Chapter Two: A Legend Lands
Three jumbo sized women circulated skillfully around the big long white kitchen of Cima del Mundo (meaning crest of the world), their dark skin contrasting nicely with starched pink uniforms and tiny white aprons trimmed in black. They wore peaked white coronets on their heavily oiled and crimped hair. The trio were all but high jacked several years before when Mr. Knight, the now divorced husband of the great estate’s mistress, Lora, petulant with too much gin, demanded the owner of Antoine’s, New Orleans premier restaurant, to give him one of his chefs to take home. Since the old tyrant controlled interests in enterprises like the Diamond Match Co., the National Biscuit Co. and four companies that eventually became part of United States Steel, the stressed proprietor agreed. Several weeks later Mama Genet, Fayola and Leatrice, each one refusing to go without the others, appeared at the servant’s entrance to start work.
Since the Mr. and Mrs. Were both away, they were welcomed in by a puzzled staff and directly set about making rich scented stocks, polishing all the copper pots and shining up the extensive stainless steel counters. They made big market lists that Paco assembled at Diehls and delivered with delight because it was such an event. These ladies always greeted him with rollicking Bourbon Street lingo, a little naughty and so outrageously comical that it tickled him to the bone. “C’mon over here an give ole Mama some sugar” grabbing him and bouncing him onto her big lap. “Whatchall brought me today?” In the basket and containers were the makings for all the spectacular sauces and dishes that made their famous mentors considered among the finest chefs in the world.
Exceedingly proud of her sauce making ability, Mama Genet could deftly recreate the important building blocks of Antoine’s grand cuisine. These were; “Alciatore”, a unique combination of sweet brown pineapple sauce and a rich Béarnaise that was a favorite with lamb or beef, “Champignons”, fresh mushrooms in a buttered red wine sauce, “Marchand de Vin”, a classic red wine sauce, “Bearnaise”, the much loved savory variation of a Hollandaise spiced with tarragon and dry white wine and finally the cooks’ best secret culinary weapon, “Demi-bordelaise”, a serious reduction of stocks, secret herbs and wine finished with garlic and butter.
Armed with these remarkable skills, the three could produce the very dishes that made New Orleans cooking so acclaimed. They served up; “Poulet Rochambeau”, thick slices of roasted chicken breast with Antoine's original style of roux, slow cooked to a deep chocolate brown and a rich Béarnaise over a slice of baked ham. “Cotelettes d'agneau grilles”, prime center cut lamb chops grilled and served with mint jelly. “Tips de filet of beef en brochette”, sauce Marchand de Vin. “Delmonico Centercut Ribeye” au Champignons et a la sauce au Demi-Bordelaise.
They could also make exceptional versions from the fish menu like; “Filet de Truite au Vin Blanc”, filet of speckled trout in a white wine, shrimp, and oyster sauce then baked with a light bread crumb and cheese gratinee. Trout three ways, meuniere, a lemon butter sauce, almondine, with sliced almonds and “Truite Pontchatrain”, a signature dish was trout with crabmeat sautéed in brown butter. Mama had lots of styles of pompano and crab available at a moments notice but maybe most glorious of all her dishes were the Pommes de Terre Souffle. These were large puffled balls of deep fried whipped potatoes well seasoned that had a crunchy outside and an inside that literally melted in the mouth. They did almost always accompany her sensational entrées of meat fish or fowl.
And Fayola, dear awesome Fayola, grinning ear to ear with her big pink lips over snow white teeth, could roll out Antoine’s complete desert menu without a hitch. She made Pudding de Pain de Noix de Pecan, Meringue glacee, Peche Melba, Chocolat Crème glacée, Cerises jubilee (served flaming), Mousse au chocolat, Creme renversee au caramel, the much prized Gateau chocolat d’Yvonne and a very special presentation of Baked Alaska.
So here they were, out in the middle of forty plus acres in the wooded and flowering hills of Montecito, California, cooking their hearts out, mainly for an amazed and appreciative staff of thirty-six, because their patrons were elsewhere seventy percent of the time. That is not to discount the many times the bosses’ offspring blew in unannounced with retinue.
They were living in lovely servants quarters in a sprawling hacienda with seven bedrooms, seven full bathrooms and five half bathrooms. The 22,000-square-foot manor house had a grand hall paneled in teakwood with a hand-painted barrel vaulted ceiling; a living room with a hand-carved vaulted teak ceiling; a formal dining room with a coffered walnut ceiling; a kitchen with a fireplace; a breakfast room with French doors and a sunroom. The master suite had an office, a sitting room and a bathroom with heated towel racks and a fireplace. The estate also had a secret 3,000-bottle-capacity wine cellar carefully hidden behind a tricky trompe l’oeil bookcase in deference to Prohibition, and a butler's pantry with silver drawers and china cabinets; a bowling alley; a billiards room; a gym and sauna (something Lora picked up on her many trips to Sweden); a 15-seat theater and adjoining lobby; a professionally equipped soda fountain; two laundry rooms; four safes; numerous lush gardens, a mosaic pool, and a waterfall. There was also a one-bedroom guesthouse featuring a full kitchen with large living room including a fireplace and that was the real focus for the events that April day in 1927, because only a month prior a certain extra tall lean and exceptionally handsome aviator named Charles Lindberg had just flown across the Atlantic nonstop to win a prize of $25,000 and the hearts of the world.
For the entirety of Cima del Mundo this was earthshaking since, miracle of all miracles, he was flying in to land in the meadow and stay for an undisclosed time with Lora to rest up and avoid the demands of a clawing world thirsty for every intimate detail of his personal story. That clearly was what had Mama, Fayola and Latrice, moving in quickstep to make all the preparations for a festive buffet and any dishes that their hero might want.
Lora Knight was an interesting woman. One curious factor was her preference to sleep on a screened porch instead of in her opulent bedroom. She was in her sixties by now and had distinguished herself with very generous philanthropic efforts in the form of funds for youth who needed money for higher education and as a major benefactor to the Christian Science church. This all dimmed in contrast to her most notable achievement and that was her almost complete financial backing of Lindberg’s flight across the Atlantic.
The old lady’s life had been tragically marred by the sudden death of her only son at age twenty-five. In her struggle to cope with this grief she had turned to psychics and séances in an attempt to contact his spirit. As coincidence would have it, one of the country’s largest centers of spiritualism, a quasi religious movement with the belief that spirits of the dead world have both the ability and the inclination to communicate with the living, was just a winding car ride over the mountains to the sea and the tiny community of Summerland from Lora’s estate. As a matter of fact the experience was still fresh in the mind of Mama Genet as she hustled around the big kitchen preparing for Lindberg.
Lora Knight had taken to bringing Mama along on these late night trips to Liberty Hall, the spot where the exceedingly expensive formal séances occurred. Experienced by growing up in New Orleans where a little gris gris was a common place remedy for all things, Mama was a reassuring companion. The medium favored by Mrs. Knight was a certain Harry Allen. He was sprightly, really hairy with full beard and wild mop. Allen would begin the ritual with a lengthy, some would say tiresome, lecture always long winded and painfully detailed on the underpinnings of the faith, punctuated only by his shooting down glass after glass of Old Grandad. This was a key feature of his technique. After awhile he inevitably drank himself into a stupor which made it possible to summon his guardian spirits who could, he claimed, usher in the dear departed who were wanted at the séance table to communicate with their loved ones. One especially potent spiritual liaison was a massive black man who liked to play cards, stood seven feet tall, and had hands that would touch the heads of many seated there. Mama Genet was sure she knew of him from her background growing up in the most magical and mysterious city on earth. “Maybe a relative of Marie Laveau”, she would muse with far away eyes.
Mama recalled this ritual began as always the night before but with new surreal dynamics. Flashes of lights and menacing sounds like animals scuffling made the little circle tremble with fear and the rough shocking antics of an apparently crazed Allen took on a new very physical turn. He fell upon each of the women and fondled them with wild-eyed relish, appearing helpless under his trance-like state. It wasn’t his fault that his hands grasped the silky under slip of a pretty big bosomed girl wriggling hopelessly to escape or the way his lips found the lap of Lora sitting stunned. When he made the huge mistake of falling toward Mama Genet, the evening was about to come to a crashing close. With one meaty dark fist she coiled back and let go to actually flatten the drunk mystic onto the big round table where he lay out cold as the little group moved toward the door leaving horrified. Genet recalling it all with wonder stroked her still aching fingers as she worked.
On this momentous day Mama and Fayola were busy producing Latrice’s specialties, Pralines, molded sweet potatoes in jelly and something she called “Food for the Gods Salad” that combined finely chopped apples, mandarin oranges, banana slices, pineapple hunks and pieces of marshmallows snipped with scissors. This all combined with stiff whipped cream sweetened with a special imported French violet syrup then sprinkled with toasted coconut and dotted with maraschino cherries.
Latrice, traumatized early by some undisclosed hunger, had taken to stacking and then counting hundreds of cans and provisions she had taken from the pantries and cellars to almost fill her room, hoarding so much that there was just a tiny pathway from her door, that always remained locked, to her small bed in the back. Hiding out in her room, a habit that typically flared up in times of stress, was usually sympathetically taken in stride but not today.
Mama was cursing Latrice and Fayola looked unnerved, her big eyes rolling and her wonderful lips pursed when suddenly the roar of a plane shattered the surroundings. “He’s comin now! Get on outta here!” The girls hiked their skirts and yelling for Latrice they ran out the door to the lawn where they had a view of the landing strip hastily created in the meadow far below. Like the second coming, the frenzy multiplied with all the staff, a bevy of step-children with friends and finally Lora Knight who walked forward to board the enormous Hispano-Suiza touring car, created to be the most elegant, respected, and exquisite automobile of all time. It was a light blue grey, a kind of pale teal, with tan trim and matching glove leather upholstery. Gunnar, the chauffeur who was imported from Sweden along with many elements for Lora’s other great estate, Vikingsholm, a castle on Lake Tahoe, was handsomely turned out in a dark tan uniform. He escorted the lady in and they were off to pick up a world weary Charles who stood with a small valise and a dopp kit at the stern of a glistening Spirit of St, Louis.
Cheers welcomed in the giant car humming to a stop at the entrance of the manor house. Lindberg alighted and revealed his towering rangy body. He had a stern yet noble face. His mouth was wide with thin lips that had a hint of a turn down at the corners. His lack of enthusiasm was excused, everyone just calling him a bit bashful. He was actually glaring back over his shoulder at the crowd following him now quietly, some on tip toes, at a respectful distance with big eyes. Lora walked him toward the guesthouse then shaking his hand left him to carry on with Gunnar and several others who would set him up in his new perfect hide out.
The little fan club, frankly puzzled by the icy encounter, broke into groups. Some milled around the front lawn making up excuses for a strange behavior while others headed back to their work and Lora, inside miffed, carried on, heading in to make a change for riding. Part of the young ones decided to go to the pool and the others followed Mrs. Knight for a day on horseback roaming through the soft sage Montecito hills now in spring dress superbly covered with patches of blue lupine and bright orange poppies.
Back in the kitchen now, the three cooks went to work heads down thinking about what a disappointment Mr. Charles Lindberg was. Mama announced after awhile, “Po child, he is bone weary and juss needs a good dinner to pump them spirits way up”. And so it was that after suitable bathing, powdering and primping, a big scrub up for the men, a very stylish collection of guests gathered for dinner on the long candlelit veranda of the hacienda. A quiet twilight had fallen on the lawn that sloped down to show the lighted doorway of the guest cottage in the distance. In spite of the inviting long long table with sunny yellow tablecloths, Spanish style dinnerware, baskets of oranges and small pots of roses with sprigs of rosemary, all eyes were fixed on the door of the guest house with expectation. Only when Lora rose to serve herself from the spectacular buffet amassed on a shelf affixed to the adobe exterior with massive wooden corbels, did the attention shift.
There marched a dazzling array of the best dishes from New Orleans with a definite spike of Spanish and California influences. First was “Huitres en coquille a la Rockefeller”, the famous appetizer of fresh oysters baked in the half shell on a bed of hot coarse salt, each with a secret sauce. Only Mama Genet knew the real recipe because she made it in Antoine’s kitchen every night for years. The primary ingredients were parsley, collard greens, strained celery, chives, olive oil and capers all chopped fine then sautéed in buttered bacon drippings with a teeny tiny splash of Pernod. This was spooned onto the oysters with a dash of Mcllhenny’s Tabasco then topped with breadcrumbs made from stale puffed pastry. Finally it was placed under the salamander broiler for brief minutes and then served to an adoring public. The dish was created in 1889, for John D. Rockefeller, the richest American who would be served with the richest of sauce.
Next on the buffet was the incomparable display piece called “Crevettes Remoulade” that presented a grand tiered silver bowl filled to overflowing with crushed ice surmounted with rows of boiled shrimp and crowned with a small crystal bowl of Antoine's unique Remoulade dressing. Again only Mama knew that it was made from the usual mayonnaise, finely chopped green onions and parsley, fresh lemon, cane sugar juice with chopped celery and the magic ingredient, a special Creole mustard. This mustard was made by the women and used frequently in place of the more common French style Dijon created with blander, yellow seeds. Mama’s mustard was powerful, pungent and made from the darkest brown mustard seeds with a spicy component also found in horseradish. She added touches of allspice and cayenne along with some drops of cane sugar syrup. They put this up in graceful glass jars with shiny black lids that Latrice covered in printed fabrics from flour sacks then tied with red twine. They were stored in the cool dark cellar to mature for several months before using.
Moving along the serving shelf there were several entrees of fish and meat along with a spicy version of Chili Rellenos that used Mama’s Creole creamed cheese to stuff the jalapeños in place of the typical California style with cheddar. Favorite side dishes were presented including the much adored, puffed and crunchy, Pomme Soufle followed by the salads where Latrice’s “Food for the Gods” was a stand out simply because she put it in a tall footed glass compote that beautifully displayed the layers of fruit and cream something like a trifle.
Finally there were Fayola’s sweet masterworks, “Creme Caramel” served in little Limoges ramekins and a gorgeous shiny dark “Gateau Chocolat d’Yvonne” standing tall on a china pedestal. She was hidden by the veranda door, watching to see the very moment when the presentation of Baked Alaska with an American flag and sparklers blazing would be wanted to fete the famous aviator with ultimate equanimity. Lora raised her fork and signaled to begin the feast, all eyes darting ever so often to the guesthouse door that refused to open.
Now bored for sitting so long, completely sated and a bit sour the group dispersed passing Fayola who stood eyes down, so disappointed that her glorious moment serving the hero never came. Lindberg as it would evolve never left the cottage during his entire stay but this was not on the minds of the rambunctious gang who gathered now sipping some of the best spirits and wines the secret cellar had to offer. Along about ten o’clock a group of seven, four men and three women, commandeered the oh so willing Gunnar and the Hispano Suiza for a little soiree into the town to have a taste of Café de Seville’s naughty back rooms. It was well known that this high-toned restaurant with a notable continental cuisine was a front for the speakeasy hidden below and always guarded by a giant intimidating doorman who demanded the password to enter.
Crossing the threshold that night, leaving Gunnar with the Suisa to forage around for the leftover wine and almost full bottle of Booth’s to keep him happy, was Corliss. She was small, rosy pink skinned scattered with tiny freckles and golden red hair in a loose curly bob secured that night with a peach colored satin headband that matched her scanty dress. She wore a collection of gold and pink pearl beads that hung to her waist and cream stockings held up with ribbon tied garters that peeked out when she walked in low heels.
Next came Amelia, called Melly, who was tall with dark hair in marcel waves and a red rose behind her ear with a perfect spiraled spit curl. Her dress, black lace, was far shorter in the front than the back. Carrying a fringed Spanish shawl, she was followed by Lillian done up in a pale grey and lavender evening suit that had a big fox fur collar. A grey cloche hid her sandy blond bob. A matching veil covered her lovely face that was frowning and fearful with trepidation. It was her first visit. Each one, waving delicately in long ecru kid gloves, whispered, “the rooster crows”, and was passed through the arched doorway that was glowing red and orange from within.
Lionel followed in his eccentric version of evening dress, a brocade smoking jacket with an ascot style tie. Looking European, his hair was slicked straight back and he was smoking a cigarillo from a small tortoise shell holder. Frank and Rennie strode through together in classical tuxedos a little boozy holding each other up and laughing about some inside joke. And last came Oren, quiet by nature, a writer of note in a tweed jacket, jodhpurs and boots, the same riding habit he had on all day. His large sweet blue eyes looked tired.
Lionel, Oren and the girls moved to a table near the small stage where a Flamingo guitarist was playing with facile fingers softly beating out a rhythm on the instrument from time to time. Frank and Rennie headed for the bar. It may be no surprise that the commanding figure working there was Sal Rodriguez, Soda Fountain Captain at Diehls by day and the notorious Seville Club Speakeasy barman by night. Here he could really be fully appreciated. His Peach Daiquiris alone brought the women in. The cocktail menu included names like, Clover Club, Honolulu, Dubonnet, Sazerac, Old Fashion and New Fashion, Bacardi Snow Ball, Singapore Sling, Silver Fizz, Golden Fizz, Royal Fizz, Cherry Blossom and Blue Moon. The most exciting, because they had a dangerously high percent of alcohol, were Ojen Frappes, made with what they called the absinthe of the Spanish aristocracy. An additional hazard, the Suissesse, really did call for absinthe and included anisette, orange flower water, white crème de menthe, all made frothy with egg white. Always popular with a dare devil was The Red Death, that was mostly vodka tinted with food coloring and touches of Amaretto, Triple Sec, Old Crow, Sloe Gin then finished with dashes of Orange and lime juice. Corliss and Lillian ordered one of Sal’s favorites with the ladies called Death By Chocolate with Dark Creme de Cacao, D'Artemis Coffee Liqueur, Vodka, Chocolate syrup, 2 Scoops of Chocolate Ice cream served blended with whipped cream and a cherry. Melly and the men wanted Martinis.
In the center of the main room was a large circular table where a stunning platinum blond, appearing to be nude under a skin colored net costume covered with faux pink diamonds and sequins, stood serving the Seville Club’s signature drink called “Pink Murder” in silver stemmed goblets. Elegant looking and passed out free, it was actually made with 14 cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, 1 1/2 liter Gin, 1 liter Raspberry Ginger Ale, 2 liters Pink Lemonade, all dumped in a giant crystal punch bowl with ice and floating gardenias.
Above her and to the right hanging from the rafters was a flower wrapped trapeze. There, in a golden spotlight, sat an auburn beauty with giant doe eyes, her lashes thick with black mascara. The lady’s most erotic elements were provocatively covered with small white camellias and her long gorgeous legs were silky with sheer white stockings ending in powder blue satin toe shoes that crisscrossed up her calves finishing with long bows. Her sensual derriere with two perfectly rounded cheeks hung out over the back of the swing and beckoned as she pumped gracefully.
On the left were three gaming tables and a huge roulette wheel tended by dark good looking men in modified Matador jackets glittering with gold, touches of aqua and bright cerise. Overall there was a multitude of moving points of light revolving out from the faceted mirror ball in the ceiling, slowly transforming the mood of the room through a spectrum from red to deep indigo.
The place was mobbed with a diverse collection of locals. Mingling together were business owners, shop workers, sports figures, tennis instructors, writers, artists and high-toned society figures, their wives, grown children and wealthy tourists so the tenor was wild but almost sedate by Chicago standards.
On this night Paco was helping Sal to move the bottles around. He was watching the action and swiftly refilling everything as needed. It had been almost a year since the earthquake. With a new appreciation for the reality that life is precious, a grateful town still held on to that spirit of celebration. The women, now able to vote, cut their hair and shortened their skirts to go with a new sense of freedom. They were up and dancing, smoking and drinking right along with the men.
Oren, the only sober one in the place was thinking hard, 'there must be casualties with this behavior', and as the other six joined the now drunken spree several incidents exploded that ended in their round up and speedy exit. First, Lillian, weaving her woozy way to the ladies room smelling of chocolate, walked into the wrong room to find a private poker game in progress. Nabbed by the giant paw of the one closest to her she was brutishly passed around for a fondling and then dropped to the floor. Her cloche fell off and her grey suit skirt was hiked up to see dainty flowered garters and expensive dove grey satin panties. The men, proving to be finally harmless, helped her up and gave her a big push out the door to join the melee now raging in the main room.
Sobbing in the ladies room Lillian was joined by Corliss who had an enormous chocolate brown stain starting from under her chin and spreading all the way to the hem of her pink satin frock with clumps of unknown material, possibly pieces of Fayola’s Gateau d’Yvonne, stuck in the gold and pearl beaded necklace. On the dance floor Melly and Lionel spun to a tango with such violence that it took several nearby to steady them and keep them from smashing into the big wheel of fortune. Melly, her mind blurred with way too much gin, thinking she fell into the arms of a famous Matador, began to nibble his ear then kiss the tip of his large nose. Delicately she brushed his lips with hers then opening his shirt she began to lick her way downward finally to be jerked away by a hysterical Lionel who laughed so hard he cried. Picking her up in his arms her red Spanish shawl almost covering his face he staggered blindly toward the exit.
Frank and Rennie, proper gentlemen that they were, had striped down to their white underwear shirts and had joined a line of men who were waiting to arm wrestle the champ, a vicious looking fellow with a pockmarked face, who sat at the bar beating everyone at the rate of fifteen dollars each. A long line of empty shot glasses in front of them, they had their tux jackets slung over a shoulder and Frank had taken two huge pickles out of a giant glass jar. Fingers dripping with vinegar and dill weed, he passed one to Rennie and the two began to fence just as Corliss with Lillian, her luminous eyes frozen, grabbed onto them begging, “Get us out of this place”. Oren, now bleary too, quietly herded everyone out to find the Suiza.
They joined Lionel and Melly who walked dazed and confused a long way until the huge brilliant car loomed ahead. Everyone was getting in and Lionel began beating on Gunnar yelling, “Get this thing going! Dam it man get going!” The stench from all the booze, and stomach acids combined with chocolate thanks to Corliss, made for a nasty ride. One by one they passed out not noticing that Gunnar was driving all over each side of the road as if depraved. Lost for something like an hour he slowly climbed the last segment of the driveway toward Cima del Mundo’s manor house, careening dangerously toward the deep ditch on one side and a fall of fifty or more feet on the other. Coming to the last severe turn, his instincts distorted, he spun out of control and the Suiza did loft it’s monstrous body into the air to fall and roll many feet below finishing upside down in a small canyon.
It was about seven the next morning when Paco, delivering his Diehls deluxe shipment of groceries, noticed the giant auto, wheels up, far down from the road. Parking, he climbed down to find Gunnar half in and half out from under the Suiza, barely conscious, just mouthing the word “hjalpa, hjalpa”. Knowing he alone could not move the car he rushed to the truck and at the house sounded an alarm for everyone to help with a rescue. Lora called for the firemen and ambulance along with the Sheriff. The entire gardening and maintenance staff, about a dozen strong men, arrived at the crash scene and rapidly set the car right freeing Gunnar but revealing the others. The hideous picture of such pitiful nestled human carnage would be forever in the nightmares of the onlookers.