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Fluted mushrooms and marshmallow-cola ice cream: the culinary talents of an American model turned war photographer turned dinner party host.

From the famed bacchanalian feasts of ancient Rome to elaborate Victorian-era affairs to the sophisticated soirées of more modern times, the dinner party is engrained in the psyche of human sociability. Fads such as handwritten place settings may come and go, but the premise of hosting friends, acquaintances and coveted companions is here to stay.

Somewhat unorthodox guidance on this pursuit comes in the form of a new book charting the life of Lee Miller, the legendary photographer turned acclaimed photojournalist, turned cook and entertainer. Lee Miller: A Life with Food, Friends and Recipes is, in part, a cookbook featuring many of Miller’s meticulously researched recipes.

Born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1907, Miller left for New York City where, thanks to her striking looks, she started modeling for Vogue by the age of 20. Quickly finding herself at the rough end of the modeling world, she then took off to Paris, where she eventually became the assistant (and lover) of the photographer Man Ray. There, she began to acquire an understanding of fine food. It was the years during World War II, when she toured Europe photographing the impending liberation, however, that would become the most formative of her extraordinary career.

  • Words:
    David Plaisant

Partly traumatized by what she had seen and also restless for change, Miller’s postwar life took an unexpected turn. She became pregnant with British artist and curator Roland Penrose’s child, quickly divorced her Egyptian husband (she had lived in Cairo for six years in the ’30s) and gradually settled into a life split mainly between London and a farmhouse in Sussex.

The success of a dinner is, without doubt, dependent on the guests invited, and Miller’s were almost unrivaled in the transatlantic artistic circles of the ’50s and ’60s. A cover girl, traveler, surrealist photographer (she pioneered so-called solarization technique together with Man Ray) and wartime reporter (she was famously photographed in Adolf Hitler’s bathtub by David Sherman), Miller now found herself at the center of a flourishing world of contemporary art. She cooked for and entertained Picasso, Joan Miró, Henry Moore and countless others. Little surprise, then, that Miller’s parties were ripe with the prerequisite of any successful dinner: “Intellectual (i.e. good) conversation was as much a necessity to her as breathing,” says author Ami Bouhassane, also Miller’s granddaughter.

With a rare life story and table guests that make for compelling reading on their own, it could be easy to lose sight of what this remarkable woman actually liked to cook at her now-famous meals. Thankfully, we are informed in intricately researched and lovingly told detail by the author. It quickly becomes clear that Miller was both a pioneer of international cuisine and innovative in her approach. We hear of Miller’s numerous trips to the Middle East through mouthwatering excerpts taken from letters she wrote to many of her gastronomically inclined friends, writers and fellow journalists. For instance, Miller’s great friend Bettina McNulty recalls a trip to Egypt the two made in 1963: “We used that flat Arab bread, which splits, to form a hollow bowl to hold our food so had no need for plates […] To that we added tomatoes with fresh basil. The cold soft-boiled eggs we thought at first must have been a mistake. But though hard to eat delicately, they topped off our menu perfectly. A lovely drink, called karkadeh, made by infusing hibiscus flowers, was a pink and perfect thirst quencher in the hot Egyptian sun, and it wasn’t even iced.”

These voyages would imbue the meals back in London and Sussex with flavors and techniques previously unknown to Miller’s guests. Trips to Norway (after winning a government-funded smörgåsbord-making competition), Spain, Morocco and elsewhere, provoked sumptuously themed soirées where guests were indulged with foreign fare. Fresh from her Norwegian adventure, for example, Miller served her prize-winning dish: “Penroses’ liver pate piped to look like flowers onto mushrooms that had been cooked in Madeira, butter and lemon juice then sprinkled with paprika […] Crab mousse, Janssons Temptation, rice salad, celeriac & mussels, pate, duck salad (tongue), Swedish meatballs, new potatoes, gaffelbiter (dill and wine sauces) and salted herrings with sour cream, dill and potatoes (cold).” Aside from recipes and a very palpable sense of Miller’s almost academic quest to serve the right dish, we learn of an approach to entertaining that was all her own. Meals in Sussex were the antithesis of the rigid, formal affairs that permeated the postwar period. Miller seemed to revel in the creation of a bohemian way of life for her guests; a firmly relaxed modus operandi was the order of play. In a 1951 letter to Audrey Withers, her editor at Vogue, Miller set out some of the rules of entertaining she had devised in Sussex. High on the list: “I don’t want to spend the cocktail hour alone in the kitchen, losing my appetite from progressive tastings.”

An imperative of enjoyment (both for guest and host) pervades and Miller went so far as to give advice on how to avoid that age-old post-dinner mood killer, the washing up: “Anyone with sense says promptly after lunch ‘I always sleep after meals’. I find it immensely endearing because that’s just what I am going to do myself, and tuck them away in a darkened small room.”

Humor and humility, as well as an air of wry wit, comes from each page of this fascinating cookbook/anthology. Lee Miller’s consummate talents as an entertainer, cook and intellectual are made vividly clear in this very personal account. Aside from the most desirable table guests of the time and her astonishing menus, there is no doubt that it was Miller’s personality that was the most important ingredient to her truly delectable lunches and dinners.

“Anyone with sense says promptly after lunch ‘I always sleep after meals’.”

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