January 28, 1974 | Vintage Insatiable

More Confessions of a Sensualist: The Dinner for Women

        Innocence gets buried. Integrity gets tarnished. The critic walks on quicksand. The ego’s ooze grabs at the critic’s clay feet. She falls in love with her victims. She begins to study her smile and her snarl in the mirror; she admires her bite. Alas, even critics make friends, Janus-friends, fair-weather friends, but they feel like friends. The critic comes to know the actors and artists of the métier she had contracted to judge. She starts to anticipate the impact of her critique, the profits in her praise, the potential for disaster in her pan, and she may blur her aesthetic indignation with understanding. The critic’s skin is thin. She wants to be loved. Standing so often next to greatness, playing the confidante of the powerful, the critic may imagine she is the power and not merely a useful conduit. Grazing cheeks with the celebrated, she may fancy herself the true celebrity.

    And that brings me to Friday, January 4, at the Four Seasons and Paul Bocuse’s Dinner for Women. Bocuse says it was my idea. But frankly, it was his. One year earlier the restless master chef had left his three-star hearth just north of Lyons and had come to America to promote the wines of the Bocuse label. He came to town with chickens tucked among his shoes and pigs’ bladders stuffed inside his pocket sleeves to cook a dinner for a splendid gaggle of gastronomes and merchants. With what I considered brilliant irony I called it the “Dinner of the Century.” It was at least the dinner of the year. Only one woman was invited. Me. But William Buckley couldn’t come and he offered his wife as a stand-in. At the final hour there was a vacant space at table and two wives yearning outside were swept into the room.

    My feminist spirit is schizophrenic.

    I have never minded being the only woman at the party. Actually… confession-time… I have loved it. I remember one stirring moment at a wine tasting. I entered. Twenty-two men stood up. I sat down with a pleasing vision of what life must have been like in one of my previous incarnations when, I am convinced, I was Elizabeth of England. (I do have a fine high forehead.)

    The demon half of my schizophrenia rages over the gastronomic world’s disdain for women. I realize that our town’s gastronomic societies are mostly run by doddering putterers who dare not treat women as equals for fear their splendid little dinners will be invaded by other men’s boring wives. I sulked to Bocuse about these long-running insults, and he smiled. “Next time I come to New York I’ll cook a dinner for women only.” In France last fall the date was set and I was asked to invite a sprinkling of super press and women of great accomplishment… “But they must all be women somehow involved with food, as cooks or epicures,” I was told. That eliminated my number-one draft choice, Gloria Steinam. Gloria has confessed to binges of Sara Lee and Haagen-Daz, but mostly she nibbles prudently and almost never drinks. Dorothy Schiff feeds the most lofty lunch guests sandwiches from the deli. I scratched her too. In the next few weeks, I lost five whole days on the telephone, made 100 new enemies, revived dozens of simmering hostilities and offended dearest friends.

    There was a tiny item about the Dinner for Women in New York. A friend called. “Aren’t you thrilled to be invited to a dinner with such fabulous women?” I couldn’t bring myself to confess that I’d done the inviting. But at least I had the grace to be embarrassed. Bocuse announced that Gaston Lenôtre, the gifted patissier of Paris, was coming too, and Jean Toisgros, a masterly three-star confrere from Roanne. I found myself being consulted about the wines, issuing edicts about lights and cameras, demanding the women be offered cigars. Ego, vanity, a fatal passion for perfection wouldn’t let me retreat.

    I was even meddling with the menu. I cautioned against too numbing an excess of foie gras. Julia Child pleaded for a variation from Bocuse’s celebrated but inevitable loup de croute. “And no poulet au vinaigre,” she said. “And no green peppercorns.” I passed our urgings back through intermediaries.

    The word came back. Rump of veal.

    Rump of veal. Sounds like something you serve to ladies – sexagenarian mothers-in-law and your cousin on a diet. “Oh, no,” I was assured, “this is a formidable dish you cannot imagine.” Now perhaps you are wondering what the world’s most celebrated chefs can do with a lowly rump of veal. I cannot say. I don’t know. U.S. Customs seized the veal at Kennedy Airport. Also, a haunch of venison and fresh foie gras, three of the world’s more aristocratic chickens, a hank of Lyonnaise sausage, a river of fat French cream, a some apparently menacing orbs or subversive garlic. “What’s that under your arm?” a customs officer asked. Bocuse gave him a flash of what looked like little black golf balls. “Just chocolates,” Bocuse said. And got $200 worth of truffles past the peril point. Friends of Bocuse put in frantic calls to their senators.

    The company was electric…the evening a sociological event. Queen Elizabeth wore black velvet and opal blue eye shadow. Lillian Hellman in a filmy caftan told a Dorothy Parker story about the erection of a snaping turtle. Sculptor Louise Nevelson confided to Pauline Trigere that she usually is naked under her folk costume, but since it was a Dinner for Women, she’d decided to wear a shirt. Charlotte Curtis had a long-sleeved sweater under her dress. It didn’t matter what Bess Myerson wore. Her body and her posture are so perfect she makes youth seem superfluous and Playboy bunny-ism infinitely obscene. Marya Mannes sipped Bocuse’s too sweet aperitif – champagne flushed scarlet with framboise and cassis – and wished she could be Jacqueline Susann. Soprano Margaret Tynes was supposed to be in bed resting to stand by for Salome at the Met, but she came anyway. Sally Quinn brought a TV crew along. And Dena Kaye of Saturday Review/World, who’d come just to meet the chefs in the kitchen got swept into a vacant seat at the last minute. Waiters passed the sublime “frivolities” of Lenôtre – mini boudins (tiny truffled white sausages), croustades of lobster mousseline, and snail fritters.

    But the dinner itself must go down as a bizarre hiccup in the annals of serious gastronomy. There is no question that Bocuse and Troisgros are wizards. But I can’t believe they would have dared serve the same menu to male muck-a-mucks of haute cuisine circles. New York has perfectly fine chickens and beautiful game. (On his last visit to New York, Bocuse cooked lunch with an ordinary chicken from Gristede’s and pronounced it formidable.) On the morning of their culinary bow to women, the two chefs visited a prime butcher and fondled a rump of veal. “It’s lovely, but nothing like the ass I lost,” Bocuse said. He might have dedicated the day to shopping and stewing and improvising with America’s admittedly puny cream and plastic tomatoes. But slight the press? Never. Ego is international. So Bocuse and Troisgros decided to go with their leftovers. They posed for photographers at McDonald’s, clowned for cameras of five networks in the kitchen, and finally turned to serious cooking somewhere near seven.

    How bold to serve fish as the climax of an epicurean feast. What a revolution, Bocuse himself admitted, to serve red wine with it too. The revolution just didn’t work. And the giant bass-like loup baked in seaweed, crowned with scallops, was slightly overcooked. The scallops had not traveled well. There was scarcely a scent of the sea. And the beurre blanc sauce made no statement at all. I would walk across town barefoot in a blizzard for a ramekin of the wondrous truffle ragout with foie gras on spinach, but the salad of crayfish tails was not even a pale imitation of the mustard-cream delicacy Bocuse served us at lunch in Lyon only last September. The dandelion greens were past their prime. And though cardoon is an amusing curiousity as a stalky vegetable found almost exclusively near Lyon, it scarcely merits stardom. Gaston Lenotre’s exquisite citrus sorbets deserved a more dignified presentation. And there was no magic in the wine. The house labels of Bocuse and Troisgrois are simply pleasant country wines, no more, and the grander reds were neither complex nor memorable. Imagine an evening cuddling with a confirmed virgin. It just wouldn’t give. It’s not ready to be loved.

    At the end, all dignity vanished. With the Veuve Clicquot, the widow Clicquot’s faintly fruity champagne, came four television crews, sound men, reporters, gastronomic groupies, and stage door Johnnies. There was a cake called “on tire le roi.” Whoever finds the tiny piece of porcelain baked inside becomes king for a year…in this case, queen. “I don’t need to be queen,” Bess Myerson murmured. “I was one once already.” The Paris Trib’s Naomi Barry rose to the crown as if it were Cartier instead of gold foil. “How was the dinner?” asked a reporter from a Texas magazine. I heard myself answer: “Fantastic. The only thing missing was men.”

    Forgive me, Gloria…it’s true. There were few great victories for feminism at the Dinner for Women. Paul Bocuse adores women in the classic sexist way. He would probably roar if anyone ever sat down and outlined the women’s movement to him. The Four Seasons’ new patron, Paul Kovi, made a fine female chauvinist gesture with his Veuve Clicquot. The dashing Hungarian disarms me constantly by insisting women have infinitely superior palates. But he kept calling us girls.

    I cannot imagine that Bocuse and Troisgros have ever staged a culinary spectacular for quite so splendid a company. The conversation was intimate and fascinating… sharp contrast to the pompous self-congratulation and pontificating at Bocuse’s Dinner of the Century. And yet, we sisters were all so affectionate and reserved. “It’s rather like a class reunion at Smith,” Julia Child observed. No one was outrageous or bitchy. No one was noisily brilliant. Men might have provoked us, stirred our unreformed competitive instinct, upped the decibels of wit and the ultrasonic intimations of erotic possibilities.

    Yes, I know these notions are dangerously revisionist. And I’m fated to keep on walking in quicksand. Since ego is merely one of the insatiable hungers that tease the critic, I suppose one day soon I will inevitably succumb again… to love, to fame, to quenelle-power, to truffle ragout.

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