The Happy Table of Eugene Walter

The Happy Table of Eugene Walter by Donald Goodman and Thomas Head, UNC Press 2011, $30.00 hardback, 262 pages

Here’s how much I was captured by this book—I made Goober Toast, complete with pickle. Partly, I was drawn by the meticulous directions—a thin, even layer of unsalted butter; a not-quite-so-thin layer of Creole mustard. Partly, it was the evocative description—in the oven until the peanut butter looks like it wants to sputter.

But what put me over the edge were the Roman cocktail parties that sounded like something out of a Stanley Donen movie at which the toast was served, along with, as the recipe calls for, cold beer.

Eugene Walker began in Mobile, Alabama and his tastes remained anchored in Southern food traditions, but he ranged wide in his life and palate, pursuing theater and the arts in America and Europe. He had a knack for drawing people to him—childhood friends with Truman Capote, Greenwich Village neighbors with Anais Nin and Andy Warhol, Alice B. Toklas in Paris and Federico Fellini in Rome. In fact, it was through entertaining that he developed many of his recipes, often from Southern home cooking for American visitors.

His journeys are reflected in his recipes and essays about food. It just one example, he begins this book’s chapter on fish with a disquisition on Tartar Sauce, tracing it from Sauce Tartare in Larousse Gastronomique, through Mrs. Beeton, to a portside restaurant in Marseilles, thence to the Greek island of Skopelos, on to Denmark, and back to his desk in Mobile. He claims he could write a book about Tartar Sauce and I don’t doubt it.

Then the sauce recipes really begin—olive, celery, radish, rhubarb, and asparagus.

This book is ostensibly about recipes with alcohol, and the book’s first section covers cocktails; bourbon; juleps, mint or otherwise; eggnog; punch; and after all that, hangover cures. And these were the good old days of drinking. He suggests that Banana Eggnog, “with lots of squirts of bourbon,” is good for the elderly. For Sunday School Punch he suggests you provide chairs and if you choose to serve Merry Mabel, “Be ready with your pitch pipe; there will be singing.” How can I miss someone I’d never even heard of until this book?

As for the food, there is nothing gimmicky about his dishes; none of them stretch to accommodate the booze, they are all good cooking. His stuffed breast of veal gets a splash of white wine and Plaquemine Pork Cutlets, a spoonful of cognac (along with a good glop of fresh thyme—you know what he means).

It’s that “good glop” that makes time with this book such a pleasure. Walter’s kitchen attitude is relaxed and fun even as it is particular and curious. He begins a recipe for Sunday Supper Onion Pie with “Okay, you have the wreckage of a baked ham…”. Haven’t we all been there? His bright, sprightly voice is a refreshing change from artisanal meticulousness or macho posturing.  He responds to what’s served up—a memory, a guest, a season, or a discovery—and to what intrigues him. The recipes are home cooking at its best, resourceful, straightforward, and delicious.

Eugene Walter, as excavated from his papers and reassembled here, is erudite, open, humorous, and adventurous—an excellent kitchen companion. I doubt I’ll make Goober Toast again, but I’m glad I did.

About Appetite for Books

read, cook, eat, repeat
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