I spent my first ten years in a suburban paradise called Mountain Lakes, NJ, a 45-minute train ride from Penn Station in Manhattan. The daddies went to work every day; the mommies stayed home and picked up their spouses at the station around six or seven at night, with us kids piled in the back seats, placid and sleepy if fed by that hour, squabbling if not. Occasionally the wrong husband, tipsy from the bar car, lurched into the wrong vehicle, but everyone was always neighborly about the mix-ups, and the dress code was decidedly casual: you often spied a not-quite-caffeinated mom in the morning in hair rollers and housecoat, kissing her mate good-bye.
It was—and is—a beautiful town of mature trees and stately stucco houses, most built in the 1920s and ‘30s and at that time dirt cheap (somehow I recall our second, seven-bedroom, three-story house on half an acre cost my parents $25,000….maybe that was a lot in those days, but I don’t remember anyone discussing real estate as obsessively as people do now).
There were, as advertised, three pristine lakes, each with a sand beach. And there were churches, top-tier public schools, and the Mountain Lakes Club for parties, bowling, tennis, and dinners in a restaurant where the tables were set with heavy silver and white tablecloths. Last time I drove through town, about ten years ago on a nostalgia trip, the place had gone more aggressively upscale with lakeside houses selling in the $1.5 to $2 million range.
My best friend, Dede Coogan, lived across the street on Pollard Road. Our parents were close but didn’t always consult as much as they should have. One Christmas I got a Tiny Tears doll with “real” hair, while Dede unwrapped the bald model, its locks indicated only by incised plastic. There was hell to pay in the Coogan household, but we remained friends and hung out regularly, especially in the summer months. Fascinated by breasts, Dede and I, when we were about eight or nine, sawed tennis balls in half and tucked them beneath our T-shirts. We smeared on some lipstick and wore big sunglasses, hoping to arouse some serious male interest as we sashayed around the club. It didn’t happen. Her older sister, Lisa, was way ahead of us, though, since rumors ran wild that she had been immortalized in the train-station men’s room with the encomium “Joy is Lisa Coogan.” We could not for the life of us figure out what was so special since Lisa was rather chunky and still wore braces. We shrugged, lifted our sunglasses, and pretended to suck on cigarettes. Totally above it all.
The Coogs, as my parents called them, threw hugely popular Saturday night cocktail parties. Everyone dressed up, everyone smoked, and Dave Coogan, who had a crooner’s ripe tenor, entertained at the piano with Cole Porter and Gershwin favorites. My mother often remarked that Mary Coogan had a “hollow” leg and could therefore “drink us all under the table.” On another occasion she noted that Mrs. Coogan had “piano legs.” I found it all fairly confusing—what kind of legs did she have, anyway? They looked fine to me, and I knew for sure she didn’t stuff tennis balls in her bra. It was my mother who wore the “falsies,” one of which, when I was around the age of five, I turned into a pincushion for Mother’s Day. At the end of these blow-outs, Mr. Coogan always offered guests a beer for the road, to “sober up.” It was a very different time, but it was goddamn fun. Even for the kids, especially for the kids.
Enthralled by the adults, eager to acquire more sophisticated ways, Dede and I decided to stage our own cocktail party in her third-floor bedroom, where we could listen to rock from a transistor radio tuned to 77 WABC. From her parents’ liquor chest, we filched a bottle of peach schnapps (scotch and gin smelled too gross). In her mother’s purse, we found half a pack of Parliaments. We made canapés from Marshmallow Fluff and Ritz crackers. We got enormously sick and made a real mess in the bathroom. A lock appeared soon after on the Coogans’ liquor cabinet.
Maybe that was the point at which we were enlisted in the kitchen to make real canapés on Saturday afternoons. I can recall lots of gooey dips made from “mayo,” cheese logs rolled in nuts, “crudities,” Chex mix, and other 1950s fare, but what stands out were the exotic morsels known as Devils on Horseback, bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with cheese. We surely knew nothing of “chèvre” in that era, so I’m guessing we might have opted for cream cheese, perhaps mixed with chopped nuts or chives, and piped through a pastry bag. I hope we didn’t use Velveeta, which had its own special gooey cheesy allure, and as I recall may have been a popular choice for the fondue parties that were coming into vogue.
I will spare you the magic formula for Fluff on Ritz crackers, but dates, bacon, and goat cheese still make sublime hors d’oeuvres. And if you use good judgment, avoiding the Schnapps and cigarettes, you will not be sent to your room and grounded for a week.
DEVILS ON HORSEBACK (see notes below)
20 large Medjool dates, pitted
10 slices bacon, halved crosswise
4 oz. log of chevre (see notes)
- Preheat oven to 375 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment or foil and, for easiest clean-up and uniformly crisp bacon, set wire racks on top.You can bake these without the racks, but they come out an oily mess and you will need to drain the devils on paper towels
- Halve the dates lengthwise with a knife, being careful not to cut all the way through, or use your finger to make a small pouch.
- Take a small chunk of chèvre (about ½ to 1 teaspoon) and push it into the date, but don’t overfill. Wrap each filled date in bacon and secure with a toothpick.
- Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until the bacon is fully crisped. Before plating, pat dates with a paper towel to remove excess grease.
Variations on a theme: There are any number of adaptations of this recipe: wrapping bacon around chicken livers, for example, or stuffing the dates with blue cheese, cheddar, or cream cheese. You can also add a sliver of almond or half a couple of shelled pistachios. And there are Angels on Horseback: bacon wrapped around scallops or oysters, but these, at the moment, are a bigger investment in appetizers than I’m willing to make.
Freezing ahead: Plop the dates, sans toothpicks, into a covered plastic container, or wrap in foil, and freeze until a few hours before baking. They also keep nicely in the fridge for a few days.
Staggeringly rich: “These are really good but heavy,” remarked my ex (more about him later), who consumed two, and then packed away a couple more. Two or three of these should have you searching the buffet table for the raw vegetables, but I found that four or five with a small green salad made a lovely supper for one (at probably around 1000 calories). When I remember the foods from my childhood, I’m kind of appalled at how liberally we indulged in fatty meats, cream, butter, cheese, but things will get lighter as we move along.
Video: The late Joan Rivers, looking like a drag queen, hams it up with ex-con Martha Stewart in a four-minute clip that takes you through all the steps for making Devils on Horseback.
Top: Pierre Bonnard, Intérieur Blanc (1932), oil on canvas, 43 by 61 inches