The lunch report
Reposted from The Lunch Report.
Today, I accidentally lunched at the River Club, tucked inconspicuously at the eastern most extremity of the Beekman neighborhood, at 447 East 52nd Street. I say “accidentally” because I had forgotten that the club is practically in the East River, a good two miles east of my office–an impossibly long walk in heels and simply uncab-able during midday midtown traffic.
The River Club distinguishes itself among its peer clubs–such as the Links and the Knick–by its original aspiration to serve as both a country club as well as a living cooperative (through its neighboring River House). Housing its own pool, tennis and squash courts, some say it succeeded.
Chartered in 1931, members could moor their yachts at the club’s strictly private, block-long pier and enter the club without ever sullying their shoes on 52nd Street. Perhaps the unfettered water access was intended to simulate the experience of stepping off a gondola in Venice straight into a palazzo (albeit an Art Deco one).
Like many UES cooperatives, the River Club maintained its cultural integrity (ie, WASPs only, not even Mackerel Snappers1 allowed originally) until unseemly financial needs supposedly forced it to modify its admissions policy—financial needs have often prompted a love of diversity. At lunch I was told the club now, proudly, admits Jews. Looking around, I suspected this might be a rumor circulated by politically correct members ashamed of the club’s historic associations with anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathizing.2 According to one source, no Jews were admitted until the mid 50s.
I was struck by my fellow lunchers’ ethnic uniformity (or lack of “ethnicity,” because in America, WASPs (or WASCs3) are not ethnic). I could size them up immediately by their teeth. Many of these teeth summer on Fisher’s,4 I’m sure. These teeth are not the fluorescent white teeth one sees nowadays on the finance crowd and their well-heeled spouses. At the River Club, people know that glow-in-the-dark teeth mean you and your teeth are trying too hard. No orthodontic excesses here, just good genes and the faintest hint of ochre that occurs naturally with age.
The food was appropriately bland, as club food should be—exotic tastes are a creature comfort of the nouveau cultured—their taste buds so finely tuned that they can no longer appreciate the elegant simplicity of a grilled cheese sandwich or chicken noodle soup—American staples that may soon disappear amidst “fusion cuisine,” whereby the fusion of two unrelated cuisines (think Japanese-Mexican) is meant to be superior to either individually, yet often results in gustatory discord.
Cost: $0 (like all good clubs, one pays with a membership number, to avoid the vulgarity of cash or credit cards)
I know I was supposed to hate this lunch and feel stifled by this club, yet, with great shame, I admit that I was relieved to spend 90 minutes in a strangely familiar atmosphere where I did not need to explain anything about my background or why I enjoyed squash—you’d think I told people I beat disabled Mexican children with polo mallets when I see the reaction to this “confession.”
I am as big a fan of diversity as the next person. I’ve visited Little Italy, Little India, and Little Brazil, none of which would have been created were it not for some Italians, Indians and Brazilians wanting to create a cultural enclave within a bigger culture. I’ve indulged in so much diversity that I may have forgotten what really feels like home to me and forgotten that there is no shame in feeling at home.
So, as I lift my gin and tonic this evening and reflect on my lunch, I would like to toast all of the cultural enclaves of NYC, including Little WASP Town at Beekman Place.5
1. “Mackerel Snapper,” which refers to the pre-Vatican II custom of Friday abstinence from meat, is a derogatory term for Roman Catholics which became popular in the 1800s as a means of distinguishing Catholics from Protestants in America.
2. The club’s members included, most famously, Charles Lindbergh, long accused of Nazi anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathies.
3. Let’s not forget that prior to Hank’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his subsequent separation from the Church of Rome in 1533, Catholics were very much establishment creatures.
4. Fisher’s Island (named Visher’s in 1614), has been a popular summer destination for well established and old money families since the turn of the 20th century. Situated approximately 7 miles southeast of New London, CT and 11 miles north of Long Island, Fisher’s is part of Suffolk County, New York.
5. Ironically, Beekman Place passed through a slum phase after the wealthy Beekman family left the area in 1854 and before its revival by the Morgan banking family in the early 1920s.