Dinner & a Disc: Playboy’s Gourmet and Burt Bacharach

Food Features Burt Bacharach
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I rarely have dinner alone. I’m married and a parent, and I’m a faculty-member-in-residence, often eating in a dining hall with some of the three hundred and fifty undergraduate students with whom I share a roof. I also throw my share of dinner parties, for both work and pleasure. When I eat dinner on my own, it’s usually not by plan, and my default meal on such occasions is a bowl of grits with an amount of butter I might not consume in the company of others. Rarer still are the times that I find myself alone with the wherewithal to plan and cook a proper solo meal.

It happened one night this past summer: partner out of town, kid at camp, dorm cafeteria shut down, and nothing to prevent me from doing some serious cooking. I decided to make an occasion of it. Dinner and a Disc for one. I was reading Anna Karenina, and had just finished the scene in which Darya Alexandrovna (Dolly) is en route to visit her sister-in-law, the fallen Anna. Anna has set up a temporary, isolated country home with her lover Vronsky, far from society’s judgmental eyes. As Dolly rides away from the demands of her large family and philandering husband, she fantasizes about being like Anna, free from all but the sexiest of demands, worshipped by a handsome paramour of her own.

I guess I drew a little bit of an analogy—like Dolly, I was taking a short break from my life. What fantasy was I escaping into? I was going to spend a night like a lonely bachelor playboy. Dinner and a Disc for one would be a high-class affair, with dinner courtesy of Playboy’s Gourmet (1971) by Thomas Mario, a longtime Playboy food and drink editor. The accompanying disc would be Dionne Warwick’s I’ll Never Fall in Love Again (1970). The album contains three of the 38 hit singles sung by Warwick and written by songwriting partners Burt Bacharach and Hal David. From 1962-1971, this team produced an astounding string of singles, including, “Don’t Make Me Over,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “Walk On By,” “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself,” and “I Say a Little Prayer.” The hits on I’ll Never Fall in Love Again are the title track, “Let Me Go To Him,” and “Paper Mache.” It’s a sophisticated album, befitting the most discriminating playboy, showcasing Bacharach’s complex, jazz-influenced chord changes and Warwick’s perfectly matched voice, the powerful voice of a soul singer tempered by a rare delicacy that Bacharach likened to “miniature ships in a bottle.”

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I wanted to pull out the stops on this dinner, to make it as distant from dorm food or buttered grits as possible, and Playboy’s Gourmet is all about pulling out the stops, full of recipes meant to impress and seduce. Here’s an excerpt from one Amazon review: “If you are single and like to cook and want to have sex with women you cook for then buy this book.” Lots of the recipes are fussy and unappealing. To make Ham Cornucopias, for example, you have to cook a fresh crab, make crab salad, cook a ham, slice it, and roll individual ham slices into crab salad-stuffed cornucopias. Others are impractical, like Oysters Newburg with Truffles and Roast Pheasant. There are a bizarre number of recipes that call for monosodium glutamate (I guess that was a thing in 1971) and most of the desserts are drenched in brandy or rum, and set afire.

I had to search through the cookbook methodically to find recipes that would work for me, but the searching was rewarding. Playboy’s Gourmet reminds us that food and drink were key components of the playboy’s lifestyle. In a 1954 issue of the magazine, an article about how to seduce a virgin sat alongside an article about how to use a chafing dish. In Mario’s cookbook, we find this handy piece of advice for the would-be playboy:

My menu would not be intended for “when dalliance is done,” but would still be totally decadent: shrimp canapés with curry butter, cold salmon with tartar sauce, Italian mixed salad, and pineapple flambé with coconut cream.

I’ll Never Fall in Love Again was not only the ideal stylistic match for my urbane pop-up bachelor pad, it also presented a thematic match, offering a weary protest to the playboy mentality, seeming to wonder from one song to the next if sex and love are worth the grief. As Warwick emanated from my hi-fi (well, my Spotify), a cold bottle of rosé stood breathing on the counter next to a lavish pile of groceries. Barbara Ehrenreich points out in The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment that the playboy embraced the comforts of home even as he rejected domesticity and the enslavement of marriage. In Hugh Hefner’s words: “We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.” I’d set the stage in a manner Hefner would have condoned. My pad was swinging.

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I took it slow, preparing the gourmet dishes, drinking wine, listening to Warwick, reading Mario’s recipes, and skimming Ehrenreich’s book for a little extra context. Ehrenreich traces the collapse of the “breadwinner ethic,” the assumption that a male breadwinner earning a living wage should support a wife and children. The collapse began in the 1950s, with men’s collective anxiety about becoming just another guy in a grey flannel suit. Next came Hefner’s anti-marriage agenda (though they were cool with the flannel suit—those stereos and bottles of cognac were expensive), and then the scorn of the Beat poets, who vehemently rejected the wife and the suit. Mario’s recipes in Playboy and his subsequent cookbooks are a direct product of this movement, a guide for the man who has opted out of the breadwinner ethic and is happy to cook for himself. If the playboy suffers some slight unease about the fact that home cooking is traditionally associated with femininity, he can be reassured by the cookbook’s introduction: “Hearty and masculine from cover to cover, it banishes the curlicue carrot, the dainty delectable and soggy salads and brings back the lusty life!” And if his manhood is still feeling threatened, he can always turn to the magazine’s centerfold.

This was supposed to be a night alone for me, but all this reading, listening, and thinking began to coalesce into a not-so-quiet discussion in my head, and not one about Picasso, Nietzsche, or jazz. Voices from the album and the recipes, along with Tolstoy, Ehrenreich, and Hefner, began to form themselves into a heated he said/she said conversation, male and female personalities addressing each other about love and relationships and the texture of change during this era.

Finally I sat down to enjoy my first course, boiled shrimp on toasted slices of baguette and bright yellow curry-seasoned butter, topped generously with chives. My thoughts returned to Dolly’s flight from family with this sumptuous example of my temporary bachelor’s privilege. One of my sons is so into shrimp that it’s become a family joke at Christmas, we all strategize to ensure he doesn’t annihilate our standard shrimp cocktail appetizer. No strategy required here. I ate my fill.

Next up was cold poached salmon, and it lived right up to Mario’s promise of “a lordly dish.”

“It’s good to be a lord,” I thought. And on my third glass of wine, I sailed tipsily into my salad course. This was a salad not of virtue but of delight: artichoke hearts, cocktail mushrooms, green olives, black olives, capers and sardines, along with a small handful of greens, bell peppers, and celery.

I was full. I was drunk. My head was swimming with bickering he said/she said voices. But I was not going to forego the grand finale.

Reader, I ignited it. After cooking spears of pineapple in brown sugar, butter, and cinnamon, I poured a healthy quantity of rum into the pan, heated everything up, and took a match directly to it. A halo of blue flame erupted. Suddenly I felt a little sad. It was a shame that there was nobody around with whom to share the spectacle. It didn’t help that Warwick’s melancholy “Didn’t We” was playing and getting under my skin. It didn’t help, either, that I had wrecked the kitchen. Where’s a dishwashing husband when you need him? Perhaps this moment was parallel to Dolly’s trip home from Anna and Vronsky’s after finding the scene a little too sordid, and feeling grateful to be heading back to the familiar comfort of home.

I brushed all sadness aside and spooned my boozy pineapple into a dish with rich coconut custard. It was dreamy. Henceforth, I declared, all desserts must be set afire! That recipe was a keeper. In fact all these recipes were keepers, and I’ll come back to Playboy’s Gourmet. I might have purchased it with tongue in cheek, but that dinner was no joke. Mario knew his subject, and any man who picked up the cookbook as a tool for seduction might have also learned how to become an excellent cook. In my memoir, Red Velvet Underground, I write about teaching my sons to cook, about my dogged intention to raise boys who would somebody be men who knew how to make food. There’s plenty of Mario’s rhetoric that offends me, but he and I agree that a man should know his way around the kitchen.

In fact my “He” and “She” might have agreed on more than at first appeared. I slogged through the dishes and thought about Ehrenreich’s argument that the playboy philosophy was pretty radical in its unconventional, anti-marriage stance. But honestly, “She” was just as subversive. Burt Bacharach and Hal David reside in a lineage of songwriters—let’s say from Rogers and Hart to Elvis Costello—who specialize in clever, cynical love songs, and Warwick was the ideal interpreter of their songs. “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” is as anti-romance as any wry Playboy editorial. “Let Me Go To Him,” a demand for escape from a loveless marriage, is just about as far away from the sentiment of “Stand By Your Man” (which was still eight years in the future) as you can get.

Really, I thought, collapsing at last into bed, He and She had a world of common ground. I can easily imagine them discussing Nietzsche. He certainly could have cooked her an excellent burger. Maybe in the end, he even would have let her near his salad bowl.

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Freda Love Smith is a drummer and the author of Red Velvet Underground: A Rock Memoir, with Recipes. She blogs here. Follow her on Twitter.

Photo of album cover via Etsy/VintageVinyl101