Friday, July 10, 2009

Waldorf-Astoria Rice Pudding: in memory of Nikola Tesla (1856-1943)

The great Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla spent many years living at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. He dined alone each night, entering the dining room precisely at 8:00pm. As Tesla's eccentricities and exploits have been amply documented elsewhere, I'll refrain from attempting a biography here. If you're interested in learning more, I recommend the biographies by Margaret Cheney, Mark Seifer, and John O'Neill. I also recommend having some tissues handy, and possibly an image of Thomas Edison or J. Pierpont Morgan to thrash.

As he grew older, Tesla became more eccentric and, perhaps, a bit mad. He loved pigeons, for whom he bought seed even when he could not afford to pay his secretaries. As old age and poverty overtook him, Tesla ceased his sumptuous dining and subsisted mostly on warm milk, which he would heat himself in a chafing dish if required to dine with others.

I often think of Tesla, wondering, among other things, what he felt and thought about in his last years, alone in his suite at the New Yorker. Was he homesick for the white house, little church, and animal friends of his childhood? Did he miss the days when he strode into Peacock Alley, dressed to the nines, on the way to his solitary table at the Waldorf-Astoria? Or was he happy, alone with his pigeons?

In honor of Nikola Tesla's birthday, here is a recipe for rice pudding, allegedly from the kitchens of the Waldorf-Astoria. I like to think that the milky simplicity of this sweet would have tempted the ascetic genius enough to take a taste, at least.

Waldorf-Astoria Rice Pudding

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons short-grain rice
2 1/2 quarts milk
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup raisins
Vanilla to taste
1 cup whipping cream
2 egg yolks

Rinse rice in cold running water. Drain well. Combine milk with 1/3 of sugar and salt and bring to boil. Add rice, reduce heat and simmer, covered 1 hour or until rice is soft, stirring occasionally. Add raisins, remaining sugar and vanilla to taste.

Turn mixture into oven-proof serving dish or individual pudding cups. Beat cream until soft. Add egg yolks and stir well. Spread mixture evenly over top of rice pudding. Place under broiler until browned on tip, being careful cream does not scorch. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

In memory of Tesla's pigeon friends, here is a recipe for a cake made of bird seed -- it's part suet block and part seed, for birds to eat (you could try it yourself, but it probably tastes better to our feathered friends).

Bird Seed Cake

1 part vegetable shortening, suet, or lard (or use part of each, or add peanut butter)
2 parts bird seed

Melt the fat slowly over low heat. When it's completely melted, turn off the heat and stir in the seed. Pack it in a bowl or small Tupperware-type container. Refrigerate until good and solid. When ready to turn out, let your hands warm the outside of the container to loosen the cake, then dump it onto a plate or cutting board. Place outdoors (out of cats' reach, please) and watch the birds enjoy it.

"Let the future tell the truth, and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I have really worked, is mine."
Nikola Tesla

Happy Birthday, sir.

Postscript: Mr. John Wagner, a Michigan teacher, has made it his mission to place busts of Tesla in institutions around the world. Below is a fabulous 1989 photo of the bust housed at the University of Michigan, surrounded by members of Tesla, the inventor's namesake rock band, along with Mr. Wagner's students. The band funded the creation of this bust, the first one made, which was offered to, and rejected by, the Smithsonian.


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