“The road to good intentions is paved with hell.”
—Variation on Murphy’s Law
Cocktails at Five
The minute I met Éclaire I wanted to bump her off. There was something about her that exuded what I detest most in a woman: perfection. She had that sleek, well-pampered look that came from years of self-indulgence. Then there was her husband, Harry, who just happened to be the leading plastic surgeon on the upper East Side—a husband who, when he wasn’t removing fat from the thighs of the rich and famous, was salivating over a rack of lamb or a crème brûlée in a restaurant that was Zagat- approved and lived up to his culinary standards. No wonder Éclaire was a vision of loveliness. Harry left no laugh line untouched, no wrinkle un-Botoxed. Éclaire was a walking advertisement of Harry the Miracle Maker’s masterpieces.
But I digress. Before Harry came along I was moving at my usual clip, married to Parker Harding, living in our house in the burbs, and conducting a nonorgasmic sex life that guaranteed a large dose of ennui would kick in as soon as we hit the sheets. It wasn’t that Parker wasn’t a good man. God knows he provided me with a lifestyle that bordered on extravagant. I was free to indulge myself on all levels. Parker asked no questions. He wanted me to be happy, and if happy meant my blowing a wad of money on incidentals, he was more than willing to comply. One might say I had it made: During daylight hours I wrote my humor columns for our local paper, The Seaport Gazette, which paid me a pittance for trying to evoke a laugh from thirty thousand of Seaport, Connecticut’s finest residents.
Each week, I sat at my picture window, looking out on our three acres of lush lawn, composing satirical essays on any subject that happened to move me at the time. If Parker and I argued, if my twenty-year-old daughter, Eliza, drove me to distraction, if a conversation with a friend seemed particularly amusing, it showed up in my column the following week. I had free rein to toy with other people’s lives as I deemed fit, and while I usually tried not to overstep the bounds, I would stop at little to be perceived as a droll and witty writer. And so, when I was asked by my editor, Gillian, on a bright, sunny day in May, to cover a story on vegetables, I was puzzled.
“Coco, we want to do a piece on La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs,” she said. “And you’re the perfect person to do it. Our focus is vegetarian.”
“I’m a humorist,” I said. “Vegetables aren’t funny.”
“Make them funny,” she said. “Your assignment is to do dinner and mingle with some of the finest diners on the east coast, many of whom will be present at the Chaîne banquet on Friday evening at the Briarwood Club in Greenwich. You might want to brush up on its history.”
Clearly, there was no arguing with her, so all week I buried myself in research. After all, if I was going to be hobnobbing with the culinary greats, I had better know what I was talking about.
La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs is an international gastronomic society founded in Paris in 1950. It is devoted to promoting fine dining and preserving the camaraderie and pleasures of the table. The Chaîne is based on the traditions and practices of the old French royal guild of meat roasters, whose written history has been traced back to the year 1248. Today, the society has members in more than one hundred countries around the world. In the United States, there are nearly one hundred and fifty “bailliages” (English “bailiwick”) headed by a “bailli” (“bailiff”) and other officers who plan the individual chapter’s activities. Each bailliage holds one gala event each year to celebrate the induc- tion of new members, who receive a distinctive ribbon worn at all Chaîne gatherings. The Briarwood Club was the perfect place to host such an event: It not only boasted outstanding cuisine, but a view of Long Island Sound to die for.
The following Friday afternoon, I slipped on my favorite tobacco silk pantsuit, got into my Range Rover, and with notebook in tow, I headed toward Briarwood and my first Chaîne dinner. As I tooled down the Merritt Parkway I asked myself the big question I had been mulling over all day: How could I take the subject of veggies and turn it into a laugh riot? Of all the assignments Gillian had thrust upon me, this was the worst.
“Handle it any way you want,” she had said. “The idea is to bring vegetables to the forefront and give them a lot of press. The Chaîne is doing an all-vegetable banquet, proving that one can dine eloquently and well without being carnivorous.”
I recalled the 1920s Carl Rose cartoon from the New Yorker with a mother and small daughter sitting at the table, eyeing a plate of vegetables. In E. B. White’s caption, the mother said, “It’s broccoli dear,” to which the child replied: “I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it.”
If a vegetable-based cartoon was good enough for the New Yorker, I guessed I could equally follow suit with an article on the same subject.
High on a hill, a winding road led me to the clubhouse just as the sun was setting. The valet greeted me at the main portico where I deposited my car and watched as he whisked it away to an area filled with BMWs, Mercedeses, Lexuses, and a lone Ferrari. My little Range Rover was in good company. Adjusting my clothes and giving a shake of my wild, silver mane, I went over to a small table on the side to register. A well-coiffed and pretty blond matron greeted me with a set of perfectly laminated teeth.
“So you’re Coco, the one from the paper,” she shrieked. “I simply adore journalists.”
The writing was on the wall: This was going to be the evening from hell.
I immediately grabbed my name tag with “Seaport Gazette” emblazoned in bold letters and slapped it across my chest to alert the gaggle of gourmands that anything they said could be used against them. And then, without missing a beat, I turned around to scope out the bar. A nice glass of Chardonnay would take the edge off what could be a disastrous night ahead. The room was filled with men in tuxedos, all of whom resembled penguins bobbing around and nodding at one another.
“I don’t think this is what you want to be drinking.” A hand reached over, removing my glass and replacing it with a Sapphire martini.
I looked up at yet another penguin in full regalia. Around his neck was the distinctive medallion hanging on a ribbon, bearing the coat of arms of the Confrérie, signifying membership into La Chaîne.
“I’m Harry Troutman.” He extended a hand, holding mine longer than protocol required. “And you must be Coco.”
“Yes,” I said, staring back into a pair of eyes that held me momentarily captive. “I’m from the Seaport Gazette.”
“I know all about you,” Harry said, “and I’ve been looking forward to meeting you all day. I’m hosting this Chaîne banquet. Welcome to our inner sanctum of fine dining.”
I took a sip of the blue martini, feeling an immediate flush of warmth penetrate my throat. In the distance, a lean and lanky figure emerged, moving closer as Harry and I exchanged pleasantries.
“And here she is.” Harry welcomed the gorgeous creature that descended upon us. “This is my wife, Éclaire.”
My immediate impression of Éclaire was that she was put together like a magnificent ice sculpture, except, unlike ice, Éclaire never melted.
I studied her, noting first her name, deliciously reminiscent of French pastry. Then my eyes moved in with telescopic accuracy on her face, her body, and the designer dress she wore that cost more than my two recent root canals. She was the epitome of perfection, a well-chiseled work of art sculpted by the hands of her husband—the very same hands that only moments ago rested in mine.
His name echoed in the back of my mind until it became clear who Harry Troutman was and why that name was so familiar. New York Magazine, the ultimate Bible on the Best Doctors in New York, had touted him as one of the finest plastic surgeons in Manhattan.
Éclaire peered out from her striking blue orbs, which, like Days of the Week underpants, I would come to learn, were interchanged daily. Éclaire didn’t stop with matching shoes and bag. Tonight, she had obviously chosen her colored lenses with great precision to coordinate with her cobalt blue designer cocktail ensemble. It was obvious that her hair was styled by Charles of the Beautiful, her body toned by her personal trainer. Her nails were recently manicured into ten painted stilettos and with a voice that sounded very Five Towns, Long Island, she offered a limp wrist.
“I’m Claire,” she said with a nonchalance that bordered on aloofness. “But Harry insists on calling me Éclaire. As you might have gathered, he’s into food.”
Looking at Harry, it was hardly obvious how much food and wine ruled his life. He was just under six feet two and looked fit from his daily workouts at the gym. He had an aliveness about him that, from the get-go, made me melt. His searing brown eyes danced, as he looked me over, checking out, I imagined, every flaw on my face. He had a square jaw and his straight black hair was styled casually, barely touching the collar of his Ralph Lauren suit jacket. Halfway through my martini, which I was ordinarily unaccustomed to drinking, I felt relaxed and uninhibited, taking in the charm that Harry draped over me like my pumpkin-colored pashmina shawl.
I can say with utmost certainty that I had never fallen so fast and furiously for a man as I did that night at the Briarwood Club. The minute Harry and I exchanged hellos, I was hooked. In between the first course of braised artichokes in a tangerine sauce, and a chilled gazpacho with a dollop of crème fraîche, I was in extreme lust with Dr. Harry Troutman and nothing or no one, not my husband, Parker, or the lovely Éclaire, would keep my emotions at bay. But I was here to write an article, and mixing work with pleasure was a dangerous combination.
Harry had made sure that I would be seated next to him during dinner. He was my Chaîne coach, asking me to interrupt with questions whenever the mood struck. I placed my napkin on my lap, and with pen poised, I began waxing eloquent on the allure of the artichoke, scribbling notes along the way.
The artichoke, I reminisced, can fool unsuspecting souls. I recalled my first married dinner party when our cleaning lady, who was filling in that evening as server, had removed all the leaves on the artichokes, so that when our guests moved in from cocktails to dinner, all that remained on their plates were large, unadulterated, naked hearts.
“What happened to the leaves, Lucille?” I asked in amazement.
“Oh Missy,” she explained, “everyone always plucks those leaves so I thought I would save them the trouble. I threw them in the garbage.”
I told Harry, who was on my left, the story and he guffawed out loud, revealing a set of pearly whites that were lined up in perfect symmetry in his mouth.
Tonight’s artichokes were a different story. Each one was perfectly snipped and sat atop an emerald green glass plate, blending in with the artichokes themselves. Tiny crystal bowls were off to the left, receptacles for the tangerine sauce in which to give each leaf a delicate dip before scraping it between the teeth and consuming the pulp. I watched Harry eat. He pried loose a leaf, and nonchalantly whisked it through the sauce, coating it ever-so-slightly before raising it from bowl to lips. His movements were deliberate, but subtle, almost as though he weren’t eating at all, so that the artichoke became an appendage to our conversation.
Éclaire, who sat on Harry’s left, was another story. She poked at the vegetable as though she was pulling apart a dead animal’s innards. I might be mistaken, but I believe she even winced.
“The last time I ate one of these,” she said, “I pricked my palate. My dentist told me to stay away from sharp legumes. They can be very dangerous. I hate food you have to work at.”
I suddenly imagined Harry and Éclaire in bed, Éclaire trying her best to gingerly give her husband a blow job, but being ever so careful lest, with one false move, Harry’s seminal fluid might, in Monica Lewinsky style, soil her 450-thread count percale sheets. My guess was she never swallowed—that was a definite no-no for a woman as well put together as Éclaire. If she was having difficulty maneuvering an artichoke, how could she handle something as messy as sex? Perhaps I could write about that for the Seaport Gazette.
Excerpted from Seducing Harry by Judith Marks-White. Copyright © 2007 by Judith Marks-White. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.