The dry white wine in potato salad and vermouth in lamb stew are quick to evaporate, Eugene Walter assured a prospective publisher of the recipe and essay collection that became The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink. ("I presume the book will be a favorite Christmas present for fundamentalists," he deadpanned.) Fortunately, the same can't be said of the author's wit.
More than a decade after his death, Walter -- an Alabama-born puppeteer, poet, novelist, costume designer, actor, and cookbook author -- remains a peerless dining companion. His recipes for boozy dishes are spiked with gossip, exclamation points, and asides that are equal parts populist and polite. Calmly defending the use of canned soup in his tuna timbales, Walter writes, "I'll never forget what I saw in the storeroom of a VERY fancy New York restaurant when I pretended to lose my way en route to the men's room. Opening a door in the corridor, I found shelf after shelf of Mr. Campbell's various cream soups."
Walter loved to poke around intriguing places. His favorite people reminded him of curious cats and playful monkeys. And he gathered them all around his tables in New York, Paris, Rome, and Mobile. Donald Goodman, editor of the book published this month by The University of North Carolina Press, quotes Muriel Spark as saying Walter's apartment in Rome was "the nearest thing to a salon."
"Eugene always served some dish to surprise and delight his diners," Goodman writes. "There might be vegetable pudding studded with Vienna sausages standing on end or marshmallows roasted over the table candles."
When Walter's budget couldn't be stretched to cover tinned sausages, he served bread smeared with peanut butter and topped with dill pickles to "actors, artists, writers, musicians, dancers, and those famous for being famous." Walter adored "good eatin'," but understood even Oysters Roffignac could be improved by good conversation and free-flowing wine. "The following is a good punch to serve to a crowd that needs livening up," Walter writes in his introduction to a summer punch made with six cups of vodka.
Yet the very readable Happy Table (which should send newcomers to the Walter fold scurrying to the bookstore for a copy of Milking the Moon: A Southerner's Story of Life on This Planet, a giddy memoir that rivals Midnight in Paris for unexpected star encounters) never gets bogged down in anything like a sophomoric pursuit of drunkenness. Walter honestly appreciated the rich flavors bestowed by cognac, port, bourbon, and Champagne. Perhaps it takes a Southerner to so deeply savor a reminder of what's no longer there.
Bluegrass Julep (circa 1912)
from The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink, ed. Donald Goodman and Thomas Head
1/2 cup spring water
1/2 cup granulated sugar
handful of mint sprigs
Take a dipper of water from a limestone spring and dissolve enough granulated sugar in it to give a fine oily texture, then set it aside. Take a goblet of sterling silver (or, in an emergency, a tumbler of cut crystal) and a single medium-sized leaf of mint, selected for succulent tenderness and plucked from the living plant not more than 10 minutes before. Using the back of a sterling spoon, bruise the leaf gently yet purposefully against the inside of the goblet and heap full of fairly fine-cracked ice made from limestone spring water. Pour straight bourbon whiskey slowly into the goblet, letting it trickle through the ice at its leisure until the vessel is almost full. Set aside for 1 minute. Add the sugared water, a tablespoon or so, until the goblet threatens to overflow. Garnish the rim with 3 freshly picked mint sprigs. Do not stir. Let stand in a cool springhouse or icebox until the frosting on the goblet or tumbler is thick. Sip slowly; don't use a straw. Between sips, think of someone you love.