2000s Archive

The Cook, Her Son, and a Secret

Originally Published March 2000
The recipe for a successful dinner party comes from an unlikely source.

The host said we were eating braised beef and potatoes. We knew false modesty was a daily familiar with her and that in fact she had served us a cryingly good daube de boeuf with potatoes Annette. Her dessert almost knocked us back from the dining table: Like fried ice cream, it was oxymoronic. She ended her splendid dinner by serving a cold lemon mousse with a baked meringue topping. We were floored.

Everyone knew that I should be the next host, but I hesitated. How does one follow Escoffier? I rolled my trepidation into a pill and swallowed it. “Come to me next month. I’ll be ready.”

My friends looked at me pityingly.

Once swallowed, the fear remained buried, and I tamped it further down with the knowledge that after all I was a good cook and after all I was in New York City and anything I thought I needed could be found in the Apple. I toyed with duck galantine and sautéed veal with Sherry and macadamia nuts. I considered a ten-boy lamb curry, placing ten relishes in my mind’s eye—grated coconut, golden raisins, Major Grey’s chutney, diced avocado, diced onion, tomatoes, fried onions, banana, cucumbers vinaigrette, and plain yogurt.

Although no award was at stake, the competitive spirit among the circle of cooking friends was virulent. I did not dare risk those dishes I thought of against the dinner we had just finished.

When the group came to my house, I gave them a black-eyed-pea soup and southern fried chicken with homemade biscuits. For dessert I offered New Orleans pecan pie with a bourbon sauce. I obviously fell back on my own Arkansas upbringing. The food was a knockout; I had held on to my reputation.

Bebe was a single parent who bragged in her heavy Uruguayan accent that she couldn’t cook and wouldn’t cook. She said she was raising her tall, strapping teen-age son, Bo, on dry cereal and milk in the morning, pizza and a salad for lunch, and the same thing for dinner. She was a businesswoman whose presence in our circle of writers who were also gourmet cooks was inexplicable, but she did belong. We were an eclectic assemblage who had, without planning, developed a habit of cooking for each other once a month. At the end of every incredible meal (each host tried to outdo the last), the next cook would volunteer.

Two years passed in which we ate, drank, laughed, and talked together before Bebe invited us to her home. We had just enjoyed another magnificent culinary feat when she shocked us by saying, “Come to my apartment for dinner next month.” We almost choked on our profiteroles and crème fraîche.

“No, no. We know you don’t know how to…”

“Really, I had planned to be in Bangkok that…”

“Okay, no, you shouldn’t have to do this.”

“Okay. We’ll come and eat pizza, and salad.”

“I like a good pizza…a good pizza is a work of art…”

Bebe said, “No, we won’t eat pizza. I will cook.”

When the evening was almost over, a date was chosen, and everybody left laughing in their hands. Would we really be given take-out pizza for dinner and did she at least make the salad dressing at home?

Four weeks later we met in the lobby of Bebe’s building, still snickering.

“What do you think?”

“I brought my Tums.”

“I brought Alka-Seltzer for everybody.”

When we emerged from the elevator at her floor, the hall was redolent with mouthwatering aromas.

“At least somebody on her floor knows how to cook.”

“Or maybe just someone in the building.”

We laughed as Bebe opened the door, but our laughter ended when we entered her apartment. As we followed her to the living room, we knew that the aromas emanated from her kitchen. We were stunned.

Her son, Bo, brought out a tray of drinks with a filled ice bucket, tongs, olives, and slices of lemon. We were invited to make our own drinks as Bebe disappeared into the kitchen. We could find nothing to say, so we offered blank faces to each other as we helped ourselves to libations.

Bo emerged from the kitchen again with a larger tray, which held oversize cups. He said, “Gazpacho. Please take one.” The Spanish tomato soup was as cold as it should have been and rich with biteable sizes of cucumber and finely chopped onion.

Many would-be cooks have attempted to make gazpacho but concluded with horrific non-edible, nonpotable results. This was as perfect a blend as any I had ever read of or heard of or tasted. Bebe stayed in the kitchen as we chewed the crunchy vegetables and drank the beautifully flavored liquor.

Bo collected the empty cups and asked if we would sit to table. There were place cards. We knew she hadn’t been brought up in a barn, but nothing about Bebe had prepared us for this sophistication. After we were seated, she stepped into the dining room and announced, “Dinner is served.” When she turned back into the kitchen, the smile on her face was sweet enough to rot teeth.

She and Bo returned, placing on the table petits pois with pearl onions in a cream sauce, haricots verts in vinaigrette, twice-baked mashed potatoes and mushroom sauce, and the pièce de résistance—beef Wellington. We stood and applauded, and she joined in the -admiring laughter. Each of us knew the complexity of building a beef Wellington. How the duxelles must be prepared while the loin is in the oven. How the loin must be cooling as the short pastry rests in the refrigerator. How the pâté must be at a spreadable consistency before the duxelles is patted in place.

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