Aside from the Dickermans, my parents’ other posh friends were the Troys, Barbara and Horace, who also lived in one of the grand three-story houses, theirs right across from the biggest body of water in town, rather unoriginally known as Mountain Lake (where were the mountains? I ask myself…I certainly don’t remember a mountain anywhere near that community). My mother was especially impressed by the Troys’ lineage, as they were descended from Hamilton Fish, a prominent 19th-century politician who hailed from a notable Dutch-American family straight out of Edith Wharton’s old New York (there was even a portrait of him, in a gilded frame, in the stairwell, and Mrs. Troy claimed her birth certificate read “Baby Fish,” because her parents had not yet decided on a name). Horace, in his younger days at Princeton, was reputed to be a notorious “deb chaser,” and Barbara, known as Bobby to her friends, still kept up a listing in the society register known as the Blue Book. The oldest child, Bonny, had married into minor British aristocracy and moved to the Isle of Mann, where the couple raised thoroughbred horses.
All of this impressed the hell out of my mom, the daughter of an automobile mechanic from Minnesota who was the tenth and last child of immigrant Swedes, born in a sod house where a cow grazed on the roof.
“And whenever Bobby needs money, she just sells one of her mother’s diamonds,” whispered my mom to me one day, her plucked eyebrows shooting skyward. “Imagine.”
But the two sons were much more interesting to me. Peter, then in his early teens, went to boarding school and had a rakish blond charm that reminded me of Kookie from the hugely popular TV show 77 Sunset Strip. Christopher was the sensitive younger son, dark and brooding, but it would be a few years before the whole poète maudit thing held any allure, at least not until I was out of college and still a bit infatuated with The Doors. We had a brief fling that ended disastrously.
Bobby Troy was indisputably the most elegant of my mother’s friends. When she took Christopher (never Chris, always Christopher) and me to New York to visit a museum, she wore a trim suit, white gloves, and a pillbox hat and veil. Her dark hair was impressively curled; her leather pumps and handbag always matched. At the Met, she bought me a Japanese lacquered bowl that was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever owned. I stammered my happy “Thanks!” only to have her admonish me: “What you want to say, dear, is ‘Thank you, Mrs. Troy.’”
Dinners at the Troys, to which my brother and I were sometimes invited, were always much more formal affairs than at other houses (we had to sit at the kiddy table, even as Bill nudged toward gangly adolescence). There was an immense amount of silver at the adult table, candelabra, gleaming serving vessels, damask tablecloths, and sometimes a Black maid, hired for the evening, to offer a platter of potatoes and roast beef and later serve dessert. I remember all that elaborately presented food, as in so many houses at the time, being overcooked and dry, if animal, and mushy and bland, if vegetable.
Even the Troys seemed to recognize the culinary shortcomings from their own kitchen. On one occasion, Horace memorably barked to his spouse at the far end of the table: “Bar-bu-ruh! The lamb is not saignant!”
This would later become a rallying cry in my parents’ kitchen, when, over our dinners around the kitchen table, my dad would bellow: “Mah-ree! The meatloaf is not saignant!”
But the Troys did have one killer appetizer, Oysters Rockefeller, created by a chef at Antoine’s in New Orleans and originally named after John D. Rockefeller. Maybe the Rockefellers knew the Fishes and the Fishes handed down the recipe to the Troys, a sacred trust and a reminder of how true American aristocracy dined before the suburbs reduced us to Betty Crocker and Chef Boy-ar-Dee. As I recall, we each got a couple at the kiddy table and I found them completely abhorrent, lumpy little dollops of slimy flesh, swaddled in spinach and shallots, which scarcely improved their flavor. I would spit them discreetly into a damask napkin and hope the dirty linen would never be associated with me. It was only when I was older that I came to appreciate them for their piquant sensuality. I’ve eaten them several times in restaurants and here offer a reasonably simple recipe adapted from delish.com.
2 cloves garlic
1 c. tightly packed fresh spinach
1/2 c. roughly chopped green onions
1/2 c. roughly chopped parsley, leaves and stems
2 tsp. lemon juice
1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, softened
2 tbsp. Pernod or other anise-flavored liqueur
3/4 c. panko bread crumbs
1/4 c. freshly grated Parmesan
tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb. coarse salt, for baking
24 fresh oysters, shucked, shells reserved
Lemon wedges, for serving
- Position rack in top third of oven and preheat to 450°. Add garlic, spinach, green onions, parsley, lemon juice, butter, and Pernod to a food processor and pulse until finely chopped.
- In a medium bowl combine, panko, Parmesan, and oil.
- Sprinkle coarse salt over large baking sheet to depth of 1/2″. Arrange oysters in half shells in salt. Divide spinach mixture among oysters and sprinkle with Parmesan mixture.
- Bake until spinach mixture is bubbling and panko is deeply golden, about 8 minutes.
- Serve with lemon wedges alongside.
Top: Pierre Bonnard, Tea Time