Seating Arrangements

THE BOOK:

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This was a highly anticipated debut novel written in 2012, and had been on my TBR list because of recommendations from multiple trusted sources. Searching for a readily accessible audiobook on my library’s website to help me achieve a 6th Bingo on my summer reading card, I put a hold on this book. However, the format I ordered was ebook, not audiobook, so I read it today on my phone. (I’ll still get the Bingo because it satisfies the square “by any Booktopia author.”)

The writing did compel me to keep reading, so it succeeded for me on that level. As a social commentary on the lives of “WASPs” (Shipstead’s designation, not mine)- not so much. The main character, Winn, was less of a “winner” than he initially appeared to be, unraveling in an unbelievable series of improbable events. Why would  a conservative middle-aged man suddenly, with no past history of such behavior,  wantonly risk losing everything that he held most dear? Although in truth, one only has to give a cursory glance to the daily news to find multiple reminders of lives in ruin consequent to some life-changing, perhaps fleeting, act of passion, or simple bad judgment.

Dominique, a long time friend of Winn’s daughter, had returned to Waskeke island for Daphne’s wedding, carrying the images and impressions of the Van Meter family she had formed during her association with them when she and Daphne attended Deerfield, a private prep school in western Massachusetts. Dominique’s parents were Coptic doctors from Cairo, so, due to the distance from home, Dominique spent her breaks from Deerfield with the Van Meter family, way back when she was a lost foreign teenager in a strange new culture. Biddy Van Meter, the matriarch, had been a kind and loving mother-figure in those days and Dominique continued to feel a special fondness for her. It was unsettling to Dominique, that her adolescent impressions of the family could have been so wrong. In a passage exemplary of Shipstead’s beautiful writing:
“Dominique was ready to leave Waskeke [the Van Meter oceanside summer retreat]. Spending so much time with the Van Meters was like returning to a cherished childhood home and discovering that either her memory had been wrong at the time or time had taken its toll and the place was not magical or special at all, but ordinary, flawed- a revelation doubly offensive because it made a certain swath of past happiness seem cheap, the product of ignorance.”

Dominique had believed that the privileged world of the “upper class” that she had been welcomed into as a teenager was immune to the banalities of life that beleaguered so many of the unfortunates not born to such refinement. Never having had that naive impression of the family, I didn’t feel the betrayal, only a lack of interest in their lives, and disbelief, that those with so much to lose, would behave so recklessly.

THE BEAUTY:

Fictional Waskeke has been compared to the island of Nantucket. I had the good fortune  in the mid 90’s, to spend a couple of days on Nantucket at the summer rental of a family friend. After a glorious day on the beach, my husband and I were treated to an amazing meal prepared by the 12 year-old son of our friends, who, we thought at the time, might grow up to be a chef, such was his interest in food. The dessert was an incredible concoction, assembled to look like a hamburger. It was a beautiful thing! Had this happened now, I would be able to display an image of it from my iPhone. The 90’s however, were the dark ages of technology when I relied on a device called a camera to capture such images. Whether I had even brought a camera, or remembered to use it, is information lost to the mists of time. So instead of that image, I call upon a natural one from that trip. After dinner, the six of us went out to the dunes to enjoy the nighttime scenery. Lying on our backs looking up into night sky, I beheld the Milky Way for the first time. Having lived close to urban areas all of my adult life, I had never been in a place where the night sky was dark enough for the majesty of the Milky Way to be fully evident. Naturally, a photograph can only partially evoke the grandeur of Mother Nature as one experiences it, but, look at the image below, compare it to your experience of the night sky, and imagine looking at this, surrounded by good friends, after a delightful meal, and tell me that’s not beautiful.

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THE FOOD:

Winn’s father spent most of his leisure time at the Vespasian Club located on a hill near the State House in Boston, where vichyssoise was served everyday in the summer. As a potato lover, I have had a long and happy love affair with potato soup, although, I have always called it potato-leek soup, whether I served it hot, or cold. There is some question as to the Frenchness of this recipe. Julia Child maintained that it was an American invention, and Louis Diat, the French chef for the Ritz Carlton in New York in 1917 supports that view with his claim that he created it for his patrons after reminiscing about a soup his mother and grandmother made in his youth. He called it Vichyssoise because Vichy was close to his hometown.

Potato Leek Soup
Serves 6 to 8

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes,                           ½ cup dry white wine
peeled and cut into 3/4-inch chunks               6-7 C chicken or
4 C chopped leeks, white and light green               vegetable stock
parts, cleaned of all sand (2 leeks)                     1 sprig fresh thyme
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper     chopped chives for
3 cloves garlic, smashed                                                garnish
3 T unsalted butter                                                       butter pats for
2 bay leaves                                                                         garnish
paprika

In a large pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter, add leeks and cook on medium heat for 5 minutes, until leeks start to wilt. Add garlic and salt and pepper and cook another 5 minutes until fragrant and soft. Stir in the wine and chicken or vegetable stock, bay leaves and thyme sprig and cook over low heat, for 30 minutes or until potatoes are soft.

Discard thyme sprig and bay leaves. Transfer the potato mixture to a food processor fitted with the steel blade in batches to make a purée. Pour the purée back into the pot. Correct seasoning, adding more broth or water if the consistency is too thick. You could add ¾ of heavy cream as you heat up the soup, but it’s creamy enough for my taste without it. When ready to serve, place a pat of butter in the center of the filled soup bowl, sprinkle with a dusting of paprika and chopped chives. You might also like to serve homemade croutons. (Store bought flavors are too strong for this soup.)

If serving cold, refrigerate the soup for several hours before serving, eliminate the pat of butter garnish, and sprinkle with paprika, chives and croutons.

To make the croutons, preheat the oven to 400º and move the rack to the upper-middle position. Cut six slices of a baguette or ciabatta into ½ inch squares to make about 3 cups. Melt 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter. Combine the bread cubes, butter and salt and pepper to taste in a large bowl and stir to coat evenly. On a baking sheet lined with parchment spread out covered cubes  in a single layer. Bake until golden and crisp, 8-10 minutes, turning once halfway. Remove from the baking sheet to cool. Store up to 3 days in an airtight container or plastic bag. They are worth the effort.

 

 

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