It was my Great Aunt Libby’s birthday, and she was protesting, rather disingenuously, about having a party. “I really didn’t want to celebrate my birthday this year," she said, "but the children and Roy insisted."
Roy was Roy Cohn, the Roy Cohn, her nephew by marriage.
Libby had stood by Roy through McCarthyism and his almost universal condemnation, ending with his disbarment shortly before he died (she was named as his only survivor in his New York Times obituary). She was loyal, and he returned the favor by treating her like a queen. Every July he hosted her birthday hoopla on his yacht, the Defiance.
(Great Aunt Libby and her nephew Roy Cohn)
This was 1973. “Someone blew up Roy’s yacht,” my mother announced. “We’re having the party here.” “Here” was our family’s Long Island beach house.
“Your mother entertains beautifully,” said my father in marital support.
My mother was relatively unfamiliar with the kitchen. Our family meals were mostly prepared by a wonderful woman named Monica, who mesmerized me with tales of riding pigs in her Swiss youth and always added croutons to the soup in my lunchbox. Mom made perfect scrambled eggs for us on Monica’s nights off. But she was a graceful hostess who didn’t sweat the place cards.
On the night of the birthday gala, delicious things arrived from fashionable local markets: a baked ham and cheeses with enticing French labels, baskets tied with gingham ribbons holding farm stand peaches and plums, and seven layers of chocolate seduction. But the pink and green platter at center of the buffet table remained empty, awaiting Gladys’s unbeatable barbecued chicken, along with Gladys, who would be arriving to help serve.
My father was zipping my mother into her Pucci lounging pajamas (Betty Draper style) when we heard a car door slam, followed by an onomatopoeic “splat.” Gladys was sprawled in the driveway, bourbon to blame. The platter of barbecued chicken oozed tar-studded gravel.
Her nephew, who was driving, rescued Gladys and whisked her home, just as more Pucci’d women began to arrive, escorted by men in navy blue blazers and lime green or blazing red trousers. On hearing about the driveway disaster, my mother's well-cultivated summer bronze paled. It was the height of "the season" in East Hampton, and the others who'd been engaged to help set up had to leave, with other parties to work. My mother whispered urgently to a few female relatives, and a rag-tag kitchen crew was assembled.
Whenever she hosted a party, my mother would shuttle me around to meet her guests. I was embarrassed by this ritual, of course realizing much later that she was showing me off because she was proud of me. But that night I was part of the crew. And somehow the evening was a success. Aunt Libby was unaware of the near-disaster, and my mother’s reputation as a consummate hostess was untarnished. When the last guest had left, she noticed that someone had spilled red wine on one of her antique lace tablecloths, and she told us the story of a great party-giver she knew spilling her own wine to minimize the humiliation of a guest who’d had the same accident. My mother narrated the anecdote cheerfully, but stopped short of spilling the wine herself.
I borrowed many a Pucci from my mother, and bought my first with money that I made teaching art at a summer camp. Puccis had humor. Puccis could flirt. If there is an afterlife, I picture my mother in a short Pucci and a pouty Elizabeth Arden red lipstick. (I loved smelling those lipsticks. Lipsticks simply don’t smell the way they used to.) Now I am Pucci-less, without a Monica or a Gladys, and I entertain on the casual side, but my mother’s graciousness is my inspiration. My soufflés do not always rise, but I don’t deflate with them.
Amy Phillips Penn is the author of Diosa: One Mare’s Odyssey on the Planet Earth and Elaine’s: The Rise of One of New York’s Most Legendary Restaurants from Those Who Were There.
Barbecued Chicken with Cousin Janet's Grilled Peaches
1 t. minced garlic
1 t. grated fresh ginger
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1 c. tomato paste
I c. rice wine vinegar
1 c. honey
1/2 c. soy sauce
2 T. hoisin sauce
grated orange peel to taste
grated lemon peel to taste
5 green onions, slivered (use three for the marinade, extras for the finished dish)
2 chickens, quartered
4 t. butter
4 heaping t. brown sugar
Combine all ingredients for barbecue sauce, and marinate chicken, refrigerated, for several hours.
Heat the coals in a charcoal grill.
Arrange chicken quarters and cook for approximately 40 minutes, brushing with the marinade generously and frequently.
Halve the peaches.
Add 1 t. butter and a generous spoon of brown sugar to each.
Grill in a pan over low heat.
Top chicken with green onions and sesame seeds, and serve with peaches.