Monday, December 1, 2014

Washington Social Diary

David Bruce, on a summer night in Georgetown before departing for Shanghai.
THE BRUCE BACON (A MYSTERY NEARLY SOLVED)
by Carol Joynt

It could have been spring, it could have been fall, but this much I know for sure: the first time I had the “Bruce Bacon” was 1998 in Georgetown. It was at a cocktail party (swanky, because they hosted no other kind) at the 31st Street home of Janet and David Bruce. Through the hub-bub of their high energy friends, and waiters in black-tie who deftly maneuvered the crush with cocktails on silver trays, Janet emerged from the kitchen to brightly announce “we’ll be serving the bacon tonight.” The what? I asked.

Two "dearies," CJ with Janet Bruce.
“You’ll see, dearie,” she laughed. We called each other “dearie,” with a wink and a nod to earlier generations of Georgetown of grande dames who tended to lapse on names. “Dearie” would always do.

The discovery of a new dish is irresistible, as there’s hope for a real discovery. The thrill of imagining begins before a morsel hits my mouth. Thus it was with the bacon. I cooled by the kitchen, making small talk with this socialite or that scribe or politician, politely passing on offerings of various other canapés. The bacon came out on a platter held flat in the palms of Janet’s hands, at chest height, looming. “Here it is, dearie – the Bruce Bacon.”

What we looked at was an artfully arranged pile of shiny square chips the color of mahogany varnish. Bite size. I took one and popped it in my mouth. The texture was crunchy, the flavor of the bacon shot through, laced with a small rapture of caramel, and the result was, happily and in the most adult way, more savory than sweet. It may have been “candied” but this was not candy. It was cocktail food, soul mate to a neat pour of Bourbon.
The “Bruce Bacon.”
Janet circulated the bacon through the party with me not too far behind, discreetly (or so I hope) going for seconds and thirds. I wanted fourths and fifths. “Janet, I have to have the recipe,” I said. This amused her. “Well, that’s not going to happen.” She laughed and then got serious, almost conspiratorial. “This is Vangie’s bacon. David and I aren’t even privy to the secret. Good luck with that.”

Evangeline Bruce, with her children, circa 1957 (David is in the back).
Amb. David K.E. Bruce and Evangeline Bruce during the diplomatic years.
The “Vangie” she invoked was her late mother-in-law, Evangeline Bruce, and David, her husband, was the son of Evangeline and David K.E. Bruce, former U.S. ambassador to France, Germany and the U.K., one of the founders of the OSS, former son-in-law of Andrew Mellon. Amb. Bruce died in 1977. For David and Janet, Vangie was still a presence in their lives even after she died in 1995.

“But, Janet, it’s a family heirloom,” I whined. “You must have the recipe.” She gestured to the kitchen. “Vangie’s cook is here doing the party. She’ll make the bacon for us, but she won’t share the recipe.”

That evening, as I left the party to walk the short distance to my home, my last words to Janet were, of course, about the bacon. “I’m going to crack the recipe. Somehow. I’ve been thinking about it all evening.”

Alas, I’m not that clever of a recipe decoder. During quite a few hours in the kitchen I tried many scenarios of baking the bacon, even sautéing and baking the bacon, but none of these efforts matched the Bruce Bacon. My bacon was either too sweet, or too limp, or just plain revolting. Basically life went on, but now, when Janet and David invited me for cocktails or dinner, she’d love to report, and I was happy to hear, “Dearie, we’re going to have the bacon.”

Years passed. Janet and David moved to Shanghai (with a fun farewell party at Citronelle restaurant). After a year or so in China they relocated to the Bruce family estate, Staunton Hill, in southern Virginia, and also to Charlottesville, dividing their time between both places. David became ill and died, sadly, too young, too soon. Janet remained in Charlottesville with their daughter, Caroline, to allow her to finish middle and upper school before moving altogether to New York.

We would catch up, and occasionally see each other, but not often enough. Janet would arrive in DC by train, rent a bicycle and ride it from Union Station to Georgetown for us to meet for lunch at Café Milano, and then she’d tool around to visit other friends and pedal back to the station and the train home. The subject of the bacon would come up from time to time; we’d sigh, laugh, and move on. “We’re never getting that recipe!”
The caption of this photo says it is Amb. Bruce "being knighted in Burgundy" in 1951.
In October 2014, while reading Roxanne Roberts Washington Post account of Ben Bradlee’s funeral and the reception his widow, Sally Quinn hosted, my eyes locked on to this sentence: “There were two bars, three food stations (shrimp, salmon, ham and biscuits, brownies) and passed hors d’oeuvres of chicken, crab cakes and bacon.” Full stop. Bacon? What bacon? Whose bacon? Could this have been the Bruce Bacon?

I sent off a message to Janet, wondering. Her reply: “Very interesting!!! It is possible that Ben Bradlee's aristocratic Yankee famiy also had a connection with bacon. Our secret recipe is as elusive as this story and indeed much that is the legend and charm of Vangie. Even Vangie called it the BRUCE bacon. It was my impression Vangie dreamed up the recipe in honor of the Ambassador's aristocratic Virginia roots.” Hmmmm. I asked if there was any chance it could have come from the White House. In the Bruce’s day – and even a little bit still today – some of the cooks and waiters at the White House work freelance in private homes, especially in Georgetown. Its possible for recipes to travel back and forth.
Where the Bruce Bacon begins — for example, with this fine bacon from Jamie Stachowski's butcher shop in Georgetown. Just add brown sugar and magic.
“I doubt Vangie would have used a recipe from the White House ... dearie.”

After a respectful passing of time, I did check with Sally Quinn about the bacon she served. Bacon, it turns out, was a Bradlee and Quinn family favorite, too. “My mother was from Savannah and we lived on bacon,” she replied in an email message. “She had a jar of bacon grease by the stove and she cooked everything in it. She always served bacon as an hors d'oeuvre.

Janet Bruce, at Cafe Milano during a recent visit to Washington.
The theory was that ham or bacon makes people thirsty and they'll drink more and have a better time. Polly Fritchey was southern and always served bacon as well. I think it just caught on.” She added, “For me the most important thing was that it was Ben's favorite.”

Sally’s observations were interesting, especially the part about people “drinking more,” because the parties of yore were legendary. Was it all about the bacon? Could a revival be in the works? After all, Sally Quinn served it.

The other evening at a party the home of former vice president Dick Cheney, the canapés included crispy, candied bacon that had a bite to it. I popped into the kitchen to talk to the cook about his bacon. “I add pepper,” he said. “Some people add cayenne.”

Then I reached out to the talented Washington caterer Susan Gage, and asked if cocktail bacon was on the radar. “Ironically we just served candied bacon last night for one of our clients who is a very experienced and fabulous hostess.”

Nothing like being in the moment.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney's peppery bacon, photographed in his McLean, VA, kitchen before being served to guests at a cocktail party.
Still, I did not have the recipe for the Bruce Bacon. What a pickle I was in. A pickle over bacon.

Janet then came to my assistance with a revelation. She gave me the cook’s phone number. “Her name is Odete Pereira.”

I called Odete. When I explained how I got her number she was delighted to the Bruce name and was very friendly. We talked. She and her husband, Alvaro, are Portuguese. They came to Washington in 1972, she said, to work for an Italian diplomat and when he returned to Italy they went to work for the family of Frank Wisner, the late OSS and CIA icon, who died in 1965. Odete said in 1976, she and Alvaro went to work for Evangeline and David Bruce and remained with them, on and off, until Vangie’s death.
Odette Pereira with two of her five grandchildren.
When I explained to Odete that I was in pursuit of the bacon recipe there was a pause. “Ah ha,” she said, “the bacon. Everybody always wants to know about the bacon.” While not spilling the recipe, she did explain the provenance. Evangeline typically went abroad for the summer and one year came back bonkers for some bacon she’d had in London or Paris. Odete wasn’t sure. “All Mrs. Bruce knew is that it was bacon and brown sugar.” With those two ingredients, she set about creating the bacon. “I had to find out how they caramelized it. It took more than a month. Trial and error, trial and error. Finally, Mrs. Bruce said, ‘this is the one.’”
David Bruce at Citronelle on the eve of the family's move to Shanghai in 2005.
While remaining the most guarded secret of the circa 1980s Georgetown social circuit, it also became famous. “Many, many, many people asked me for the recipe,” Odete said of the now signature star of a Bruce party. “Mrs. Bruce served the bacon any time she had people for cocktails and her famous brunches. When Princess Margaret came to brunch I made many dishes but she just ate the bacon and only the bacon. They put that in The Washington Post.” Did she give Princess Margaret the recipe? Nope.

Surely, telling me all these great stories, she would share the recipe. “I cannot do that. I promised Mrs. Bruce.” I groaned and pleaded. “You can figure it out,” she said. “Bacon, brown sugar.” I detailed my attempts and failures. “I will make you some and bring it to you,” she said. “I will make a lot because it takes me a whole day. But you can freeze it and thaw it to room temperature when you want to serve it.”
Janet Bruce and Kinsey Marable, after dinner at Citronelle in Georgetown, 2005.
Beverly Sullivan, Izette Folger, and Janet Bruce at Citronelle.
Izette Folger and Janet Bruce, who is still not spilling the bacon.
It was a week before the Saturday morning when Odete arrived at my door with a large tin. A spirited and youthful woman, she joined me in my kitchen and seemed delighted as I opened the tin, peeled back the aluminum foil and beheld the Bruce Bacon. I ate some right away. It delivered the same savory reward as I remembered all those cocktail parties ago at Janet and David’s. I paid her and promised to keep in touch, and she explained she still cooks for some private clients, that her husband still serves and bartends, and she would gladly make more bacon for me. I don’t get giddy about much, but that made me giddy.
The proof is in the bacon — A band of Bruce friends, circa 2005, Citronelle restaurants (foreground left, Beverly Sullivan, Soroush Shehabi, David Bruce, Timothy Dickinson (in vest), Henry and Monika von Eichel.
It’s not fair at the holiday season to keep this secret to myself. Odete was happy for me to share her contact information. Odete Pereira: 703-532-2538.

She charges $200 for approximately 60 strips, which can be frozen and used as needed at room temperature (or given as a fairly awesome holiday gift).

Now, go plan that cocktail party.

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt