After hosting four dinner parties featuring only recipes published in The Ballet Cook Book (and following the recipes as written, often against our better judgment), my collaborators and I have learned to expect the occasional failed dish and amusing (in hindsight) culinary catastrophe. Kitchen appliances, cooking methods, tastes, and even some ingredients were different in 1966, when the book was published, and it’s doubtful any of the book’s recipes ever saw the inside of a test kitchen.
The February 2 gathering of the Ballet Cook Book Dinner Series, showcasing the recipes of Tanaquil Le Clercq (the legendary New York City Ballet principal and the cookbook’s author), seemed even more precarious: Just days beforehand, Antonio Carmena, our culinary mastermind and an NYCB soloist, phoned to say he would be in rehearsal until an hour before the first course was scheduled to be served at Susan LaRosa’s Brooklyn home. Antonio assured us there was no cause for alarm: His boyfriend, Michael Pereira, would arrive early to take charge of the kitchen, and the recipes were manageable.
Sure enough, our worries were unfounded: My faithful friend Jeff Gageby and I had prepped most of the ingredients, Susan had completed the dessert, and the talented Michael had the swordfish main course well underway by the time Antonio arrived. Even though we left the tricky soufflé for Antonio to prepare, we still found ourselves with extra time before the guests arrived — a far cry from our usual “deep in the weeds” pre-dinner ritual. The five dishes we chose to serve might have been eclectic and unusual, but all were delicious.
The conversation was better yet. Paul Scolieri, assistant dance professor at Barnard College, attended with his partner Lavinel Savu. (The couple befriended Antonio and Michael years ago after meeting at a taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show.) Nancy Reynolds, director of research for the George Balanchine Foundation, joined us for the second time, and for her this dinner had special significance: Le Clercq had been her very first ballet teacher. Stuart Coleman, whose mother, the ballerina Melissa Hayden, is among the illustrious names in the cookbook, attended with his partner Meryl Rosofsky, a physician turned cultural food expert. They came armed with a frozen bottle of Russian vodka (“just how Balanchine liked it”).
Le Clercq occupies a special, even mythic, place in ballet history. Born in Paris in 1929 to a French father and American mother, she came to New York at the age of three. Four years later, she started her ballet training, which soon took her to George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. While his muse (and, after 1952, his fifth wife), she created enduring roles in his ballets, including The Four Temperaments (“Choleric”), Divertimento No. 15, La Valse, and Western Symphony. She also inspired an array of other 20th-century master choreographers, including Jerome Robbins, who cast her as the lead in his comic masterpiece The Concert and his sensuous Afternoon of a Faun, and Frederick Ashton, who gave her a lead role in 1950′s Illuminations. Le Clercq even danced for Merce Cunningham, in his 1947 work The Seasons (presented through Ballet Society), and Amores, which the choreographer made in Paris in 1949. After her death in 2001, an obituary in The New York Times singled out her “luminously elegant style,” her “dramatic perfume,” and her “long-legged wit.”
Her life, however, was also struck by tragedy. At age 27, at the height of her powers, Le Clercq contracted paralytic polio, which left her in a wheelchair. In 1969, three years after the cookbook was published, full of glowing praise for her then-husband, Balanchine filed for divorce before attempting (unsuccessfully) to marry his new muse, Suzanne Farrell. Still, the cookbook reveals Le Clercq to be a woman who retained her sense of humor even after her illness, and she continued to attend ballet performances and contributed to the field by teaching at the Dance Theater of Harlem.
Le Clercq’s recipes in The Ballet Cook Book are all over the map — literally. As the guests trickled in, we served guacamole, one of many hors d’oeuvres Le Clercq was tasked with serving at her parents’ frequent dinner parties as a child. (Occasionally, she would disappear underneath the table with a platter and “behaved rather like the back of a garbage disposal truck when it is activated. There is a single crunching grind, and all is gone.”) The recipe called for little spice and for two teaspoons of mayonnaise, which gave the dip an unusually creamy texture. It might not have been authentic, but we enjoyed it nonetheless. We followed Le Clercq’s instructions to serve the guacamole not with tortilla chips but with crackers.
Our guests, luckily, were adventurous eaters and drinkers, as we served eggnog with the guacamole. Le Clercq attributes the recipe to her Great-Great-Grandmother Blackwell. (This relative was a member of the family that owned Blackwell’s Island in New York’s East River, later renamed Welfare Island and known today as Roosevelt Island.) It was by no means the healthiest part of the menu; in addition to egg yolks and sugar, the recipe called for a full quart of heavy whipped cream and generous quantities of bourbon whisky and rum. Because of the overwhipping of the cream (damn the recipe instructions!) we served the eggnog in wine glasses — with a spoon.
The riskiest dish on the menu was Le Clercq’s celery root soufflé. We had our doubts about the primary ingredient, which Le Clercq accurately describes as “an ugly-looking vegetable, gnarled and hairy: put legs on it and it could star in a science fiction movie.” Soufflés are also fickle in general, of course, and to make matters worse, someone bumped the temperature knob on the oven twice. We took solace in Le Clercq’s wisdom — “Soufflés fall and so do dancers, and both survive: the main thing is to forget it” — but, again, our fears were unfounded. The savory soufflé had the perfect texture and was the evening’s biggest hit.
The main course was anchored by swordfish tarragon, a dish undoubtedly descended from the French side of Le Clercq’s family. The small fortune spent on fresh fish, which the recipe smothered in a delicious, herb-infused béchamel sauce, was worth it. Alongside the swordfish we served “Just Yammy,” a concoction of sweet potatoes, butter, sugar, raisins, and marshmallows that reminded me of a dish my own grandmother used to make at Thanksgiving.
The centerpiece of the dessert course was tarte à l’orange, a traditional French pastry made with oranges and, in this case, green apples as well. Susan, an expert baker with exacting standards, declared the recipe flawed after the crust shrank, causing the filling to overflow and the tart to cement itself to the pan. Antonio again came to the rescue, and miraculously extracted 12 portions. (Susan even gave the recipe another try two days later, and had similar results.) No one else found the dish disappointing, though; the tart was both tangy and tasty. We piped the extra eggnog to garnish the tart, adding some extra calories and alcohol to the finale.
Read the recipes: