ELAINE’S, STUFFED MUSHROOMS
& NORMAN MAILER
Elaine Kaufman, one of the great New York saloon keepers, died last week. No one, IMO, except Vincent Sardi and Toots Shor (whom I’ve blogged about before) could match her presence as she presided over her establishment appropriately named Elaine's.
I started going to Elaine’s when I was married to my first husband (hereinafter referred to as “the ex”)… He was a slick, Nicky Arnstein-type, rock/nightclub agent who loved to gamble and fly down to the Caribbean or Miami to work on his tan (tho he looked more like Omar Sharif, than Arnstein, thank god). He was a Bronx boy who grew up playing schoolyard basketball and dreaming of the high life in Manhattan. Elaine was a Bronx girl w/ a little Queens thrown in w/ her own dreams of life in Manhattan and, though her first loves were writers and journalists, she adored ‘the ex.’ In fact, she loved most men. Women? Not so much. But she liked me well enough, even though she never bothered to learn my name, because I came w/ ‘the ex.’
When ‘the ex’ officially became ‘the ex’ dinners at Elaine’s seemed to be over for me… I was a fledgling writer making ends meet working at ICM as an ‘agent-in-training’ - no Dorothy Parker by any means, though Elaine’s was my era’s Algonquin Round Table. But during my short marriage, I had made friends w/ a few ‘favored’ by Elaine so I got to go now and again… each time Elaine quietly tolerating me because of the guy I was with. I didn’t care. I was ‘famous adjacent’ sitting at a table near Woody & Mia or the always elegant George Plimpton or Jules Feiffer or Gay Talese or near the wall phone where I would overhear one of her ‘guys’ call his bookie to bet on the Knicks (pre-cell phones)… or see who would come out of the bathrooms next w/ white powder on their noses.
But it wasn’t until I became a BFF of Erica - another junior ICM agent who also was a ‘regular’ at Elaine’s because of her husband – that I became a ‘regular’ again (sort of). When Erica joined me in ‘singlehood’ – Elaine took her under her wing and she became the first female I ever saw Elaine dote on, always giving Erica one of the ‘good’ tables along the right hand wall as you entered the restaurant.
We were barely out of our teens and unaccomplished at the time, but that didn’t seem to matter to Elaine (at least as far as Erica was concerned).
So there I was, once again, eating at Elaine’s a couple of nights a week at Erica’s table (or w/ one of Elaine’s other ‘favored’ friends). Sometimes it was just the two of us – other times we had dates or she would entertain a few writer clients (she’d finally been promoted to full literary agent after getting Robin Cook his first book deal). Often we stayed long after closing, playing backgammon and lighting up the cookie wrappers from macaroons (I think they were macaroons) then watching them shoot up in the air and burn out. I never knew when these cookies arrived at our table – but they were always there at the end of the meal.
One night I spotted Norman Mailer w/ a couple of people at a table along that right hand wall just before the doorway into the “Siberia” room (reserved for those in disfavor or people Elaine didn’t know or want to know). On the wall above Mailer was a lighted sconce which, for some reason, bothered Norman to no end. He stood up and turned it off. Within a nano second, Elaine materialized at his table and turned the sconce back on. After a few friendly words Elaine returned to her post at the end of the bar and Norman again turned off the sconce. Elaine scurried back and turned it on – Norman turned it off – Elaine turned it on… It was her restaurant, after all. Friendly words turned to angry words, angry words turned to yelling and the yelling turned to fisticuffs (well, a little skirmish anyway) – the clash of the titans! I was transfixed. The next thing I knew, Elaine was shoving Mailer out of the restaurant. And this was a guy who once took up boxing.
I miss those days in New York – the energy, the political discussions, the celebrations when a writer had a book published or a play opening or a breaking story… but what I miss most were her fantastic stuffed mushrooms overflowing w/ so much melted cheese you could hardly find the mushroom.
Many obituaries have told stories about Elaine often feeding ‘her’ writers who were down on their luck – even running a tab for them for years – at the same time dismissing her food. I had to laugh at the remarks I recently read online that bitched about this entrée or that appetizer - wanting to know why Elaine’s was so feted when the food was so bad. Frankly, they just don’t get it… Elaine’s was never about the food. It was a sense of place! A clubhouse! Sardi’s was never about the food, either. Neither was the Algonquin or Toots Shor’s… they were watering holes for friends, not a place for foodies. But, like Toots and Sardi’s, Elaine’s best entrees were simple steaks and chops --‘saloon’ food -- and not the Italian food featured on the menu. So being a meat eater, that was fine dining for me… and, IMO, she had the best veal chop in town. But nothing back in the day could top her stuffed mushrooms.
I was addicted to them. Another ‘favored’ friend of Elaine’s was fashion photographer turned film director, Jerry Schatzberg. We, too, were friends (though I did have a mad crush on him) and we often dined at Elaine’s. One night at dinner, I astounded him when I ordered those “dripping w/ melted gruyere mushrooms” for an appetizer, a main course and, again for dessert. What can I say, I love cheese that bubbles and stretches like a rubber band when you fork it into your mouth.
To abate this yearning during the many years we’ve lived in LA, Richard found a recipe for stuffed mushrooms that almost takes the place of the ones I still dream about from Elaine’s. In her memory he made them the other night as an appetizer for a small dinner party we hosted.
So, if you’re into mushrooms and melted cheese and aren’t able to go to Elaine’s – bite into these.
Mushrooms Stuffed w/
Walnuts & Cheese
(from the Silver Palate cookbook)
12 medium-size mushroom caps
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon sweet butter
½ cup finely chopped onion
1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
5 ounces frozen chopped spinach, thoroughly defrosted & squeezed dry
1 ounce feta cheese, crumbled
1 ounce Gruyere cheese, crumbled
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Remove stems from mushrooms and save for another use. Wipe the mushroom caps w/ a damp cloth or paper towel and set aside.
Heat olive oil and butter together in a small skillet. Add the onion and cook over medium heat, covered, until tender and lightly colored, about 25 minutes.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Add walnuts and garlic to onion and cook for another minute.
Add spinach and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
Remove from heat and cool slightly. Stir in cheeses, dill, and salt and pepper to taste.
Arrange the mushrooms, cavity side up, in a baking dish.
Divide the spinach and walnut mixture evenly among the mushroom caps.
Set baking dish in the upper third of the oven. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until filling is browned and the mushrooms are thoroughly heated through. Serve immediately.
12 mushrooms, 3 or 4 portions