My Dinner with Philip Rahv

Recently, I decided to take over the cooking chores in our house. That isn’t strictly true. What is true is that my wife Nancy decided that I should take over the cooking chores. She does the taxes, the laundry, and the shopping. The least I could do, she says, is the cooking. I agree. How could I not? The surprise is that I find that I actually enjoy it. I wonder why I hadn’t done it before. I had good reason not to have been blind to the joys of cooking.

Years ago, when I was on the faculty at Brandeis University, I was invited to dinner by Philip Rahv, one of America’s great literary critics. Born in the Ukraine, he came to America in the late twenties and along with William Phillips founded—two years before I was born—what came to be the most influential magazine of literary criticism of its time, the heralded Partisan Review.

My dinner with Philip came toward the end of his career and, sadly, his life. I had joined the faculty of Brandeis University in 1965. Philip died in 1973. The dinner was probably somewhere toward the end of the 60’s, say 1968.

When I arrived at his home, he invited me into his living room. His wife—decades younger than Philip—was sitting at one end of a comfortable sofa, her legs tucked up under her. I remember that she wore crinolines and looked like a yellow morning glory, an impossible flower. The conversation was interesting. How could it not be with someone like Philip Rahv to talk to? Throughout I kept wondering about the dinner. His wife seemed permanently planted on the sofa. Philip showed no signs of going anywhere.

At one point he looked at his watch. Then he announced that dinner was ready. He suggested we move to the dining room where I was treated to what my memory tells me was the best dinner I ever had. I realize that memory can make mountains out of molehills. Even so, I am prepared to take an oath that this was among the top ten of my life. I can provide evidence for this ranking. Even though it must have taken place over forty years ago, I still remember the main course. It was swordfish covered with barbecue sauce. Who puts barbecue sauce on swordfish? The thing is this wasn’t just any barbecue sauce. It was magical. Green beans almondine and a small salad rounded it out. But I’ll never forget that sauce.

“Who do I thank for this extraordinary meal?” I said. “I didn’t see anyone in the kitchen.

“I’m a gourmet cook,” he replied. “I like to make dinners that cook themselves. That way I spend maximum time with my guests.”

I was surprised. I didn’t expect that one of the country’s most profound literary critics would give such things a second thought. I had the temerity to tell him.

“I once heard a story told about George Bernard Shaw,” I said. “He had invited a young man to play billiards. The young man made mincemeat of him. ‘Well,’ said the young man. ‘What do you think of that, Mr. Shaw?’ Shaw replied, ‘I think that, young man, is the sign of a misspent youth.’”

Philip was amused. “And your point?” he asked.

“Gourmet cooking is surely too trivial a thing for you to waste your time on,” I replied.

“That remark,” said Philip, “Is the sign of a callow youth. Wait until you have reached my age. Then you will understand.”

I have. And he was right.