My favorite photo from the Lorado Taft biography is the shot of Taft and his associates and friends gathered around a large table in the Midway Studios. They look like they’re having a wonderful time – even the cat in the background is well fed.
So as I have been working up my appetite for good Thanksgiving food, I’ve been wondering what Lorado liked to eat. I’ve read many items about parties, and gatherings, and good company, but I couldn’t recall any mentions of food! When I look closely at this wonderful picture of the “groaning board,” all I can see is cups and saucers – no food! So I pulled out all the books and began searching.
I began with Allen Weller’s Lorado in Paris (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press) 1985. Surely, with all the letters Lorado wrote home, there would be descriptions of marvelous meals and other French delicacies. And bingo! Lorado is just about to be accepted into the Dumont studio at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and he has been invited to join about 30 students at a grand feast to celebrate the new year – an annual, much-anticipated gathering:
“I assured them that I never drank but bowed my acknowledgements when they drank to the health of the nouveau. The first course was cigarettes, 2nd, sardines, bread, wine, 3d, wine, 4th, beefsteak and bread – also new bottles of wine, 5th, wine and cigars, 6th, coffee, 7th, wine. Of course I patronized the sardines, steak, and bread with due interest, and I found a glass of café noir excellent.…” (page 62)
Umm. Not quite the spread I was imagining, but we know now that he likes sardines, bread, and steak.
Weller wrote about Lorado’s meticulous records when keeping track of his finances, and explained that he could keep food expenses to twenty-five sous a day. Not much for a growing boy! His letters home often asked for details of the family’s meals:
“Please never omit mentioning what you have to eat – it is so consoling to me. I always mark the paragraph to read when I am hungry. May I have a piece of custard pie when I come?” (page 115)
Weller is quick to point out that, while Lorado thought frequently of home and family and was a faithful correspondent, he was never really homesick.
“This morn as we boys gathered around the festive board in Madame Lenard’s little cup-board of a back room, and bouillon and beef was fast disappearing on all sides, the silence was suddenly broken by Bringhurst who remarked impressively ‘I hope you are enjoying your Thanksgiving dinner, boys!’ Our French companions inquired in startled tones ’Q’est q’il dit la?’ while we gazed with mingled emotions into each other’s stern features. So it was actually Thanksgiving! Strange to say however we devoted very little time to reflection on the subject for the moment at least. Stokes looked slightly pathetic as he made his usual complaints over his beef steak and I suppose Brewster mused with secret longings on the ‘flesh pots’ and turkeys of Boston, but the majority of our little group whetted their teeth and attacked manfully the toughest concoctions that ever good, smiling Madame ever fished out of her great unwashed cauldrons.” (page 158)
Weller later writes that, when Lorado once again attended the annual gathering of the Atelier Dumont to celebrate his third year, he actually saved the carte de menu for the occasion among his papers. Now we’re getting somewhere! This must have been a spectacular dinner! But wait:
“The menu itself is much more elaborate than the fare which was usual on Rue Vavin …” writes Weller, “a clever drawing with birds and cupids arriving by air around a classic column, carrying Grand prix banners, and three figures in classic, Renaissance, and semi-nude costumes trudging forward carrying tubs of clay, pails, and shovels…” (page 205)
My research project was proving more difficult than I had expected! Taft had met his future wife, Carrie, and her mother when they were visiting Paris. Weller wrote that the two women soon began attending the Sketch Club, which met in Lorado’s studio, and the Fortnightly Club. They must have dined in some interesting places and tasted some new dishes, right? In one of Lorado’s letters home, he writes that “good Mrs. Scales” brought him a half dozen doughnuts wrapped up in a paper,” a fact that seemed more important than that Carrie was there for the delivery. (page 236)
That exhausted my search in Weller’s book, and I guess I’ll have to wait until next year to find out whether there are any significant mentions of food in his new book about Lorado’s Chicago years. But I vaguely recalled a description of a feast in Hamlin Garland’s book, A Daughter of the Middle Border (New York: Grosset & Dunlap) 1921. The Heckmans had invited Garland to join the group at the Eagle’s Nest Artists Colony for a grand Sunday dinner:
“At last at one o’clock, Lorado, as Chief of the tribe, gave the signal for the feast by striking a huge iron bar with a hammer, a sound which brought the campers from every direction, clamoring for food, and when all were seated at the dining table beneath a strip of canvas, someone asked, ‘Where’s Zuhl?’”
Oh … this description is not about the food! Hamlin has a gigantic crush on Lorado’s sister, Zulime, and the Heckmans have invited him to dinner to get the two of them together. (This photo came from Jan Stilson’s book, Art and Beauty in the Heartland:The Story of the Eagle’s Nest Art Camp (Bloomington, Ind.: AuthorHouse) 2006. It is from the personal collection of Mary Taft Smith.)
Lorado had told him that she was involved with another man, and he had backed off. She had gone to Paris, and upon returning, appeared to once again be available.
“… Spencer Fiske the classical scholar of the camp with fervent admiration exclaimed ‘By Jove – a veritable Diana!’ Browne started the Toreador’s song, and all began to beat upon the tables with their spoons in rhythmical clamor. Turning my head I perceived the handsome figure of a girl moving with calm and stately dignity across the little lawn toward the table. She was bareheaded, and wore a short-sleeved, collarless gown of summer design, but she carried herself with a leisurely and careless grace which made evident the fact that she was accustomed to these moments of uproar…. This entrance so dramatic and so lovely was precisely the kind of picture to produce on my mind a deeply influencing impression….” (page 105)
Well, Hamlin and Zulime got married, but we still don’t have much of a clue of this artistic band’s eating preferences!
One last try: to Ada Bartlett Taft’s book Lorado Taft: Sculptor and Citizen (published by Mary Taft Smith, Greensboro, North Carolina) 1946. (After Lorado Taft’s first wife Carrie died in childbirth, Lorado married Ada and they lived happily ever after. After Lorado died, she wrote about their lives together.) Here she’s writing about the Midway Studios, and that wonderful “groaning board.”
“Lorado’s end of the table was in a constant burst of laughter. He never missed a joke, especially if it were a play on words. One day there was enough lemon pie to go around the table with only one luscious extra slice left beside Lorado’s plate. To fortify his self-restraint I said: ‘No, no, Lorado. You can’t take that last piece when we all want it. You’d be ashamed to.’ With eyes glued to the temptation Lorado exclaimed: ‘I think I’d rather be ashamed and eat the pie.” (page 29)
I’m with you, Lorado! No need to research this any further! And on this Thanksgiving Day, may I say that I’m thankful for Lorado Taft … and for pie!