Cooking the Book: Dinner with Publisher Daniel Halpern and Chef Wylie Dufresne | Modern Society of USA

Cooking the Book: Dinner with Publisher Daniel Halpern and Chef Wylie Dufresne

Cooking the Book: Dinner with Publisher Daniel Halpern and Chef Wylie Dufresne

When he was living in Tangier, the writer Paul Bowles befriended the Moroccan author and artist Mohamed Mrabet, who taught Bowles how to make a chicken tagine with almonds and prunes.

According to literary and culinary legend, the dish became a staple at dinner parties Bowles hosted, and he often made it for the poet and publisher Daniel Halpern, who lived in the apartment downstairs in the late 1960s. Halpern used the recipe, crediting Bowles, in his 1985 cookbook, “The Good Food,” which over the decades gained a cult following among writers and foodies (its devotees include the novelist Michael Chabon and the chef David Chang).

Early one evening last month, Mrabet’s chicken tagine — as interpreted by way of Bowles and Halpern — was served to a small group of writers at a dinner party hosted by chef Wylie Dufresne at his apartment near Union Square.

The guests — a group that included the novelists Francine Prose and Jennifer Egan, the short story writer Deborah Eisenberg, the writer and foodie celebrity Padma Lakshmi and the journalist Steve Kornacki — had assembled to celebrate the republication of “The Good Food,” which Halpern is releasing this month through his own imprint, Ecco.

To mark the occasion, Dufresne threw a dinner party in Halpern’s honor and cooked a few of his recipes — a celery and raw mushroom salad with Emmenthaler cheese, followed by risotto with radicchio and the chicken tagine.

“This is very unfussy food,” said Dufresne, a food industry pioneer who is known for more inventive and technically challenging fare involving cubes of fried mayonnaise and something called meat glue. “I was thinking of what made sense for a family-style meal, which is very much not the way I cook.”

The small but lively party was like a Venn diagram of Halpern’s literary and foodie circles.

“I don’t know that you made any mistakes, man, that’s unnecessarily harsh,” Dufresne replied.

Still, Dufresne, as the professional cook among the pair, carried the weight of authority. Originally, Halpern and Dufresne had planned to cook together, but Dufresne took the lead.

“You were worried I was going to cut myself,” Halpern told him as Dufresne was preparing the salad.

“I didn’t want you to use this,” Dufresne agreed, holding up a razor-sharp mandoline.

The guests gathered around and watched in awe-struck silence as Dufresne rapidly sliced raw mushrooms into paper-thin slices on the mandoline. Dufresne tried to reassure the writers that they possessed technical skills he lacks.

“If it would make all of you feel better, I can’t type,” he said.

Dufresne and Halpern briefly conferred about the salad dressing — Halpern agreed that it could use a little lemon zest, which wasn’t in the original recipe.

Lakshmi offered to serve the salad. Everyone took a seat at the table.

“This is delicious,” Prose said. “It makes you think celery has been so overlooked.”

“Who knew?” Eisenberg added.

After a brief discussion of the underrated charm of celery, talk turned, as it tends to these days, to the Trump administration, then, less predictably, to serial killers.

It was time for the next course.

“We’re eating from around the globe tonight,” Dufresne explained. “I was trying to see the world through your eyes,” he said to Halpern.

“I don’t think you want to do that,” Halpern said.

The stew was delicious, everyone agreed, a sweet, savory contrast to the bright tartness of the cooked radicchio. Halpern and Dufresne traded compliments, as Halpern praised Dufresne’s cooking, and Dufresne generously credited the recipes.

The writers began comparing their relatively meager cooking skills.

“I can’t imagine cooking or baking without getting immensely nervous,” Eisenberg said.

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