The first time I flew into Regan National Airport in Washington, D.C., I think, was ten years ago. At the time, I was a personal chef—a private cook to people ranging, in order of preference, from devout foodlovers looking for a bit of a break on their summer vacation, to people looking for a more creative take on catering for larger parties, to heiresses looking (as far as I could tell) to flaunt their wealth to their Hyannis counterparts.
I was flying from Cape Cod to DC to drive to one of four or five homes owned by the rich Texan client a friend had dubbed Priscilla Princess. She belonged to the last client category. At her home on Cape Cod, she had a lawn man and an herb woman and a daily housecleaner and a personal assistant and an orchidist who arrived a couple times a week to make sure the arrangements in the bathroom were still perky. There were so many people helping her with life’s necessities that in my view, she almost ceased to exist. Catering dinners at her place always required an assistant, never because the food was so difficult—she didn’t have the taste for anything too adventuresome, and loved repeating dishes—but because inevitably another person was required to decide whether we’d plate on the Tiffany or Versace china, and whether the antique shrimp forks would work when there wasn’t an extra in case someone dropped one. Typically, the friend I’d roped into helping knew that if she wasn’t chopping herbs (“Jess!” the princess would wail from another room. “Don’t forget the pineapple sage is there in the back!!!”), she’d be following Priscilla around, nodding obediently as she took instructions on how far each wine glass should be from each plate and how big a piece of flourless chocolate cake she wanted for dessert. (“Oh Jess! The chocolate basil for garnish!”)
I think I did the job right. I organized everything through her personal assistant, because the Princess was allergic to email. I made the boring orzo salad she loved for her to have for lunch the next day, with the olives I had to order from Peru. (Maybe it was Argentina? I’ve blocked them out.) I scrubbed the Sunkist stamps off lemons in advance when I couldn’t find her required organic ones, and I smiled and presented the meal when I was supposed to in my pompous chef’s jacket, and in general, despite her difficulty, I really did enjoy it all. It was virtual reality—one in which I could buy whatever I wanted, at whatever cost, save the wine, which she limited to $20 per bottle. And she apparently enjoyed having me, because a few times, she paid me handsomely to fly down to her place in Virginia to cater a weekend’s worth of meals for her 25 or so closest friends.
It was a monster of a plantation in Virginia horse country, with a twenty-something-bedroom main house and servants’ quarters and guest houses here and there that each far outstripped an average large home in size. She and her husband had separate horse stables, which were not to be confused with the racehorses’ stables. (I believe the place was on the national register of historic homes, but I can’t remember the estate’s name. Shame on me.) We—my “assistant,” usually a good friend, and I—would stay in a four-bedroom apartment above the estate’s original horse stables, which I believe had been turned into an antique car showroom of sorts. For whatever reason, the heat didn’t work in the apartment, so we spent our days in a sweltering kitchen, churning out meal after meal, and our nights freezing in hard twin beds. “A kitchen should be warm, don’t you think?” she’d crow before dinner as she closed the windows we’d opened. Then she’d disappear to claim her place at the head of a massive table fitted with a servant’s bell under her foot. (It was actually a nice way to know when they were finished eating.)
The thing I remember most strongly, though, are her refrigerators. In the kitchen—a space roughly the size of my home’s current upstairs, fitted with a ten-person mahogany table in the center that we had to meander around each time we had to use the sink, oven, refrigerator, or trash can, which is to say, often—there was a bank of clear-doored Sub-Zeroes whose shelves’ square footage approximated that of a small grocery store’s. When I FedExed the pumpkin ravioli from Citarella that the Princess had to have from New York, it didn’t fit into her refrigerator plan. There was the place for milk and the place for fruit and the place for the grandchildrens’ food and the place for premade snacks, but there was no place for meat, or anything remotely “unsightly.” The ravioli were orphaned.
Downstairs, in the so-called slave kitchen—the Princess always whispered the word “slave”—there was also a walk-in refrigerator, which is where the ravioli ended up, on top of the duck breasts. One time, when my friend Michaela and I had been in Virigina long enough to get good and tired, we snuck down to the walk-in. We rested on the concrete floor with our feet elevated and drank Cokes. We iced our foreheads with the ravioli and made fun of her porcelain chicken collection.
Each time her gaggle of guests prepared to leave, the Princess hosted a lunch in what she called The Palm Room, which was a grand lobby-esque space not unlike the dining room in The Plaza Hotel near Central Park. (There were weird monkey statues everywhere, for some reason.) We made platters and platters of tea sandwiches, and salads, and deviled eggs, and lavender shortbread.
Once, at the last minute, the Princess announced she wanted to add a lentil salad to the lunch menu. I’d grown accustomed to her weird whims—if you want to plop a Maryland crab cake into that potato soup, lady, you go for it—but we had no lentils, and it was nearing noon, and the plantation was thirty minutes from anything. I said no. She pouted the rest of the day.
Since then, when I make anything with lentils, I think of Priscilla Princess. I think of the way she could somehow say my name with a Southern accent, rising in pitch and volume every time. “JaaayyyyUUSSSS?” she’d start, sugary sweet. “Just a quick question. Would you mind making that osso buco on the old stove on Saturday, when we have dinner in the blue house? I know it doesn’t really work, but it’s so pretty, and I’d love for the guests to get a feeling for how it was to cook a century ago.” I think of how sorry I felt for her sometimes, when I realized that the stress of not having the pillowcases in all twenty-something rooms match the patterns popular in the 1700s (when the estate was built) was actually causing her physical discomfort. And I think of how sad it was, and probably still is, that she liked really boring food.
And so here I am now, flying into Reagan again, this time for a conference, where no one will tell me how to wash my hands or how many lemon thyme sprigs are required on each plate—with a lentil salad on my tray. It’s an asparagus and pea version from home, and it’s spilling herbal perfumes into the seat beside me in a way that makes me feel like I’m getting back at my neighbor for taking up more than his paid share of the plane. We are bumping over Chicago (something that always seems odd to me when the sky is clear, despite my vague awareness of airflow science). I’m thankful I’ve made the salad a second time, so I don’t find myself lunching on a bag of beef jerky and stale nuts. I’m thankful that I don’t have an orchidist, or work for a person who feels she needs one. And I’m thankful that life has taken me to a place where I make lentil salad when and where and how I want, with ingredients from a refrigerator that is always too full and an herb garden that, despite total neglect, actually grows something useful.
In hindsight, this salad looks like the offspring that might result from a debaucherous night involving the lentil salad and the raw asparagus salad in A Boat, a Whale and a Walrus, but it wasn’t intended to mimic either. It’s a result of two things: first, the need for a lighter meal before a bike ride, and second, the green riches springing forth from my garden in the forms of parsley, chives, and mint. Serve it as is, with a few things alongside, or pile it onto steamed brown rice, like we did, for more of a complete meal.
I used the nettle pesto I make every spring, but basil pesto (even a good jarred version) will work nicely.
Serves 4 with rice, or 6 to 8 as a salad.
4 cups water
1 cup small black lentils or beluga lentils, rinsed and picked over
Kosher salt, to taste
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar (raw, unpasteurized preferred)
8 tablespoons good extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for drizzling
1/2 pound skinny asparagus (about half a bunch), ends trimmed, cut into 2-inch sections
1 cup fresh shelled English peas
1/4 cup roughly chopped mint leaves
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1/2 cup pesto (made with any combination of herbs and nuts that appeals to you)
Crunchy sea salt
In a large saucepan, heat the water to a boil. Add the lentils and cook at a simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes, or until tender.
While the lentils cook, in a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, and 7 tablespoons olive oil to blend, adding salt as necessary. (Keep in mind that lentils like a lot of salt.) Set the dressing aside.
Heat a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the remaining tablespoon olive oil, swirl to coat the pan, then add the asparagus and peas. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the vegetables are bright green and slightly charred in spots. Transfer the greens to a big platter to cool.
When the lentils are cooked, drain them in a fine-mesh strainer, then transfer them back to the warm pot. Add the dressing, stir gently to combine, then stir in the mint, parsley, and chives, reserving a few pinches of each for the top of the salad, if desired. Add the asparagus and peas to the lentil combination, stir a few times, then heap the salad back onto the big platter.
Serve the salad warm or at room temperature, drizzled with additional olive oil and garnished with extra herbs and crunchy sea salt.