|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.
Algonquin Hotel 1965
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:
"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."
"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
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.