The beautiful people of Albemarle County had gathered together to eat, drink, and be merry, all for the sake of art. The University of Virginia's Bayly Art Museum was celebrating its 50th anniversary by throwing a resplendent black-tie affair: cocktails in the museum and a tented sit-down dinner, auctions and raffles, music and dancing till 1 a.m. Everyone went home giddy and well-fed, the museum $60,000 richer.
You have to imagine the scene. The Bayly Museum sits not a block from the Rotunda, at the edge of fraternity row. Here it is, May 11, the last day of finals. Some students have already found rides home, but others plan to party Saturday night, their last on-grounds fling before summer occupations.
But it certainly wasn't students who paid $50 a plate for cocktails and dinner, set to begin in the museum at 6. Wealthy museum patrons walk serenely past hooters and mooners, past Wahoos chugging beer out of plastic cups and blaring rock 'n' roll. At the strike of 8 the dinner guests stroll along a torchlit pathway taking them down into Madison Bowl, renowned in the university's history as the site of the last great, since-discontinued, traditional spring Easters bash, numerous softball games and mudfights before and since.
But Mad Bowl has been transformed. Thanks to the wizardry of Aarrow of Richmond, a great white tent rises in its midst, circumscribing a little world of elegance amid the weekend madness. Fifty-four tables for eight glisten as candles flicker. The Meyer Davis Band strikes up "Sentimental Journey," and the evening has begun.
The 20 tables closest to the dance floor have been underwritten for $1,000 apiece, and a few of the names on the placecards are recognizable: Mr. & Mrs. William Leggett, Mr. & Mrs. Frank Hereford. Others may not be, but their connections are: Mr. & Mrs. Dimitri Nicholas, owners of Air Virginia; Mr. & Mrs. Edward Scripps of the Scripps media family. Edgar Bronfman, chairman of The Seagram Company, couldn't make it himself, but he still underwrote a ringside table and provided open bars throughout the event. Not all the names, not all the faces may be familiar, but these are the people who make Albemarle one of the richest counties in the country. Somehow the Bayly Museum has struck the right nerve.
The mastermind of this fancy affair is Kay Sands Morrison, who seems to tread a delicate line between serving and socializing with this crowd. Originator and owner with her husband of Charley's restaurants throughout Virginia and North Carolina, Kay Morrison knows how to design a menu that hides economy in elegance. Working together with Bill King, catering manager and assistant director of U.Va.'s Food Service, which prepared the dinner, Morrison concocted a menu low in cost but high in chic appeal.
It helped -- perhaps -- that Del Monte contributed the evening entree. One of Del Monte's frozen food processing plants is right here in nearby Crozet, just 15 miles west of Charlottesville. At that plant is produced, among other things, a line of first-class airline entrees, and it's from that line that a quintessentially Virginia dish was donated to the Bayly fundraiser: Breast of Chicken Williamsburg. A boneless breast of chicken stuffed with Virginia ham, mushrooms and shallots, it is wrapped in a puff pastry, glazed and baked, and served on a bed of Sauce Espagnole. The idea was lovely, the seasoning precise, but the puff pastry was soggy, more like a chicken pot pie.
"It's airline food. Need I say more?" says King, who conscientiously avoids further criticism of the centerpiece for the dinner he prepared. He tried, and failed, to convince the right person at Del Monte that since it was providing 400 -- plus entrees to an event just 15 miles away, they need not be wrapped in individual cardboard-covered foil packages -- "in part just to save packaging," says King, "but also to save us having to rip 425 packages open" before they were sheet-baked 100 at a time.
Perhaps the more interesting items at the museum event were those that came before and after the entree. Dinner began with a simple cold borscht dressed with lime and dill, resulting in appropriately preppy pink and green colors. The salad after was a sculpture in itself: a little bird with marinated salad body, endive tailfeathers and a goat-milk cheese beak, sitting in a nest of shredded iceberg lettuce. For dessert, sweet chocolate tarts floated in a strawberry sauce, topped with cre me frai che and a strawberry on top. Although the components of each of these courses had been prepared ahead of time, each was constructed just outside the tent, 418 times over, by energetic students working for King.
The piece de resistance of the evening appeared at 11:30 p.m., after various pricey donations were auctioned off. James J. Kilpatrick spoke briefly, making light of the more controversial holdings of the Bayly Museum. It was a painting from the Bayly that raised such a hubbub in 1982, when Newsweek chose an American realist nude for its cover picture. "I've been in fine art museums throughout the world," said Kilpatrick, "but I have never been in one before tonight with three galleries rated R and one rated X." He went on to extol the Virginia traditions of conservatism and voluntarism, and everyone in the audience seemed to nod along. Then they wheeled out the cake.
We're talking about a cake designed for art's sake, a cake constructed to symbolize the Bayly Museum and the place of art in the world. We're talking about a cake almost 3 feet wide and 3 feet tall, although only the topmost layer is edible, given that all have already eaten their fill. We're talking about a cake designed to look like the Bayly Museum.
The first layer is occupied by 11 marzipan dolls representing the cultures of the world. The second and third layers display miniatures of the great paintings of history: the Mona Lisa, Guernica, Dalis and Breughels framed in royal icing. The top layer, to be cut and tasted by outgoing university president Hereford and his wife, is a work of art in itself: three layers of sponge cake, interspersed with Grand Marnier syrup, vanilla butter cream, chocolate souffle, ganache, dacquoise, and thinly sliced strawberries. The donated creation of local bakers Kate Rander and Caroline Dix (who call themselves Sweet Inspirations), working with designer Ana-Marie Lidell, the cake topped off this evening of indulgence on a shoestring budget.
And all for the sake of art. ANASTASIA'S BORSCHT (8 servings)
An electric-pink borscht dedicated to Charlottesville's own Russian princess, Anastasia. Prepare it a day ahead of serving.
2 16-ounce cans sliced beets
1 quart buttermilk
2 cups sour cream
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup finely minced scallions (include green as well as white part)
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Drain liquid from beets and discard. Place all ingredients but the lime in food processor and blend. Season with salt and pepper; chill. Strain before serving, if desired. Float an ethereally thin slice of lime on top. BIRD'S NEST SALAD (8 servings)
A simple salad designed to look like an edible little bird in its nest.
3 to 4 onions, finely chopped
1 small tomato, chopped
1/2 small green pepper, seeded and chopped
6 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
5 teaspoons walnut oil
1 1/2 teaspoons tomato paste
2 1/2 teaspoons chili powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 head iceberg lettuce
4 endive spears, sliced in half lengthwise
8 small wedges goat cheese, if desired
Mix all ingredients except lettuce, endive and goat cheese in a large bowl. Chill at least 3 hours.
Slice head of lettuce very thin, like cellophane noodles. Construct 8 salads by placing on each plate half an endive spear and fan leaves like tail feathers. Place a handful of thinly sliced lettuce over it. Place a 1/4 cup scoop of onion-tomato mixture on the lettuce for the bird's body. Place the goat cheese opposite the endive fan for the bird's beak. TIFFANY SILK STRAWBERRY TARTS (8 servings)
A chocolate tart floating in a bowl of strawberry sweetness, garnished with cre me frai che and a berry on top.
FOR THE MOUSSE FILLING:
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup confectioners' sugar
2 ounces semisweet chocolate
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup kirsch (or strawberry liqueur)
8 baked tart shells
8 strawberries for garnish
FOR THE STRAWBERRY COULIS
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon water
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon kirsch (or strawberry liqueur)
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon strawberry syrup
FOR THE CREME FRAICHE
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup whipping cream
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
For the chocolate mousse filling: cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Melt chocolate and add to mixture. Add 1 egg and beat 5 minutes or until smooth and glossy. Add the other egg and beat again. Add vanilla and kirsch. Pour into baked tart shells and refrigerate at least 3 hours.
For the strawberry coulis: combine sugar and water. Boil about 3 minutes, stirring until froth forms and syrup thickens. In a large bowl, combine this syrup with the liqueur and strawberry syrup. Set aside until you are ready to float the tarts in it, prior to serving.
For the cre me frai che: mix sour cream and whipping cream together in a bowl or jar. Cover with plastic wrap and let the mixture stand at room temperature for at least 8 hours. The thickened cream must now be filtered; it can take as little time as 2 hours or as long as 24, depending on how thick you want your cre me frai che to be. Spread a piece of filter paper (coffee filters work fine) in a coffee filter cone, funnel or sieve over a bowl to catch the whey. Cover with plastic wrap and let it sit. Once drained, stir lemon juice into cream and refrigerate until serving.
To assemble the tarts: spoon 3 tablespoons of strawberry coulis into a shallow bowl. Place a filled tart shell in the center of the bowl. Dollop 2 to 3 tablespoons of cre me frai che on each tart and garnish with a fresh strawberry.