Remember the hit song “Imaginary Lovers?” Never disagree . . . satisfaction guaranteed?
Things are not so different in the Historic Home Bed & Breakfast trade: Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, and each person brings his or her own expectations to the experience.
Just ask Basil Fawlty’s wife, Sybil. Likewise, Millie and I have been a hundred different people to a hundred different guests as we strive to make sure that Madewood lives up to their expectations. I remember the early days, when we both worked 9 -5 and had to drive up to Madewood Friday evenings after work. We’d complain about the day’s travails on the way up; but then we’d throw open the door into the parlor at Madewood, twirl in like Loretta Young did at the beginning of her show in the 1950s, and exude charm that muffled the day’s frustrations.
Sometimes there were guests who just wanted to escape and sit under the oak trees and read, or a couple who had brought costumes and wanted to re-enact Rhett and Scarlett on the staircase. (Fortunately, no one has torn down drapes to make the dress.) Once, the black sheep of a famous mail-order business landed his little plane on the pasture and proceeded to regale other guests with tales of other family members. And parents often come with children to give them a taste of history.
My favorites were the groups of French tourists who came every two weeks in the 1990s. When they peered into a bedroom, they would exclaim — just as French people are supposed to do — “O, la-la!” or “Tres mignon!” Those were very good indications that we were meeting their dreams of La Vie de Gone with the Wind, always popular when things get tough in Paris.
But it’s that time of the year now, and mint juleps are on everyone’s mind. We have several dozen silver julep cups of varying pedigree — didn’t Miss Manners suggest that, really, you wouldn’t want anyone to think that you got all your silver at the same time? And they’re all shiny right now.
Especially on June 1st . . . for an odd reason. It seems that sometime in the late 19thcentury, a gentleman from Georgia was a guest for dinner at New College, Oxford (new in 1379, that is — not when I studied there a mere 40 years ago). When the Warden asked him what he’d like to drink, he quite sensibly replied, “A mint julep would do nicely, thank you very much!”
After much consternation among the college elite, all scratching their heads, the gentleman was led to the kitchen, where he concocted a suitable replica, substituting gin and a college whiskey for the traditional Tennessee version. Upon his return home, he established an endowment (now sadly diminished) to hold a New College Mint Julep Night in the dining hall each year on the first of June.
It’s a jolly communal affair, with huge silver tankards filled with a lethal gin-bourbon combination, Jack-in-the-Beanstalk- size branches of mint towering above the undergraduates who imbibe as much as they can in a single swallow before passing the cup on.
It’s heady — and quite good, I thought, as I stared up at the deliriously-spinning sky, after falling precipitously from the top of a narrow stone wall (don’t ask) into a rhododendron bush in the college gardens after dinner years ago. We must do this at Madewood every June 1st, I promised myself, once I return home.
Good sense, however, kicked in, and Mint Julep Nights at Madewood look just as in the photo above. Our guests seem grateful for that. It’s more what their idea of mint juleps look like.
There’s really no magic to making a good mint julep. The simplest way is to crush a few leaves of mint in water and a little powdered sugar at the bottom of a glass before packing it with shaved ice and pouring in the bourbon. A more classic way is to boil equal parts of water and granulated sugar until it is dissolved, let it cool and pour it in over crushed mint leaves, then add the ice and bourbon. An obligatory sprig of mint must top either version.
Last weekend, Madewood had to live up to other expectations. The New Orleans style magazine amelie g was doing a fashion shoot. I’d sent the photographer, a native of Chalmette now living in New York, photos of the house, grounds and outbuildings so he could plan his shots in advance. He seemed intrigued with the small cemetery on the grounds.
“Fantastic,” he e-mailed back. “Just like a movie set,” he continued, proving that in our wired visual society, life often seems to imitate art rather than the other way around.
And it was the worn texture and faded colors of Elmfield Cottage, an 18th-century trapper’s cabin I’d moved to the grounds — not the painstakingly-maintained facade of Madewood — that drew their attention. Uptown New Orleanians are dying to have their homes photographed for the magazine, and here a diminutive, time-worn cabin occupied by Warren, our groundskeeper, was the star of the day.
By evening, the crew had moved into the main house, where they shot the fashion model in the ballroom, “but you can’t really tell it’s the ballroom,” an enthusiastic young lady assured me.
Say what? But of course; in this case, Madewood was background, not the center of attention. And it lived up brilliantly to that demand.
It all seemed a little Alice-in-Wonderland-like, with it’s inversions of traditional reasons that guests come to Madewood . . . but nothing that a mint julep or two couldn’t correct.