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The first actual cooking teacher who took both my money and my grief for imparting culinary secrets to me was the inimitable, unclassifiable queen of the Southern kitchen, Nathalie Dupree. Though Nathalie does not know this, she is one of the few people in my life who seems more like a fictional character than a flesh-and-blood person.
When my novel Beach Music came out in 1995, I had included a couple of recipes in the book, and had tried to impart some of my love of Roman cuisine and the restaurants of Rome. Several journalists who write about food for newspapers interviewed me about the food angle in the novel, curious about the fact that the book's protagonist, Jack McCall, wrote cookbooks and restaurant reviews. A woman from the Washington Post conducted a delightful interview over the phone, and during our conversation, I mentioned that I had taken Nathalie's course in the cooking school she ran in the old Rich's department store in downtown Atlanta. The woman called Nathalie after our interview, and Nathalie tracked me down to report on the nature of their conversation.
Nathalie's voice is deep and musical and seductive. She possesses the rare ability to be both maddening and hilarious in the course of a single sentence. Her character is a shifting, ever-changing thing, and she reinvents herself all over again every couple of years. In one way, she seems the same, yet you are aware she is in the process of a complete transformation. When she tells about her life, you could swear she was speaking of a hundred women, not just one.
"Pat, darling," Nathalie said on the phone, "all my working life I've been scheming and plotting and dreaming of ways to get an interview with the food editor of the Washington Post. You can imagine my joy when I heard that the food editor of the Post had left a message on my answering machine. And I thought, Yes, it's finally happening; your prayers have been answered, Nathalie."
"That's great, Nathalie," I said, not quite knowing where she was going with this. You never know where Nathalie is going with a train of thought; you simply know that the train will not be on time, will carry many passengers, and will eventually collide with a food truck stalled somewhere down the line on damaged tracks.
"Can you imagine my disappointment when I found out that they wanted to interview me about you, instead of about me. I admit, Pat, that after I got over the initial shock, it turned suddenly to bitterness. After all, what do I possibly get out of talking about you when I could be talking about my own cookbooks? Naturally, I did not let on a word about what I was really thinking, but I did suggest, very subtly I might add, that she might want to do a feature on me and my work sometime in the future. When were you in my class, Pat?"
"In 1980," I said.
"I don't remember that. Did you really take my class? Who else was in it?"
"My wife Lenore. Jim Landon. George Lanier. A nice woman who lived on the same floor as my dad in the Darlington Apartments."
"It doesn't ring a bell for me," she said. "Was I good?"
"You were wonderful," I said.
"All my ex-students say that. It must be a gift."
"You were a great teacher."
"And sexy. I won't be happy until you tell me I was also extraordinarily sexy."
"I could barely cook I was so aroused. All the other men in the class felt the same way. It's hard to make a perfect souffle when you're rutting."
"Pat, you know the way to a young girl's heart," Nathalie said. "But I want you to know that I'll always be perfectly furious at you for getting into the Washington Post food world before I did. That's my bailiwick, not yours."
"It will never happen again, Nathalie," I promised. "All your bailiwicks will be safe from poor Conroy."
When Nathalie taught her cooking class at Rich's, I learned new lessons about insouciance, style, and lack of preparation. Always, at the last minute, Nathalie's worthy assistant, Kate Almand, would move in to provide a missing utensil or bag of flour or loin of veal that Nathalie had misplaced or left in her car. The joy of watching Nathalie's cooking shows on television has always come from her artless displays of confusion and disorganization, and her sheer bravado when she actually makes a mistake. Unlike Martha Stewart, Nathalie often looks beaten up when she completes a segment of her show. She can be covered with flour up to her elbows after baking a loaf of bread, can drop her perfectly roasted capon on the kitchen floor, or can garnish her pumpkin pie with cooked rice that she meant to put in her delicious cream of carrot soup. On her television show, Nathalie has turned the culinary mistake or misstep into her signature moment.
Nathalie is always worth the price of admission and I love cooking with her. Disorder follows her around like a spaniel. There is no hum of quiet efficiency in her kitchen to intimidate me as I caramelize the onions or beat the egg whites to a stiff peak. She prides herself on being a hands-on cook, and I have seen her hands dripping with batter, red with blood, and crimson from handling baby beets. Like most good cooks, she is absolutely fearless, taking on each task with gusto. And her conversation mixes well with the mouthwatering aromas rising out of her kitchen as the meal takes shape around us. I personally do not believe Nathalie has ever enjoyed a quiet meal at home with her equally hospitable husband, the writer Jack Bass. When I knew her in Atlanta, the whole city in all its shapes, races, and classes seemed to pass by her dining room table. She attracts friends like a magnet does iron filings. Her desire to entertain and feed people seems insatiable to me, a mark of her character as striking as her beautiful almond-shaped eyes.
On the night our class made a crown roast of pork, orange and fennel salad, turnip greens and grits, and crème brûlée for dessert, she told a story in fits and starts that ended only after she poured the dessert wine. I soon found myself looking forward to Nathalie's stories as much as I did her recipes. They ranged the world and involved famous chefs, cookbook writers of note, lovers and husbands and boyfriends of both the charming and monstrous varieties. I preferred the stories of her lovers because her voice could turn smoky and catlike as we, her students, chopped and shredded and prepared our meals according to her instructions. The story and the food comingled and exchanged properties.
I can taste neither fennel nor crème brûlée without thinking of the story she told that night. I tell it from memory, but I will try to use Nathalie's ineffable voice. She could say the word "lover" and infuse it with all the savor and forbiddenness of a Frenchwoman recalling an affair with an Italian count. "I was living in Greenwich Village in New York," she told us. "I had taken up with a dashing, utterly charming man. He turned out to be a perfect cad, but didn't they all in those days, darling? Jim, I'd slice that fennel a little thinner. It looks too much like celery when you slice it that way. Yes, perfect. He was, by far, the most sophisticated, demanding lover I had ever been involved with up to that time. He was the consummate gourmet who had eaten in the finest restaurants in the world since he was a child. Well. I decided I was going to cook him a meal that he would never forget, one that would prove my love for him, yet honor his amazing sophistication.
"I went next door to get advice from the two gay men who lived in the most spectacular apartment. They knew everybody and everything, but they were of no help that day. Greenwich Village was astir, at least the gay portion of the Village--no small share, I assure you--with the news of a gay serial killer who would not only murder his poor victims, but would then mutilate them in ghastly ways. My neighbors' hysteria rendered them useless and I heard them turn all six locks in their door as soon as I left their apartment and began the search for the most unusual meal for my lover.
"There was a little butcher shop in the East Village that sold specialty meats and could usually come up with a surprise. Pat, use a whisk to beat your eggs for the crème brûlée. You're not scrambling eggs for a country brunch. This is a French dish, dearie. Oh, where was I? Yes. The butcher had a surprise for me. He had two things in his shop he had never carried before: live escargots and testicles freshly cut from yearling calves in upper New York State. 'Mountain oysters!' I shouted in triumph, and I was sure that every snail my lover had eaten had come from a can. I paid cash for everything. I spent a fortune. But that's what you do when you're in love. You're never yourself. You are possessed. You'll do anything. George, you need to get your pork into the oven. Less fanaticism with the presentation. It's lovely, but it's still pork. And trichinosis is a fact of life. I took the mountain oysters and snails back to my apartment, then left them in the sink and ran down to buy the wine for the meal. I threw some ice on the calves' testicles because organ meat is very perishable. But I got delayed when I asked the French chef who ran a restaurant on my street about the preparation of the escargots. He had a certain dark frisson and I soon realized he was flirting with me. This made me late in my return. My lover would be arriving with roses in a few hours. I opened the door of my apartment and I'll never forget what I saw there! I've had nightmares about it more than once. The snails had conspired to effect a vast breakout. They were everywhere. On the walls, on the ceiling, trailing their slimy bodies across my copper pans, and my cookbooks. My screams of repulsion and terror resounded throughout my apartment building.
"The two dear gay men next door were the first neighbors to arrive. But the escargots did not interest them. They were transfixed by the sight of a whole bucket of male genitalia in my sink. You could not blame them. They had never seen mountain oysters, nor did they know that anyone would cook and eat them. They thought they had stumbled into the lair of the serial killer who was preying on and mutilating gay males. The snails on the walls simply added a note of horror to it all. They fled screaming down the stairs and out into the streets. The police were called. It was an affair to remember. Pat, are you burning your greens? Good; it's sinful to burn greens. There's always a point of no return, you know.
"Did I fix my lover dinner that night? But of course. All the commotion simply made the evening more special. I served the escargots in their own shells with garlic, butter, and parsley--after I boiled and cleaned them, of course. I fried the mountain oysters, and they were superb. After dinner and cognac, my lover and I--ah, but that is personal, part of the night's mystery. There are parts of some stories that should never be told. Ah. Class, take a deep breath. Dinner is almost ready. Smell it. Breathe deeply. Now. Now."
Though Nathalie Dupree did not remember much about my presence in her class, it marked me forever. I remain her enthusiast, her evangelist, her acolyte, and her grateful student. She taught me that cooking and storytelling make the most delightful coconspirators. Either was good alone, but in communion with each other, they could rise to the level of ecstasy.
Three of Nathalie's recipes.
MELON RING WITH MINT AND HONEY-LIME DRESSING
The last time Nathalie Dupree invited me to dinner, she met me at the front door and told me with her most theatrical flourish that she felt "worse than a rabid dog or the parakeet that the proverbial cat dragged in." She is a woman of great entrances and exits, and said to me, "Pat, you must play the part of the gentleman and rescue this damsel in distress. You were my student, and you must cook the meal and save this night for me. If my guests realized I was about to begin projectile vomiting across the room, they'd just die."
"I will fix the meal gladly, Nathalie," I said, moving toward the kitchen as she moved out to the living room and the sounds of her guests in conversation. I made the meal: a standing rib roast, a simple green salad, steamed asparagus, and fresh peaches with cream and a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream. To begin the meal, Nathalie asked, "I got a call from our good mutual friend from Atlanta, the one who's been married six times. Do you have any theories about why all her husbands have turned out to be gay?"
• Serves 6 to 8
2 envelopes unflavored gelatin
2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup finely chopped mint leaves
1 cup melon balls (preferably a mix of cantaloupe, honeydew, and/or similar kinds), plus additional (optional)
For the dressing
1 cup yogurt
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1. Place the gelatin, 1 cup of the orange juice, and the sugar in a small pan and heat until the gelatin and sugar are dissolved. Do not let the mixture come to a boil.
2. Remove the gelatin mixture from the heat and add the lemon juice, the remaining 1 cup orange juice, and the mint.
3. Put the pan over a bowl of ice water and stir for a few minutes until the gelatin begins to thicken. Fold in the melon balls. Pour into a 4-cup ring mold and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.
4. Unmold and fill the center with additional melon balls, if desired. To make the dressing: Mix all the ingredients together and serve with the ring and melon balls.