Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Consommé Devoutly to be Wished

Jim S., from Omaha, lived in several sumptuous apartments in Florence for over twenty years and never learned to pronounce the names of any of the streets they were on. The last and grandest was on the ground floor of Palazzo Guicciardini where he, his partner, Roger, and his mother, whose wealth provided the wherewithal, lived in their idea of grand style.

The apartment was first rented out by the Guicciardini family during the difficult period just after the Second World War. Before that, the entire enormous palazzo, next to the Palazzo Pitti, was a one-family dwelling.

The first rental was handled discreetly by an agency. The agent assured the then head of the family, Count Paolo, that he had found an extremely suitable tenant: a titled Englishwoman. The Count and Countess Guicciardini were, therefore, somewhat startled when they saw the new tenant in the cortile: a very mannish woman wearing a man’s suit and sporting a monocle. They soon discovered that they their new renter was the surviving half of one of the most famous Lesbian couples in English literature: Lady Una Troubridge, companion of the writer Radclyffe Hall whose novel of Lesbian life, The Well of Loneliness, had shocked Edwardian England and much of the rest of the world.

After Hall’ s death during the war, Lady Una, previously the epitome of femininity, began to assume her dead lover’s masculine ways and took to wearing her Saville Row men’s suits. Count Paolo’s nephew, Francesco, told me, that at first his uncle and aunt were appalled and shocked to have such a person living under their august roof, but gradually they got to know Lady Una and they became fast friends, playing bridge together and attending together the opera at the Teatro Communale, to which Lady Una always wore her late partner’s elegant dinner jacket.

By the time the slightly strange ménage à trois from Omaha moved into the flat, Count Paolo and his wife were long dead and his heir, the bachelor Count Francesco, was the owner of the palace. He was not at all shocked by his new tenants. In fact, Francesco enjoyed entertaining a wide variety of types from all social classes, not a few of them slightly disreputable. Count Francesco was unconcerned by what anyone thought of the comings and goings. “I cannot live my life to please my concierge,” he once told me.

Jim S. filled the apartment with many costly things: original Majorelle furniture, Tiffany lamps, and the like, and he would gladly tell you just how much his furnishings were worth.

Once I was invited to dinner by Jim a few weeks before the annual Pitti fashion show. A disparate group of about eight gathered in one of the over-furnished salons for drinks before dinner. When we all had drinks in hand, Mrs. S. made her appearance, somewhat unsteadily. I suspect she had already had a drink or two. She was dressed in haute couture with many rings, bracelets, and chains and looked rather like a bulldog in elaborate drag. Roger handed her a drink, then another, and she drank them down without saying a word. Eventually, we moved to the dining room and took our places at a large rectangular table. I was directly opposite Mrs. S.. A lovely consommé was served and the conversation, which as I recall was about how high or low hems were going to be at the upcoming fashion shows, continued. Mrs. S. seemed to have no opinion on this topic and she sat silently as the various options were discussed. Then, suddenly, she snorted and fell face forward into her consommé. The conversation flowed on undisturbed while Mrs. S. gurgled softly in her soup. After a very long moment, Roger got up, lifted her out of the bowl, wiped her off with her napkin, and led her away. Surprised by the seeming nonchalance of the other dinner guests, I turned to my neighbor, a disagreeable German countess named Eva, and said. “Poor Mrs. S.! I hope she is going to be all right.” “Don’t worry about it,” Eva replied. “It happens every night.”

I never saw Mrs. S. again. A year or so after the dinner party, I heard that she had fallen and broken her arm but was mending nicely for an 80+ year-old. A few weeks later, one morning just before dawn, I had a vivid dream: there was a knock at the door of my apartment in Piazza Peruzzi. I opened it and there was the Angel of Death, wings and all. “I’ve come to tell you that Mrs. S. is dead,” the Angel said. “Thank you for letting me know,” I replied, and then woke up, and realized it was just a dream. It had seemed so real.

Later that morning friends came by for coffee. While I was telling them about the dream, the telephone rang. It was one of Jim’s friends. “Have you heard about Jim’s mother?” he asked. “I think so,” I said. Mrs. S. had died of natural causes a few hours before. Soup was not involved.

Here is a consommé, adapted from a recipe in my 1942 edition of The Original Picayune Creole Cook Book, into which Mrs. S. might have enjoyed a plunge. It is fairly simple to make, but does requires a lot of time.

Consommé Doré

1 gallon of water

1 chicken, cut up in pieces

1- ½ lbs beef marrow bones

1 lb of good boiled ham, cut in chunks

The whites and shells of two large eggs

2 large sprigs of parsley

1 small parsnip

1 carrot

2 stalks of celery

1 medium yellow onion

1 leek, washed

3 cloves

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

3 dashes of Tabasco hot sauce

1 pat of butter

Put the chicken, ham and bones into a large pot of cold water, bring to a boil and let simmer for five hours, keeping the pot well covered.

Chop the vegetables and sauté them in a skillet with the pat of butter until tender . Add the vegetables, the salt, pepper, Tabasco, and cloves to the soup and let it simmer for another two hours.

Let the mixture cool and then chill in the refrigerator over night. Next day remove the congealed fat and scoop up the jelly, leaving the thickest part of the sediment (which, after the much-boiled bones are removed, can be added to another soup)

Put the egg whites and shells into the jelly and bring to a fast boil for about ten minutes, then let settle and cool.

Strain the mixture through a double layer of cheese cloth. According to the Picayure Creole Cook Book, it should be “ a beautiful golden-brown color.” May be served hot or chilled, garnished with a thin slice of lemon and a sprinkle of chopped parsely.

Serves six

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