My Aunt’s Coleslaw

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The whole key to the success of this dish, I was firmly but very gently told, is to cut the cabbage and tomatoes in large pieces and to soak the cabbage in ice water in the refrigerator for four hours. Then you have to peel and seed the ripe tomatoes, and the dressed slaw has to sit in the refrigerator for a couple of hours to achieve perfect flavor and texture.

Ingredients

  • 1 head white cabbage
  • 4 large ripe tomatoes
  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
  • 1 teaspoon powdered ginger
  • teaspoons dry mustard
  • salt and freshly ground pepper

Method

Discard any of the outer leaves of the cabbage that are wilted or discolored. Cut the cabbage in half from top to bottom and cut out the core. Put each half, cut side down, on the cutting board and cut into ½-inch slices. Put the cabbage in a large bowl, cover with cold water and ice cubes, and refrigerate for 4 hours.

Peel and seed the tomatoes; cut each tomato half into 6 pieces. Mix the mayonnaise, sour cream, fresh and powdered gingers, and mustard in a bowl. Drain the cabbage very well and mix thoroughly with the sauce. Season with salt and pepper, add the tomatoes, and toss lightly. Refrigerate covered for 2 hours. Serve very cold.

In that same apartment in Washington, I sat over a Russian Easter dinner with Sergei Cheremetev, whose family had been the richest in Russia and who told stories of his father, who thought the Romanovs were upstarts and would barely speak to the czar; with a classmate of my uncle’s who was the pretender to the Polish throne; and with my uncle and my aunt, who that night was wearing her set of copies of imperial emeralds. With that group the conversation soon turned to which wine was superior, Burgundy or Bordeaux, and then, white or red? My aunt would drink only Scotch, Cognac, and very old first growths in prime condition. The rest of us drank anything good. My uncle had saved a dozen or so bottles of various esoteric things from before the revolution. He had been saving them for years, to teach me the immense difference between excellent and the very best possible. Talk of excellence divided the diners on the question of whether it is achieved through austerity or indulgence, purity or excess. Inevitably the subject of decadence arose, with everyone invited to define it. My aunt disapproved of the entire conversation, and said so. The Polish prince smiled elegantly. My uncle deferred to Cheremetev, who said the best definition came from his boyhood friend Prince Youssoupof. The story involved Youssoupof and a French count. When the question of what is decadence came up, the French count said something lyrical about beautiful women. Youssoupof said, “Nonsense, my dear fellow, the epitome of decadence is to drink Château d’Yquem with roast beef.” I think my mouth must have fallen open (not necessarily in expectation of this combination being consumed) and my aunt gave me a threatening frown. There was a silence as we all tried to conjure up, unsuccessfully, the dangers of that combination.

Years later, while an undergraduate at Harvard, I experienced the almost breathtaking beauty of drinking Château d’Yquem with cold roast goose in the suffocating afternoon heat of Boston in August. Spurred by its success, I decided to hold a summer test of the Youssoupof theory. I invited only my closest friends, those who would not seek vengeance if they became sick or pushed over the edge. Remembering my aunt— who was a modest dresser in public, but with me and her husband, or with intimates, wore silk everything, and her fabulous emeralds—I asked everyone to dress to the hilt. It was ninety degrees and the kitchen was over a hundred. The taste of Château d’Yquem with the rich, aged, perfectly cooked roast beef was indescribable. And “taste” does not adequately convey the sensation, because what happens to you, as I see it now, is like something out of recent space films—travel at space-warp speed through the stars. Only, with the wine and beef there is very little noise, unless it is the sound of someone going over backward in his chair and hitting the floor.

Years later, after I had moved to the West Coast and was the chef and co-owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, the story and the experience still haunted me, so I put on a Sauternes Dinner. It caught the attention of a number of people, including food writer Charles Perry. After I told him the beef story, we wondered if perhaps it had been the heat that actually devastated all of us. Charles said, Let us do it again. In San Francisco, there was no problem with the heat. I think it was the usual fifty degrees outside. The rest of the menu is not important, because when the beef was served, and the wine was poured, when I demonstrated the necessary ritual of chewing the beef and taking a draft of the wine, chewing twice and swallowing, there followed the familiar silence, the almost agonized sighs and rapturous smiles.

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