Emancipation & The 2 New Havens, Seen Fresh
by Allan Appel, Gwyneth K. Shaw, & Joshua Mamis | Mar 1, 2012 1:34 pm
Posted to: Food, Social Services
A son of the Tre was paired with a son of Yugoslavia. A blueberry creme brulee was paired with a Pisco sour. In the process, New Haveners and suburbanites came together to give a signature youth program a needed boost—while tasting the city in all its flavors.
The occasion was LEAP night, an annual smorgasbord of intimate fund-raising dinners in people’s homes or public spots featuring colorful local speakers and delectable fixins. The money goes to LEAP, a pioneering kids’ academic and recreation program that once grew to sites in three cities. It’s back down to three sites in its original New Haven hometown, and hustling to keep money coming.
Twenty-nine speakers held forth over food and spirits Wednesday night. The Independent popped in on three of them, and encountered a mix of surprise intellectual discovery and elaborate dinner spreads.
Audience Becomes The Experts
Anti-abolition sentiment in Connecticut was so intense, the Institute Library once had to hire an armed guard to keep hooligans from breaking up a public meeting on emancipation.
That historical tidbit emerged over a dinner of poached salmon, pearl couscous, and pears with blue cheese as 15 Civil War buffs gathered at the Woodbridge home of Debra and Ron Nudel. Dinner #25 of LEAP’s fundraising night extravaganza was billed as “Brother Against Brother,” a discussion of the ongoing 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
The tidbit did not come from the dinner’s scheduled star attendee, Connecticut Civil War Commemoration Commission Co-Chair Matthew Warshauer was unable to attend. Guests rallied and mustered their own expert-less and collectively run seminar on the role of Connecticut in the great 19th-century conflict.
That Connecticut was hardly the bastion of emancipation and liberal thought was no surprise to Cornell Wright, who was attending from Stratford with his wife Joanne. “Connecticut was intimately involved [economically] in the slave system,” he said. Of the ten richest states at the time of the Civil War, Connecticut was the only northern one on that list, Wright contended.
That wealth depended on tobacco and especially cotton, which was shipped to the Nutmeg State’s factories to be turned into clothing. Connecticut industrialists wanted the price of raw materials kept low, said Maryann Ott (who has helped revive the Institute Library). She had recently read Warshauer’s book, Connecticut in the American Civil War: Slavery, Sacrifice, and Survival.
The only certified Southerner at the table was Carrollton, Georgia, native and now local lawyer Craig Smith. He both agreed and disagreed with Wright.
He lives near East Rock and regularly goes by the Angel of Peace Civil War monument. When he reads the plaque listing the towns near where Connecticut soldiers fought, he’s reading locations where he grew up. They include where Sherman’s army burned down the house of his great-great-grandfather.
With Georgia charm, he likened what he termed “The War of Northern Aggression” to a more recent conflict.
“It was like the war in Iraq. No justification. 65 percent of Southerners [including his own family] never owned slaves,” Smith said. He argued that what drove it was hardly a passion for abolition but rather the industrial North’s economic need to dominate the agricultural South. “The results [of the Civil War] turned out to be awesome,” he concluded.
Everyone made peace over a dessert of brownie and pecan bars and petits-fours.
Cocktails Take The Spotlight
The dozen diners who braved drizzle and wind to get to 116 Crown Wednesday night were greeted with a daunting—but welcome—sight: Five artisan cocktails from New Haven’s boldest mixologist. Grasping the first round (Veuve Clicquot Champagne with a sugar cube and house-made Cape gooseberry bitters, pictured), guests sounded a mild alarm: How are we going to drink all of this?
Just under three hours later, the group had found a way. Scrumptious eats, animated conversation, and a little bit of restraint eased the path, even after 116 Crown owner John Ginnetti produced one more drink (more Champagne, this time with Chartreuse and an edible flower) to close out the evening.
The drinks came with instructions, and a bowl of ice cubes. Ginnetti advised the group to plop a cube into the next drink, as they enjoyed the previous concoction. Cocktails are generally supposed to whet the appetite, he said, not pair with food. (There’s wine for that). So his vision for the evening involved eats that were inspired by the drinks, or echoed them.
A case in point: The Magpie, a true daiquiri (rum, lime juice and cane syrup) with a scotch “burner” (a rinse of the glass), topped with apple cider foam and a slice of dried apple. When served with a scallop crudo with avocado puree and orange and cilantro salad, the drink was “a light, refreshing way to start the meal,” said chef Will Talamelli.
Both the drink and the dish won raves. “It’s like fall in a cup,” Erika Flowers, an event planner who attended with her husband Torrance, an account executive with CBS Radio, said of the Magpie. Thomas S. Griggs Jr., an executive at Yale-New Haven Hospital, said the scallops felt “like the ocean.”
The group moved on to the Lower East Side cocktail (an Italian liqueur, lime juice, cumin and salt) with a truffled pasta and mushrooms dish. The NoLIta, a twist on the classic Manhattan, paired Makers Mark bourbon, lemon juice and simple syrup with Cabernet Sauvignon. The two-layer drink was served with a squab dish for the meat eaters—and a gorgeous polenta, broccoli rabe and poached egg confection for the vegetarians.
Dessert was a blueberry creme brulee, served with the Pisco Sour Remix: Pisco, lemon juice, simple syrup, maraschino liqueur and a whole quail egg, garnished with half of the egg shell and a bunch of chervil. Tasted alone, the drink was fairly sweet; after a bite of the dessert, though, it took on a different, much more sour quality.
As the group finished the eclectic food and drink, Ginnetti (pictured) got a slightly mischevous look in his eye.
“Should I give them another drink?” he mused.
Out came the Veuve and Chartreuse, and one final toast.
“Happy Leap Year!” he said.
The 2 New Havens
George Black is a LEAP mentor who grew up in the Tre. The 25-year-old SCSU senior says he learns from the 8-year-old kids he works with about life, about respecting others.
Darko Tresnjak is a nationally recognized theater director who grew up in Yugoslavia. He currently serves as artistic director of the Hartford Stage. He says he learns from his actors – about comedy, about listening to the audience, and finding the place where the laugh lands.
Black and Tresnjak came together Wednesday night at one of the dinners organized by LEAP, at the Guilford home of Michael Stotts, managing director of the Hartford Stage, and his partner, arts marketer David Mayhew.
Like LEAP, and the annual LEAP dinner smorgasboard, the pair’s talk brought together the reality of the “two New Havens.”
Tresnjak’s New Haven connection: He is currently rehearsing a production of the 1950s comedy “Bell, Book & Candle,” which begins performances on March 7 at Long Wharf, where he also directed Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” some years ago.
Meanwhile, Black had his eyes opened to a part of New Haven he’d had little access to growing up in the Tre.
“Downtown is a place you ride through [on a bus], not a place to go to,” he said. “Most people I know have a different sense of New Haven. There is almost two cities, and they don’t interact all that often.” The talk about the arts and culture side of the city, he said, “is new to me.”
“What about the Green?” someone asked.
“I’ve never seen the fountain on,” he said. “But when Arts and Ideas comes to town they turn it on. I would like to see the fountain on all the time.”
Black and Tresnjak also shared insights on what art can teach us.
Theater, too often, observed Tresnjak, teaches “youth how to behave as good citizens within their sphere. It teaches contentment, not aspiration. Well, screw that…. Teach them instead that ambition is good. Teach them that it’s OK to dream.”
Black agreed, mentioning the young men he grew up. “The more they feel that they don’t have any worth, the more they stay in their block … it’s the place where they get respect.”
Which is where LEAP comes in.
Footnote: A the pre-dinner reception held at the Hopkins School, LEAP’s founding executive director, Henry Fernandez, made an impassioned plea for additional financial support in order to address the two-New Havens divide. LEAP, he told the crowd, was born in New Haven, expanded to Hartford, Waterbury and Bridgeport, but has in recent years shrunk back to where it is now serving only three New Haven neighborhoods. The organization is raising money to expand. Information on supporting LEAP can be found here.
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