CAT AT A HOT TIN STOVE
The excesses of Tennessee Williams, America's most prolific and famously tortured playwright, have been well documented. But in addition to sex, drugs, alcohol, and writing, food was also high on his list of passions. Dining well was an acquired taste he negotiated with no help from home, however. He once described his mother, Edwina, a faded steel magnolia immortalized as the cloying Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, as "an old trout terminally allergic to the kitchen, with the uncanny ability to make tinned soup taste like dishwasher detergent." So he learned, at an early age, to eat out. During the years I knew him, his two favorite words were "room service."
The first time I interviewed Tennessee was at Antoine's, in the French Quarter of New Orleans, a city that was, quite naturally by way of its own decadence, his favorite. The meal that night seemed dedicated to his preferred dishes ("Anything fattening, illegal, or on fire!" he yelped in a voice like a lazy alligator's) but began, as always, with a dozen oysters on the half shell ("Better than mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for a disintegratin' libido!"), washed down with a rye Old Fashioned, a crème de menthe frappé, a vodka Stinger, and a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé. "I'm not as young as I used to be," he sighed with a hiccup. The next day at breakfast, at Brennan's, he requested a pitcher of Martinis. "I'd like to order a Waldorf salad but my doctor won't allow me to eat nuts." Pause. "He didn't say anything about cannibalism, though." He settled for eggs Sardou, and grits and grillades with Creole tomato sauce, topped off with a bowl of flaming Bananas Foster.
In a city where fried okra is considered a green vegetable, he was perfectly at home indulging his appetite for the kind of food best self-described as a remedy for depression. Despite the culinary adventures he experienced during his restless travels (the year he was unwisely invited to be president of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival, for instance, when he never rose before noon, seldom saw the films, and announced to me, "I'm just here because I was told you could get really good absinthe"), his tastes were, in fact, relatively simple. No pomegranate-nasturtium sorbet for him. His favorite memory was of the summer he and his friend Carson McCullers rented a shack on Nantucket, where they survived on Jack Daniel's, canned green pea soup with wienies in it, and an innovation dubbed "spuds Carson"—mashed potatoes mixed with olives.
In Key West, he lived in a small Art Nouveau candy box on Duval Street with a Boston terrier named Gigi, who looked like a canine Colette; an orange tabby cat named Gentleman Caller; and Mr. Ava Gardner, a ferocious iguana chained to the front porch to scare off marauders. Here, on hot mornings, he combed the waterfront for a rare catch of pompano and the shrimp and crabs that made their way into one of the elaborate gumbos he prepared for an illustrious guest list ranging from defrocked bishops to Anna Magnani. His favorite cookbooks were those compiled by junior chambers of commerce in every southern town from Baton Rouge to Boca, along with a treasured, dog-eared thing called White Trash Cooking. He once prepared for me a memorable dinner of smothered roast beef and a Girl Scout recipe for lemon icebox pie with a vanilla wafer crust ("None of that Key lime mush with graham crackers that taste like shirt boards from a Chinese laundry"). When a new play tanked on Broadway, or some critic published a punishing premature obituary, he would sigh, "Baby, I'll soon be forced, through penury, to resort to usin' Caviar Helper."
I think his happy hedonism, his zest for food and life, and his wicked sense of humor saw him through every crisis. He told Gore Vidal he slept through the '60s. Maybe so, but he didn't miss a meal.
Lemon Icebox Pie
In a food processor, finely crush 1/2 box of vanilla wafers. Melt 1 stick of lightly salted butter for flavor (not sweet butter). Pour vanilla wafers and melted butter into a pie plate and shape into a pie shell with your fingers. In a large bowl, mix 1/2 cup of freshly squeezed lemon juice, 1 can of Eagle Brand condensed milk, and 1 egg yolk. Pour mixture into pie plate. In another bowl, beat 6 egg whites* with 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, and 3/4 cup sugar until stiff white peaks form. Pour over pie and top with freshly grated lemon rind. Bake in oven at moderate heat just long enough for meringue to brown, about 20 minutes. Cool to room temperature and put in the refrigerator until ice-cold. The result, as Tennessee Williams always said, "is good enough to slap your Mama." —R.R.