Eating Together, Recollections & Recipes by Lillian Hellman and Peter Feibleman (Little Brown: $16.95)
Any collector or admirer of Lillian Hellman's work will find "Eating Together, Recollections and Recipes" a rather arresting work because it was the last writing she did before her death in 1984. Why would an illustrious woman of American letters co-write a cookbook as her last opus?
The answer is that she loved food, according to Peter Feibleman, her dear friend and collaborator with whom she shared not only half the pages in the cookbook, but eating and cooking in kitchens wherever she lived or visited. She loved to cook. She loved to feed people.
"She was a nurturer. She was always feeding people in every sense of the word," said Feibleman over breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel recently. Feibleman, himself a novelist, had been taken under Hellman's wing early in his literary career.
They were both from New Orleans, having met when Feibleman was 10 and Hellman was enjoying great success with her first play, "The Children's Hour," on Broadway. She had been invited to dinner by Feibleman's father, a writer, who had also played host to such authors as William Faulkner, Henry Miller and Sherwood Anderson. When Feibleman told Hellman he was only 10, he remembers her saying, "I don't know what you mean by 'only. ' Ten isn't so young." They remained cooking, eating and traveling buddies for 30 years, save for seven years when they did not speak on and off because of disagreement over whether okra or file powder should be used as a thickener in gumbo.
She was a plain Creole-New Orleans cook, as frugal and sparse in her approach to cooking as in her taut writing. He, on the contrary, was expansive, expensive and complex in his cooking style. She was inclined to undercook and he to overcook. She cooked with hot red pepper. He didn't. " 'Forgive me,' she said to me sitting there watching me stuff an eggplant. 'Do you mean to be doing that?' My teeth would curl when she said 'forgive me' because it meant another small war in the kitchen," Feibleman said.
And they always fought over food--affectionately. Which is one reason why the book is split down the middle with his and her comments and recipes as separate books. Hers are first, of course.
The connecting glue in the culinary relationship, and, indirectly in the writing of the book, was the idea of doing a restaurant together. It would have been a small restaurant--no more than eight tables. Certainly no more than 12. "We talked of opening our restaurant for 20 years, but never did," Feibleman said. "In our fantasy, our restaurant was in Los Angeles one day and in Martha's Vineyard another. Sometimes it was in New Orleans, or wherever we happened to feel particularly close to at the time."
"At the final point in her life, she was legally blind and half-paralyzed and hated it. Here was a woman who was the most independent individual I knew--who ran a farm single-handedly--having to be confined. 'This is silly,' she had said to me one day. We are not going to have our restaurant. Let's write a cookbook together, instead, if you'll help me.' " Feibleman agreed for once.
A Book of Hope
"She'd dictate into the tape recorder," he said. "It was the last thing she was involved in, the last finished work. I was on my way to Martha's Vineyard with the galleys when she died. The book had given her relief and hope in the face of anger and rage."
The deeply personal book is filled with experiences, opinions and dishes encountered on travels (lamb stew), adapted from chefs and cooks wherever they happened to be (pfannkuchen) , and some from family (boiled short ribs) and friends (latkes). Many of the New Orlean specialties such as red beans, blue crab dishes and gumbo appear in both halves of the book.
So let's see what their recipes are all about. Or better, yet, what Hellmanesque writing about gumbo is all about, and what Feibleman has to say about gumbo, too.
"Chapter 8: Both Peter Feibleman and I were born in New Orleans, although, God knows, in different years, as he is usually eager to point out. But I don't mind that, since I have discovered that all men in their 40s like to dine with women older than themselves and to sleep with women much younger than themselves. (The two go hand in hand.)
". . . In any case, on to the gumbo. Peter and I have different memories of gumbo. Mine start with my aunt's boardinghouse, where it was cooked every Sunday, along with crayfish bisque. I was not allowed to play until I had helped the cook, who was, indeed, a wonderful cook, as was my Aunt Jenny. My job was to peel the shrimp, or the crayfish for crayfish bisque or to do whatever small thing could be trusted to a child.