field notes

In Defense of Wasp Cooking

The Platt family on board the SS United States in the sixties. Photo: Courtesy of the author

As a card-carrying member of that ancient, put-upon, now mostly vanished community of northeastern Puritans, Yankees, and assorted poseurs and cranks known as the White Anglo Saxon Protestant establishment, I’ve endured my share of grim family meals over the years. I’ve washed down stale Triscuits and slivers of dry cheese with stiff, cheap-gin drinks poured to the brim during that sacred ritual known as the “cocktail hour.” I’ve dined on frozen fish sticks and overcooked eggs for breakfast, guzzled countless bottles of bargain-bin $7 table wine, and muttered polite compliments at stiffly formal Sunday dinners as overcooked slabs of that traditional tribal delicacy, rib roast, were served around the long, Downton Abbey style table, accompanied by boats of watery gravy and sad little stacks of recently unfrozen “garden” peas.

Like lots of multigenerational immigrant American families, however, the old Wasps had mostly lost touch with their culinary roots by the time I came along, and in fairness, while they were passing off these horrors as “good old-fashioned home cooking,” lots of people around the country were doing the same thing. The decline of the Wasps, which began after the Second World War and has been accelerating ever since, happened to coincide with that dark age when TV dinners, casseroles, and what one of my grandfathers used to merrily call “mystery meats” by Hormel and Oscar Mayer were at the height of fashion. We weren’t the only ones extolling the reliably thrifty joys of the Howard Johnson’s clam roll, and it didn’t hurt that the cheapness and ubiquity of these new miracle products coincided with the fact that old country farms and estates throughout Wasplandia were disappearing, along with legions of beloved household cooks, which dignified members of the country’s suddenly vanished “aristocracy” could no longer afford.

Back in the day, however, Wasps feasted on a brand of sturdy, regional cooking which would have caused discerning farm-to-table chefs of today to nod their heads in approval. Julia Child was a Wasp, after all, and so was Fannie Merritt Farmer, whose groundbreaking recipe-based theories were famous in her home town of Boston long before her books became popular around the country. The old beefsteak house (which bred the modern steakhouse) is a Wasp invention by way of jolly old England, along with most chowders you’d care to mention (with a little help from our French Canadian cousins to the north) and any kind of apple (or blueberry, or cherry) pie. My ancestors, who migrated to New York City from the wilds of Massachusetts and Connecticut during the 1800s, took fresh vegetables for granted and used to dine like kings on rib roasts, country hams cured in the local smokehouse, and seasonal delicacies like rashers of roast shad when the fish ran in great schools up the Hudson river in springtime.

Cousin Frank, the family gastronome, uncorks a giant bottle of wine during a family goat roast in Cornish, New Hampshire. Photo: Thomas Palmer

Long ago, I ghostwrote the memoirs of Joseph Alsop, an influential Washington columnist during his day, who liked to relax over a gin-and-tonic (or three) in the evenings, and reminisce about the vanished dishes of the old Wasp canon like that old English specialty deviled bones, which I remember ordering at Sardi’s years ago, and bowls of turtle soup, which he used to obtain from one of the old dining clubs in Baltimore and have transported by car in large plastic tubes down to Washington DC where he lived. He’d grown up on his family farm in Connecticut, and on Sunday afternoons after church, the Alsops, dressed in their tuxedos and best Sunday dresses, used to enjoy platters of roast country chickens with all the trimmings, vegetables from their garden poured over with cream sauce and fresh melted butter, and old British delicacies like mashed anchovies smeared on buttered toast, and logs of beef Wellington baked in crusts of fresh rolled pastry.

To the surprise of the dwindling number of Wasps who pay attention to this kind of thing (namely me), this ancient brand of cooking seems to be making a comeback in a few trendy big-city restaurants around town. At Thomas Keller’s ode to mid-century Country Club dining, the TAK Room, you can enjoy a decent facsimile of French onion dip with house-made potato chips, and a very presentable example of beef Wellington, provided you have a spare $138 in your pocket. There are delicate bowls of vichyssoise on the retro menu at the Grill, off Park Avenue, selections of “continental ham” and a guinea hen recipe named after the last of the great Wasp tastemakers, Craig Claiborne. There’s even a deviled bone which is perambulated to the table in a glimmering silver carving trolly which dates from the gilded glory days of the Wasp ascendency before the depression blew their collective trust funds all to hell. It’s not quite my great great grandmother’s home cooking, but in a pinch it will do.

In Defense of Wasp Cooking