The 600 guests began to rattle their plates. Never mind that they included a dazzling array of the nation's chefs, cookbook writers and what were being called "food personalities." Never mind that they were gathered together for a special occasion. Never mind that author Ken Hom was telling everyone it was the food event of the century.
The guests were getting hungry.
The luncheon was called for 1 p.m. and the tables were set with delicacies airlifted or trucked here from various points of cuisinedom, but this was more than an occasion to eat. The pictures needed posing. The historic record had to be organized. The dishes might be ready, but the recipes for publicity were not quite complete.
Craig Claiborne, for 25 years food editor of The New York Times, threw himself this event Saturday to celebrate his 62d birthday and the publication of his autobiography. Carrying a pair of rose-colored sunglasses, he drifted through the celebrity-studded crowd with a benign smile on his face and his red-striped shirt unbuttoned to show some chest.
Grandly demonstrating that even a modest tradition like the covered-dish supper has a future in the media-hype 1980s, Claiborne invited more than 25 of the country's best-known chefs and other experts to bring lunch to his home.
Claiborne's cohost and longtime collaborator, Pie rre Franey, watched the hungry guests -- Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Betty Friedan and Danny Kaye among them -- and the tables set with a spectacular array of delicacies like a captain whose ship might pull out of port without him. "Two o'clock!" Franey shouted. "We're not serving food until two o'clock. I want all the chefs outside."
It was a party at which the question "Who's that?" was as likely to mean "Who made that?" Guests ogled the food more than the luminaries in the crowd.
Making an early appearance on the tables was restaurateur/author George Lang's three-foot square Hungarian meat pie, its accompanying chart identifying the layers of stuffed peppers, boned squab, cabbage, sausage and duck liver dumplings under a golden crust carved with Claiborne's initials.
Also, chef/author Jacques Pepin's carved watermelon baskets filled with seviche. Alain Sailhac of New York's Le Cirque and Alice Waters of Berkley's Chez Panisse had already arranged their fish pate's and fresh anchovies with five kinds of fresh peppers. A pit dug at 6:30 that morning was riddled with skewers of Brazilian barbeceque. And chef Paul Prudhomme's van had arrived from New Orleans with a multitude of assistants to heat iron skillets white hot for Blackened Redfish. The dessert table was already an orderly fantasy of author Maida Heatter's walnut tarts and brownies, pastry chef Guy Pascal's English trifle and pastry chef Shormer Dieter's tortes banded with spun sugar and flanked with blown sugar fruits and the sugar skipjack. Tables were decorated with branches of herbs and acorn squash fashioned into vases.
As traffic snaked along East Hampton country roads, Claiborne's yard filled with guests including three-star chef Roger Verge' from France, cookbook author Diana Kennedy from Mexico and so many food people from San Francisco that someone suggested they should have chartered a plane.
Claiborne was said to even be maneuvering for a motion picture of the party featuring its groaning tables under a yellow striped tent.
The crowd could be diverted by a Chinese noodle-pulling demonstration only so long. At 1:56 the floodgates opened, the plate-bearing guests descended on the tables. Strangers stopped one another. "Where did you get that?" they demanded, pointing to an untasted morsel.
Word got around that Penelope Casas' tripe Madrid-style was sensational. And she had baby eels, which Pepin was feeding Franey, crooning, "les anguilles sont formidable." Author Edna Lewis' squab with basil and tiny fresh peas vied with author Ed Giobbi's whole lamb for exquisite simplicity. Diana Kennedy's turkey mole' with blue corn tortillas competed for complexity honors with Marcella Hazan's green catalone stuffed with tomato-red noodles, bacon and endive. Laura Sandifer had to plead, "You don't know what you're missing," as guests shrugged off her chitterlings. The grapevine reported that they were a sleeper, which was a good thing since Sandifer had painstakingly cleaned 100 pounds of the stuff.
Claiborne wandered through the chewing hoards, his smile still fixed, nibbling on a tortilla, while all around him were plates loaded with Indian clams in coconut and chili sauce, Chinese smoked chicken, tortellini dished from a hollow wheel of Parmesan, bouillabaisse and pot au feu. The bars were empty; with this crowd the choice between balancing a full plate or drinking champagne was no contest.
Hom has a second cookbook coming out soon. And so does Hazan. And Casas. And Barbara Tropp. Hom and Tropp are also about to open restaurants. Even with so much at stake, they were more subtle about pushing their wares than author Copeland Marks, who announced that once you tasted his Indonesian beef you would forget all the other food. "I'm the only one who knows how to cook the damn stuff," he boasted.
"Can I say hello? I've made your pound cake a hundred times," a stranger greeted author Edna Lewis.
Elections. War. Recession. Forgotten. The talk was food.
And along the way it was discovered that if 600 people eat fast enough and widely enough, they can fill themselves to bursting in a single hour.
It was also shown that in such a crowd a significant number will know how to prepare for the future.
Franey, a Dixie beer in his hand and a stunned look on his face, was muttering repeatedly, "I can't believe it." A guest with a garbage bag had been carrying off the huge, decorated breads Paris' famous baker, Poilane, had created and airlifted to the party. Purses and pockets were filled with plastic-wrapped brownies and pecan squares.
The chewing stopped, but the cooks and guests lingered. By 5 p.m. the chefs had changed to civilian clothes and were engrossed in their inevitable game of boules.
Radio interviewer and host Susan Stamberg had recovered from being in line just behind the woman who got the last piece of Dieter's chocolate mousse cake.
And imagine the disappointment of the lone child at the party who eyed the striped tent and circus mood and wondered: "Where were the hot dogs?"