I’ve been noticing lately that my mind has developed a stubborn habit of drifting, and one of the places it seems to wander most often is into that vast mental warehouse where my memories are kept. I would say that this “mind drift” is worrisome except that it is so frequently pleasurable.
For example, the other day I found myself remembering Strawberries Romanoff.
When I was in my 20s and harbored aspirations to be quite a bit more sophisticated than I was, I mastered a few snazzy recipes, simple but compliment-inducing dishes I’d whip up for small dinners or buffet occasions. My default dessert for a while was Strawberries Romanoff. I haven’t made the dish for decades but, when the thought of it popped into my head recently, so did distinct memories of berries drenched in Grand Marnier being whirled into a mixture of softened ice cream and whipped cream…and served with chilled champagne.
Champagne. Also the title of one of Hitchcock's late silent films, a comedy about a headstrong “champagne heiress” who has to get a job. But not for too long.
And in Casablanca, Rick and Ilsa fall in love in Paris, sharing more than a few glasses of the fizzy stuff during their brief romance. At La Belle Aurore, when the Nazi army is about to occupy the city, Sam plays As Time Goes By and Rick pours a glass of champagne for Ilsa: "Henri wants us to finish this bottle, and then three more. He says he'll water his garden with champagne before he'll let the Germans drink it."
13 years later, in Manhattan, “The Girl” who sets her neighbor’s imagination - and his pulse - racing in Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch had a yen for champagne…with potato chips.
|The Seven Year Itch (1955)|
Vincente Minnelli’s Oscar-winning Gigi (1958) even featured a song about “The Night They Invented Champagne.”
And then there's James Bond. As well-known as 007 is for drinking his vodka Martinis “shaken, not stirred,” he has been equally fond of champagne and it has been noted that at least 22 Bond films show the man drinking champagne some 35 times, usually Bollinger but not infrequently, Dom Perignon.
A Benedictine monk, Dom Pierre Perignon was a cellar master at an abbey near Epernay during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. He didn’t invent champagne, but he did much to upgrade its production. In the beginning, the bubbles in the wine were considered a flaw in the fermenting process. When he couldn’t eliminate the fizz, Dom Perignon found a way to regulate it. He also implemented the use of thicker glass bottles that better tolerated pressure (champagne bottles were notoriously prone to burst then, and when one exploded, a chain reaction often followed) and rope snares to keep the corks in. Owing to the volatility of champagne bottles in the early days of its popularity, prices rose. By the time improved production practices solved the pressure problem, champagne had developed its reputation as a luxury - and remained luxuriously priced.
|"There comes a time in every woman's life when the only thing that helps is champagne" - Bette Davis|
To return to Strawberries Romanoff, the inspiration (which may or may not ever have been featured in a film) for this ramble, the dish's history has been disputed, but the most widely circulated story places its beginnings near Hollywood in a restaurant belonging to "a rogue of uncertain origin."
"Prince" Michael Romanoff (born Hershel Geguzin in 1890 in Lithuania) was a colorful celebrity-restaurateur during Hollywood's glory years. He opened Romanoffs on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills in 1939, bankrolled in part by the likes of Bogart, Cagney, Chaplin, Zanuck, Robert Benchley and Joe Schenk.
Romanoffs became one of the great supper clubs to the stars of the era, along with The Brown Derby, Chasen's and Perino's. As much as the restaurant was a haunt for the legends of the silver screen, it was also a spot where deals were hammered out between talent agents and studio moguls of the time. It is even said that dueling gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons finally made their peace at Romanoffs.
|Romanoffs 1957: Gable, Heflin, Cooper and Stewart|
Bogart, who would forever occupy the establishment's Table #1, is reported to have ordered the same lunch there daily: two Scotch & sodas, an omelet and French toast followed by coffee and a brandy. Errol Flynn supposedly hosted lavish feasts of suckling pig at the restaurant. And this memorable photo was snapped when two popular sex symbols of the 1950s were seated next to each other at Romanoffs one night.
|Sophia and Jayne at Romanoffs, circa 1958|
Mike Romanoff had been a member of Bogart's original "Rat Pack" and remained a part of the group when it transformed following Bogie's death and Frank Sinatra took up the mantle as leader of "The Clan." By 1962, when Romanoffs closed, Prince Mike was rarely at the restaurant, often traveling with Sinatra and company on film shoots or to Las Vegas.
|Mike Romanoff (left) with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra|
As for the origins of the recipe for Strawberries Romanoff, some say that French culinary genius Escoffier actually created the dessert (as "Strawberries Americaine Style") while he was chef at London's Carlton Hotel at the turn of the century. The implication is that Mike Romanoff simply appropriated the recipe and changed its name. Others suggest the dish may have originated with another French master chef, Marie Antoine Careme, a proponent of grande cuisine who lived 100 years before Escoffier and was, at different times, chef to Napoleon, England's Prince Regent (later George IV), one of the Rothschilds and Tsar Alexander I of Russia, a Romanoff.
Wash, stem and slice 2 pints of fresh strawberries and combine them with 1/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup Grand Marnier. Chill for an hour or so. Put a pint of vanilla ice cream in the refrigerator to soften and whip one cup of heavy cream until soft peaks form. Fold the softened ice cream into the whipped cream and gently add the berry mixture. Serve instantly. And don't forget the champagne. Yum.