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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

BOOK/A TABLE - Vichyssoise

Somewhere during that wicked half-world I’m choosing to call high school, I discovered Tallulah Bankhead. 

I happened to catch All About Eve on The Great Entertainment, a classic film series hosted by the genial Frank Avruch back in the 80’s, when ferns covered the earth. Mr. Avruch informed us in his opening commentary that Hollywood lore suggests Bette Davis may have patterned her role as the glamorous Margo Channing in All About Eve after the magnificent, legendary Tallulah Bankhead. Who? 

Mr. Avruch sang the praises of this beautiful, throaty-voiced actress who starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. Loved Hitch, but had never seen that. And as much as I followed legendary actresses around, I had never heard of Tallulah Bankhead—and keep in mind any research I did from thereon out preceded googling by about thirty years.

Of course, I was intrigued by Tallulah. I loved Bette Davis “playing her” in All About Eve so why wouldn’t I love the original model? I then scoured the TV Guide every week to find when Lifeboat was going to appear on television so I could record it on my parents’—you ready—VCR. I didn’t have to wait for too long, as I recall, and finally got to see Miss Bankhead in action. She swiftly became my heroine, a woman after my own heart. See her for yourself: stranded in a lifeboat, clad in a devastating fur (and soon stripped of it), fighting off the Germans, and at least one crudely tattooed love interest. With a screenplay by John Steinbeck, plus Hitchcock, plus Tallulah to infinity, the math is easy. 

Fate stepped in further when I found a hard-bound first edition copy of Tallulah, My Autobiography, handsomely displayed on a sales rack in an antique store and still in its pristine dust jacket from 1952. I bought it and devoured it in one sitting, having never read such a testament to life (and living!) before.

There’s a chapter in Tallulah about her house (“Windows”) in Pound Ridge, NY. Tending to a simple garden like the one she had has always been a dreamy secret of mine. She wrote: “My vegetable garden? Nothing to brag about. Just enough ground to raise chives for the vichyssoise, mint for the juleps.” 

Now, since I posted here about mint juleps recently, I figured I’d finish the thought with a recipe for a cool vichyssoise to ease you into summer.

P.S. I still have my copy of Tallulah and I cling to it like a bible: I’m still fascinated.

From Saveur magazine
Serves 8

4 Tbsp. (2 oz.) unsalted butter
4 leeks, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
5 medium potatoes (about 2¼ lbs.), peeled and thinly sliced
Kosher salt
2 cups whole milk
2 cups light cream 
1 cup heavy cream
2 Tbsp. finely chopped chives

In a large pot over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Add the leeks and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft but not browned, about 20 minutes. Add the potatoes, 4 cups water, and salt to taste, and turn up the heat to high to bring it to a boil. Turn down the heat to medium-low, and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are soft, 50–60 minutes.
Set a fine sieve over a medium bowl and strain the soup, pressing and scraping the solids with a spoon. Wipe the pot clean and return the strained soup to it. Whisk in the milk and light cream, bring the soup to a boil over high heat, then remove from heat and let cool.
Set the sieve over a medium bowl and strain the soup again, pressing and scraping with the spoon. Discard any solids that remain in the sieve. Stir the heavy cream into soup, then cover and refrigerate until chilled, for at least 2 and up to 24 hours. Season soup with salt to taste just before serving.
To serve, divide the vichyssoise among soup bowls and garnish with chives.

Below: I had the opportunity to visit the Bankhead manse in Pound Ridge for an article I wrote. The garden’s over my left shoulder.

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