Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Nick and Nora Charles New Year –– 30’s Style: Filet Mignon with Marchand de Vin Sauce… and Martinis!

 When I was a kid, I thought of old movies as a vital part of my education.  From them, I learned of possibilities that a girl from a small-town in the Midwest might never have known.  The flickering images on the screen were my window to worlds past, both real and imaginary.

Oh yes, later I was to find some of the things that I aspired to were impossible (the man of my dreams, Errol Flynn, was already dead by the time I discovered him …drat) or improbable (living in a castle…not yet!).

I wasn’t terribly impressed with life as it was. I hated cartoons and kid’s movies. I was a chubby bookworm and the grownups in my constellation seemed dull as could be to my eyes… always talking about bridge or fishing, droning on about grownup responsibilities or arguing grownup arguments.  BLEH.   Where was the fun, the glamor, the romance??

Then I saw The Thin Man. I wanted the life of Nick and Nora Charles when I grew up –- full of teasing fun and sparkling repartee. They were my ideal couple.  Years ago, I was at a party with my ex and someone said our banter reminded them of Nick and Nora… he groaned and I beamed. You could have told me I was a dead-ringer for Venus herself and I wouldn’t have been more thrilled.

I read that WS Van Dyke (nicknamed “one-shot Woody” for his speed shooting a film) made The Thin Man in 16 days. The script (written in only 3 weeks) was based on the popular book by Dashiell Hammet. It wasn’t originally meant for Bill and Myrna –– just Bill (based on his success playing gentleman detective Philo Vance). Woody pushed for Myrna Loy against the wishes of MGM’s higher powers –– the rest is history.

Hard to believe now, but it was a tough sell. Loy had only recently moved from playing a silent villain to a leading heroine.  Although she came from Montana, her remarkable almond eyes cast her in a slew of films as an oriental temptress (even though Loy is a German/French name… no where near the orient!).

Evidently Van Dyke fought for his star team after working with them on Manhattan Melodrama with Clark Gable.  “Melodrama” was a modest film and there had been no expectations for much success with it but it became hugely popular and it brightened the star power of Loy and Powell as it further established Gable as a bankable leading man.

Although their onscreen roles in Manhattan Melodrama were straight and somewhat somber, everyone, especially Van Dyke, was enchanted by the Powell/Loy off-screen banter.  It was light, fast and sophisticated badinage. This made Van Dyke want them for The Thin Man and he even had the writers (a married couple, Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich) make script changes to accommodate their style.  The film is very different from the book and their changes made the film sparkle… van Dyke had requested that the writers play up the vivacious couple and play down the twisty plot.

They became everyone’s archetypal perfect couple –– sexy and teasing, warm and loving without being saccharine.  Loy was the perfect wife ––more sassy and strong than the ideal stolid or syrupy wives of the past.  I read in  Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood that an MGM writer had written: “Myrna Loy and William Powell are the ham and eggs, the peaches and cream the salt and pepper of the movies. They go together as naturally as night and day.” Best of all they had fun, really had fun together onscreen and off (although they were never an “item” off-screen they were life-long friends).  That meant scenes in a lot of restaurants, clubs, bars and private dinners –– and drinking ––they drank a lot (the second film in the Thin Man series made in 1936 came after censors infested Hollywood and the drinking in Thin Man films had to be toned down from then on to comply with their often quaint and curious moral code).

When I wanted to make a New Years party based on Nick and Nora’s dinners, I was met with a surprise dead end.  The famous New Year’s dinner in the second film in 1936, After the Thin Man  (there were 5 in the series from 1934 to 47) doesn’t really happen…well, it does, but off-camera.  They go into dinner …but the next time you see the cast, the men are snoring over brandies and the women are in a separate room with their coffees and gossip… no food in sight.


The film is full of parties with VAST quantities of cocktails both at home and in bars and clubs. 

They show the kitchen in full swing MAKING the food… but that’s as far as it goes.

New Years at a Chinese Restaurant found napkins but nary a morsel to be had (save by one of the Chinese owners picking at rice with chopsticks in his office). 

Nick does begin making Nora scrambled eggs in the middle of the night, but they don’t get to eat them.

They do eat breakfast together at 6:30 pm after a long sleep but no dinner… certainly not a bash (I think I saw scrambled eggs and kippers but I can’t be sure)… frustrating.

I decided to go to the original 1934 The Thin Man for dinner, I remembered it as great fun ­­––the mystery unraveled as the courses were served –– perfect.

James Wong Howe behind the camera, van Dyke leaning over the stars

You really had to pay attention to get the food they were eating. I even went to the original script to see if there were any clues in the stage/scene directions that are invisible in the film (and can be completely disregarded when shooting commences or followed like a bible). Nuts are mentioned (they are a holdover from the 19th century when they started a meal with crudité and nuts):


“Serve the nuts - I mean, serve the guests the nuts.”

The original script has the character Tanner eating soup… but it wasn’t on the table when it was filmed:

“(but poor Tanner, thinking that Nick
    is naming him as the man, spills his
    soup over everything.  Everybody
    turns and looks suspiciously at him.
    Nick sees that he has startled him and

Of course, the famous “serve the fish line”…

     “And the murderer is right here in this room
     to-night... he's sitting at this table.”
     (to waiter)

     “You may serve the fish.”

Powell adlibs to Cesar Romero’s character (the exchange wasn’t in the original script),


     “You're not eating.
Don't you care for oysters?”

You see Powell with peas on his fork.


And it looks like Myrna had fish on her plate with those peas but I can’t be sure…


I tried to channel Nick Charles’ detective skills to come up with what they were eating.  In fact, they never get any farther than fish because murder was the main course!

It proved to be a mystery I couldn’t solve. 

Why let that stop me!  We’ll just say my dinner is inspired by Nick and Nora’s dinner. I figured that I could invent a main course that could have been waiting in the kitchen… up to my imagination, and in a way that makes it better.

I got to see menus of 30’s New York thanks to the astonishing menu collection of Henry Voigt (he has a great blog too, The American Menu).  I wrote him, asking for 1934-ish NYC Hotel menus and voilà, there they were, and that’s no easy task… I looked on my own for quite a while and came up with very little.

Mr. Voigt said “Menus from the 1920s and 30s are surprisingly difficult to find when compared to those from earlier periods in the century.  The onset of Prohibition, and later the Great Depression, helped accelerate a general decline in dining standards at the high-end.  More people were eating out than ever before, but the menus from the ethnic restaurants, diners, and other less expensive places that were then popular were less memorable, causing fewer of them to be saved as mementos. Some of the new types of eateries like the speakeasies and cafeterias often did not even have menus.”

What he sent me were treasures… a time capsule of what a sophisticated NY couple staying at the Hotel Normandie would be noshing on New Years in the early 30’s.

There was a supper menu from the Carlyle Hotel, a dinner menu from the Hotel Lucerne on 79th Street and then a real New Years menu from the Park Central Hotel, problem solved.


So I decided to make a few things from the menu…

The essence of chicken with profiterole is really easy to do if you have a profiterole or 2 in your freezer.   Otherwise, make them and freeze them –– they are great to have around. I discovered that profiteroles were originally baked in the coals and put in soups hundreds of years ago, so this is not a new idea.  The soup takes just a short time to reduce and you have a very rich delicious broth… adding the foie gras makes it super special… something Norah would have liked.

The Filet Mignon with Sauce Marchand du Vin, Mignonette potatoes (essentially fat fries) and peas are on the menu.  I think it’s what Nick might have ordered being a tough guy.

Sauce Marchand has different styles, from a southern version that is quite complicated with ham among many other ingredients to one French version I saw that was only red wine and shallots.  I’m going to do an in-between version with reduced stock and butter… it’s still pretty easy and very good and using duck fat to make the mignonettes works remarkably well… you will enjoy them… peas are a simple side.

And, I had to add this Nick and Nora's Hangover Hash.  You make it from the dinner left-overs, pop a poached egg on top and all your troubles are over.

But before dinner, drinks.  It is Nick and Nora Charles, after all.

Honestly, Nick and Nora Charles are not so much about food as they are about drinks.  Rye, scotch and martinis… they drink gallons of martinis. Although the book was written during Prohibition (and opens in a 51st Street speakeasy and not a snazzy hotel bar), the film is set in 1934. Prohibition had just been repealed so the film shows the characters newly released from 13 years of bad booze and illegal basement clubs.  Happy days were here again and they were going to celebrate every chance they had. Even so, the Production Code's  stuffed shirts received a boatload of complaints about the extravagant (ok, excessive) alcohol consumption in the first film.

Elegantly-attired Loy’s famous entrance in The Thin Man is a pratfall:

Yes, that's Myrna face down

... followed by 6 martinis in quick succession and a killer hangover that rates an icebag hat the next day.  Hysterically funny to all but the censors… they were not amused.

I went to a drink expert, my friend David Solmonson at 12 Bottle Bar, to get the skinny on a Nick and Nora martini… because they were a bit different that they are now… and were served in smaller glasses.  Perhaps incorrectly, in Thin Man, Nick advises that a martini is best “shaken to waltz time.”

“Origins: Martinis were invented around 1890, once vermouth started to catch on.  The Manhattan came first, then the Martini (origin of name open for debate).

A 1900’s Martini would have been ½ gin, ½ vermouth.  Orange bitters were typically added."

Solmonson continued, "A 1930’s Dry Martini was 2/3 gin, 1/3 dry vermouth.  Medium and Sweet versions existed too.  Bitters (orange or Angostura, with orange preferred) available upon request.  The hallmark books for the period would have been “The Savoy Cocktail Book” and “Barflies and Cocktails”.  Both feature the 2/3 gin, 1/3 dry vermouth Dry Martini.  Gin should be London Dry." [**I used Noilly Prat in the photo… it’s what I had on hand, and it made a golden martini!]

"A modern Dry Martini, by comparison, is 5 to 7 parts gin to 1 part vermouth.

Martinis are properly served stirred for 30 secs – not shaken – and “up” (strained) into a cocktail glass.  A proper 30’s size is 2oz gin to 1oz vermouth.  After stirring, you should have a 4oz drink.  The most appropriate garnish is a twist of lemon peel, which is expressed over the top of the drink – and maybe rubbed over the rim – then discarded
(not inserted).  If olives are requested, then should be served in a container alongside the drink [Nick has put an olive in his glass in the movie]. 

Noilly Prat was once the gold standard for dry vermouths, but they changed the recipe a few years back.  I prefer Dolin.

Here’s my perfect Dry Martini:

2.5 oz Old Raj Blue Label Gin
0.5 oz Dolin Dry Vermouth

Pre-chill glass and mixing glass.  Add ingredients, then ice.  Stir for 30 secs.
Strain into chilled glass.  Twist lemon peel over the top and quickly wipe along the rim with minimal pressure.

Serve with green Spanish olives stuffed with sardines and some lemon zest.  Squeeze lemon juice over olives.

Deliver on silver tray atop Wire-Haired Fox Terrier and enjoy in the company of one of the silver screen’s most beautiful women.”

Essence of Chicken en tasse aux Profiteroles with Foie Gras for 2

4 cups strong, homemade chicken stock (it must be unsalted or it will be dreadful)
1 c white wine
2 profiteroles
2 cubes foie gras (available at D'Artagnan and a great deal!)

Reduce the wine and stock by half... add salt at this point to taste. Warm the profiteroles.  Fry your cubes of foie gras and place in the warm profiteroles on the soup you have poured into soup cups and serve.


Filet Mignon of Beef Sauté Marchand de Vin for 2

2 c strong stock
1 c red wine
1 shallot, diced
1 clove garlic, diced
1 T cognac

2 filet mignon
salt and pepper
4T butter

Reduce the stock and red wine to a glaze over low heat… this will take at least ½ an hour.

Preheat oven to 400º

Rub the filets with salt and pepper.  Melt 2 T of butter in the skillet and brown all sides of the meat in a cast iron skillet.

Put the steaks in the oven for 5-10 minutes depending on thickness and what degree of doneness you prefer.

Remove the meat from the oven and place on a plate, covered.  Melt the rest of the butter in the pan and soften the shallot and garlic.  Add the reduced wine stock and cognac and blend.  Pour over the steak on each plate.  Serve with Mignonette Potatoes and buttered peas.


Mignonette Potatoes

2 M potatoes, peeled and sliced into thick fries
1 Qt duck fat or oil

Heat the oil to 300º.  Put the potatoes in and cook till nearly done but not brown.   Remove from the oil and let rest and cool for 10 minutes or so.  Bring the fat up to a higher heat and put the potatoes back in to brown.  This will take very little time so keep watching.  They are great dunked in the wine sauce.

Nick and Nora's Hangover Hash for 2

leftover potato scraps from trimming up the mignonette potatoes or 1 m potato
1 small onion chopped
1 T butter.

leftover marchand de vin sauce (or reduce a cup of stock with 1/2 c red wine)
1/4 c stock
2 T heavy cream
1 t fresh, 1/2 t dried thyme

leftover Filet (one or 2 slices will do) cut into small pieces (or use a bit of steak, brown it off and cube it)
leftover peas, brussel sprouts 1/4 - 1/2 a cup whatever you have around.

2 poached eggs

Saute the potato and onion in butter till browned and softened.  Add the sauce, stock and cream.

Warm the beef and peas and serve with poached eggs on top and a sprinkle of coarse sea salt.

Certified Yummly Recipes on


pam said...

This makes me want to go search cable and find some Thin Man movies, I love them.

Sarah said...

Orange bitters in a martini...that is different. I will have to try it. And profiteroles in a consomme. I think I have seen that but completely forgot. And I love that beautiful piece of beef. Lovely presentation!

Anonymous said...

We did the same thing for Christmas Eve!! We love Nick & Nora and got overdressed for the occasion. I researched old menus from the era too. Food seemed much simpler! Ours was a cold buffet, no courses. We served:
Deviled eggs (our version of pickled eggs)
Terrine of salmon
Braesola (cold cured beef)
Water Crackers
Hearts of palm
Marinated string beans
I put an "air dart gun" (nerfy, sadly) and balloons in my husband's stocking so he could shoot at balloons. We had the most fun with that, the gun was soo pathetic! Glad to see others inspired to do the same.

Jennifer said...

I love classic films, I love Nick & Nora and nothing makes me happier than a true classic cocktail. Great site! (I do classics too on my blog.)

Deanna said...

I've always felt that modern movies were lacking. I regularly force my friends to watch old movies with me. I absolutely adore It Happened One Night. Really though, I like anything with Clark Gable, Tony Curtis, Gregory Peck or Cary Grant. I would love to do a party themed after an old movie, but none of my friends would ever get it. Even if its not correct to shake a martini, as a dancer whose favorite dance is the waltz, "shaken to waltz time" is my new favorite quote.

Ps: you sent me a recipe for clam pizza then I kind of let my old blog die, but that recipe has been in constant rotation for 2 years. I think I'm making it tomorrow, and I felt I should thank you.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I'd love to be invited to your NYE dinner Deana! And I had no idea that profiteroles were originally served in soup but it makes sense. Will try that next time. And one of my favourite films is Dinner At Night-I loved Jean Harlow in it. I eat a box of chocolates the same way! :)

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

YOU are incredible. You have not only given me a great feast for my STOMACH, but history lessons that I would not have learned otherwise, and with such PANASH and wonder my dear. You take a recipe, mix in the history and then provide the best prose to make it an experience that really should be extended into a wild venture, such as a sort of restaurant experience, going back in time...waitstaff dressed in the theme of the night, music of course, maybe even dinner theatre. But your choices are always excellent and I SO LOVE how you put your photos in black and white, to match the mood of THE THIN MAN! Oh how I loved watching these, especially with little Asta...

And yes dearest, it has been a FUN YEAR of trying to make a space where one can forget the troubles that await us in the world, in order to remember what matters to us. CARRY ON!!!

Happy 2012! Anita

tasteofbeirut said...

I learned an extra interesting titbit from you tonight, about serving crudités and nuts as being the 19th century thing; in Lebanon, that is the standard at dinner parties, always.
Saw the movie years ago and now I feel like seeing it again to enjoy the banter more carefully; you kind of remind me of Myrna Loy yourself!
What a great meal I would pick the meat course and eat that first, even if I don't do meat the rest of the year.
Prefer my foie gras on a piece of good pain de campagne, lots of it!

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

I loved those old movies too - so much fun with a little intrigue thrown in. Just the right amount of both.

Your Nick and Nora-inspired meal looks fabulous. I never would have though of putting profiteroles in soup. What a great idea. The steak looks perfectly done and the sauce delicious. Now I'm starving!

Thanks for letting me know about the gnocchi :)

indieperfumes said...

Ah, my ideal life, Nick and Nora Charles -- perfect for New Year's Eve too. I am not sure Myrna ever ate though, those bias cut gowns look very narrow. Still, she would be sure to have the best of everything on hand to offer to guests. And cocktails are the main course.

So fun, love the idea of your putting together that Thin Man menu -- the dog would still have a big role too.

DavidS said...

I love those black-and-white photos -- a smashing idea! And the profiteroles in the soup must be had (now that I'm flush in stock, thanks to you).

I I knew you were going to quote me so directly, I would I been less perfunctory -- but all the important information is there. To Sarah -- many classicists don't consider it a martini without Orange bitters.

I'd make this tonight, but I've been sampling rums all day. :)

La Table De Nana said...

I was a SUPER chubby bookworm..the word alone..chubby makes me sad..I look at bullied children..and think back..But things changed..

Still the underdog is my bet..always.
I cannot say I was a fan of old movies..too young I guess:) But my husband? Oh yes..

I can't even remember the names of my fave old movies but I do have some..Some Bing Crosby's.. and one I adored about a plain girl that was really beautiful:)In an inn? I will ask my husband:)

I have to take a trip down memory lane to refresh my memory..There are some..but from when? And were mine truly black and white?

Your menu looks amazing..Happy New Year to you!

Lori Lynn said...

Happy New Year Deana!

Love this in-depth post. My mother always talked about Errol Flynn when we were kids.

I worked in a terrific restaurant decades ago, one that was committed to excellence. A very old customer was sending his Manhattan back to the bar saying it wasn't right. I suggested it might be light on vermouth, and voila, that was the problem.

Wishing you a blissful New Year!

Lora said...

I loved those movies years ago and just gobbled up those trivia tidbits you served up. LOVE the behind the scenes pix. The vintage menus- oh my! And the meal - inspired and perfectly Nick and Noralicious.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Now, this is the life I aspire to! (Did you ever see the "Nick and Nora" musical? I had tickets for my birthday one year, but the show closed and I never saw it.) How funny that your first food shots are in black and white! I may just have to try the 1900 martini this evening. WIshing you a very Happy New Year and all the best for 2012!

El said...

Phenomenal research as always. I love the old movies and will have to check out Thin Man. Hope you and yours have a wonderful 2012!

Anonymous said...

Such a neat theme for a party meal, I love it! And all the dishes look incredible! Happy new year!!!

Frank said...

I can certainly imagine Nick and Nora tucking into these elegant dishes!

But a small detail on the Carlyle menu really caught my attention: celery hearts as an appetizer. I have always been struck by how frequently celery (braised, I assume) used to figure in restaurant cookery. Funny how it's practically disappeared from our tables.

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Oh dearest, PLEASE DO MAKE A BLUE CAKE!!! I provided the link under the photo...GO FOR IT! And I am sure you will find a history to go along with your recipe on how we started using food coloring! How splendid that you enjoy blue as well...but it has to be within that spectrum from Turquoise to seafoam green....ahhh...the colour of my dreams! CHEERS! Anita

Priscilla said...

This is THE best post of the past year or surely of the one to come!
I have loved the Thin Man series since I was a young girl, too.

Your menu is perfect for bringing in the New Year.

I am scandalized every time I am confronted by cocktails called "Martinis" which have neither gin or vermouth. How ridicules to call any cocktail a martini just because it is poured into a stemmed cocktail glass. Ignorance is no excuse!

Recently I watched a barman make a Martini by pouring vermouth over ice, giving it a swirl, draining it quickly, then adding the gin, stirring, and straining it into a lemon-prepared glass. It seemed to work, quite delicious.
I wish you a very grand new year.

Faith said...

You are so much fun, Deana! I love how you can find culinary inspiration anywhere -- truly a lady after my own heart! This is a gorgeous menu, every component is really something special. The essence of chicken with profiteroles looks especially wonderful. said...

Hi Deena:

What a fantastic post! I love how you blended facts from the film and filmmaking with details of the actors lives and habits - and then created food based on that blending of film-fantasy and real habits!



Mary Bergfeld said...

This was such good fun. Make that tasty good fun :-). I just popped by to wish you a Happy New Year. I hope 2012 brings good things your way. Blessings...Mary

Tasty Trix said...

I was like you about old movies!! I must have watched the Maltese Falcon 100 times. ... was crushed when I realized me-n-Bogart were never gonna happen. lol. Love Nick and Nora also ,Myrna Loy is just ... amazing. I suppose I have internalized all that martini and Scotch drinking, eh? Great post!

Anonymous said...

thanks for posting.

Unknown said...

I'd heard many thing about The Thin Man. I want to see this movie.