Joseph B. Platt and his wife, June, were one of the American design world’s golden couples for a good portion of the mid-twentieth century, though their names are barely recalled today. An interior designer and art director who decorated sets for Broadway plays and Hollywood films — among them Gone With the Wind, Rebecca, and Portrait of Jennie — Platt (1895-1968) also was responsible for outstanding public and private interiors, including a chic 1950s Chinese restaurant called Gold Coin and a wonderful pair of trompe l’oeil painted chests of drawers he created for a house in Jamaica decorated by Ruby Ross Wood. He served as style director for Marshall Field’s too. The artist he married in 1919, and with whom he had two sons, was a daughter of prominent sculptor Rudulph Evans, famous for the 10,000-pound bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson that stands at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington.
Golden glow aside, Mr and Mrs Platt were testy people with what outsiders might consider a complicated marriage, an artist who knew the couple well told me a few weeks ago. “Mean-spirited” Joseph was an enthusiastic social climber with an appreciative eye for manly good looks, while the fragile-looking, well-connected June was a “snob of the first order.” In the 1920s, the couple relocated to the highly social French commune of Senlis, north of Paris, where Platt worked as a correspondent for Vanity Fair, Vogue, and House & Garden. They also hoped to become leaders of the vibrant expat community, but that plan didn’t take, it seems — nobody much liked them, it seems — so the Platts returned to New York City and took up where they left off.
For June Platt (1898-1977), this meant designing home furnishings under her husband’s name, from wallpaper to rugs, as well as collaborating with him on murals. A particularly grand example, depicting the history of the region, wraps the dining room at the Country Club of Detroit, in Grosse Point Farms, Michigan. She also wrote about food and entertaining for House & Garden and produced several cookery books, including The June Platt Cook Book (Alfred A. Knopf, 1959). The copy on my shelf belonged to James Beard and bears his bookplate. I have never used it, to be honest. I bought the volume solely for the graphic yellow-and-blue jacket and the charming photograph of June Platt by Wilbur T. Pippin, who deserves to be studied more closely. (His distinctive portraits of Beat writer Jack Kerouac and decorator-dealer Rose Cumming are justifiably admired.) On Sunday morning, however, I decided to make a late lunch from its pages. After all, didn’t Beard praise June Platt as “a great authority on food” and “an incomparable and creative cook,” compliments echoed by industrial designer Raymond Loewy (her recipes, he wrote, “combine subtlety with lightness”) and actress Ilka Chase (the daughter of Vogue editor in chief Edna Woolman Chase called Platt “not only the prettiest cook I have ever known, but one of the most expert”)?
Our daughter requested a meal centered on her favorite crustacean, so June Platt’s Shrimp in Cream with Hominy (page 105) was the recipe we all agreed upon. Flavor-wise it is related to a dish we feasted upon several months ago at a friend’s house in Cooperstown, New York. Prepared by an amazing cook named Liz, who hails from Alabama, that particular main course was rib-sticking comfort food from the American South, delicate pink shrimp and pale yellow grits swirled together with melted cheese and kept warm in a chafing dish on the sideboard. Platt’s version has no cheese, however, while the shrimp — cooked first in homemade boullion and then in butter and cream spiked with black pepper — is spooned over steaming hominy grits. Even with the proportions reduced for a family of three and some minor adjustments (noted below), Platt’s recipe is as tasty as its Cooperstown cousin. Just don’t tell Liz.
SHRIMP IN CREAM WITH HOMINY
SOURCE: The June Platt Cook Book (Alfred A. Knopf, 1958)
2 quarts water
1 onion [peeled and cut in half]
1 clove garlic [peeled]
1 bay leaf
Pinch of thyme [NOTE: I used dried thyme]
1/2 red-pepper pod [NOTE: I used a whole dried habañero, plus one dried chile guajillo]
2 stalks celery [snapped in half]
2 tablespoons salt [NOTE: I used Reese’s coarse sea salt]
3 to 4 pounds shrimp [NOTE: I used shelled frozen, thawed in warm water, tails removed]
3 to 4 tablespoons [unsalted] butter
2 to 3 cups heavy cream
Salt [to taste]
Freshly ground black pepper
2 strips lemon peel
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Hominy grits [NOTE: I reheated leftover polenta]
1. Make a boullion by simmering together for 15 minutes the water, onion, garlic, bay leaf, thyme, red-pepper pod, celery, and 2 tablespoons salt.
2. Add the well-washed shrimp and simmer for 10 minutes. Let the shrimp cool in the boullion, then shell them, and remove the black veins. [NOTE: Thawed frozen shrimp, already shelled, allows you to skip most of this direction. Also be sure to strain and save the boullion, freezing it to use later as a restorative broth to sip during cold weather or incorporated into risotto or as a base for soup.]
3. Put the shrimp in a saucepan with 3 to 4 tablespoons butter. Heat until the butter has melted; add 2 to 3 cups heavy cream, a little salt, and plenty of fresh, coarsely ground black pepper. Add lemon peel. Simmer for 4 minutes and add lemon juice.
4. When the mixture boils up once, [remove from the heat and] serve in a hot dish [or tureen]. Serve in [warm] soup plates over a bed of steaming hominy grits.