Sabrina and Caesar Salad for supper?
Any dream dinner starts with the mise en place, and mine was out in the numbing aloneness of the mighty dangerous Pacific Ocean.
And ended with me staring longingly into the charming aloneness of Audrey Hepburn's eyes...
Queeqeg’s knee was firmly planted in the gunwale notch, custom-carved for him, his right arm flung up behind with the wicked harpoon poised; Tashtego’s holding the rope, wound around the loggerhead, at the ready–the Nantucket sleigh-ride reins, as it were; Ishmael’s manning the long steering oar; Ahab's raging from the Pequod in the unlikeliest of mise en place you’ve probably ever read about, but that’s what it was, essentially, for my dream dinner. I was serving whale, which I had eaten twice before in my life–once in Lapland as a teenager, and another time at an underground restaurant in Shibuya, Tokyo, as a guest of my yakuza buddy, Ton Chan, who I introduced you to in my last book, Oedipus Wrecks.
But I had to first catch my hare, so-to-speak.
The previous week was an altogether different hunt, pretty much also pure fiction, of course, but this time in a lush, abundant jungly orchidacity: the dark breathy heart of a river bend rainforest in Congo. I was there in that fetid, sunless fecundity hunting with Tarzan, which one day will be a trip worthy of its own monograph. We started out before daybreak, me with a local guide, two porters, and a native tracker, when Tarzan brachiated up and away with a hushed, unhurried swoosh just like that. After an exhausting day my party and I came back skunked, in the without-quarry sense, except for the leeches on my legs and the bugs in my armpits and teeth.
The ape man returned way after dark with a small oribi thrown over his shoulders like a furry Mae West life jacket. And two huge twig snakes were tied around his waist, dead-expensive designer belts. Amelia Earhart, complete with goggles and white aviator’s helmet flew us back to semi-civilization with admirable economy and precision, in almost total silence, however, since I had mistaken her for Beryl Markham.
None of these colorful characters would be at the actual supper itself since I didn’t think they’d be very good conversationalists, except Ishmael, who was manning the bbq. No, he wasn’t going to be roasting the whale whole on a spit, but would be grilling thickly slabbed swordfish steaks to medium rare, since that’s what Queeqeg had cooly, and politically-correctly harpooned. Instead I’d invited Lord Tennyson and Joseph Conrad, two literary and larger-than-life heroes of mine from way back, who showed up together at the Elms in Newport, which I had commandeered for the occasion, in a 1929 blower Bentley. Tennyson found the engineering confounding and fascinating; Conrad, high on the bloody thump, was all but ready to fly down the road and die in that outrageous monster.
I think dining al fresco is the height of civilization, especially if there’s a large shade tree nearby, and so I had a long table set up on the lawn under a gigantic beech, with continental-sized sterling silverware, and, in a mix of high and low, white cotton tablecloth, napkins, plates, and wine glasses from Ikea. A patina’d candelabra from Aardvark Antiques hung from a low branch.
It’s a toss-up between Andromache and Helen of Troy as to who will be sitting opposite me as the Queen of the table, so I thought I’d let them fight it out between themselves. I have a lot of questions for both, and they have a ton to answer for, especially Helen. First question would be: how did the weight of thousands of valiant men and fathers slaughtered and the hate of everyone in the whole world sit on your beautiful shoulders?
Speaking of the death of thousands, or in his case millions, I’ve decided on inviting Julius Caesar over Augustus, since I think he was the greater man, if it’s possible to be a greater man than Augustus. To stick with the alpha male theme, I’ve picked John F. Kennedy, who was definitely deeper and wider than the unsubtle Camelot hagiography suggests, mostly to see why, which one (or all) of the women he’ll hit on, and who and how and how many he’ll win. Mentally, I'll take careful notes on technique and timing.
Dame Gladys Cooper, in her prime one of the fairest ladies of England, and old-school to the bone, is ninth on the list. And last but not least, Audrey Hepburn, who will add cinematic sparkle and delight. After her year in Paris at culinary school, albeit as Sabrina and not herself, she’ll be playing the part of head chef.
Ishmael chucks the sewer-cover size steaks onto the grill, as well as a big Boston Butt (which I cannot lie I like), bone-in and slabbed, with thick skin and sinew still hanging loosely on. Audrey is a bit appalled by the primitiveness, especially when I just carelessly halve the zucchini and the fennel, and roast everything to Pittsburg black and blue, charred to a death just this side of Auschwitz on the furnace-hot fire. She lights up endless Gold Flake cigarettes and (Holly-Go) lightly picks a bit of tobacco off her lip.
Kennedy is showing Tennyson and Conrad how to play croquet, while Andromache is leaning on her mallet and telling Helen about Ulysses threatening to torture her to find out where Astyanax was hiding, in almost gleeful graphic detail. Helen lets slip, after her third G&T and missing the second wicket by a wide mile, that she was actually not unthrilled at all the carnage on both sides of the battle lines, and looks at the sizzling meat and smokey flesh with a diabolical gleam in her eye. Dame Gladys, who once starred as Hecuba on stage, is quoting from memory a line in Seneca’s Trojan Women, in the original:
Up from the earth, O weary head!
This is not Troy, about, above—
Not Troy, nor we the lords thereof.
Weary head is an understatement–the damn dame had nineteen children. Hepburn calls out “Mangiamo!” even though we’ve been speaking French, and as we sit down I spontaneously declare that the utensils be taken away, and everybody eats as neatly as possible at first with their hands. By the time the fresh peaches and whipped cream, goat cheese, walnuts and coffee are served for dessert we’re all licking our own, and in some cases, each others’s fingers, in almost-wreckless animality. Kennedy is giving Helen’s thousand-ships beauty the full broadside, while Tennyson and Conrad are arguing over the merits and madness of Nietzsche v. Tolstoy. Ishmael it seems, and Earhart too, who flew Caesar in by landing on the lawn, and then inviting herself to dinner, are both, funnily enough, Wallace Stevens poetry fans.
The world is more than mere meditation, sir; it’s a live-action mise en scene. Caesar charms, eventually, somehow, Andromache, even though he’s a Roman marching and she’s a Greek dancing, and rides her on his horse bareback away to heaven knows where, at full gallop. A horse? Kennedy leaves with the other two Greek goddesses in a black Lincoln Continental limousine with "suicide" doors. Alfred and Joseph, in cahoots, honk and scoot off.
I’m left alone looking straight into Audrey’s eyes and asking “Do you know what’s wrong with you?” She says “No, what?” And I quote her famous line from Charade.
It’s all marvelous.