In March, New York City Ballet soloist Antonio Carmena and I kicked off a series of dinners based on Tanaquil Le Clercq’s Ballet Cook Book with a menu of Russian recipes by George Balanchine, whose ballets marked the beginning of my love affair with dance. For the second dinner, held the evening of April 21 at the Brooklyn home of Susan LaRosa, we decided to start at the beginning of the alphabetically arranged book by preparing the favorite dishes of legendary ballerina Diana Adams.
Adams is best known as one of Balanchine’s great muses: She originated roles in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1962) and Episodes (1959), and most famously danced the female lead in the premiere of Agon (1957). But Adams had a wealth of experience before joining the ranks of New York City Ballet in 1940, including jobs in musical theater (she was in the original cast of Oklahoma!) and six years dancing with American Ballet Theatre. One of the best vignettes in the cookbook chapter humorously recounts her first encounter with Balanchine, while auditioning for Dream with Music on Broadway, several years before joining City Ballet:
“There was this man who wanted to become my agent. He sent me to audition for a part in the show but before I went he told me, ‘Listen, kid, don’t accept anything less than the second lead.’ After the audition was over, Mr. Balanchine came up to me and said, ‘I’ll take you.’ And although I didn’t care what part I danced, I dutifully went into my little speech about not accepting anything less than the second lead. Mr. Balanchine looked at me straight in the eye and said, ‘In this show there is only one dancing lead.’”
“And that disposed of Diana,” adds Le Clercq.
The recipes Adams chose to share — obviously rooted in her Tennessee upbringing — aren’t what you would expect from a ballerina. Most are high in calories and heavy in sugar, and remarkably few of the entries feature fruits or vegetables. Those of us at the table found it difficult to believe that the svelte Adams ate these dishes often. Her dishes all also looked very similar: Only after serving the meal — which consisted of hush puppies, shrimp bisque, chicken in buttermilk spoonbread, yam pudding, and pecan pie — did we notice that all of the food’s coloring fell somewhere between yellow and brown.
The day began early, with best friend Jeff Gageby and I arriving at Susan’s home shortly after 4 p.m. Antonio was already there. Being mostly inept in culinary matters, Jeff and I focused on preparation — peeling shrimp, grating yams, juicing lemons to make minted vodka lemonade — while Antonio and Susan managed the skilled work. By starting earlier than we had for the last dinner, we assumed the meal would be served on time at 8 p.m., but it was well after 9 when we finally sat to dine. At this dinner, we were joined by Catherine Cremona and Art Priromprintr (both balletomanes I had met through Twitter), as well as my good friend Nithan Narendra, who has seen relatively little ballet but has excellent taste.
We began the meal with Diana’s shrimp bisque, which in addition to several pounds of shrimp called for salt pork, white potatoes, white wine, cream, butter, and sherry. Despite the rich ingredients, the bisque was much lighter than expected. Its helpings were generous and the flavors were excellent, but take our advice: Add a few liberal dashes of salt before diving in. (Click here to download the recipe for shrimp bisque.)
The entrée, “chicken in buttermilk spoonbread,” was a twist on fried chicken, a Southern staple, but unusually, this recipe called for the chicken to be fried and then baked in a cornmeal mixture. (Standing upright in the casserole dish, the chicken looked as though it were trying to escape the spoonbread, as Susan accurately pointed out.) We served it with hush puppies, a classic Southern dish of fried cornmeal, which Diana’s mother, a Northerner, altered to suit her own taste by substituting scallions for onions. (“Not Southern,” she used to say, “but better.”) They were tasty but at our meal were comically flat in shape. The reason was simple: Antonio — and most of the guests — had never eaten them and hadn’t a clue what they looked like. (Click here to download the recipes for chicken in buttermilk spoonbread and hush puppies.)
Undoubtedly the most curious dish on the menu — also served with the chicken — was “yam pudding,” a baked concoction of sugar, molasses, butter, cinnamon, milk, and grated yams. When the pudding emerged from the oven as a strange-looking mess of brown and orange, we were all reluctant to sample it. It turned out to be delicious, but given the high sugar content, one small scoop was more than enough. Antonio, the lone dissenter, found it too sweet for his palette. (Click here to download the recipe for yam pudding.)
The best part of the meal, everyone agreed, was the dessert: a pecan pie. Although Diana’s chapter contains three dessert recipes, the pie is described as her childhood favorite. “I used to devour my portion with a delight close to anguish,” she notes in the book. And no wonder: It had an excellent texture and wasn’t overly sweet, as many pecan pies are. Susan, an accomplished baker, went so far as to say the recipe was better than her own. She attributed this to the corn syrup, which is rarely used nowadays in making pies. We improved on the recipe slightly by adding vanilla ice cream. (Click here to download the recipe for pecan pie.)
The meal was ultimately satisfying, but I wasn’t alone in feeling five pounds heavier when I left Susan’s home to trek toward the subway. Tread carefully with this rich menu. Limit your portions, and have a salad for lunch. Or, when going back for second helpings, imagine you’re a leading ballerina ask yourself what Balanchine would have to say.
Watch a video of the dinner preparation condensed to four minutes:
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