Monday, April 29, 2013

On Duke Ellington’s birthday

From Richard O. Boyer’s three-part profile “The Hot Bach” (New Yorker, July 1, 1944). Ellington is talking to fans on a train and has turned to the subject of food:

“I have special places marked for special dishes,” he said. “In Taunton, Massachusetts, you can get the best chicken stew in the United States. For chow mein with pigeon’s blood, I go to Johnny Cann’s Cathay House in San Francisco. I get my crab cakes at Bolton’s — that’s in San Francisco, too. I know a place in Chicago where you get the best barbecued ribs west of Cleveland and the best shrimp Creole outside New Orleans. There’s a wonderful place in Memphis, too, for barbecued ribs. I get my Chinnook salmon in Portland, Oregon. In Toronto I get duck orange, and the best fried chicken in the world is in Louisville, Kentucky. I get myself a half-dozen chickens and a gallon jar of potato salad, so I can feed the sea gulls. You know, the guys who reach over your shoulder. There’s a place in Chicago, the Southway Hotel, that’s got the best cinnamon rolls and the best filet mignon in the world. Then there’s Ivy Anderson’s chicken shack in Los Angeles, where they have hot biscuits with honey and very fine chicken-liver omelets. In New Orleans there’s gumbo filé. I like it so well that I always take a pail of it out with me when I leave. In New York I send over to the Turf Restaurants at Forty-ninth and Broadway a couple of times a week to get their broiled lamb chops. I guess I’m a little freakish with lamb chops. I prefer to eat them in the dressing room, where I have plenty of room and can really let myself go. In Washington, at Harrison’s, they have devilled crab and Virginia ham. They’re terrific things. On the Ile-de-France, when we went to Europe, they had the best crêpes Suzette in the world and it took a dozen at a time to satisfy me. The Café Royale, in the Hague, has the best hors d’oeuvres in the world — eighty-five different kinds, and it takes a long time to eat some of each. There's a place on West Forty-ninth Street in New York that has wonderful curried food and a wonderful chutney. There’s a place in Paris that has the best octopus soup. And oh, my, the smörgåsbord in Sweden! At Old Orchard Beach, Maine, I got the reputation of eating more hot dogs than any man in America. A Mrs. Wagner there makes a toasted bun that’s the best of its kind in America. She has a toasted bun, then a slice of onion, then a hamburger, then a tomato, then melted cheese, then another hamburger, then a slice of onion, more cheese, more tomato, and then the other side of the button. Her hotdogs have two dogs to a bun. I ate thirty-two one night. She has very fine baked beans. When I eat with Mrs. Wagner, I begin with ham and eggs for an appetizer, then the baked beans, then fried chicken, then a steak — her steaks are two inches thick — and then a dessert of applesauce, ice cream, chocolate cake, and custard, mixed with rich, yellow country cream. I like veal with an egg on it. Monseigneur’s, in London, has very fine mutton. Durgin-Park’s, in Boston, has very fine roast beef. I get the best baked ham, cabbage, and cornbread at a little place near Biloxi. St. Petersburg, Florida, has the best fried fish. It's just a little shack, but they can sure fry fish. I really hurt myself when I go there.”

Duke’s audience seemed awed at his recital, and he looked rather impressed himself. “Gee,” he said admiringly, “I really sent myself on that didn’t I?”
Duke Ellington’s music has been making my life better for more than thirty-five years. For an introduction, I recommend The Great Paris Concert. If you’d like to browse other Ellington posts, they’re listed at Pinboard.

[Boyer’s profile is reprinted in The Duke Ellington Reader, ed. Mark Tucker (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).]

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