The Day Lady Died
Edna Lewis is dead and I am in need of comfort. She spent her life cooking and eating Southern pan-fried chicken and hominy with cream, biscuits made with pork fat in the form of pure lard, deep-fried corn pone, greens dotted with chunks of ham, and whiskey cakes laced with butter. And in spite of it, she lived to be 89 years old. She died February 13.
Already, blogs have sprung up across the Internet full of her remembrances and recipes. She was gifted and black, and she'd known everybody. Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, Howard Hughes and Salvador Dali, Lillian Hellman, Greta Garbo, Eleanor Roosevelt, and James Beard all came to eat at the restaurant, Café Nicholson in New York, where she cooked. She was a grandchild of slaves, a member of the Communist Party, and a campaign volunteer for Franklin D. Roosevelt. At the end of her life, she lived in Atlanta with 40-something gay chef Scott Peacock, who was developing recipes with her at the Watershed restaurant and helping her write her memoirs. Everyone agrees that she was an American national treasure and the grand old lady of Southern cooking.
Edna Lewis is dead, and I am thinking that nothing will ease my heart like an unfussy plate of macaroni and cheese with a side of creamed spinach and some corn bread. Lewis recommended spending full days in the kitchen, yet she cooked things simply (her fried chicken and her country captain, which could take days to prepare, were exceptions). It so happens that in the handful of years since the World Trade Centers went down, Lewis' brand of homey comfort food has made a resurgence. It could be coincidence that so many chefs are turning away from multiculti froufrou and refocusing their attention on prime rib au jus carved tableside, but at any rate, it's been a long time since we've seen meatloaf and homemade apple pie promoted so relentlessly on the menus of upscale restaurants. At the Watershed, for instance, Peacock serves the fried chicken recipe he and Lewis developed (brined, soaked in buttermilk, fried with ham-infused lard) on Tuesday nights, and they sell every last batter-covered wing by 7:30. So American! Bush may be auctioning off our ports to the Arabs, but restaurateurs are guarding their recipes for corn pudding like national secrets.
What is it about comfort food that comforts? I thought about that as I settled in to my corner banquette at Deco, a seat I've already come to think of as "mine." Deco is on Sunrise Avenue in Palm Beach, across the street from Echo and a couple of blocks away from Coco and no relation to any of the above (Palm Beach restaurateurs evidently choose monikers for their restaurants the way most of us name our terriers). Deco was opened by Paul Darrow last year just as hurricanes rampaged across the island and bridges were sealed off from potential barbaric hordes an inauspicious beginning that Darrow and his resilient, plucky staff are still recovering from.
He says he developed the menu and the profile of the place as a sort of amalgam from 20 years in the restaurant biz. The 50-year-old Darrow owned upscale hotels ("with white tablecloth restaurants") in St. Martin and Martha's Vineyard; he also launched a chain of Cheeburger Cheeburger franchises in Florida. From the former, he has taken the tablecloths, this time covered with butcher paper. And, presumably, the carving station that he wheels from table to table, peering through his eyeglasses and jollying up the clientele with small talk as he slices off hunks of prime rib and Belle & Evans roast turkey. From the franchises, he's incorporated the paper napkins and refined the burgers and chicken sandwiches; here, they're slathered with gourmet cheeses or caviar. Deco has all the earmarks of a terrific neighborhood restaurant from the friendly service to the good wine list. It's the kind of place that makes Palm Beach accessible not only to the rich, who evidently need comforting as much as you and me, but also to us riffraff who've staked our huts in the wilderness across the bridge. After your meal, you can stroll straight up to the beach for a glimpse of moonlight on waves just as if this landscape belonged to you or hoof it along the lake trail for a view of the glimmering manses or bar-hop a couple of blocks, zigzagging your way between fusion cocktails until late into the night. In spite of a recent New York Times column that dissed Palm Beach as fit for no one under 70, there are plenty of well-heeled youngsters around, including a couple of socialites with names as famous as the Pulitzers and Dodges and Phippses who haunted this enchanted isle back in my day.
So I sat back with my reasonably priced glass of wine ($6.50 for Cellar No. 8 Zinfandel), looked over the reasonably priced menu ($13 for the macaroni and cheese, $16 for the fried chicken), and tried to list in my head, as a tribute to Miz Lewis, the immutable qualities of comfort food.
First, it ought to be mushy. You know something qualifies as comfort food if you could literally pluck the infant from your breast and spoon-feed it everything on your plate without a single maternal qualm. Thus: Mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, crab cakes ($23), chopped caesar salad laden with milky dressing ($9), and creamed spinach all qualify. These are all on the menu at Deco. Knives, however, are not comforting. They are dangerous. You should never have to use one when eating.
Second, and related to the previous point, it should be white. Or white-ish. Off-yellow, beige, and gray are fine too. But there shalt be nothing red nor green, nor, God forbid, purple; no crunchy vermillion beets nor perky carrots nor lightly steamed broccoli. Any vegetable that has retained its original color is out of bounds. French fries, meatloaf, ice cream, turkey pot pie ($16), onion rings, and corn bread slathered with soft butter are perfectly acceptable. These are on the menu at Deco also.
Third, it should be just vaguely warm or room temperature. This makes it easier to swallow in a hurry (immediate gratification is a big part of the program.) Ice cream is the only exception to this rule.
Fourth, it should be heavy and meant to be eaten in its entirety. There shalt be no Frenchified picking at your tiny portion of braised endive or petite sips from your half-glass of Chablis. You are encouraged to guiltlessly consume your "Presidential cut" of prime rib ($30), your roast turkey platter with mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce ($22), and your meatloaf with garlic smashed potatoes as guiltlessly as if they had been delivered straight from the offices of Weight Watchers. This is neither the time nor the place to be counting carbs. In fact, although the turkey dinner at Deco is served without stuffing, you can call ahead and order some. It's highly recommended that you do this.
I've been back a few times since the night I sat weeping over my boat of Deco's macaroni and cheese. I was saddened, I was shocked, and it comforted me. Deco's dish is made with American and cheddar cheeses, the very combination beloved by mac 'n' cheez purists, with heavy-duty chewy ziti rather than elbows. Then topped with Gruyère and set briefly under the broiler to brown. Chic, fabulous nursery food. The white porcelain bowls of creamed spinach and mashed potatoes that come with everything are fat-laden and endlessly edible. As is the kernel-inflected corn bread. We also loved a pair of plump, gently fried crab cakes loaded with meat and served with wilted spinach in a light mustard sauce. A huge chopped salad ($11), which we split, was studded with bacon bits. And my fried chicken was a picnic. I know in my gut that Darrow doesn't tear himself up over his fried chicken, babying it along for three days of salt and milk baths like Peacock and Lewis. But Darrow's chicken is respectable crisp and ungreasy, the evenly browned skin nicely fused to the meat rather than falling off it, and mildly spicy. Personally, I'd kick the pepper up a notch, but that's just me.
And my heart was full of gratitude for Deco's unfussy key lime pie ($8), a courageous example of this custardy classic. It was just tart enough to get a pucker going and set on a buttery graham cracker crust, unadulterated with food coloring. It came with no weird toppings. (Hello? Meringue does not belong on key lime pie!) When will restaurant chefs learn not to try to fix a dessert that ain't, and never has been, broken?
For the record, that key lime pie fit all the comfort requirements. The eggs and sugar gave it the calories and the bad cholesterol. It was of a nondescript color, a creamy, yellowy beige with a brownish, paleish crust. It mushed easily into great, gently shimmying blobs on a spoon. And it had no identifiable temperature, either hot or cold, to speak of. The ghost of Edna Lewis sat next to me, smiling faintly as I ate. She was always a reticent sort, but you could tell she thought it was all just fine.
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