Food by the Book: 'The Swans of Fifth Avenue' a fictional account of Capote

Chicken hash.

 

Thanksgiving is on Nov. 28 this year, a serendipitous number because it is the same date of Truman Capote’s magnificent Black and White Ball held just after Thanksgiving in 1966. A masquerade ball for 550 of his closest friends, the country’s most influential players from all arenas were announced like royalty as they entered the ballroom at the Plaza Hotel.

Among them was Babe Paley, wife of the powerful head of CBS, William Paley, and confidante, best friend and most fervent cheerleader of Truman Capote. She called him her True Heart. That is, until he wasn’t. In “The Swans of Fifth Avenue” (Delacorte, 2016) Melanie Benjamin fictionalizes the account of Capote’s rise among the five beautiful socialites he called his swans, Babe Paley, Gloria Vanderbilt, Slim Keith, C.Z. Guest and Gloria Guinness, and the actions that ultimately resulted in his fall from grace.

Giving her characters depth through stream of consciousness, Benjamin builds a fictional narrative that delves deeply into the psychological workings of New York’s most powerful elite of the time. Capote’s mental notes on the secrets and frailties of each of the swans were eventually translated into a collection of stories, the first of which was “La Cote Basque, 1965,” signaling Capote’s undoing. He dared to publish their dirty laundry in a thinly disguised plot. Babe went to her grave having never spoken to him again.

For someone who grew up reading about these captivating women in Town and Country or Vogue magazines, Benjamin paints a very compassionate picture of the tribulations their seemingly flawless lives entailed. Capote’s aspiration for fame is also painted with a sympathetic brush dipped in a childhood longing for motherly love. To the younger generation, this may be like reading a Victorian novel in which society lives were kept strictly private and scandal avoided at all costs, although the Black and White Ball itself ushered in today’s celebrity media love affair with Instagram and Twitter.

True to his Southern upbringing, Capote served a down-home fare at his Black and White Ball. At midnight, guests dined on scrambled eggs and sausage, spaghetti and chicken hash.

For another take on his party-planning aspirations, read G. Neri’s young adult fiction account of Capote’s childhood friendship growing up in Monroeville, Alabama, with fellow author Harper Lee, “Tru and Nelle” (Houghton, 2016). For the original Plaza chicken hash recipe, which calls for heavy cream and both béchamel and hollandaise sauce, read Deborah Davis’s “Party of the Century” (Wiley, 2010).

Chicken hash

Traditional 1960s chicken hash is made with a cream sauce and sherry sans potatoes. This more Southern adaptation can also use leftover turkey from Thanksgiving.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 onion, finely chopped

1 pound baby Dutch potatoes, quartered

1 large green bell pepper, diced

2 cups diced leftover chicken or turkey

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon sherry

3 tablespoons chopped parsley

1/2 cup chicken broth

3 tablespoons half and half

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

Heat the oil in a nonstick skillet large enough to hold all the ingredients. Sauté the onion, potatoes and green pepper over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes, until the potatoes begin to soften. Add a bit more olive oil, if needed. Add the remaining ingredients and reduce the heat. Cook until the liquid has been absorbed and a crust has formed on the bottom. Turn and cook until browned on the other side. Serve topped with a fried egg, a side salad and toasted crusty bread.

Reach Melony Carey at foodbythebook@gmail.com or (918) 683-3694.

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