Write, Talk, Eat

by Peter Gethers Photographed by Eric Striffler
Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The South Fork of Long Island—and Sag Harbor, the least Hamptonsy part of that ritzy region, in particular—has long been a cultural and culinary crossroads where literary figures, denizens of Hollywood and serious foodies merged. Novelists and nonfiction book writers, publishers and editors, screenwriters, directors and producers have all mingled freely while indulging in highbrow conversation, Blue Point oysters and local corn.

Going back forty, fifty, sixty years, James Jones, Truman Capote, Kurt Vonnegut and George Plimpton could be seen eating grilled cheese sandwiches and poring over their newspapers at the Candy Kitchen, Bridgehampton’s diner hangout. Peter Matthiessen, James Salter and E.L. Doctorow could be found sipping martinis and eating pepper steak at the American Hotel, Sag Harbor’s glorious inn, restaurant and watering hole. 

Today, writers pile Époisses cheese into their shopping carts at Citarella and buy freshly caught sea bass at Wainscott’s Seafood Shop. Or else they’re eating bone marrow prepared at home by Jeannette Seaver, a literary legend in her own right and the widow of Dick Seaver, the discoverer of Samuel Beckett and the editor of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. One can find the likes of Steven Spielberg and Terry George, Bob Loomis (once William Styron’s editor), Jason Epstein (who invented the trade paperback) and Pulitzer winner Robert Caro. Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio had a run with a Bridgehampton restaurant, Topping Rose, and now Jean-Georges Vongerichten is giving it a go. The South Fork remains a lively haven for writers, talkers, eaters and drinkers.

I have had a lovely, small Victorian house in Sag Harbor for more than 25 years. I’m one of those writers, talkers, eaters and drinkers. I also like to cook. Even more than cooking, I like to mix and match friends around a table piled high with good food and see what happens.

In the early spring, on a typical Sag Harbor weekend, I cooked a Saturday brunch. It was still chilly enough to light a fire in my woodstove. A hearty meal helped to warm the bones.

The guests list was a typical Hamptons mix: William Goldman and longtime love Susan Burden, Michael Shnayerson and Gayfryd Steinberg, Stephen Rubin, and my own partner of many years and the co-owner of the Sag Harbor house, Janis Donnaud. Goldman is, of course, the influential screenwriter, novelist extraordinaire, and nonfiction author, as well as the source of one of the most quoted of all time lines on Hollywood, as put down in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade: “Nobody knows anything.” Burden is not technically a member of the literati/film crowd, but she certainly qualifies by being one of the best-read people in existence, a longtime supporter of the arts and the hostess of the coolest private mini–film festival in the Hamptons, which, twice a year, sees this day’s group and others bingeing on the Greatest Noir Films ever made, Working Class British Films, Prisoner of War movies, Cool French movies, and Wonderful, Obscure Movies Almost No One Has Ever Seen while being fed superb lunches and dinners in between viewings, lectures and discussions.

Steinberg is a renowned supporter of the New York Public Library, one of its Literary Lions, and an active backer of the Authors Guild. She is married to Shnayerson, who in addition to his literary heritage—he is the son of an editor and a journalist—has written excellent and important nonfiction books and has been one of Vanity Fair’s top contributors for many years. Rubin, a onetime journalist, has a lengthy history running several top publishing companies here and in London, and is now the president and publisher of Holt, as well as a major opera buff, oenophile and all-around erudite bon vivant. And Donnaud has her own eponymously named literary agency. She has done just about everything there is to do on the book publishing side of things and is now an agent for what she calls “experts”—people at the top of their professions who write about their fields of expertise. She is probably the top agent in America for chefs and food writers.

I am cooking brunch from a couple of Janis’ clients’ books. The peach coffee cake is from Sherry Yard’s Desserts by the Yard and the blueberry lime muffins are from Asha Gomez’s My Two Souths, my new favorite cookbook, whose recipes combine ingredients and tastes from southern India with good ol’ southern U.S. dishes.

While I slave away in the kitchen, pausing only to sip a glass of blood orange juice, I hear the guests chattering away. When I first moved to New York, this is what I imagined every day would be like: listening to really smart people saying really interesting things. In those daydreams, I was always at the periphery of these groupings. I never imagined that one day I’d be at the center, hosting the people I looked up to.

So what is the topic of the morning as bloody Marys and fruit juices are consumed? Michael’s new book about the contemporary art world: “Just sold it to Public Affairs.”

“What’s the focus?”

“There are several. Right now I’m researching the rise of the art dealers and how they drive the market.”

“The art market is so insane. Do you know that if you’d invested in art and wine over the past decade, you’d be more than ten times ahead of the stock market?”

I pop my head in to say that when I was working with the brilliant writer and art critic Robert Hughes, he planned a short book about how the Mona Lisa became the most valuable painting in the world. Sadly, Bob died before he could write it. It would have been a fascinating and prescient work premised on the notion that perception trumps reality.

Susan and Bill are talking about the upcoming Broadway musical of The Princess Bride. It is a year away, at least, but I’m already trying to finagle opening-night tickets.

“We went to a table reading.”

“That must have been thrilling.”

Susan looks thrilled just thinking about it. Bill, having written for screen and stage for more than fifty years, no longer thrills at this stage of the game. His cynical eyebrow raise means: “I’ll save my dancing for joy for opening night.”

I nod, trying to be as cynical as Bill, but all I keep thinking is: “Oh my god, oh my God, a musical of Princess Bride! Coolest thing ever!”

Steve and Gayfryd and Michael are talking about opera. Michael is taking a relative next week and is asking questions like the journalist he is. I hear the words “Wagner” and “twelve and a half hours” and “magnificent” from Steve, and I get woozy.

That gives me a few free moments to focus on my frittatas while Janis and Steve discuss cookbooks. There’s talk of TV shows and movies and authors for book club readings. People wander into the kitchen, and we discuss my pans, which get appropriately envious reactions. I can always bring a conversation around to my simple needs and likes.

Then it’s time to gather around the table. One frittata has pancetta and prosciutto, along with potatoes and shallots. The other is vegetarian: green and yellow zucchini, shallots, mushrooms and potatoes. The best guacamole recipe ever comes from a Robb Walsh book, The Tex-Mex Grill. It’s a perfect complement to the egg dishes and people gobble it up. Janis was responsible for the guac because I started to panic while chopping vegetables and baking too close to guest arrival time.

As always, people like the real food, but the orgasmic responses come when they relish the muffins and coffee cake.

The conversation continues in between chews. Susan, to my egotistical delight, spends time talking about my new book about cooking for and with my mother. Eventually, inevitably, we get to Trump. The politics of the table range from extreme left to moderate right. But everyone is in basic agreement that we are living through scary times. Janis uses the word “demoralizing.” Bill asks, “Are we all terrified?” And the unanimous answer is “Yes!”

I change the subject and scare Gayfryd even more by telling her about my annual Vegas trips—I am about to embark on another one a few days after our brunch. I have been going with the same group of guys to Las Vegas on Final Four weekend for 33 years. Bill and Susan know all about this and egg me on. Talking about our yearly themes and costumes and idiotic behavior— I once went out to dinner nearly naked except for cake icing, decorated as the old Desert Inn hotel—I sense that Gayfryd will never look at me in quite the same way. I tell a story about once having dinner with Gloria Steinem after a return from a Vegas trip. She, too, had just returned from Vegas. I asked what she had been doing there and she said, “Organizing the prostitutes into a union.” Unfortunately, she asked what I had been doing and I said, “Gambling and seeing the classic show Nudes on Ice.” At that point, I sense that Gayfryd isn’t the only one who won’t look at me the same way. Luckily, there is still time to raise the level of conversation, and people are still raving about the blueberry lime muffins, so I count myself lucky, if not forgiven.

After some strong coffee, everybody takes off. And I look at Janis, sigh, and say, “I wonder if Irwin Shaw had to do the dishes?”

Peter Gethers’ released his new book, My Mother’s Kitchen: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and the Meaning of Life, in April.


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