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The Definition of a Perfect Host

Lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, author of The F-Word, will study ancient Persian or East African recipes—or the latest cookbook from Charlie Trotter—to find compelling dishes for his famous Manhattan dinner parties.

If you ask most serious home cooks, "How many cookbooks do you own?" they will say something like, "I don't know— a lot. Thirty, maybe?" Ask Jesse Sheidlower the same question, and he immediately replies, "I currently have 573 food-related books, of which 86 are on wine."

This is Jesse in a nutshell: meticulously informed, precise to the point of punctiliousness and a world-class devotee of fine food. The first two of these qualities have been invaluable in his position as the principal North American editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. But it's Jesse's attention to detail coupled with his passion for cooking that have made his parties a quiet phenomenon in the social scene of New York City's publishing world.

Jesse and his wife, freelance editor Elizabeth Bogner, host two types of parties: elegant dinners that typically involve eight guests and seven courses, and raucous "sTews" where upward of 50 friends cram into their apartment for esoteric recipes culled from Jesse's cookbook collection. Jesse explains the genesis of "sTews"—with a capital T—this way: "The first time I had a stew party, in 1996 or so, a guest later announced in an online forum that he had been at 'an erudite party for stew.' That prompted the question, 'What's stew?' and the answer 'A long-simmered meat dish,' and then the follow-up, 'Oh, I thought you were talking about a new webzine—sTew, or something.'"

Behind his proper, almost Edwardian air, Jesse has a boyish quality; a touch of Harry Potter, grown up. Immaculately turned out in bespoke Savile Row suits and handmade shoes, he'll hold forth on the specific footwear for which broguing is appropriate, or on the unspeakable horror that is the cummerbund. He is the only American I know who looks like he wears sock garters; I suspect that he secretly mourns the passing of spats.

While he could pass for English, Jesse was born in New York City, where his grandfather, a former taxidermist with the Museum of Natural History, sold exotic butterflies to collectors, and his parents ran a science and nature toy business. At the University of Chicago, he embraced cooking when awful cafeteria food drove him to the stove. Since he was on the rowing team and had to maintain his weight, Jesse couldn't always eat when he entertained; instead, he threw his attention into the cooking process itself, voraciously reading cookbooks and reference works like Larousse Gastronomique.

After graduating with special honors in English from Chicago, he moved on to Cambridge University to study in the department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic. It was at Cambridge that he gave one of his first big dinner parties, on a friend's country estate. Jesse still has the menu—written in French, with annotations indicating the guests and the wines. The meal started with potage Crécy (creamy carrot soup) and cold smoked-trout terrine, and peaked with pheasant in port wine sauce, cooked on the manor's ancient wood-burning Aga stove.

It was also at Cambridge that Jesse scored his first lexicography coup. Reading old letters by Byron, he came across an early use of the word tool as a reference to motion—as in "tooling down the highway"—that had never been spotted before. Jesse sent his find to the Oxford English Dictionary and was invited to become a reader, scouring books for interesting words and reporting them in. Before long, he was writing The F-Word, a playful but scholarly exploration of the infamous expletive. The book was a success for the publishers but even more so for Jesse, who met his wife at its launch party.

The new couple entertained frequently and, Jesse says, disastrously. "My menus were terribly planned. The dishes would be ready at different times, and there would be long gaps while I was in the kitchen slaving away. Sometimes they'd drag on until 2 a.m." He has since honed his menu planning down to a science, yet he's still an insatiable reader of chefs' cookbooks, like those from Charlie Trotter, keen to understand how professional kitchens handle logistics.

These days, Jesse's taste in cookbooks runs to the exotic. His reading ranges from Najmieh Batmanglij's classic treatise, the Persian New Food of Life, to Keith Miller's self-published Indonesian Street Food Secrets and Gioietta Vitale's Riso: Undiscovered Rice Dishes of Northern Italy. And when he finds a recipe he has to try, he'll throw a party as an excuse.

At his sTew dinners, an evolution of the beef stew Super Bowl parties that Elizabeth used to host, Jesse offers several varieties (red meat, chicken and seafood), along with steamed white rice. Says Jesse, "The red meat is generally lamb, because I like lamb, and the seafood stew is often Southeast Asian because there are so many good dishes in that genre. I wouldn't do, say, Indonesian lamb stew. There might be a recipe, but I've never seen it." The Benetton-esque buffet could include an Iraqi lamb-and-eggplant stew spiked with pomegranate molasses, a Mexican pork-and-chorizo stew with chipotles and an Indonesian shrimp stew with coconut milk. Jesse does most of his prep work the night before, completing the final touches by 6 p.m. on the day itself and leaving the stews to simmer. Warm brownies finish the meal; Jesse prefers a recipe by Nick Malgieri, citing muscovado sugar as the key ingredient.

While his stew recipes generally come from cookbooks, Jesse's fancy dinner menus can be inspired by anything—a recipe he reads, a restaurant meal that he feels he could execute better, three perfect ingredients he happens to find at the market. They feature five to eight courses (such as gingered carrot soup, miso-marinated black cod, roast lamb with cumin-porcini cakes and chocolate–and–blood orange crêpes) in carefully plotted order, each with a distinct wine pairing. "I generally go through 15 pots in three days in the course of preparing a dinner party," says Jesse.

What's astonishing about these dinners is that the host, always in an impeccably cut suit, participates fully in the evening. "Jesse disappears into the kitchen, sometimes for a while, but he always returns to the table calmly, takes part in the conversation, pours the wine—and is much the best-dressed person at the table," says Amanda Hesser, food editor at the New York Times Magazine. Guests rash enough to pop their heads into the kitchen would see Jesse in shirtsleeves, jacket hung neatly nearby, basting this or plating that, the kitchen operating-room spotless. (But no one would actually see that: It is one of the house rules that guests not enter the kitchen.) As Hesser puts it, "Jesse doesn't sweat, and apparently never spills or splatters. He's the next generation of human being and host."

Whether or not Jesse is some kind of superhuman, his parties are always works of love. Adam Gopnik, a New Yorker writer, says it best: "The joy of what Jesse does is his joy in what he does. I never have the impression that he's trying to show off or impress anyone. It's his art form."

Jonathan Hayes is a New York City forensic pathologist and writer; a lightly disguised Jesse Sheidlower appears as a character in his thriller Precious Blood (Harper Collins, November 2007).

Published November 2007
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