The Missing Ingredient
Sometimes, at the end of the day, when you look at a recipe, you realize, too late and too tired, that you don't have all of the ingredients. And that delightful pesto pasta you were planning will just have to go without pine nuts. It will look like pesto pasta, but you'll know, even if no one else does, that there's something missing.
It's the same with life.
You try to balance it out, follow the recommended doses of sweet pleasure and brittle work, to serve to yourself, in the end, the perfect plate, the life you expected, to savor and to enjoy. But sometimes, as with dinner, you have to forgo one of the ingredients. I have found, over the last couple of years, that my recipe for life may have contained one part too many European haute cuisine expatriate existence, and many parts too few of the friends and family that are to my heart what Maman's pot au feu is to my stomach.
I met Lauren when we were both freshmen at Princeton in September 2001. In two days time, she is marrying Jason halfway across the world from Paris in San Diego, and I can't be there. So as a gift to them, to go along with the Waterford, I thought I'd tell you about where we Princetonians learned to eat, and to share a recipe with you that I created for them.
I was a member of the Cottage Club, in my opinion the most lovely and stately of all the mansions on the street, and which was, not surprisingly, the club of my literary hero, F. Scott Fitzgerald. The heavy wooden door swung open into a bright half-wooden and half-glass paneled foyer, carpeted in thick burgundy rugs that gave meaning to the phrase "snug as a bug," on which perched great medieval banquet tables. In the winter, a fire would roar in the great brass hearth, and we would pull couches up, and roast splitting too-hot chestnuts in pans on the flames. Then the double staircase, which curled like a moustache to the second floor, where we had the white-paneled billiards room, and a library which is a reconstruction of the famed 14th century Merton College library, down the street from where I live in England. Then out onto the balustrade, held up by Grecian columns, overlooking the fountained courtyard to one side, and the gazeboed lawns to the other. And finally, back down to the dining room, long with two rows of round tables that welcomed like the curves of open arms. And above the fireplace, in Latin as permanent as the stone itself, read: "Where there are friends, there are riches."
That hearth was never lit, but there was fire, full of light and heat, which blazed from it. There are many things that are criticized about the eating clubs, and looking back, though I loved Cottage like my home, it is supernatural that a group of twenty year- olds should have a full staff. People may sense its hauteur as being cold, and debilitating to an already privileged youth, but standing next to Cottage when I was young, and alone, and cold, and confused, was like standing back under the Florida sun. I used to stamp in from the cold, shaking the snow off that had accumulated on the odyssey from the bowels of the library. I would toss my coat to the side, and march into the dining room, with its somehow stately tiger-print curtains. I would take my burgundy cloth napkin from my little member's cubby hole like the red badge of courage that it was, and go to the buffet for my dinner. With a plate of steaming, oozing "Cottage potatoes" (the best gratin Dauphinois you could ever hang your hat on), I would wander towards Ephraïm, who would seat us religiously in the order in which we arrived, around the great, wide, round tables.
Food for Thought
The eating clubs provided food for thought. I shared those tables with some of the brightest minds of my generation, and while the talk would inevitably begin with a recent trip to New York to visit a Theory sample sale, it would undoubtedly after a few hours meander down the unexplored alleyways of string theory. No two of us did the same thing, and by the time we had plunged into our theses, dinner conversation usually oscillated as regularly as the pendulum of the old grandfather clock between the New York Yankees, and Civil War Yankees; between BMW mechanics, and quantum mechanics; between Henry David Thoreau, and a thorough recapitulation of last Saturday night's escapades. We would stay seated long past the departure of our quickly-emptied plates, with the snowflakes stopping to peak in from the outside and our bright little party, the reluctance palpable when we knew we could not press another minute out of this already drained night. Then, it was home, to slip between the sheets of a bed with the one you loved, or the sheets of a book if you had to.
Our clubs cost many thousands of dollars, and many of us were fortunate enough to have known many worldly riches. But we also knew that our time there was fleeting. There is a tangible tragedy to Princeton; its nighttime air seems to ring with the generations who still parade down the ghostly knolls of Old Nassau. It is finite. And we knew that the riches extolled above the Cottage fireplace had no value that could be bought. Those friends, like Lauren, with whom I sat, chewing the fat, are by far my greatest wealth. Those hours that I spent there with them, eating, and speaking, and listening, felt like they took place at the center of the Earth, where the world stopped spinning, and the pendulum on that old great grandfather clock would finally rest from its grueling repetition. Time stood still, and we clutched at our youth with such a thankful and ferocious tenacity. Those hours, this side of Paradise, though they seemed to unfold at the very center of the Earth, were as close to heaven as I knew how to get.
But the pendulum never did go still, and the world never did stop from turning. Time passed, and at the end of four years, like all Princetonians before us, we were released, like hopeful bright doves from a lovely, cushy cage. We flew in every direction: some of us up to rest in the real Paradise far too young, others confined to a fiery hell of a disappointing Wall Street, feeling far too old. Me, I flew off to Europe. Lauren, back to California. Rarely now do the paths, which once led to the same door every night, cross--but she reads my column every week. Though we cannot savor each other, we must relish the successes that keep us apart. And so, as a celebration of the years gone past, of the steady, sure march of time, whose pace we have now grown to know, and that has led Lauren, the first of my Princeton friends, to marry a man who is worthy of her, I offer the things I love most: a few chosen words, and a few bites of food, the things that originally brought us together around those round tables years ago now, handmade just for her.
I believe I quote Fitzgerald when I write that "This is wisdom: to love, and to live." Princeton taught me the first; my life since has taught me the other. To Lauren and Jason: I hope you'll do both.
Très Bien Ensemble
The soon-to-be newlyweds both love steak and olives; I ate a lot of both at Cottage, though I rarely ate them together. For this recipe, I tried them in a pas de deux, and its success is a testament to the coupling of two seemingly different, but ultimately complementary forces. I blend a chunky, briny, tapenade Provençale from both black and green olives, and spoon it onto a seared, sliced strip steak. The meat, with its crisp, tender, mellow bite is brightened by the piquancy of the bubbling, herbaceous tapenade. Lauren and Jason, I'm not sure which of you is the steak and which is the olives, but I hope you'll agree that the two go very well together--that they are très bien ensemble.
- Yield:2 to 4
- For Steak
- 2 12-ounce New York strip steaks
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Herbes de Provence
- For Chunky Two-Olive Tapenade
- 1 clove garlic
- 2 cups mixed pitted nicoise and picholine olives (or any black and green olives you like)
- Leaves from 5 stems of fresh thyme
- 1/2 tablespoon anchovy paste
- 1 tablespoon fresh flat leaf parsley
- 1 1/2 tablespoons capers
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- Salt and pepper
Steak Procedure : Season the steaks with the olive oil, and a liberal amount of salt, pepper, and herbes de Provence.
Heat a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Sear the steaks 6-7 minutes per side, then allow to rest for 10 minutes.
Slice, and serve with the two-olive tapenade (recipe follows).
Chunky Two-Olive Tapenade Procedure: Demolish the garlic clove in the food processor. Then add in all the rest of the ingredients and pulse until you are left with an olive rubble.
Spoon over the hot sliced steak, and serve extra on the side with baguette. If you have extra tapenade, you can serve it with anything: baguette sandwiches, crudités, chicken, fish. You may want to double the recipe, just to have it on hand.