It is a crisp December evening in New York City; the plum-colored room pulsates with the sounds of rustling taffeta and chatter and piano music. A haze of amber light cast by candles and antique parchment lampshades floats dreamily in the air along with mingled perfumes. Standing by the closed mahogany pocket doors that lead to the dining room/library, Gene Hovis surveys approvingly the first act of another of his trademark productions: a perfect dinner party created for ten friends. From beginning to end and for three days he has been preparing - washing and ironing the nineteenth century lace tablecloths and napkins; shopping for the ingredients and flowers; setting the table with lavish arrangements of cut crystal, German art nouveau silver, and English ironstone; writing in exquisite calligraphy a complete menu card for each guest; and otherwise doing the thing he simply does better than anyone else around: cooking.
Eugene Leonard Hovis made his first grand entrance on July 7, 1935, in Salisbury, North Carolina. He was born into a simple, but intrinsically elegant Southern, black family who believed "food and eating it were a serious business." They were great cooks who harvested their own food on their own land, and thus food was discussed "before they ate, while they were eating, and after they finished." The Hovis clan was used to the best, most basic and freshest ingredients available. But the one person who left the most indelible imprint on Gene's young life was Mary Cooper Dameron, his maternal grandmother. Granny Dameron was a dignified, somber, ebony-skinned dowager of quiet fire and grace. "Her dining room table, always covered with a lovely hand-crocheted cloth and pretty hand-embroidered napkins, a bowl of fresh flowers in the center, looked opulent and lavish. It would be laden with watermelon pickles, chow-chow (cabbage relish), pickled beets, stuffed baked chickens, and an assortment of fresh cooked vegetables, hot yeast rolls, a towering, snowy coconut cake with a filling of homemade jam, and in the summer, delicious lemonade, rich creamy ice cream, and as much ice tea as we could hold" Hovis reminisced.
Pretentious foods were obviously not a part of their agenda, but early family dining experiences set the stage for a modus operandi that Gene Hovis carried into adulthood and throughout his entire professional career - keep it simple and elegant. And that just happens to be the overriding theme of the Uptown Down Home Cookbook, the collectible 1987 book by Gene Hovis and Sylvia Rosenthal.
Gene Hovis may have been born in a small town, but he certainly was not of that mindset. The product of a private high school education, he came to New York in the early 1950's after graduating from college with a fine arts degree, determined to make a name for himself on the broadway stage. His modest, top-floor, one-room efficiency in Greenwich Village soon became the most popular hangout for all of his fellow (unemployed) actor friends. The communal bath was inconveniently three flights down, but they had the added luxury of skylight, vibrant and rich shades of paint, scavenged but still extravagant throw pillows, fresh rhododendrons, and plenty of delicious, inventive down-home style cooking.
He decided to change professions and pursue a career in the culinary arts, and was promptly influenced and taught by well-known cooking teachers like Dione Lucas and Craig Claiborne. Gene started out as a caterer, and was soon cooking for and partying with such clients as Mayor David Dinkins, opera star, Jessye Norman, and cabaret diva, Bobby Short. It wasn't long before Gene Hovis graduated to the status of professional chef, food stylist, food consultant, and food editor for HG magazine, and co-host of the television show, Long Island People, with Melba Tolliver. Later he was Vice President and Creative Director, Marketplace and Restaurants for Macy's.
Having learned that true elegance began in the kitchen working with first rate, carefully prepared ingredients, Hovis also recognized the extraordinary importance of creating an appropriate ambience. In fact, that would be an understatement! After decades of collecting antiques and storing them in warehouses, he opened what immediately became a very successful antiques shop in Hudson, New York.
A conoissuer of flea markets the world over, Hovis amassed an impressive collection of artwork, plush, overstuffed chairs and sofas, and eventually furnished his small Manhattan apartment entirely with Biedermeier and American Empire pieces. They were exquisitely offset with embrodery and simple knick-knacks like "groupings of wooden fruit-shaped tea caddies, snuffbox shoes, English match-strikers, Battersea boxes, and Chinese porcelains."
I have always had a passion for tablecloths, napkins, place mats, and pillow shams that date from an era when there was time for delicate embroideries and fine seams with tiny running stitches ... I reveled in the challenge and unpredictability of sifting through bins of jumbled linens in thrift shops or coming upon a treasure at a country auction that was not only rare and beautiful but also cheap. - Gene Hovis
And there you have it! Hovis' table, usually set for an intimate dinner for twelve, was always layered with antique linens and lace, flower arrangements, and attractive silver, crystal and china. If the host was feeling particularly bored, each guest might get an individual place setting with different but complimentary dinner plates and glassware. Splendidly framed photos of friends and icons like Josephine Baker only added an extra gleam to the smart surroundings.
Can we say Regency linen press! And if the folding and bundling of tablecloths and delicate napkins weren't cumbersome enough, Hovis had his own tried and true laundry method inspired by his own Granny Dameron. "You will need a detergent, a powdered bleach, and a spray starch. I sometimes treat individual stains on white linens with an application of Windex, which contains ammonia" Hovis shared.
1. Wash linens by hand. 2. If the linens are stained with such things as lipstick, wine, or yellowing caused by age, boil a large amount of water. When it comes to a boil, add 3 tablespoons of powdered bleach (Clorox 2 or Snowy Bleach.) 3. Place linens in the boiling water, and boil for 5 minutes. 4. Rinse linens in cold water. 5. Wring out linens, extracting as much water as possible, and place in a plastic bag. Refrigerate until very cold. 6) Heat iron. Spray linens with spray starch and go to work.
We know that the spoils and booty of flea market wars wherever Gene Hovis traveled was silver, porcelain and china, but notice the marbleized closet. When he described his first apartment in Greenwich Village, Hovis wrote that "the top of every piece of furniture was covered with an adhesive-backed marbled paper to hide the peeling and cracked surfaces underneath." Apparently that was an old and ingenious trick that was never forgotten.
Guest lists for one of Gene Hovis's dinner parties were also carefully planned and thought out, and might include the likes of Josephine Premice, Andre Leon Talley and Bobby Short. But more often than not, his close friends Brooke Hayward and Peter Duchin could be found devouring orange slices in champagne-ginger sauce, while Carolina and Reinaldo Herrera enjoyed a bowl of red beans and rice. Bill Blass loved apricot-raisin bread pudding, while Slim Keith lived for Hovis' marvelous chicken pot pie. An A-list gathering for sure, but they were reportedly never tired, boring nor stuffy. "Really, sometimes you'd be amazed at who was sitting next to who" Andre Leon Talley remembered.
Life would eventually begin to come full circle for the little, impressionable boy from Salisbury ... now a member of the glitterati and man of the world ... when Hovis suffered a massive diabetic stroke sometime in the late 1990's. It was inevitable that a few friends would fall by the wayside, but with Hans, and courage imbedded in his DNA, he made the best of it. Gene Hovis died at his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in February of 2004, of cardiac arrest. At his side was his devoted partner,Hans-Joachim Teetz. His legacy of luxury and tradition lives on.
Photographs and all direct and italicized quotes are from Gene Hovis's Uptown Down Home Cookbook - Little, Brown and Company: with Sylvia Rosenthal, 1987, and the article Host of the Town (HG, by Brooke Hayward, December, 1990).