Woman of Letters and Her Testament to the American Way of Cooking

Times Staff Writer

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.

Always Nurturing

"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.

Contrasting Styles

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.

Amended Recipe

"Many, many years later, when I lived with (Dashiell) Hammett, we were very broke and I amended this recipe because we couldn't afford the shrimps, nor the crabs, nor much of anything. We used the vegetables that were growing in the garden of the rented house we had on Long Island and would add only a piece of ham. It really wasn't bad. If you have a garden and a good piece of highly smoked ham, try it. But the good piece of ham, you do need.

". . . This is my recipe. Peter's will appear in his part of the book. I advise you to follow his, since he cooks it better than I do, but mine is easier. He makes a roux; I do not because I always burn it and it worries me. But there is a right way to make it and it is in Peter's recipe."

And Feibleman's:

"Chapter 2: . . . If you ask a South Louisiana cook for a single rule to use as a guide in both Creole and Cajun cooking, you will be told to start with a roux. After that you're on your own. A roux is made of fat--oil or lard or butter--mixed with flour in a pot over a flame. It's tricky to make because it can burn and turn black in a second, and once it does you have to throw it out and start over.

"A good roux should be brown, about the color of ordinary dark commercial maple syrup. The instant you get the right color you throw in the next ingredients to stop the burning, and the cooking begins. . . . If you're having a pompous gourmet to dinner, gumbo, I think, is a good main dish. Almost nobody who isn't from New Orleans serves it decently, and Northern cooks tend to fiddle with it for some reason. Gumbo should be served either in soup bowls or in individual casserole dishes with lids, and it ought to be put on the table before people sit down. White rice can be passed separately or served on the side so that each person can add the amount he wants. File powder can be added (optionally) just before serving, and you want to be careful not to overdo file--too much of it gives gumbo a ropy texture. I like okra gumbo better myself."

HELLMAN'S GUMBO FOR SIX

2 pounds okra

1/4 cup bacon fat

1 (10-ounce) can Italian plum tomatoes, drained

1 ham hock, highly smoked

Salt

1 small hot pepper, minced

1 1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

1 large or 2 medium onions, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 bay leaves, crushed

Dash thyme

Dash oregano

Dash basil

1 1/2 pounds shrimp

Pepper

2 chicken legs, slightly browned

2 chicken thighs, slightly browned

6 oysters

1 teaspoon arrowroot or cornstarch, if necessary

1 cup converted rice

Cut off both ends of each piece of okra and saute in bacon fat about 5 minutes. Transfer to large pot and set aside bacon fat.

Add tomatoes, having discarded juice from can. Add smoked ham hock. Start mixture on high heat, then reduce to simmer. Add 1 teaspoon salt, hot pepper, Worcestershire sauce and hot pepper sauce. Saute minced onions in reserved bacon fat, adding more fat if necessary, until onions are slightly gray.

Add onions to ham hock mixture. Add garlic, bay leaves, thyme, oregano and basil. Heat until boiling, then reduce heat and simmer about 1 hour. Taste and correct seasoning.

Meanwhile, shell shrimp and place shells in 1/2 cup water with a little salt and pepper. Bring water to boil and simmer 15 to 20 minutes. Strain and add shrimp broth to tomato mixture. Discard shells. Taste tomato mixture again and correct seasoning. Add pieces of chicken. Add raw oysters taken from shells with liquid. Let simmer, uncovered, about 1/2 hour. Mixture should be thickened. If not, mix arrowroot or cornstarch in 1 cup liquid from pot and stir until smooth, then add to tomato mixture.

You are now about 1/2 hour from being finished with gumbo, so it is time to wash as much rice as you need so it will be cooked and dry when gumbo is finished. If using 1 cup rice and 2 1/2 cups water, boil without removing cover. When you think it is done, about 20 to 25 minutes, remove cover. If not dry, place rice in colander and set in 300-degree oven and it will dry out soon enough.

Back to gumbo: New Orleans actually serves this heavy dish as soup. I think this is a great mistake. It should be served as a main dish. Place 1 heaping tablespoon rice into soup bowls. Ladle gumbo around and on top of rice. The idea is to give guests the idea, if they haven't got sense enough, to mix the 2. Makes 6 servings.

FEIBLEMAN'S SHRIMP, HAM AND OKRA

GUMBO

2 pounds shrimp

12 cups water

2 tablespoons bacon fat

1 pound okra, cut into 1/4-inch slices

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 onion, chopped

1 teaspoon thyme

2 bay leaves

1 fresh chile pepper, minced

Pepper

2 tablespoons Brown Roux

1 cup tomatoes, peeled and chopped

1/4 pound smoked ham, cut into bite-size cubes

Salt

Cooked rice

Peel shrimp and boil shells in water 30 minutes. Strain, discard shells and reserve stock. Melt bacon fat in large casserole. Add okra and cook 5 minutes. Add garlic, onion, thyme, bay leaves, chile pepper and 1 teaspoon black pepper and cook 5 minutes longer.

Add Brown Roux and stir. Add 8 cups reserved shrimp stock and tomatoes. Bring mixture to boil. Reduce heat. Add ham and simmer 45 minutes, adding additional stock or water, if necessary. Add shrimp and cook 15 minutes longer. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve with cooked rice. Makes 6 servings.

Brown Roux

1 cup flour

1 cup oil

Combine flour and oil in heavy skillet over lowest heat possible. Stir with metal spatula to make smooth paste. Continue cooking over very low heat, stirring frequently to avoid burning. Roux will darken to rich, dark brown in 30 to 45 minutes. As it begins to darken, watch carefully because it may burn. When dark brown, remove from heat and scrape into small bowl. Allow to cool. Cover and store in refrigerator for later use. Makes 1 1/2 cups.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
62°