Back in November, I got an email from David Gacione, a man who wrote he had met me briefly at a book party, had come upon an old local cookbook from the 1950s and found in it a recipe for lobster casserole that had been submitted by my late mother. He thought I would be interested in it. I was. In all the years we lived in Montauk, she never made it at home for us kids. But they had many friends. They owned White’s Montauk Pharmacy in those years. I think they made this for them. A special treat for the adults.
Giacone sent the recipe over. It was definitely a dish from that era. It consisted of alternate layers of lobster chunks and spaghetti in a baking dish, topped with cheese, then baked with a sauce composed largely of ketchup and Worcestershire sauce. There was a double boiler involved. This was an age when fruit and vegetables came in cans. Frozen foods were the latest thing. In the supermarket, you could now buy Birds Eye peas and frozen orange juice. JELL-O molds were a special treat for dessert.
I decided to recreate this recipe as the centerpiece of a dinner on Friday, December 11 at our home in East Hampton. The house overlooks the Town Marina at Three Mile Harbor, and at this time of year the Town Highway Department employees annually place six brightly lit Christmas trees along the shore at 50-yard intervals. It is a lovely scene.
Present at the dinner were friends I have known from that earlier era. Marty Shepard was a counter-culture psychiatrist then, his wife, Judy, a regular on a TV soap opera. Today they live in Sag Harbor and run a celebrated national book-publishing house—12 books a year—called Permanent Press. Rameshwar Das is, today, a well-known photographer. Back then he was also a photographer, and he and I traveled in Europe together when he was a college student and I just out. He was Jim Lytton then, a lifelong resident of Amagansett, and in India he became a disciple of Ram Das, and his name was changed to what people know him as today. His wife, Kate, who he married late in life, is a yoga teacher in this community. I should mention my wife Christine. She is a psychotherapist and the greatest person I have ever met. All five of these people were up for the lobster.
I made the decision that the accompaniments for this lobster casserole would not be what we would have had then—I could ask only so much of my brave friends—but would instead be the sort of thing we serve today, and so we’d have a good local white wine, a Champagne salad and a nice dessert. For the main dish, I asked Mazzu, the well known Brazilian-born private chef based in Water Mill, if she would come over and cook my mother’s recipe. We would do the rest. She said she’d be honored and she’d like to make one of her desserts. It would be a surprise.
Because I wrote about this dinner in the paper three weeks earlier and had named the date, I got a phone call from David Giacone, who said he had intended to make my mom’s recipe, too, and said he thought it a good idea to do it on the same day at his house in Amagansett for his friends. I said that would be great. And the next day, we could get together and do a taste test. One by Mazzu. One by the Giacones.
I briefly considered buying two rotisserie chickens in foil bags at Citarella to keep outside in the car for the evening, in case. But I was only thinking about it. In fact I didn’t do it.
The six of us in East Hampton assembled in our dining room. I had a framed picture of my mom and dad on the table, also an old book published in 1983 by Al Holden called A Pictorial History of Montauk. The book, a bit faded, had many pictures in it from the first half of the 20th century, including my dad’s old store, which was then in the building across from the Shagwong Tavern on Main Street.
And we talked. We talked, at Kate’s suggestion, about interesting foods we had eaten elsewhere. Once Jim (Ramesh) and I got off a plane in Malaga, Spain—back then, two kids with backpacks—and we were approached out front of the airport by a shabbily dressed couple who asked if we would like to have dinner at their house with their family for 50 cents. It was nearby. They had a car. The food would be what they ate and would be good. And they said American money was better than Spanish.
We did that. It was tolerable food, lamb, I recall. They were nice people. And we didn’t get sick or anything. Ramesh said he didn’t recall this.
The Shepards talked about a couple they knew who prepared salmon by washing it in the dishwasher on “rinse.” I came in late to this conversation, and it made me think of how the salmon felt. “Probably pretty good,” I said. “Eager to go upstream.”
Silence followed that.
Kate said she had once met a young man who invited her to his apartment for dinner. When it ended, he asked her to pay half of the grocery bill. Turned out that’s why he had invited her. Very odd for back then when men always picked up the check.
From here we talked about a giant corn plant that dominates the entire far end of the dining room where we were eating. The discussion was about whether it should be pruned or not. I explained that I had rescued this plant from a “We’re the Flintstones” float in the homecoming parade at East Hampton High School 25 years earlier. I was in my convertible just behind it, the homecoming queen in the back with her court, waving to the crowd. When the parade ended behind the school, the kids on the float, eager to watch the football game between East Hampton and Southampton, had thrown it in a dumpster and run off to the stadium. Having rescued the plant from that dumpster, I felt I was now its protector. No harm should come to it. I was assured pruning would not harm it. I’d had a little wine by then. “We’ll do it,” I said. People cheered.
The lobster casserole was fabulous. We all cleaned our plates and had seconds. The surprise dessert got applause when it was served. It had been made in a JELL-O mold—a gorgeous French Crème Brule in a great half circle, soft and delicious.
Everyone thanked Mazzu after the dinner. We sat by the fire in the living room for a while. Then our guests left, each taking a portion of the lobster with them.
I am writing this the next day. David Giacone is coming over for lunch at 12:30. Dueling lobster casseroles from the recipe of Jeanette Rattiner, co-owner of White’s Montauk Pharmacy in those days, and my mom.
LOBSTER & SPAGHETTI CASSEROLE
Ingredients: 1/2 lb. of butter, 1/2 lb. sharp cheddar cheese, 1 bottle of ketchup, 1 pinch of dry mustard, 1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce, 1 lb. of spaghetti, 2 lbs. of cooked lobster.
Preparation: Melt butter and cheese in a double boiler. Add ketchup, mustard and Worcestershire sauce. Cook spaghetti and drain. Fill a large buttered casserole with layers of spaghetti, lobster chunks and melted cheese sauce. Bake covered for 1 hour at 350 degrees. Serves 8.