Top Chef in the Land of Gin and Triscuits

Memorial Day weekend on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts. High Wasp country. The Land of Gin and Triscuits.

This particular island, which is roughly 7.5 square miles, has belonged to the same Boston Brahmin clan for nine generations. A governor of Massachusetts died in the bedroom where Sam and I slept, and signing the guest book alongside just about every American luminary of the past 150 years is intimidating, to say the least.

I have nothing against Wasps, but they’re not exactly known for their culinary skill or ingenuity. Our hostess, a dear friend, is unfortunately stereotypical in this regard. A wonderful mother, a brilliant wit, an accomplished equestrienne, a crack shot and a deft hand with many a farm implement, she’s admittedly a lousy cook.

We arrived Saturday. That afternoon, Sam and I went for a hike with our hostess’ sister and her friend, incidentally picking up every tick on the Eastern Seaboard along the way. (A family member once joked that checking each other for ticks is what passes for foreplay on the island.) On our way home, we ran into our hostess and her sister-in-law, heading for the beach.

“Are you guys cooking tonight?” she asked sweetly.

“Sure,” we answered. “What are we making?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, what’s in the refrigerator?”

“I’m not really sure.”

It was then that I realized one of the major drawbacks of private islands: There are no supermarkets.

“Given the kids, we should probably eat at 6:30,” she added lightly.

“OK.” Except that it was already 5 o’clock and we were at least a mile from home.

I looked around expecting to see Padma Lakshmi.

Sam and I like to experiment in the kitchen, which in this case is a long white soap-stone affair, with two refrigerators, an industrial stove, and a cedar-lined pantry that closes like a meat locker and contains the world’s most random assortment of canned and dry goods (some quite possibly dating to the family’s days in the China Trade).

Upon inspection, the refrigerators were surprisingly well provisioned with assorted sausages (the sweetest of which we put aside for breakfast), chicken breasts, some ground buffalo meat, green beans and fresh tarragon (from the island’s farm), a few heads of cauliflower and some Activia yogurt (which I was sorely tempted to do something devilish with). We marinated the chicken in Ginger Dressing and Wasabi Teriyaki Sauce. Sam blanched the green beans and tossed them with sliced red onion, seasoned rice vinegar and a dash of cider vinegar. Then he chopped up the cauliflower, brushed it with olive oil and roasted it until it started to turn brown, topping it with capers, fresh tarragon and minced garlic. Meanwhile, I manned the grill. I won’t pretend we ate at 6:30 (or even close to it) but everyone (including the children) seemed to enjoy it, and judging by the state of the dining room the next morning, our dinner was a success.

Roasted Cauliflower

Green Bean Salad

Mixed Grill

The next night, knowing what there was to work with and fearing that our hostess might perpetrate some gastronomic atrocity, Sam and I offered to cook again. This time, we zigged Mexican. We made mango cheddar quesadillas (they’re better with brie, but necessity is the mother of invention), guacamole with chunks of onion and tomato, and a chipotle ground beef with mixed vegetables (and a healthy dose of ketchup). Not our finest hour, perhaps, but I still feel confident that Anthony Bourdain would have found something positive to say about it.

So we acquitted ourselves nicely (and I must say the heterosexuals did a respectable job of faggotizing the table.) Ironically, however, the weekend’s finest cooking lesson came from the least likely source.

On Monday morning, our hostess asked Sam if he wanted a “Flying Pancake.”

“What’s that?”

Everyone gathered at the far end of the kitchen, plates in hand. As the pancakes were ready to come off the griddle, she lobbed them the length of the room and everyone tried to catch them. (Of course, the ten-second rule was observed.)

I’m willing to guess even Gordon Ramsay would have been impressed.

The Morning After

...and did I mention it was a Masquerade Dinner?




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