A few years ago I ran across an article in the December 1935 Arts & Decoration by Charles Hanson Towne describing his traditional Christmas brunch. The Kentucky-born Towne had moved with his family to Manhattan when he was just three years old and it turned out to be the perfect fit. He fell in love with City and everything about it and New York returned the favor. Over the years he became “the Quintessential New Yorker,” a beloved figure within both its vaunted social and literary set, a successful and prolific author, poet, editor and, in later years, an actor, starring in the 1940 touring company version of the Broadway hit Life With Father.
For more than half a century, no gathering of the Smart Set would have been complete without Charles Hanson Towne. Yet, in spite of his popularity, he remained throughout his life a solitary bachelor. Now, I don’t know if he was a true bachelor or if he was a “bachelor” in the euphemistic sense who had a rich private love life (For his sake I certainly hope he did), but there is something wistful in his poetry and even in the article he wrote for Arts & Decoration that makes me fear it was the former. Christmas, of course, can be the loneliest time of the year for people, but Towne always made sure to fill his Christmases with love and at the holidays he always opened his apartment in Manhattan to friends “who do not keep house” for what were clearly delightful intimate affairs. Even though it has absolutely nothing to do with Hollywood, I thought his Christmas article was so charming I wanted to share it with you anyway and I definitely plan at some point on making and partaking of some of that delicious and strong punch he concocted and called a “Bogey.” Wishing all of you a safe and love filled holiday season.
A BACHELOR ENTERTAINS AT CHRISTMAS
His Own “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” for This Morning
By Charles Hanson Towne
“In my young manhood I once spent a lonely Christmas in New York. I have never forgotten the aching desolation I felt, eating in a restaurant; and so I have always invited to my flat, on anniversaries like Christmas and Thanksgiving day, some friends who do not keep house. It can’t be called a generous gesture on my part, for if my guests but knew it, I have a better time than they. It is such a joy to watch them partake of, say, a Christmas ‘brunch,’ prepared by myself in my little red kitchen, ten by four.
“We meet at high noon; and coming out of the crisp, keen December air, a cocktail of my own invention warms the heart and keys the spirit up. Such a simple cocktail it is, too. I have named it the Bogey. But get a churn, I beg of you, not a shaker. Then the ice will mingle with the liquid, invisible, but coldly present. Here are the ingredients:
“Lemon juice and gin in almost equal quantities (favor the gin if you do not wish a perfect division!); then powdered sugar to taste, and the whole churned until the outside of the churn is definitely frosted. Served in my lacquer cups that came all the way from China five Christmases ago, my Bogeys are guaranteed to give that feeling of exaltation so necessary at the beginning of a party.
“In the meantime, the odor of coffee is coming from the kitchen. I am a crank on the subject of coffee. No percolators for me, no fancy inventions at all; just a hospitable old pot such as Grandma used, cold water, a heaping tablespoonful of coffee for each cup, and another for the pot, and the flame turned low at the very first indication of the boiling point. Simmer for ten minutes at least, and serve through a strainer. That’s all. But the amount of coffee is what counts. Women can be so stingy about a teaspoonful of the main ingredient, and ruin the whole pot! Bachelors aren’t built that way.
“Fruit comes first. Have a choice, preferably, as one may buy all things these days, in and out of season; pears, bananas, melons, grapes and grapefruit. Remember, this isn’t just a breakfast: it’s that combination of breakfast-lunch known as brunch. So there should be more than one expects at the usual matutinal meal.
“The toast must be crisp and thinly buttered in the kitchen before it is brought on. English muffins are best of all.
“Then come my codfish cakes, always served with crisp bacon. Here is my recipe:
“one cupful of mashed potatoes to a package of shredded codfish. Drop in one egg, and a teaspoonful of butter and a dash of paprika. Mash and stir into a creamy consistency, until very light. Mould into small cakes and roll in cracker crumbs. Then drop into deep fat, to brown for five minutes. You’ll pronounce them delicious.
“Who couldn’t top off with some pancakes? It’s Christmas, remember. So here goes: Take three eggs, and beat them up lightly; a cup and a half of milk, a piece of butter as big as an egg, melted and poured in. Then put two cups of flour through a sieve, and stir, adding a half teaspoonful of salt. Beat very light, and add a teaspoonful and a half of baking powder. Make the cakes small and dainty – as thin as a piece of blotting paper. And be sure that you pour over them some maple syrup from Vermont. Like Oliver Twist, your guests will be sure to ask for more.
“If my little brunch party sounds simple – well, that’s how I wish it to sound; for as one grows older one longs for quieter and simpler things. I’ve had my share of fancy dishes that had no relation to a dinner of herbs I’ve enjoyed them, in my time; and I don’t think I have dyspepsia – yet!
“I can’t forget Christmas breakfasts I’ve partaken of years ago in the home of the William Favershams down at Huntington, Long Island, with the snow falling so that Lloyd’s Neck was invisible across the icy water, and the coffee sending its fragrance all over the big dining room. And I can’t forget Christie Macdonald’s table in River House, with the cook sending us in, on snowy Sunday mornings, limitless helpings of delicious pancakes like those I’ve learned to make. I remember winter week-ends at Tuxedo Park with tables that groaned with every dainty a French chef could devise; and perhaps I’ve come back to my own simple flat with gratitude for the entertainment, but happy to fall into my regular regime once more. For if one’s week-ends, summer and winter, fall and spring, were laid end to end…But let’s not go into that!
“At Christmastime, however, why not indulge oneself? ‘He was not particularly strong, because he was not particularly weak,’ has always appealed to me. I think of it as I help myself to another pancake or another light fishball; but somehow the dreadful consequences physicians often prophesy never occur.
“So – a merry Christmas to you all. Let yourselves go on the best day of all of the year!
Arts & Decoration
AROUND THE CORNER by Charles Hanson Towne
Around the corner I have a friend,
In this great city that has no end,
Yet the days go by and weeks rush on,
And before I know it, a year is gone.
And I never see my old friends face,
For life is a swift and terrible race,
He knows I like him just as well,
As in the days when I rang his bell.
And he rang mine but we were younger then,
And now we are busy, tired men.
Tired of playing a foolish game,
Tired of trying to make a name.
“Tomorrow” I say! “I will call on Jim
Just to show that I’m thinking of him”,
But tomorrow comes and tomorrow goes,
And distance between us grows and grows.
Around the corner, yet miles away,
“Here’s a telegram sir,” “Jim died today.”
And that’s what we get and deserve in the end.
Around the corner, a vanished friend.
For more of the poetry of Charles Hanson Towne, visit here.