Every year or so, someone has an original idea —the exact same original idea that many other writers have pitched to magazine or newspaper editors. Surprisingly, the idea sells itself (again, and again, and yet again)— it’s nearly as predictable as each year’s crop of “new-and-exciting-ways-to-prepare-that-holiday-turkey” articles. It’s the tried-and-true “what-if-you-could-throw-a-dinner-party-and-invite-anyone-from-history-to-attend” trope.
I don’t know who started this notion, ‘though I suspect it might have been Steve Allen (who was no relation, if that makes any difference to you). He had just the sort of intellectual curiosity and wide-ranging interests to make the concept work. He certainly was the first to invite Thomas Jefferson, who now shows up on almost everyone’s imaginary guest list. This despite the fact that TJ, while brilliant, was not especially sociable or talkative – even after a few glasses of the Bordeaux wine he called “O’brien.”
I don’t think I could ever assemble one of these unlikely groupings of historical celebrities. For one thing, I wouldn’t know what to cook for them.
How could I reconcile their unknown allergies, dislikes, and politically-incorrect foods with my plans for a menu? How could I face the looks of disgust and disappointment on the faces of long-dead heroes? Think about it –would Socrates be thrilled to be dragged from the Elysian Fields, only to face an overcooked noodle casserole? What if the guests didn’t get along, wouldn’t speak to each other, and just sat there, despondently pushing grayish pieces of limp broccoli around their plates, desperately wishing to return to their graves?
I don’t even want to think about making up a dream guest list. I could, however, make a list of people I would never want to have at my table.
First, without a doubt, would be Leviticus.
There may never have been such a person (no doubt Moses just made up the name so it didn’t look like he was padding The Torah with his own stuff), but whoever wrote Leviticus 11:1 – 47 was one mean-spirited, self-important, know-it-all gastronomic buzz-kill. Just to play safe, I’m not having Moses at my party either.
It’s bad enough when guests don’t want to eat the food you lovingly prepared for them, but when they get all high-and-mighty, claiming that Yahweh himself told them that everything on your table is unclean, that you and your other guests are unclean, and that it’s an abomination to eat the dishes that make up whole sections of your favorite foods list – that’s just plain rude, don’t you agree?
Really, Leviticus – no lobster rolls? No billi bi? No scampi, let alone snails, afloat in garlic butter? No rabbit terrine? No frog legs Provençal?
But locusts are OK?
Are you kidding me?
I’m willing to go along with him on vultures, owls, and bats – well maybe not the bats (I might try them; they’re sort of like flying dormice, and Ancient Romans loved their dormice). But is he serious about no bacon, ever? Not a smidgen of prosciutto, even when melons are at their most fragrant best?
It’s just too much. The Leviticus invitation is definitely off the table.
The same goes for any other puritanical proscribers of pleasure – like Sylvester Graham. Some might call this father of veganism a tad over-zealous, but zealotry implies at least some form of passion. He wasn’t a fan of most forms of passion, expressly prohibiting anything that might potentially provoke excitement or lust. Meat, dairy, alcohol, and spices were forbidden. That pretty much eliminates anything I would consider serving at a dinner party. Inconsistently, Reverend Graham also forbade the consumption of white bread, which (to my way of thinking) is an unprovoker of lust if there ever was one.
Sharing a pepperoni-topped pizza “and a nice chianti” with Graham is clearly out-of-the-question. Hell, sharing anything with this guy is out-of-the-question.
No dinner invitation for him.
Then there was John Harvey Kellogg, who founded a masochistic empire based on Graham’s bizarre beliefs. He believed that illness resulted from meat rotting in our intestines. Alcohol, a provoker of lust, was forbidden. Dairy was OK, but taken primarily in the form of an enema. I don’t know about you, but extended talk of enemas is not especially welcome at my dinner table.
Kellogg did, however, recommend a diet that was rich in nuts. That particular idea, in Kellogg’s case, borders on autocannibalism —and that’s more than enough for me to scratch his name off my list of dinner invitees.
Sister Ellen G. White was another of the nineteenth century’s extreme vegetarians. Unlike Dr. Kellogg, who thought that spoiling our meals for the sake of our physical health was a worthy goal, she wanted more; she wanted to save our very souls by keeping God’s other creatures off of our plates. She also said that we eat too much even of healthy foods (that is, foods of which she approved). OK, she was right about that over-eating business, but it’s harder to swallow her claims that just because our sinful forbears ate meat, God caused The Flood. However, since that same flood wiped out everything else that was edible, Noah’s family had to start eating the Ark’s other passengers. She “explained” the result:
After the flood the people ate largely of animal food. God saw that the ways of man were corrupt, and that he was disposed to exalt himself proudly against his Creator and to follow the inclinations of his own heart. …[God] permitted that long-lived race to eat animal food to shorten their sinful lives. Soon after the Flood the race began to rapidly decrease in size, and in length of years.
Sorry Sister, but the inclinations of my own heart are that I – and my guests – should be able to eat any damned thing we want. Our sinful lives may be short, but they’ll be happier than long ones filled with your self-righteous sermons. Don’t bother checking your mailbox for dinner invitations from me.
While it is true that my main reason for rejecting potential dinner guests is their rejection of my omnivorous appetites, it’s not the only one. Even in as permissive a dining room as mine, certain standards of etiquette must be observed.
Horace Fletcher was obsessed with poop. He was constantly telling folks to sniff their excrement, to check for tell-tale signs of digestive failures (by which he meant “bacterial decomposition,” something I call “digestion”). I don’t want to hear any of this at my dinner table.
Equally bad was his insistence on chewing every bite of food thirty-two times, very quickly (in under twenty seconds) would replace informed and civil discourse with the sounds of machine-gun mastication. Sorry, Fletch —no dinner party should resemble an onslaught of rabid beavers.
Horace Fletcher will never receive an invitation to dine in my house.
If I ever do host one of these silly imaginary dinners, I plan to begin with this soup from Craig Claiborne. It is rich and seductive enough to provoke lust (at least for dinner). What’s more, it violates just about every rule promulgated by the irritating people I’ve banned from my table. Not only that, it doesn’t have to be chewed – not even once.
2 lbs. mussels
2 shallots, coarsely chopped
2 small onions, quartered
2 sprigs parsley
salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 pinch cayenne pepper
1 cup dry white wine
2 Tbsp. butter
1/2 bay leaf
1/2 tsp. thyme
2 cups heavy cream
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
1. Scrub the mussels well to remove all exterior sand and dirt.
2. Place them in a large kettle with the shallots, onions, parsley, salt, black pepper, cayenne, wine, butter, bay leaf, and thyme.
3. Cover and bring to a boil.
4. Simmer 5 – 10 minutes, or until the mussels have opened.
5. Discard any mussels that do not open.
6. Strain the liquid through a double thickness of cheesecloth.
7. Reserve the mussels for another use or remove them from the shells and use them as a garnish.
8. Bring the liquid in the saucepan to a boil and add the cream.
9. Return to boil and remove from the heat.
10. Add the beaten egg yolk and return to the heat long enough for the soup to thicken slightly.
11. DO NOT BOIL.
12. Serve hot or cold.
13. This dish may be enriched, if desired, by stirring two tablespoons of hollandaise sauce into the soup before it is served.
Source: Claiborne, Craig. The New York Times Cookbook. New York: Harper & Row, 1961.
Gary Allen’s most recently published book, (this September), is Sausage: A Global History. The next one, Can It!: The Pleasures and Perils of Preserving Foods is soon to follow sometime next year. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us