Monday, February 14, 2011

Even Philip Johnson had a television house

I actively dislike television as a medium, and haven’t paid attention to it for more than a decade. The entire Bush regime passed beneath my nostrils without, at least, the cacaphony of its twang, the flare of its ears. But there were many reasons for dismissing the form, and only one against it, which is that one will be ignorant of what the Miller Brewing Company are up to at any given half-hour. I beg your pardon; that reason belongs in Column A. That said, television is almost more loathesome as a thing, and even more so in its liquid crystal sheen, a nightmarish Revenge of Escargots. But the insidiousness of television truly comes into its own by its being indispensable for enjoying the art it killed, cinema.

Thus, the concealing Giotto diptych panels, the rising Rauschenberg, the reclaimed root cellar or crypt, or the self-effacing outboard resid-ence in Shingle Style, discreet in its bespoke Shaker black, Expression-ist window, and remote garden - Mr Johnson’s solution, to the problem of where to hide the thing in his 47 acres of Lucullan New Canaan. Attention must be paid, he had to admit.

One can well imagine Mr Johnson, snug in his Belgians at last from the beastly flight from his penthouse office at 375 Park, spying his velvet reflection in his own walls, and whispering to himself, Ninotchka .. 

Quite right, Philip: we can’t have an impulse without an anodyne; and there we are, television. Slipping a sparkling pair of lilac Fiorucci’s over his suavely calved feet, our space planner of Western civilisation, the very restorer in our time of the procession in architecture, tromps his lacquered oeil on down to the TV house with a word to the chef at the Guest House, to prepare something suitable for comedy and send it on down.

The tradition of dinner theatre completely exempts Mr Johnson from any contemplation of habituating that refuse bin of gastronomy known as the TV dinner. But to us, the resemblance is remarkable; and it is for our friends’ convenience that we find ourself testing a dinner suitable for comedy, beneath the beaming screen.

Comedy has in common with television a reluctance to deal with bones. For the latter, they represent an insupportable distraction from the hypnotic panel; for the former, a very severe risk to mix with laughter. Best to forego the pigeon, then, and any thought of quail.

We will, then, bone video’s signature bird, chicken, and make the best of this con-cession by pummeling its breast in the style of a paillard, so that the foraging fork finds something, as the eye follows Garbo around her suite at the Meurice. We will season some stoneground wheat flour with tidal salt flakes and cracked white pepper, and dip the breasts lightly because we aren’t really breading them. Or rather, chef will, as we flail about in the pantry, raining curses down upon the maid for not replenishing the ice. (Garbo’s Polish lancer had it so much nicer). Emergency dash across the lawn, to Whitney for a tray of Fiji cubes, properly expunged of bubbles. Back to the credits, then, ensconced in one of the original chairs from Mies’ Pavillion, a quietly stirred gimlet condensing above our knee, the better to notice our ankle, crossed in rakish ease. Time elapsed: no more than an hour, from the purr from sight of that indelicate car.

At last we are in the film, in the proletarians’ bistro, trying with Melvyn Douglas to select a palatable nibble, tapping our irascible but otherwise flawless fingers on the base of our gimlet glass, hoping there’s some foccaccia laid in for the weekend. There is! Well, then, send some on down, with a whisper of that dear little oil we found in the Mani last Spring.

A shrewd choice for Lubitsch, foccaccia combines noiseless mastication with a pleasing salination of the palate for the naughty bon mot, should Whitney show up in time to mix another round. It enjoys being munched with olives, but Johnson is right to refuse the hazard of one’s slipping from the fingertips, at the very moment when Douglas lands on the floor.  

The chef, having properly rinsed and toweled and chopped Mr Johnson’s porcinis, will leave them to air as he filters their now-tepid bath through cheesecloth, reserving a generous half cup for the sauce. He’ll set aside another half cup of the estate’s own cream, and he’ll retrieve a half-cup of chicken stock from the larder. He’ll busy himself, albeit prudently, with plucking a tidy little pile of fresh thyme from its branches, for Mr Johnson to sprinkle as he might upon the finished plate.

But Ninotchka calls for nothing if not a gladdening tease, and so this is not going to be Mr Johnson’s stand-by from that trattoria in the Teatro di Pompeo; it’s going to be from chef’s heart-throb mentor in San Francisco, Joyce Goldstein of the late Square One (where Laurent dined religiously before it was shuttered by rent). To his beloved Roman preparation, chef will add toasted hazelnuts. Oh, Piemonte, how thou art missed in low Connecticut!

Setting aside, then, his olive oil, he will glaze the sauté pan with hazelnut oil, and slip the 4 half-breasts into it on medium heat, for 2 or 3 minutes per side. Properly malleted, they will cook tenderly through without crusting, and will be set aside, in a warm space. In the same oil, then, he’ll cook the mushrooms over slightly higher heat for 2 or 3 minutes, until they begin to throw off their own liquid. Then he’ll add the stock and the porcini bath, and simmer for a couple of minutes. 

So far, so good: no signal from the television house, that there will be 12 for dinner, and to slaughter a lamb.

At this point, then, the die being cast, chef will add the cream to the pan, along with the toasted hazelnuts, and simmer until thickened, while he goes in search of where he left the chicken. Aha! The oven; why, who’d have guessed. Slipping the chicken into the gently burbling pan, he will allow it to simmer for 2 or 3 more minutes, stirring to reduce the sauce accord-ingly. Mr Johnson does not care for an unctuous sauce, but he does like the chicken to exude its flavours into it. The stock and porcini fluids will see to it.

But now Garbo is recalled to Moscow, and it’s ur-gent to console the tele-vision house with hearty rustic fare. Grabbing a bowl of salad he can toss in situ, of bibb, hazel-nut oil, and Banyuls vin-egar, chef gathers up dinner on that witty Shaker table Mr Johnson designed for the purpose, swings by the cellar on his way down the slope, and astounds himself to make it all in one piece.

And what shall Mr Johnson pour with his porcini-infused poulet? He has several plausible choices, ranging from a Cabernet Franc from Saumur-Champigny to a pleasantly malolactic Chardonnay from Chassagne-Montrachet, to a rosé from almost anywhere along the Mediterranean littoral. But he has one choice to requite the desire of the dish, itself, and that is a Barbera d’Alba, which has a craving of its own for mushrooms, and a more than passing passion for luscious fowl infused with nut and thyme. The cream, in turn, is restored to lightness by the grape’s inveterate acidity, and Nature’s blessed omission of tannin from its signature is bliss to the poultry’s well-tamed breast. 

An almost discernible frisson courses through Mr Johnson’s frame at the composed whiff of these comestibles, allowing Whitney to pour the wine, as he scatters the thyme about the serving plate, accepting a fragrant smudge upon his fingertips.

Well, now, Whitney: shall the commissars triumph, d’you suppose, over Melvyn Douglas in his abduction of Garbo from her garret? Oh, I think not, now that she’s seen Paris!

Time elapsed: Almost certainly.

Joyce Goldstein
Kitchen Conversations
  Lessons in Flavor from One
  of America's Most Innovative Chefs
  [Hazelnut Oil is Laurent's doing]
Morrow, 1996©

Evan Goldstein, MS, MW
Daring Pairings
University of California Press, 2010©

Philip Johnson
The Grainger
  House for Tea and Television
New Canaan

Clément Chabernaud, xi



La Guinelle vinegars, Formaggio Kitchen, Cambridge
Chicken, Polyface Farm 
Barbera, Campè della Spinetta, Rivetto, Pio Cesare

Ascolta:  Where does it come from?


  1. THIS is why you should not give up blogging! Laurent, an absolute tour de force which charmed me from beginning to end.

  2. Oh, you're extremely kind, BL. Truly, the lode of Philip Johnson, alone, runs deep enough to keep us all inspired. :)

  3. First in foremost, what moves me, is the tone of this wonderful "letter;" humorous and inspiring--inspiring? Why? During the time of letter writing, when people still wrote letters, I wrote many and was often told "Bruce, your letters are not letters, they are poems, stories." Yes, inspiring. I thank you for the kick in the rear; so-to-speak. And here we find, in this person's mind, in this "blog" (I have always so detested this word and until recently kept an online "journal" dating back to 1999 rather than a "blog".) Damon Runyan out with A.J. Liebling. Cheers!

  4. I'm glad you enjoyed your read, Bruce, so we both had fun. Your comment is a very generous gesture, but you're entitled to the real thing - this, from Liebling's "Between Meals" (1962) - "And yet Dijon and Lyons are little more than a hundred miles apart - a safe distance between sound and unsound cultures in the Middle Ages but an insufficient barrier against contamination since the coming of the motorcar." Growing up from infancy with his magazine, anyone would face influence by the most extraordinary spectrum of voices - what boy would not be Herbert Warren Wind, what girl not Janet Flanner (or vice-versa) - so they could well spill out in little sallies such as this, as infancy is renewed. Even one's mother recalled a girlhood devoted to Mollie "Pants-are-Down." There were such days in that ancien regime.

    But I must say, I'm especially grateful for your perceiving our heterodox little cast of illustrative stand-in's as creatures of Runyonesque cheek. They needed it, the page needed it, and its readers needed it, to let the silly lot of us be who we are. Mille grazie.

    Come again, and critique our slice.