Julia Reed: Cheney Had the Blueberries, I Had the Chocolate Mousse

I’d still like to be both thinner and richer, but after I answered last week’s question, I remembered a food column I’d written a few years ago for The New York Times magazine, commissioned by our own Billy Norwich, that poked gentle fun at the foibles of the “social X-rays” and their various quests to remain a size two. You will note, however, that Pat Buckley, who was mentioned in the question, comes off well. She was tall and thin and plenty rich, but she was also hilariously funny, hard working for her various causes (long before Vogue came along to underwrite the gala, she put the Met’s Costume Institute on the map and the event itself was less about Hollywood glitz and more about fun) and had great taste in both clothes and food. She and her husband always put good – real – food on the table in their grand maisonette, and I was crazy about her. She enjoyed herself and knew about balance, which is what we should all aspire to. Herewith, the piece, with a few updates.

I’ll Just Pick

In Nan Kempner’s coffee-table book on entertaining, R.S.V.P., there is a luncheon menu from the very stylish and very skinny Marie-Chantal, the wife of Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece. It consists of a soup of grapefruit juice with pureed cucumber, celery and tomato; a soufflé with low-fat cheese, no butter, six egg whites and only two egg yolks; the “individual lemon tarts” devoid of pastry crusts and bill as “no-guilt sweet treats.”

The whole thing brings to mind Ruth Draper’s priceless monologue “Doctors and Diets,” in which a woman and her three guests get a much-coveted table at an extremely fashionable restaurant and each turns out to be on a rigid diet. The Draper character must then ask the French waiter for off-the-menu items like a single cold, boiled turnip (“Will you make it your personal choice please, and serve it attractively?”), raw carrots (“Just wash them … the lady wants the whole bunch”) and the juice of 11 lemons (“She’s on the 100-lemon cure-what courage!”). She then trumps them all by declaring nothing for herself (“No, thanks, I don’t take anything”).

Now I know that Marie-Chantal’s guests are probably all of like mind (except for their children, who were allowed to eat spaghetti), but in general I have a thing about hosts who impose their diet regimen on guests, and about guests who make outrageous requests that don’t have anything to do with a life-threatening condition. (This may come from the fact that when I was in boarding school at Madeira, the headmistress, Jean Harris, put the entire, already culinarily deprived student body on the Scarsdale Diet. We did not know until she shot and killed the diet’s creator, Dr. Herman Tarnower, in his bed, that she had been romantically involved with him.)

I think, in fact, that everyone should follow the example Sally Quinn sets in her common-sense book on entertaining, The Party. To accommodate vegetarians and dieters, she serves “a sinfully rich dinner but with lots of vegetables” and she makes sure there are no courses that are only meat. Quinn tells me that in addition to at least “one cheesy, buttery, creamy thing,” she serves an “incredibly decadent” dessert. But, she adds, “I’ll have some berries on the side. I try to balance it.”

Balance is good. When I attended a dinner in Washington after one of the recently departed Vice President Cheney’s heart episodes, I noticed that Cheney was served a plate of pineapple and blueberries for dessert while the rest of us got a gooey chocolate mousse. The hostess told me later that the kitchen had made the choice for him, to be thoughtful, so we’ll never know for sure whether that’s what he really wanted. But I can accurately report that he did not look happy (but then, he rarely did).

“Lemonade Lucy” Hayes banned all booze from the White House, prompting her husband’s secretary of state to say that the “water flowed like champagne.” The Carters didn’t serve hard liquor at White House functions, and when husband Bill took the White House, Hillary Clinton replaced the French chef with the man who created the “light menu” at West Virginia’s Greenbrier resort – “the freshest ingredients enhanced with light sauces,” she wrote in “An Invitation to the White House.” She also invited heart specialist Dr. Dean Ornish, noted for a low-fat, mostly vegetarian eating plan, to give seminars at the White House.

It was not the first time that health had been a topic in the White House. In FDR: A Centenary Remembrance, Joseph Alsop, the columnist who was a distant cousin of both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt – as well as a great gourmet and gourmand – remembers the nutritionist whom Eleanor employed to be the presidential housekeeper. The food was so bad, Alsop reports, that Martha Gellhorn, invited to dinner with her fiancé, Ernest Hemingway, ate a “hearty meal” of sandwiches before the party. Alsop writes he suspected that such puritanism about food “was another manifestation of Eleanor Roosevelt’s detestation of anything savoring of worldly way … She equated plain living with high thinking, so it was moral to eat badly.” No wonder Eleanor was Hillary’s hero.

When I first began entertaining, I tended toward style over substance (there was a lot of sliced kiwi fruit on my early plates), until my mother finally told me to simply serve food that tastes good. Her own diet-conscious mother was addicted to the rather austere jellied consommé madrilène, but when she served it to guests, she had the good sense to top it with sour cream and caviar. Even when my grandmother was in the throes of her most rigorous Elizabeth Arden’s Maine Chance diet-and-exercise programs, she always made my grandfather creamed chicken and biscuits on the cook’s night off.

As it happens, the chicest, thinnest people always seem to serve the best, most luxurious food. During her first marriage, the Duchess of Windsor was too poor to hire a cook, and so taught herself from Fannie Farmer’s fairly hearty Boston Cooking-School Cookbook. Even after she married the Prince of Wales, she was known to serve fried chicken, and she included a recipe for it in her own book, Some Favorite Southern Recipes of the Duchess of Windsor. The socialite Pat Buckley once told me that she considered her typical ladies’ lunch entrée of “fillet of sole or soft shell crabs meuniere” to be light fare. When I pointed out that, given the ample amount of butter in a meuniere sauce, neither dish is exactly low in calories, she said, “Well, I don’t serve them salads. I like to think of myself as a purveyor of good food.”

Nancy Kissinger says her own recent nod toward guests who may be health or diet conscious consists of offering chicken along with the steak, lamb chops and sausages she and her husband typically serve at their Connecticut barbecues. And she says she’s never had a direct request for something special from guests: “They’d be too polite.”

Not everyone is, of course. There is a banker’s wife in Mississippi who famously totes a foil-wrapped baked potato and a small container of sour cream in her handbag everywhere she goes, whether it is to a restaurant or a dinner party. “It’s all she will eat,” says a friend of mine who has seen her in action. “It was disconcerting at first, but now it’s expected.”

Before he died, Bill Blass swore to me that Charles Revson, of Revlon, would eat nothing but canned, water-packed tuna. “He ate it for lunch and dinner,” Blass said. “If he were coming to your house, he would send a can over beforehand with his butler.”

Revson missed out on an awful lot of good food at Blass’s table, where even dieters had tasty and gorgeous options like the heirloom tomato salad with red onion and purple basil that he served me once for lunch (along with the slightly less dietary offerings of egg-salad sandwiches, salami sandwiches, roast-beef-and-brie sandwiches and sweet pickled green tomatoes).

Sadly, many hosts and hostesses are not nearly as adept as Blass, and they end up putting their guests on a sort of accidental diet. After the author Evangeline Bruce’s husband died, she took to entertaining via Sunday brunches, except they weren’t really brunches at all, but midday cocktail parties with things like deviled quails’ eggs passed on trays decorated with huge wads of unappetizing seaweed. In Quinn’s book, she recalls one of these affairs, at which Princess Margaret kept knocking back bourbon and refusing what she took to be the hors d’oeuvres in favor of the sit-down meal that never came, much to the distress of her increasingly nervous escort.

Following that episode, Quinn’s husband, Ben Bradlee, refused to attend any more of Bruce’s midday parties, which was actually more polite than refusing what was offered. Since ancient times, food has been “the symbol of fellowship with the host,” Margaret Visser writes in The Rituals of Dinner. “To refuse the food is to reject the fellowship.” She quotes one Baronne Staffe, whose example of a perfect guest is “a heroic Frenchman visiting England who drank and pronounced excellent a frightful beverage offered to him as a rare wine” only to learn that “he had been served medicine by mistake.”

Winston Churchill was once served a Tom Collins on purpose by Franklin Roosevelt’s cousin Laura Delano, and in the middle of a serious conversation with Roosevelt, turned and spit it out. He refused to drink anything but Johnnie Walker Red, brandy or Pol Roger Champagne, but he did save the free world, after all, and could pretty much do whatever he wanted. Besides, according to Erasmus, it is perfectly acceptable to spit something out, though he does recommend withdrawing. “Vomiting is not shameful, but to have vomited through gluttony is disgusting.”

Once, a guest of mine, a friend of a friend from Los Angeles, vomited on ethical grounds. She had just had a second helping of the famous Creole dish grillades and grits. When she learned that the grillades were thin slices of veal, she couldn’t bear the idea that a baby cow had been slaughtered for her supper. I thought her reaction a bit extreme, but nonetheless apologized for not alerting her. Another of Erasmus’s rules is that “the essence of good manners consists in freely pardoning the shortcomings of others although nowhere near falling short yourself.”

As a host, that last opinion is a good rule to follow. Entertain your guests well, offering them good food, but also balance. Allow them to let the ice cream melt on their plate if they like, and then offer extra berries.

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