SALEM — Designers are famous for making sure that every element is right when producing their fashion shows. Hems, makeup, music — no detail is too small.
When some 30 patrons of the Museum of Fine Arts Fashion Council gathered at the Salem home of fashion collector Jimmy Raye for a lunch featuring recipes created by designers, the details were more than right. From menu to setting to centerpieces, they were, to use a fashion word, “fabulous.”
Although beautiful, sumptuous food is not the first image associated with the fashion industry, Michelle Tolini Finamore, 43, curator of Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, who planned the one-of-a-kind event for Fashion Council members, sees the worlds of food and fashion as very closely connected. The Council is made up of MFA supporters who gather to explore the intellectual, cultural, and artistic aspects of fashion through lectures, travel, and other special events like the luncheon.
“Fashion, like food, is all about expression,” says Finamore, who for some 20 years has collected cookbooks written by designers, writers, and Hollywood fashion icons (see related story, Page 20) and based the day’s menu on recipes from those books. “Food and fashion are very basic needs; we have to eat, we have to wear clothing. Food, shelter, clothing, love — they are all intertwined and essential.”
As Raye, 61, a former Boston Ballet dancer and current Pilates instructor, took guests up through three floors of rare hats, shoes, dresses, and accessories that Finamore describes as “one of the best private collections anywhere,” a veritable tour of the 20th-century table was coming together with the food being prepared in the kitchen, pantries, and dining room of Raye’s 1916 Federalist-style home.
Upstairs, guests viewed nearly a dozen rooms filed with fashions, including Civil-War era hoops, Prohibition-era hats, and black lace cocktail boots designed in 1947 by Salvatore Ferragamo. Downstairs, Martha Sanders, 56, and her team from Lantern Hill Catering in Topsfield, put the finishing touches on a buffet lunch featuring some of those same designers.
The bill of fare was a collaboration between Finamore and Sanders, who has researched and prepared a number of historic menus. While the food took guests through six decades of fashion history — Diana Vreeland’s potato, beet, and celery root salad Parisienne (1950s), Maxime de la Falaise’s poached cold salmon with dill mayonnaise (1970s), and butterscotch wafers from Zac Posen’s great-grandmother (2009) among the stops — it was planned with both an appreciation of vintage recipes and attention to the palates of a modern sophisticated audience.
“We wanted things to be light, summery, and colorful,” says Sanders. “We picked items with an eye to how they looked, and how they would look together.” The buffet lunch, served in Raye’s solarium and eaten in the dining room, included details a design-savvy audience could appreciate: bright yellow egg-yolk dressing on the salade Parisienne, thinly sliced cucumber to mimic fish scales on the salmon, and edible flower garnishes on the pasta.
For Fashion Council member Megan O’Block, 53, of Chestnut Hill, who published “Cooking for My Three Sons,” and was part of the planning, the visual appeal of the food was very important. “I think a lot of people who aren’t into cooking don’t understand that when you make a plate really appealing, even a kid will want to dig in,” O’Block says. “It’s definitely about color and the positioning of food.”
Sanders notes that some of the cookbooks in Finamore’s collection included recipes and ingredients such as “processed ham, white bread, and Jell-O,” which were representative of their time period. In choosing recipes, Sanders and Finamore looked for food that transcends its period.
In particular, Sanders points to the gardener’s pasta salad by designer and retailer Dianne Benson, which “knocked it out of the park,” she says, with its use of fennel and a light lemon-garlic dressing. “I usually make more of a dressing than that,” she adds. The colorful spring salad also includes baby artichokes, black olives, red and yellow cherry tomatoes, pistachios, and fresh basil. “It’s the best pasta salad I’ve ever made.”
Of Vogue magazine’s orange, onion, and avocado salad, first published in 1939, Sanders says, “I never would’ve thought of marinating orange slices and sweet onions.” The chef followed instructions to put them together eight hours before serving. “The flavors start to blend together. It’s a crucial part of the salad and is surprisingly good,” she says.
Vreeland’s salade Parisienne, the first recipe Finamore selected, also featured sophisticated and unexpected elements. In addition to egg yolks pressed through a fine sieve, the salad is dressed with olive oil, anchovy paste, Dijon mustard, tuna, and diced sour pickles. “I knew right away that if all of the recipes were going to be like this, it was going to be interesting,” Sanders says.
In fact, she was so impressed by the recipes that she will be preparing several for a summer wedding she is catering for the daughter of one of the luncheon guests. Although Sanders frequently makes adjustments as she cooks, she stuck closely to what was on the page. “I thought part of the fun of this was making it as it was supposed to be, so that everyone is having an authentic experience with the recipe.”
For O’Block, dining in Raye’s historic home was also part of an authentic experience. “When you meet someone who is passionate about what they collect, you can’t help but be excited about it,” she says.
Much of the staging for the event was left to Raye, who, with his trim dancer’s physique, looks every bit the fashionista in black-rimmed glasses and skinny jeans. Raye became a serious fashion collector in the 1980s, when he used pieces he had accumulated as costumes for dance productions. The lunch was served on his platters, china, and silver, on a dining table dressed with a vintage blue silk sari and centerpieces that he created. “A lot of people thought they were bouquets, but they were hats,” says Raye of the pieces covered with silk daffodils, roses, and poppies.
Never one to miss a detail, the collector noticed that a velvet beret from the collection looked like a cake. “So I put it on a cake plate,” Raye says. “The food, the tour, the whole thing just really worked — like a production.”