Friday, November 30, 2012

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: A Festive Prairie Dinner

    It is a culinary occasion like no other in the northern plains metropolis
of Minneapolis. It happens each year as the city’s winter season begins to
turn bitter and cold. For this occasion, on a December Saturday evening as
close to November 30th (the actual date of the commemoration ) as
opportune, nine gentlemen and a chef/sommelier convene for an annual
dinner to commemorate the birthday of Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill,
former British prime minister, by birth an Anglo-American, and one of the
giant figures of the 20th century.

This year will mark the 37th occasion of this dinner (and the 138th
birthday of Mr.. Churchill) in the city’s tony Lake of the Isles neighborhood
at “Hughenden House,” the home of a prominent Minneapolis attorney who
created the event in 1974. (One year the dinner was not held, and another
year, house repairs moved the meal to a downtown restaurant.)

It is a formal black tie occasion, although a few attendees wear dark suits.
One Scottish-American attendee often wears a formal kilt.

Mr. Churchill had been a child of the Edwardian Age of England (his mother
was one of that era’s grand ladies and had even been the mistress of the king,
for whom the age was named, when he was Prince of Wales). Churchill was
known for drinking a bottle or two of French champagne every day, smoking
the finest cigars, and enjoying, in his youth and in old age, the trademark
Edwardian meals of multiple courses of the finest Continental and British

The Minneapolis meal begins at five p.m. with hors d’oeuvres and very dry
sherry in the host’s library, a richly wood-paneled room with leather chairs,
a working fireplace, and two floors of books in custom-made shelves that
form a spectacular adjoining library (with, of course, its own custom-made
ladder). The hors d’oeuvres are the same every year, as are the guests, and
include Gouda cheese, the host’s Iowa family recipe for zweiback, fried
oysters, a beurre blue cheese spread, and shrimps “Julius”, an addictive and
popular dish made and brought every year by the eldest attendee.

After two hours of convivial conversation, the host calls the group to
attention and introduces a recording of a speech made by Prime Minister
 Churchill during World War II. (If the record player does not work, as
occasionally happens, the host reads the speech himself.)

In addition to catching up with their dinner brethren, many of whom have
not seen each other since the previous Churchill dinner, individuals
frequently walk into the host’s lavish and new kitchen where a talented chef,
is busy finishing the complex series of dishes soon to be served. The chef is
also a professional sommelier, and in his day job, a notable figure in the
Twin City oenophile community. He participates in many of the dinner
rituals as the tenth member of this exclusive group. He remains in the
kitchen during most of the meal, but is occasionally called into the dining
room, after a particularly popular and successful course, for applause.

Following the Churchill recording, and some informal discussion of it, all
present move to the formal dining room where a long table has been set
quite dramatically with fine china, an array of sterling silver knives, forks
and spoons, linen napkins, and numerous crystal wine glasses of various
shapes placed around each setting in an formal and imposing fashion.
Silver candlesticks and a large and colorful bouquet of fresh flowers form
the table’s centerpiece.

Bottles of chilled San Pellegrino, Gerolsteiner and Poland Springs water
are poured in crystal glasses.

The meal soon resumes in earnest. The first course is traditionally cream
of peanut soup Williamsburg (using a colonial recipe from 1746), but
recently it was lobster bisque. The chef prepared this dish from scratch
with five live 1 1/2 pound lobsters. Each soup bowl was laced with the
meat of one-half a de-shelled lobster. Accompanying the bisque was a
Seguin-Manuel “Vire Clesse” 2006 white Burgundy.

At this point, the host stands, and asking the others to rise with him,
toasts the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom and its
Commonwealth, followed by a toast to the current president of the
United States.

The next course is a specialty dish with fish or fowl, such as a pate or
galantine, but recently it was a pan-roasted breast of pheasant au jus,
accompanied by braised Savoy cabbage and roasted  fresh beets. A
complementary Rioja Alta “Vina Ardanza” 2000 was served with the
pheasant. On other occasions, this course is a rich pasta dish, made also
from scratch, served with a superb dry Italian wine. For 2012, it might be
halibut with a complex white Burgundy.

The main course follows, and it is the centerpiece of the meal. Game foods
and traditional English red meats loved by Churchill are usually chosen,
and include beef, lamb, veal, guinea hen, duckling, partridge, goose, elk or
wild boar. The finest red wines are served with the entree. Over one period
of several years, a case of Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1971, from the host’s
wine cellar, was poured and accompanied various entrees, until the case was
empty. At another dinner, the attendee from Singapore brought a bottle of
the legendary Australian red, Penfolds “Grange” to everyone’s delight. On
still another occasion, an overaged but prestigious California cabernet was
opened, tasted and found to be superb. Only minutes later, however, as the
main course was served, and the wine had “breathed” a bit, it was “gone”
and lifeless. The host hurriedly made a visit to his wine cellar to come up
with a suitable last-minute replacement.

Interesting vegetables such as turnips, Brussels sprouts, white asparagus,
parsnips, Italian squash, and golden beets, deliciously prepared and often
from the host’s garden, are served with the entree.

Following the entree, attendees each sign a copy of the printed menu for the
host’s archives, and fill out sheets which list a series of questions asking for
predictions for the coming year in politics, the stock market, sports, and
world affairs. At the same time, the predictions from the previous year are
passed around, with those who came closest to getting it right receiving the
plaudits of those who did not.

A salad course, made with organic lettuces, and with the chef’s own
dressing follows, and then small dishes filled  with fresh fruit sorbet
(usually from the legendary Minneapolis Cafe Crema where Sonny’s ice
creams and sorbets are made) are served as a palate refresher.

The most controversial course  of the evening then is presented, a  preserved
citron, a traditional English dish. Some of the Churchill attendees, however,
find this dish unpleasant, and for them the host offers assorted sweetmeats and
candied ginger as an alternative course. (This is the only part of the dinner
which resembles a culinary civil war, with the two sides good-naturedly
labeled “citronistas” and “anti-citronistas.”)

One attendee is an amateur baker, and each year he bakes and brings several
“Arcata Churchill birthday loaves.” (One of these loaves has also been sliced
and served with the hors d’oeuvres earlier.)

A cheese course follows, and a strong English Colton & Bassett stilton is
served with a vintage port.

Espresso is then brewed and served from the host’s professional quality

Following this part of the dinner, and after group photographs are taken, each
of the diners makes his way to the host’s parlor, a large rectangular room with
a grand piano at one end. Above the fireplace on its mantel are arranged three
more sets of crystal glasses. One set is for the vintage French champagne that
is served with a blackberry cheesecake (baked and brought each year by one
of the attendees, a retired banker). On an oval table in the center of the room,
placed on a silver platter, is an assortment of locally-made B.T. McElrath’s
artisan chocolates (reputed to be the best of their kind, having won numerous
gold medals in New York). Next to them, on another platter, is a humidor with
ten  imported cigars. I am not at liberty to disclose the  country of origin of
these cigars, but they are always of the finest quality available as befits a
dinner in honor of Mr. Churchill, and come from nations known globally for
this product. The newest regular attendee, a former U.S. congressman, brings
the cigars, obtained during his international travels.

One year, when a prominent judge was a special guest at the dinner, he said,
on learning the origin of these cigars, “as the senior officer of the court
present, I order that this contraband be destroyed by fire!”  This faux (but
spoken with a straight face) “court” order was carried out, I can report, with
alacrity by those present later in the evening.

After dessert and champagne, VSOP cognac and armagnac are poured, and
the chocolates are passed around.

Also usually distributed at this time is an essay written  by one of the (more
provocative) guests that leads to a timely public policy discussion. As the
host reminds his guests each year, “This is an occasion when talking about
politics and religion is appropriate and encouraged.” It is a genuinely
“diverse” group containing liberals, conservatives, centrists, and a radical
or two, and the ensuing conversation, despite the late hour and sheer
quantity of spirits already consumed, is invariably quite lively, albeit
gentlemanly, and the contrasting points of view of the “brethren” are
openly revealed and robustly explored.

A special dessert wine, such as an eiswein, rare madeira or vintage
sauterne is then poured into the sole remaining empty glasses, and the
chocolates are passed around one more time.  A few years ago, an attendee
brought a bottle of a very extraordinary 1927 vintage oloroso sherry.

By two a.m., those who have the farthest to travel home, begin to take their
leave. All pass through the kitchen one more time for sumptuous leftovers
and parting thanks to the chef, and by two-thirty, Hughenden House, except
for the crackling of a few embers in the fireplace in the library, is as silent as
the winter night outside and as, thousands of miles away, the final resting
place of Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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