Crayfish Gloucester (1934)


A tasty luncheon dish of crayfish and lobster, courtesy of "Elsie de Wolfe's Recipes for Successful Dining".

The most wonderful thing about reading old cookery books is the social-history aspect. One learns so much about other times: how people lived, how they dined, how they entertained. And very often one comes across a name that is half-forgotten now, at least in some circles, especially so in books peppered with recipes submitted by the author’s friends. Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining, published in 1934, is rich with names, from titled European aristocrats to obscure American socialites, names that will send you straight to Google to learn more. Such as Henry Davis Sleeper.

The Golden Step Room at Beauport, in Gloucester Massachusetts, the summer home of Henry Davis Sleeper.

Not long ago my husband and I decided to delve once again into de Wolfe’s famous compendium, and we chose to try Crayfish Gloucester, a recipe given her by Sleeper, who lived in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The name of this influential bachelor aesthete is little know today outside of design-groupie circles but Sleeper (1878—1934) was an antiquarian extraordinaire and an adventuresome decorator to boot, a man whose passion for historic design and architecture informed Beauport, the eccentric and inspiring 56-room house he built on Boston’s North Shore in increasingly elaborate stages between 1907 and 1929. After serving as director of the Paris office of American Field Service during World War One, the energetic Sleeper returned to the United States and became an integral part of the burgeoning historic-preservation movement, advising on landmark sites as well as decorating for clients passionate about America’s past, including museum founder Henry Francis du Pont, millionaire F. Frazier Jelke, and chemicals magnate R. T. Vanderbilt. Sleeper’s incredible story has not been told at book length, however, and further complicating matters is the discreet veil that has been drawn over his personal life. Only last fall, for example, has his homosexuality become part of the public-tour narrative at Beauport. Luckily Philip A. Hayden, an architectural historian and independent scholar, has been labouring away on the first-ever Sleeper biography, a book whose publication I await with bated breath. Until then, click here to read more about Sleeper, his life, and his extraordinary residence.

An oil portrait of Henry Davis Sleeper.

In addition to creating inventive rooms out of recycled materials saved from historic houses slated for demolition, Sleeper was a terrific host, and Crayfish Gloucester was a dish he served frequently at Beauport, where the guest list included Elsie de Wolfe, artist Cecilia Beaux, inventor John Hays Hammond, King Gustav of Sweden, and the redoubtable art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner. It’s easy to see why that particular recipe was popular in Sleeper’s household—it’s creamy, spicy, and refreshingly cool. Unfortunately the recipe is frustratingly vague when it comes to proportions, so you’ll just have to do a bit of guesswork like we did to determine the per-person proportions. The effort will be worth it. FYI: You can also use frozen or otherwise prepared lobster meat to make the preparation easier.

CRAYFISH GLOUCESTER

SOURCE: Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining (1934)

DIRECTIONS

Cook crayfish in boiling salted water for 5 minutes. Cook small lobsters in a court bouillon for 12 to 15 minutes or a large one for 25 minutes. When cold cut the lobster meat into pieces and mix with the meat of the crayfish and a mayonnaise dressing to which have been added a teaspoonful of chili sauce and a dash of paprika. Serve in crystal cups garnishing with a circle of lettuce leaves. Decorate the top with the red portions of the crayfish. Serve very cold.

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25 comments on “Crayfish Gloucester (1934)

  1. Brilliant recipe and history. I love Sleeper’s house. It is a mad, inspired collection of objects and rooms and I can imagine his guests enjoying this dish in the space.
    Elsie’s recipe is a little like recipes for the royals centuries ago… the cook would have known the proportions!

    • It took us a while to figure out, and as my husband noted, peeling the lobster and crayfish was hellish work for so little meat. Still I recommend it highly.

  2. vicky says:

    i love the photo of the room, where did you get it? would love to see the book it came from?

  3. Balsamfir says:

    It is adventurous trying to cook from the past. I remember one disastrous anchovy/egg/cream thing I made from MFK Fisher’s recipes. Since then, I test older recipes alone first, before subjecting anyone else. If I knew where to get crayfish this one would be fun to try for the summer.

  4. balsamfir says:

    I’d have to really like them quite a lot. But lobster is my childhood favorite. Hmmm…

  5. I’d eat Shoeleather Gloucester if it were served in that room. As lovely as it is in photograph, nothing can convey what a perfect marriage of color and light to location, how fresh it is to walk into it, windows open to the harbor, on a sparkling summer day

  6. Bruce says:

    By the way, do you grow sorrel? It is the basis for the queen of all soups- Potage Germiny which was a great favorite of Elsie’s. It’s a perenial,and deserves a spot in the garden of anyone who loves food.

    You’ve addled me with all this foolishness about giving up AAL. Please keep this site going.

  7. Fred says:

    First of all, thank you for both blogs, even though you’re stopping AAL. I’ve enjoyed both, but was especially pleased when you started the second because I learned to cook using the “Mapie” book, which was given to me by a dear friend, who kept a stack of them in a cupboard because the author was a distant relation.

    I’m writing to share a recipe inspired by the Scottish Barbecued Chicken you ran in February. It’s not all that similar, but it’s delicious, and lighter than many of the old recipes. I’ll be especially interested to hear, if you make it, if your daughter likes it! It’s an easy stir-fry recipe, or almost a non-recipe, and you can serve it with rice and steamed broccoli with olive oil and lemon juice – or use an olive/lemon oil. All you do is cut boneless chicken breast into bite-size pieces and toss in equal amounts of dry mustard and powdered ginger, with some salt – sort of a rub. I used 1-1/2t dry mustard and the same of powdered ginger, and only 1 t of salt. Well, that’s what I wrote on the index card, but I really just dumped the ingredients together, mixed them, and then tossed the chicken in them. I stir-fried the chicken in grapeseed oil (because of its high smoking point) and then drizzled Worchestershire Sauce and Honey. Bitters might be a good idea too! It comes out with a nice glaze, and the ginger tastes surprisingly bright. I usually prefer fresh ginger, but this is a good use of the dried.

  8. Sally Chamberlain says:

    So glad the cook is still bubbling away & thank you for telling us about Henry Sleeper who sounds like someone we would love to have dinner with and Beauport is definitely a place to see!

  9. Charlotte says:

    Sounds sort of like a roumalade sauce? I love the idea of combining crawfish with lobster and find it amusing since lobster seems to have been cheaper than crawfish this season!

  10. geo.p.davis says:

    I guess this will be my very last negative word. Presented, as you have,the de Wolfe’s ‘curiosity’ looks beyond appetizing. It speaks of Russian dressing or mayonnaise saturated fruits de mer. Crayfish Gloucester, indeed! At the very least, she would have tumbled a few pieces of the lobster, a dollop of roe and finely chopped egg on top of this gelatinous mess.

    • I’m sure she must have done something to jazz up its looks! Next time we make it, we surely shall try harder to make it more appealing to the eye. Tasted just fine though as pictured!

  11. Beauport is one of the wonders of New England! I have been starved for more information on the talented Mr. Sleeper ever since stumbling on the house
    quite accidently some ten years ago. Thank you for this post and the good news that a biography of Henry is in the works! Hurrah!

  12. rory walsh says:

    Hello,

    I would like to talk to you about using an image from your blog, but i can’t find your contact info anywhere, please contact me at rory.walsh@nytimes.com.

    thank you

  13. Penelope Bianchi says:

    Oh Thank God you are still here!! I, too, am addled since the demise of AAL. Fortunately, and quite by accident, I saved some of my favorite columns! (because I sent them to someone; and they lay like buried treasure in my “sent” folder!!!)

    I won’t print them, (I guess I can’t); but I do reread them!

    Beauport!!!!!!! YOU MUST go! Do as Down E D says! go in the summer. That room is my favorite I have EVER been in! The table to the left is against an enormous window that drops down into the wall and overlooks the harbor. One row of chairs…….Ohmiheart!
    The first time I went on the tour; the guide kept having to fetch me; so I bought ten tickets and kept going through all day! Prepare yourself! You really won’t believe it!

    Penelope

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