Thursday, December 27, 2012

Happy New Year, The Algonquin Round Table and Lobster Fra Diavolo

Hirschfeld Drawing of Algonquin Round Table, 1962
Why is it that one often reflects backward as one looks onto the horizon of a New Year?  For some reason, thinking of New Years, parties and celebrations this week, I was drawn back to a solitary celebration from many, many years ago.

The first time I came to New York City by myself was on a visit to what I thought would be my next college.  Things didn’t work out the way I had planned.  I hated the college and the neighborhood.  Crestfallen, I hailed a cab and went back down to my midtown hotel telling the cab driver my story as we travelled (cab drivers are great listeners).  He advised me to try NYU in the Village, said he thought it would be more to my liking –– wise man that driver, he was so right.  I went, I liked NYU, I loved the Village –– it felt like home. 

Euphoric (although my parents were not –– they had never heard of the school) I decided to celebrate by treating myself to an evening of NY history.  I was a little bit in love with the 20's and the literary scene of the Jazz Age and had always wanted to see if magic still remained at the Algonquin Hotel 50-odd years after the storied Algonquin Round Table had disbanded. I had often daydreamed about sitting at that table, trading barbs and laughing my cloche off.

I wasn’t alone in wanting a seat at the table.  No less than John F. Kennedy felt the same way when he confessed, “When I was growing up I had three wishes. I wanted to be a Lindbergh-type hero, learn Chinese and become a member of The Algonquin Round Table.”

Although disappointed that the table was long gone (a replica now stands-in for the original), it was a pretty magical night what with wine (I was a little young so this was a big deal) and a real food splurge, lobster fra diavolo  –– it felt like a dish for a celebration the minute I saw it on the menu.  In all these years I have never ordered it or made it since it was a sort of “sacred first”. Would today’s me love it as much? It’s not that it was the greatest thing I had ever eaten but it was special, flavored with the rarified air of the place and the subtle elevation of my little spirit with a night eating alone at the Algonquin.  I was suddenly a little more grown up and a little more sophisticated for my dinner in a legendary place. It was that kind of night.

Natalie Ascencios 2002 painting of  “The Vicious Circle”

The Algonquin Round Table started after the war –– the First World War. A June 1919 lunch for Alexander Wolcott (who was returning from his service as a war correspondent) was such a success that it became a 10-year party.  From their humble beginnings as a group of always-broke 20-somethings that Algonquin owner Frank Chase sported to free celery and popovers (there was no drinking at the table, Chase honored prohibition), they soon became a group of powerful tastemakers.  Chase’s belief in their talent was well founded and paid off.  People would come to the Algonquin to gawk at the group (much to the horror of the participants).

Brilliant caricaturist, Will Cotton’s (1880-1958)
view of The Young Men’s Upper West Side Thanatopsis Literary and Inside Straight Club 1929 (commissioned by Paul Hyde Bonner)

They began as “The Board” and their daily get-togethers were called “Board Meetings”.  That soon morphed to the  “Luigi Board” (in honor of their waiter, Luigi).  Their evening poker club was named “The Young Men’s Upper West Side Thanatopsis, Literary and Inside Straight Club” –– to the outside world the gathering came to be known as the “Algonquin Round Table”. 

The members finely settled on calling themselves “The Vicious Circle” and they could be, by all accounts, a nasty bunch. Member Edna Ferber called them “The Poison Squad” and said, “They were actually merciless if they disapproved. I have never encountered a more hard-bitten crew. But if they liked what you had done, they did say so publicly and whole-heartedly.”

An Algonquin group of Art Samuels, Charles MacArthur, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker and Alexander Wolcott

 The original group included Dorothy Parker,  Robert Benchley,  Robert E. Sherwood  (Sherwood was 6’8” –– 5’4” Dorothy Parker once commented that when she, Sherwood, and 6’ Robert Benchley would walk down the street together, they looked like "a walking pipe organ"), Alexander Wolcott , then George S Kaufman, Heywood Broun , Edna Ferber, Marc Connelly, Franklin P Adams, Charles MacArthur and Harold Ross (who was the founder of The New Yorker Magazine that made its debut on February 21, 1925 thanks to financing obtained through Algonquin contacts and still given out to guests of the hotel) but the circle expanded and contracted with time (the Lunts, Noel Coward, Tallulah Bankhead and Harpo Marx were frequent visitors).

While they reigned, it was a veritable fountain of bon mots.  Here are a few favorites:

Dorothy Parker:

"I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
After four I’m under my host."

"If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to."

When asked to use the word horticulture during a game of Can-You-Give-Me-A-Sentence, Parker replied: You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.

Speaking of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force

"Brevity is the soul of lingerie."

Robert Benchley:

"I know I'm drinking myself to a slow death, but then I'm in no hurry."

“Let’s get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.”

George S Kaufman :

Once when asked by a press agent, “How do I get my leading lady’s name into your newspaper?” Kaufman replied, “Shoot her.”

For a time in the late 80’s, a group of us gathered every Wednesday at 24 5th Avenue in the West Village for Wednesday Club –– an homage to the Algonquin gathering to be sure.  We would drink a lot and discuss just about everything.  On reflection it was an amazing gathering of artists, writers, designers, directors, producers, bankers, lawyers and assorted others all gathered together by the grandmaster, my friend Pierre.  It was a great time.

The roundtables of the past may just be memories but the pasta is something I can have again.  I fiddled with the recipe a little since I didn’t want a thick sauce for my lobster. I read a great piece in the NYT about the foggy if extended history of the dish that is a little bit of Italy and a lot of old NYC HERE to get inspired.  The result was wonderful and really quite simple to make.   It’s a pretty spectacular dish to have for New Years with a little bubbly.  Give a toast to the Algonquin with one of the Roundtable cocktails as you enjoy –– it's still that good.

Lobster Fra Diavolo (my own take on a Saveur Recipe) for 4

¼ c olive oil
2 1 ¼-lb. cooked lobsters, tails cut into pieces, claws separated from arms. Arms and bodies reserved  *You can use live lobsters but I’d rather not –– if you do, put a knife down their back between their eyes after freezing for 30 minutes then chop them up –– cook a little longer than you would pre-cooked lobster.

2 small uncooked lobster tails, sliced in half lengthwise
2 tsp. crushed red chili flakes or 1 or 2 crushed chilies of your choice)
1 tsp. dried oregano
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
½ cup brandy
1½ cup fish stock (I make it with lobster and shrimp leftovers –– you can use these lobster shells to make a new batch for next time, a revolving door)
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes (I love Muir Glen roasted tomatoes for this)
2 bay leaves
Pinch of mace and saffron
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
¾  lb. your favorite pasta, cooked
¼ c good quality olive oil
chopped parsley, fresh oregano or marjoram and thyme

Heat oil over medium-high heat.

Add  lobster body and arms to pot and cook for a few minutes. Add chile flakes, oregano, and garlic to pot; cook until lightly toasted, about 3 minutes. Add cognac; cook until almost evaporated, about 2 minutes.

Add stock, tomatoes, oregano and bay leaf. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook about 30 minutes. Remove the lobster pieces and add the tail pieces to the pot; cook until cooked through, about 5 minutes. Add the cooked lobster tail and claws to warm.

Leave the shells on if you would like or remove the meat from the shells.

Add pasta; toss with sauce and add the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with herbs and serve

Algonquin Roundtable Cocktail (Based on one the group made up)

1/3 c rum
3 T Benedictine
8 blackberries
3 t Honey or fruit or floral syrup (lilac, violet)
3 T blackberry juice

Muddle the blackberries in the rum for 1/2 an hour.  Strain, pressing on the solids.  Combine the rest and stir.  Chill and serve.

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ArchitectDesign™ said...

Love that bowl -this sounds absolutely delicious. How have I never heard of this dish before?
I hope you had a very Merry Christmas! xo

Jonny said...

I always wondered who uttered the immortal phrase about wet clothes and dry martinis, and was recently made aware of it again in Kingsley Amis' "Everyday Drinking". Now, there was a writer who would have enjoyed a dinner at the Algonquin in the esteemed company of the round table group.

There's something festive and luxurious about lobster, isn't there? And, for some reason, that richness works very nicely cut with the acid of the tomato sauce and the tang of the hot pepper. We made it a couple of years back as part of an Italian American feast of the seven fishes on Christmas Eve. Seven is a lot of fish dishes. This year we scaled down to three and enjoyed it a lot more.

Hope you had a wonderful Christmas and have something exciting planned for New Years!

Laura@Silkroadgourmet said...

Wonderful dish - one of my favorites! I also like it with shrimp or mixed shellfish.

Great stories and quips from the Algonquin Club!

Happy Holidays to you and Dr. LostPast!

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

What an interesting story about how you chose your university! NYC must have had a legal drinking age of 18 since you had wine, or you had a waiter to didn't bother to ask for your ID :) I so enjoyed reading about the Algonquin Round Table and loved the quotes!

Such a delicious meal and version of the recipe that you made. My taste buds are tingling. We are having a gourmet group gathering at a friend's home this weekend and we're having a lobster/seafood Newburg that I'm excited to taste.

Happy New Year, Deana!

Ken Albala said...

What a great story. I've never looked for the Algonquin, for reasons that now escape me completely. BUT WHAT, do tell, was the school you hated??

Diane said...

What an interesting story, great to learn a little more about the people who have become blogging friends.
That dish looks superb. Hope that your Christmas was a good one and we wish you all the best for 2013. Diane

Sarah said...

This is elegant and is not overly labour intensive for a stress-free New Year's Eve party at home. And who doesn't like pasta. I am envious of your round table group.

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

Would love to have such a modern round table experience. What fun it would be to have an actual intelligent conversation in today's shorthand world. It's been years since I've been to the Algonquin. The lobster looks divine and worthy of celebrating the new year. Wishing you all good things in 2013!

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

My dear,

You and I both have NYC stories to tell; my husband was thinking of Columbia University for his Ph.D studies many years ago. So off we went from Boston, to find that it was not what he needed. BUT THE CITY WAS FABULOUS and we ate and walked and did everything one must do when in NYC. I discovered OLLIE'S, the little hole-in-the-wall dives to eat and much more.

I am always feasting on your rich cuisine of history when I come here and this has been a year of much discovery for us both. I wish you a serene and safe celebration today, and I hope you are planning a delicious meal to ring in the new year. THANK YOU SO MUCH for your kind words throughout 2012! Anita

Frank said...

Oh, to have sat at that table just once… I have had a thing for the Algonquin since I was a teenager reading The New Yorker and listening to Cole Porter. ("As Dorothy Parker once said to her boyfriend, fare thee well… ")

I wonder whether that *other* school was Columbia? If so, I had the same reactions and made the same choice when it came down to choosing law schools. The difference was that my parents being New Yorkers, they had heard of the school and were pleased. In fact, they were pretty relieved that I didn't choose Columbia. Back in the day Riverside Heights wasn't that safe a neighborhood...

Chef Dennis Littley said...

hi Deana
that is one delicious looking Lobster Fra Diavlo!

I'm afraid my knowledge of NY is lacking to say the least, and my first dining experience in NY was at Mama Leone's and it may not have been real classy, but I left barely being able to move.

Have a happy new year my friend!

Chocolate Shavings said...

That lobster looks amazing!

La Table De Nana said...

Magnificent:-) To say the very least:-)
Meilleurs Voeux 2013~

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

A very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you Deana! I could really relate to what you were saying about your apprehension to try this dish that had such lovely memories attached to it too. But it looks superb and so fitting for a special celebration! :D

Barbara said...

Love the Algonquin, love the history you related too. So much to savor when you're there. I just stood and took it all in.
Your recipe is divine...and so is that drink!
Happy New Year, Deana!

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...


Yum....I get another gander at these splendid dishes you put together!

THANK YOU SO MUCH for visiting and viewing my paper dress...wild was a long month, this December, but a truly challenging effort that took me on a spiritual journey of perseverance! The shop has not yet received it so it will be INTERESTING to see their reaction! You are so kind to visit. Have a wonderful day my dear! Anita