Between New York swans Gloria Guinness and Babe Paley, who served the more diminutive of nouvelle cuisine’s prized vegetables in the 1960s?
Don’t get easily impressed by vegetables in diapers, those Lilliputian versions of your favorite plant edibles like carrots, corn, cucumber, and cauliflower that, as chefs would like to think, magically turn your plate into a work of art.
Some of them are real babies, plucked out of the earth before they get the chance to mature. Others are only trying to impress you with their diminutive charm. A baby carrot, for instance, is no baby. You could call it Esther or Leena, if you recall that character from the 2009 horror Orphan, but the subject of hypopituitarism has no place at the table, so let’s just say it is in fact a grown-up carrot resized into such childlike proportions that when you see it in a dish or on top of a cake, you’re likely to say, “Oh, how cute!”
Little veggies were a big thing for the society ladies of the mid-1900s. They make a grand appearance in La Côte Basque, Truman Capote’s social suicide of a novella that caused his fall from grace as darling of New York society’s most stylish women, especially Babe Paley, his very best friend, the doyenne of mid-20th-century New York social scene, and the woman Truman was said to have referred to as the one he would have liked to marry if he were straight.
Babe would have said the same, though of course, like Johnny Galliher—“whose Irish dimples some hostesses find irresistible,” according to W Magazine—to Elsie de Wolfe, Truman to Babe, who loved him nonetheless, might have been only “the Walker,” a phrase coined by W’s founder John B. Fairchild to describe “those spiffy, quick-witted, usually gay men ever ready to accompany a socialite on her daily rounds.”
‘The greenest petits pois, infinitesimal carrots, corn so baby-kerneled and tender it seems almost unborn, lima beans tinier than mice eyes, and the young asparagus!’
But to steer our conversation back to these “suckling” veggies, in La Côte Basque, the narrator raves about the most beautiful vegetables in the homes of the very rich, including Babe’s, the greatest variety, but he mentions only the juveniles—“The greenest petits pois, infinitesimal carrots, corn so baby-kerneled and tender it seems almost unborn, lima beans tinier than mice eyes, and the young asparagus!”
In the imagined conversations of The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Melanie Benjamin’s novel retelling Capote’s falling out with his New York swans, Babe is quoted as saying when Truman dropped her home after “borrowing” her from her husband, CBS founder Bill Paley, and Bill asked her what was for dinner, “Lamb chops—so tender you can eat them with a spoon!—and these adorable baby vegetables I found in the city, and brought out with me today in a little wicker basket.”
There are no records of Gloria Guinness serving infantile vegetables but I have no doubt she did. I am almost sure the words “tiny” or “baby” would have been listed among her instructions to her two chefs, who were among the most important in her retinue of travel companions, including at the very minimum a “kitchen maid, a personal maid, valet, and three chambermaids,” according to a 1962 profile in Time magazine.
The Guinnesses had many reasons to throw fabulous dinners. They had multiple homes around the world that they visited often, not to mention three planes, including an Avro Commander and a chopper. Among these homes were a plush apartment at the Waldorf Towers in Manhattan, a Paris mansion seven stories tall, Villa Zanroc in Lausanne, a Palm Beach estate, an Acapulco resort, a stud farm in Normandy, and the Calypso, a luxurious 350-ton yacht. Aboard the yacht, Gloria had taken her frenemy Babe on many Mediterranean cruises, including the time she was said to have told Babe to come casual, nothing fancy, only to show up at dinner, to Babe’s horror, dripping with diamonds in a custommade Balenciaga or Givenchy gown, instructing the crew to dock on a nearby island to attend a fancy dress-up.
Unlike the diamonds and the onyx, as well as the single Baroque pearl, in Babe’s Verdura swan brooch, not all miniature vegetables are the real deal. Not all baby veggies are like squash you can pick early with its blossoms still on while it is no more than three inches long or the baby corn you can twist and pull off the stalks of a regular corn plant a couple of days after the silks emerge out of its ear shoots. Others like baby turnips or baby artichokes are no infants, they are grownup—and smaller—siblings and cousins or mere lookalikes of regular vegetables that have stayed small. To illustrate, baby broccoli is a hybrid, a mature variety of a cross between your standard broccoli and kai-lan, a leaf vegetable native to China whose leaves, stems, and florets resemble those of broccoli. Baby turnips are a specialty variety, only one of the over 30 different varieties of turnip. Scallions or spring onion are no toddlers—they are a species of their own, Allium fistulosum, not quite the same as the onion species Allum cepa, except for its scaled down appearance.
Other mini veggies are no babies, either. Like the buttercrunch type of lettuce called Tom Thumb or the Mei Qing Choi variety of Chinese cabbage, they just never grow large. Either that or just like baby cauliflowers, fondly called mini-caulis, whose heads the British once found too large, can be raised in such a way, planted for instance at six-by-inch spacing, that they never grow too large for, say, sautéed Florentino, drenched in herb oil and served as a lovely side to halibut.
The English people are said to have pioneered the taste for tiny vegetables in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until these babies caught the fancy of French chefs in the 1960s and the 1970s that they went mainstream.
Ahead of their time, and always looking to outdo each other, Babe Paley and Gloria Guinness made a point of their personal chefs turning plates, especially of side dishes, into a playground of the innocents.
To Babe and Gloria, sometimes friends, often rivals, the miniatures were as important as the presence of pretty girls at a dinner party.
“I like to have two pretty girls at each table if possible. make it more festive because they are as decorative as a bouquet of flowers,” said Babe.
Gloria had the same idea. “…have lots of tables, lots of soft candlelight, lots of pretty girls in pretty dresses, two or three bars, and two different places for your supper buffet,” she said.
And make sure, I imagine they would tell their chefs, the zucchinis are tender and mild and cute, harvested before, like human skin at a certain age, they have thickened.