Monday, August 18, 2008

Nine Nearly Forgotten Nights in Our Nation's Capital: The 3rd Night (Casual Dress)

Painting by Sidney Lawrence (from left to right: Diane Brown, the artist, Peter Frank, Jack Ochs, Donna Dennis, at party for Howard Fox's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden show "Directions")

When my companion Howard began working as a curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., he quickly became friends with Sidney Lawrence, then Head of the Publicity Department at that institution. Sidney, a native Californian of a noted family, a branch of the famed Ghirradellis of San Francisco, has what I might describe as an outrageous sense of humor that delighted both Howard and me; and over the years Sidney (now a painter), his companion Tom Birch (a lobbyist on Capitol Hill), and we have remained good friends.

When we first met Sidney, he was married, but some time after his divorce he announced that he was gay. A few months later, in part to celebrate his own sexual outing, he mailed out numerous invitations for a late afternoon cocktail party which aside from the usual announcement of time and place, added casual dress.

For most readers today, it may seem strange that I would even mention the attire, and even odder that I might have chosen to put such words in italics. But in the 1970s, when this event occurred, Washington, D.C. was a city, with regard to dress, unlike any other. We had long ago recognized that casual dress did not mean the same thing in that city than it did everywhere else.

When we arrived at this party, the place was already filled nearly to capacity, and before long, it was almost impossible to weave one’s way into the kitchen for a drink. There Howard and I were among what seemed like more than hundred guests, mostly young men, standing back to back or front to front, depending upon who was included in one’s conversation, packed into his small apartment on K Street like sardines. Washington, D.C., built as it was upon swampland, is extremely hot and humid in the summer, and, accordingly, all of us—the whole room, each young man dressed in a suit and tie (one, on his way to a later event, was dressed in a tuxedo)—the definition of casual dress in the nation’s capital—suffered sweat rolling down our faces which, hidden beneath our shirts and coats, raced equally on down our backs.

Suddenly the doorbell rang. It was quite impossible for Sidney to move toward the door—it was nearly impossible for anyone to move—so the person nearest the entrance cautiously opened it, as all eyes turned toward the possibility of fresh air and escape. There stood two young boys dressed in t-shirts and shorts.

As these two looked into the room packed with so many besuited males, their mouths fell open in apparent shock. “We’re from Wisconsin,” one of them said, in a suitable Wisconsin accent, “and we were told to meet our friend here, at the party. But…,” he paused, looking down at his bare legs, “perhaps we should apologize; on the invitation it said casual dress.”

For an instant the room quieted as if to meet the startlement registered upon their faces, and, just as suddenly, a boom of raucous laughter broke like a roll of thunder across the space. “Come in, come in,” we all cried in near hysteria for the absurdity of being there, so very properly dressed.

Los Angeles, July 31, 2001
Revised, August 15, 2008

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Nine Nearly Forgotten Nights in Our Nation's Capital: An Invitation

Shirley Kenny

As I noted in My Year 2007 in my piece on our neighbor Bob Orr, in the early 1970s, when we first moved to Washington, D.C. and, soon after, the suburbs of Maryland, Howard and I were quite active in the kitchen, trying our culinary skills with all sorts of recipes of the day, particularly those in books in the popular Time-Life series of “Foods of the World,” Julia Child’s The French Chef Cookbook, Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook, Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Cooking, and, later, Diana Kennedy’s The Cusines of Mexico.

In our new high-rise apartment on the uneuphonious Mezerott Road, we had recently purchased new furniture in the Scandinavian style, a long, low teakwood coffee table (which we still have today), a light green corduroy-covered couch, and elegantly simple hanging lamps, into which we put amber bulbs. Over the summer we had fashioned a dining table, based on Howard’s father’s crafted doors, out of various kinds and colors of metal decoratively nailed together in a patchwork-quilt like manner and topped with a raised pane of transparent glass. Howard’s mother had sewn up loosely transparent curtains in orange and light yellow and had used some of the left-over material to cover throw pillows for our couch. Along with our retro 1950ish Butterfly sling chairs (still in perfect condition), and a few other pieces of furniture our apartment seemed, in those days, to imbue a sense of stylish modernity; and, as we began to invite our fellow graduate students over, it became a rather popular dining spot. As we both joke today, “We lived better as graduate students, with hardly any salary, than we do as somewhat elderly adults.”

Howard cooked the Portuguese dish “Rojões Caminho,” braised pork with cumin, coriander, and lemon, I, the “Arroz con Pollo,” chicken with saffron rice and peas. Howard whipped up our Scandinavian favorite, “Frikadeller” (Danish meat patties, a delicate dish that when Howard tried to cook for acquaintances Hugo and Robin—a couple of experienced chefs who even made their own stocks—completely crumbled into mush), while I tried my hand at the “Dillkött på Lamm,” (Swedish lamb in dill sauce) with “Agurkesalat,” pickled cucumber salad. Imagining ourselves in the provinces of France, Howard served up “Gigot d’Agneau Rôti,” a roast leg of lamb seasoned with lemon, salt, and pepper, while I whipped up a “Blanquette de Veau à l’Ancienne,” old-fashioned veal stew with cream sauce. Both of us eschewed the complex dishes of classic French cooking, but I did once try “Poulet poché aux aromates,” chicken simmered in white wine and vegetables. I helped Howard roll lamb into rinsed and dried grape leaves, while he fried up the oil-laden eggplants into which I folded layers of seasoned ground lamb topped with Béchamel sauce for a delicious “Moussaka.” Howard was a whiz with “Osso Buco,” I found it easy to cook “Scaloppine al Limone,” sautéed veal scallops with lemon. We both loved our “Farsu Magru,” stuffed beef roll. Later, Howard became a somewhat accomplished home-bound chef for several Chinese dishes, spending all day in the kitchen to serve our friends “Five-Flavored Egg with Tea,” “Stir-Fried Shredded Pork with Chili,” “Pork Ribs in Brown Sauce,” and other delicacies. On the day of New Year’s Howard would spend the whole day in the kitchen producing plates and plates of hors ‘d’oeuvres—so many that we would invite friends over on New Year’s Day just to finish them.

Over a short period—before Howard grew tired of my chaotic employment of all the pans and utensils in our kitchen, and banned me from cooking forever—we grew popular among our peers at the University of Maryland.

One day, I was called into the office of the English Department Chair, Shirley Kenny, a former professor of Restoration and 18th-Century literature and, later, Provost at Maryland of Arts and Humanities before becoming the first female President of Stony Brook University in New York.

“I hear from several sources that you have been inviting your fellow graduate assistants to lavish dinners,” she announced in what seemed to be an accusatory tone.

I was somewhat confused. Were our dinners against some unknown Departmental policy, a secret infraction of an ancient English Department protocol? “Yes, we do like to cook.”

“I hear you have a lovely apartment too,” she added, as if totaling up our offenses.

“We’re happy with it,” I meekly responded.

“And you have these excellent dinners nearly every weekend I have been told.”

“Pretty often,” I responded, wondering whether she was about to criticize our culinary activities as interfering, perhaps, with our studies.

She looked somewhat fiercely across her desk: “Why haven’t I been invited,” she exploded with a short, sharp laugh.

“Next week?” I smiled, standing to begin my escape. Then I turned back, “Saturday night, 7:30. Will you be there?”

“Bet your boots,” said the Texan-born administrator.

Los Angeles, August 1, 2001