The Dinner That Made Henri Rousseau Famous

By Jessica B. Harris
In 1908, Pablo Picasso and his close friend Guillaume Apollinaire, a poet and an art critic, decided to host a lavish dinner party for Henri Rousseau, who was, at the time, a widely denigrated painter. Picasso had recently purchased a Rousseau painting from a secondhand shop in Montmartre, where the owner suggested that the portrait of a large woman was so bad it should be painted over. But Picasso, who bought it for 5 francs, liked it in a twisted way: It was so bad that it was good. As a joke, he and Apollinaire planned an over-the-top dinner to celebrate the douanier, or customs officer, a nickname for Rousseau, who had spent much of his life as a public servant. The two sent invitations to a constellation of notable people — Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Max Jacob, Marie Laurencin, Gertrude and Leo Stein, Alice B. Toklas — summoning them to Picasso’s studio apartment in the Bateau Lavoir, a decrepit green building that housed artists.
Before he received acclaim for his post-Impressionist jungle scenes, Rousseau, then 64, was known as a shy bureaucrat who had retired from his job as a toll taker to devote himself to painting full time. A familiar figure in the cafes and artists’ haunts of the Butte Montmartre, he had paintings exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants, an annual show put on by a famous painters’ association, but his work was never prominently displayed. His naïve artistic style was more a source of ridicule than adulation from critics; some of his paintings had even been slashed with penknives. He supplemented his pension by playing violin on the street.
There are multiple versions of what happened that night, and the story’s embellishments have only grown in the years since. Some say that Picasso gave the caterer the wrong day, so Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s mistress and model, improvised a riz à la Valenciennes, a rice dish made with chicken and seafood. Others suggest that the meal was just an excuse for Olivier to try a paella recipe that she picked up during a recent trip to Spain. Gertrude Stein was rumored to have wandered the local shops looking for last-minute cheeses and sardines. All agreed that the meal was delicious. The guest of honor arrived that night with his violin in one hand and his cane in the other and was soon feted with songs and a poetic toast loudly declaimed by Apollinaire, with Braque accompanying the speech on his accordion: “These wines that in your honor Picasso pours,/Let’s drink them then, since it’s the hour for drinking,/Crying in unison: ‘Long live! Long live Rousseau!’ ” Rousseau even obliged the crowd with some melodies.
By midnight, the party had grown rowdier. As the original seated dinner ended, people in cafes and bars of the Butte heard rumors of the party and decided to join. Frédéric, the owner of the Lapin Agile, a nearby cafe, appeared with his flatulent pet donkey. Laurencin did a risqué dance for the crowd and then fell, blind drunk, onto the pastries that were supposed to be served for dessert. There may have been a brawl between the poets André Salmon and Maurice Cremnitz, though they later claimed to have faked it. At one point, Rousseau, delighted with the adulation, is said to have gravely announced to Picasso: “You and I are the greatest painters: I in the modern genre, you in the Egyptian.” He left with the Steins in the wee hours of the morning. The remaining guests slept on the floor.
Despite beginning as a joke, the dinner is often credited with legitimizing Rousseau in the art world. Picasso kept “Portrait of a Woman,” even after Rousseau’s death in 1910, once calling it “one of the most truthful of all the French psychological portraits.” The painting is now in his collection in the Musée Picasso in Paris.

The Dinner That Fueled the Civil Rights Freedom Fighters

By Bee Wilson
Like any good soup, a bowl of Louisiana gumbo can uplift you even when there is nothing to feel uplifted about. On Sept. 17, 1960, a group of students in New Orleans, three black and one white, sat down at McCrory’s whites-only lunch counter and refused to leave until they were served. The students were convicted of criminal mischief, though that would be overturned by the Supreme Court in Lombard v. Louisiana (1963), a key moment in the fight against segregation. But before this historic meal came another: The sit-in was organized few days earlier over spicy gumbo at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant.
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Gumbo makes people braver; it satisfies the soul and gets you talking, says Leah Chase, the legendary African-American chef of Creole cuisine, who is still cooking at 94. “Honey, this is where they planned the thing,” she says over the phone from New Orleans, her voice warm and musical. She remembers the young activists who belonged to CORE — the Congress of Racial Equality — eating a series of lunches and dinners that September in her restaurant’s upstairs room.
The leader was Rudy Lombard, 21, a fiery orator. Also there were Cecil Carter Jr., another black student; Lanny Goldfinch, a white student; and Oretha Castle, a courageous black human rights campaigner whose mother, Vergie, was the bartender at Dooky Chase. It was illegal at that time in the South for blacks and whites to eat in the same restaurant, but this danger didn’t deter the CORE students, who often spoke of sacrificing their lives for the cause. They shared seafood gumbo thickened with filé powder (ground dried sassafras leaves), fried chicken and Lombard’s favorite Italian salad of salami, capers and olives, with Lolis Edward Elie, a local lawyer. Over the food there were intense discussions about what they could and couldn’t do to advance their cause within the law. The activists toasted their plans with glasses of Barq’s root beer. According to Chase, “When they were working, they didn’t drink so much as a bottle of beer.”
In 1960, Dooky Chase was one of the very few dining places in New Orleans where black people could eat with heavy cutlery on pressed linen tablecloths. Growing up, Lombard once told a radio interviewer, he dreamed of eating somewhere like that. His mother worked as a cook for a rich family, and she worked across the street from a fancy restaurant called Pascal’s Manale. As a boy, Rudy longed to eat there. Chase gave him and the other CORE members a taste of that restaurant ease. He once said he saw the restaurant as “an incubator of black people’s aspirations.”
Another activist who regularly ate there was Raphael Cassimere Jr., an emeritus history professor at the University of New Orleans. Cassimere remembers meetings of the N.A.A.C.P., whose office was a few blocks away, where people got “all steamed up,” but as soon as everyone was sitting down with Chase’s gumbo, “you’d be laughing again.” This gumbo was like the food of Louisiana grandmothers, Cassimere recalls, except that “you could get it 24 hours. And it was cheap.” Sometimes, in an extra-generous mood, Chase didn’t charge at all. She fed many of the Freedom Riders, who took a series of perilous bus trips through the South in 1961, trying to use whites-only restrooms and restaurants along the way.
Sometimes the activists arrived at the restaurant dirty, right out of jail. “Poor darlings,” she says. “I used to feel so sorry for them.” Chase sent them around the corner to Vergie’s home to take a bath. And then she fed them.

The Dinner That Dashed Presidential Hopes

By Brenda Wineapple
In 1884, James Gillespie Blaine, a Republican senator from Maine, ate a dinner that helped him lose the presidency. Blaine is now nearly forgotten, but during the Gilded Age he was a star candidate for the White House from 1876 to 1892, even when he didn’t want the job — and despite the pungent whiff of financial scandal always trailing him. “Blaine, Blaine, the continental liar from the State of Maine,” opponents taunted him, while die-hard “Blainiacs” called him a gallant “plumed knight.”
Whatever Blaine was, he had also been a speaker of the House, a secretary of state and a man who liked to eat. It was, after all, the period of the so-called Great Barbecue, when politicians and financiers and railroad buccaneers all splurged together, whether on the public trust or on oysters and Champagne. On Oct. 29, just one week before Election Day, when Blaine was poised to beat his Democratic opponent, Grover Cleveland, he accepted an invitation to a dinner in his honor at Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York City. Since 1837, the wealthy and the notable had eaten there: Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon III, Jenny Lind and even Charles Dickens, who despised American cuisine. Delmonico’s seemed to rebut single-handedly the notion that American cooking, as one historian put it, insulted every sense but hearing.
The Delmonico family knew all about farm-to-table; they had bought over 200 acres in Brooklyn to grow fresh fruits and vegetables. (Regardless, the restaurant’s bill of fare was resoundingly French. Even the menu was written in it.) The name “Delmonico” came to symbolize luxury — and excess. At one particularly extravagant banquet, each woman discovered a gold bracelet folded in her napkin. And at the James Blaine dinner, while a full orchestra played patriotic tunes, the 200 guests were seated at huge tables covered with white cloths, tropical ferns and confections representing their occupations. On Blaine’s table was a model White House, apparently made of sugar.
Blaine never made it to the real White House. The day after his banquet, The Associated Press printed the elaborate menu, along with the guest list, which included the nation’s richest men, millionaires like Andrew Carnegie, John Jacob Astor and Jay Gould, who could afford a nine-course meal and, by implication, a nine-course president. They supped on “consommé à la Victoria” or “crème de volaille à la Berchoux” before choosing “kingfish à la Richelieu” or fried smelts for their fish course. For the course known as the “relevés,” they tucked into “selle de chevreuil à la Tyrolienne” (roast saddle of young venison surrounded by tartlets of sour-apple marmalade covered in puff pastry) or “filet de boeuf à la Clarendon.” Entrees followed: “ailes de volaille à la Lucullus” (chicken breast garnished with truffles and balls of foie gras), “ris de veau au chancelier” (sweetbreads in sauce) or “terrapène à la Maryland” (turtle stew). Not to be forgotten were side dishes like pommes à l’Anglaise (English boiled potatoes) and the roast course of canvasback duck. Desserts included prunelle jelly and chestnut soufflé, all attended by the appropriate wine. After dinner, the men were seen staggering to their carriages.
News of the dinner spread when another millionaire, Joseph Pulitzer, a Democrat, ran a front-page cartoon in his paper, The New York World. Titled “The Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings,” it depicted a gaggle of portly plutocrats dining on “lobby pudding” and “patronage cake,” while a working family, at the foot of the table, held out a hand for scraps. In the background was a biblical inscription that referred to the handwriting on the wall. Cleveland supporters plastered posters of the cartoon on walls all over the state.
James Blaine lost New York by about only 1,000 votes, but that meant he failed to receive the crucial electoral votes he needed for the White House. And he never got any nearer to it — not as president anyway. But there are second acts in American life: After a long and conspicuous trip to Scotland with Andrew Carnegie, Blaine decided to throw his support in 1888 to Benjamin Harrison, who, once elected, made Blaine secretary of state again. By the next election, in 1892, Blaine’s appetite for presidential politics had dwindled, his gout had increased, and he quietly left the banquet.
Correction: November 1, 2017 
An earlier version of this article erroneously included a writer in a list of people invited to a dinner in 1908 honoring Henri Rousseau. Alfred Jarry was not invited; he died the previous year.
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