If you could invite six people to dinner, who would they be? Take Barbra Streisand’s guest list of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, Edward Hopper, Gustav Klimt and Fanny Brice. I’d go to a TED talk by any of them, but would I want them all round my table at the same time? And why only one woman?
A new book from Erica Heller, the daughter of Catch-22’s Joseph Heller, takes a similarly tasty premise as its starting point. One Last Lunch: A Final Meal with Those Who Meant So Much to Us asks various figures to imagine an encounter with a famous friend or relative. It’s a tantalising mixture of memoir and fantasy in a series of “what if” encounters that draw heavily on “what was”. How fascinating to learn from former Doubleday publisher Nancy Evans that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, once an editor there, didn’t pick at her food at their regular lunch spot Prunelle on East 54th Street like “those wafer-thin women do”, but cleaned her plate of the salad, salmon or entrée-sized appetisers she used to order. She didn’t drink either (in an era when liquid lunches were commonplace), preferring instead to knock back a few after work in her library at home, while chain-smoking, “her legs curled up on the sofa, with the butler coming in periodically to empty the ashtray, leaving no evidence of this dirty little secret”.
Gratifying, too, to hear from Leonard Cohen’s godson, David Layton, that the songwriter had an exceptional appetite and a deep affection for Greece. The book finds them feasting at a taverna on Lesbos on “pale pink” taramasalata and tzatziki, washed down with “white wine made by the monks of Mount Atmos”, followed by lamb, potatoes, giant beans in tomato, beetroot in yoghurt, grilled aubergine, octopus, snapper, sardines and small anchovies, with honey-soaked baklava for dessert, all amid talk of old times and what the hereafter looks like (a bit like Greece, apparently – special in the beginning but crowded now).
Some encounters take place at home, the narrator preferring to cook for their dinner companion. Particularly poignant is Tracy Tynan’s account of an imaginary visit by her theatre-critic father Kenneth Tynan. Desperate to please a man who was so difficult to impress in life, Tracy cooks him boeuf bourguignon from a recipe in one of his favourite cookbooks, A Treasury of Great Recipes by Vincent and Mary Price. The dish hardly makes a dent, and it’s only when she whips out a bar of Toblerone, his guilty pleasure, that the frostiness dissolves: “We sit there in silence, munching on our triangles of chocolatey almond nougat.” When he later tells her that lunch was delicious and that she is a good cook, it’s a tremendous gift of validation that any child chasing approval would appreciate.
Other entries reflect a truth about how we dine out. A wry encounter between Steve Jobs and his former Apple colleague Lee Clow, over sushi and Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio at Chaya Venice in LA, articulates everything you could possibly want to say, in a wordless cartoon strip, about the way iPhones have replaced table conversation.
We also see, again and again, how important certain restaurants were to these figures. How meaningful it becomes to return to a regular table, to order a favourite dish, and be greeted by the maître d’ who has welcomed you for years. For writer James Baldwin, that was Maurice, the “elegant, middle-aged Frenchman with patrician manners” who presided over Restaurant Tolentini in Nice, where a fish tank lined one wall and the napkins came embossed with the restaurant’s name. Poet and painter Clarence Major summons Baldwin there for one last meal together of lobster with fettuccine alfredo and fresh green beans in butter, followed by socca crêpes with almonds and whipped cream.
And how touching to see kids of divorce reunited with their fathers in the places they once shared: Peter O’Toole and his daughter Kate lunching at Rules in London, where the actor orders his favourite lobster bisque and Dover sole; and Richard Pryor taking his fourth daughter Rain out for burgers at their beloved Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset Boulevard in LA. “We are seated right away, because after all, Dad is Dad and I am me,” confirms Rain, an actress and comedian herself.
Nothing sums up the joy of rediscovering a special dish and cherished spot better than the account given by novelist John Cheever’s son Benjamin, who meets his late father at China Bowl in midtown Manhattan: “He used a knife to separate out one of the barbecued spare ribs. This he dipped in hot mustard and took a bite. His eyes filled with tears... ‘Are the ribs as good as they used to be?’ I asked. Daddy nodded, took another bite, put down the rib and wiped his lips with an impossibly thick white napkin. ‘Heavenly,’ he said.”
One Last Lunch: A Final Meal with Those Who Meant So Much to Us is published by Abrams on 12 May, £18.99.