happy birthday Ruth Reichl!

Merry Christmas!

 

Dear beloved readers…

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas day full of delicious adventures and fun-filled cheer! You are our joy and our happiness throughout the entire year. Thank you so much for indulging in this gigantic, passion-fueled world of culinary curiosity. Cheers to you!

With much love from,

In The Vintage Kitchen