NEW YORK -- A woman stood up at the long table and raised her glass. "I like to have a Martini," she said, reading the words of Dorothy Parker, "two at the very most; three, I'm under the table, four I'm under my host!"
Toasting was the theme of the night as editors and friends of Lapham's Quarterly, the brainchild of Harper's legend Lewis Lapham, gathered at Brasserie Pushkin to eat, drink and be Russian. The air was thick with the scent of pickles and horseradish vodka, the walls covered in opulent wood carvings, the ceiling a heavenly and somewhat cheesy 18th-century imitation. The restaurant opened but a month ago, and is meant to evoke both the gilded lavishness of Russian oligarchs and the sleek modernity of midtown. Even the coatroom tickets were expensive: patrons were handed gold pocket watches with hidden numbers, leading one to exclaim, "but this is worth more than my coat!"
About ten friends of the quarterly were tasked with reading specific excerpted toasts from history throughout the dinner, be they from Hemingway ("this is wine is too good for toasting"), Pushkin ("let us drink for grief") or Lord Byron ("Let us have women and wine!").
"I give a fair number of toasts," said Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, who was given the Byron quote to recite. "I was once unofficially the Toastmaster General of Long Island!" Eustis said he favors the kind of toast one gives on the opening night of a play, "where you can toast the people who made the show minutes before the critics tear them apart."
Lapham, 77, made sure to historically frame the evening before diving into the toasting and drinking, relaying an anecdote about the origin of the word 'toast,' which he attributes to Jonathan Swift in 1709. Watching the impeccably dressed Lapham preside over a long table of friends and board members, one could tell he was a good storyteller. The quarterly's namesake is not necessarily a toast-giver per se, one editor explained, but he certainly believes in the power of a good post-work drink. "For him, a nightcap after work is where the big ideas happen."
Lapham's Quarterly was founded in 2007, and each issue follows a single theme. Past issues have focused on War, Money, Medicine and Celebrity. The magazine is usually a collection of essays and historical writings. “The idea was to bring the voices of the past up to the microphone of the present,” Lapham told The New York Times.
On the Russian theme of the evening, Lapham noted, "a lot of our contributors are Russian. Dead -- Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Pushkin -- but nevertheless they make frequent appearances in our pages."
Dinner was fittingly Russian: a smoked chicken salad with crawfish tails and salmon roe, beef stroganoff with buckwheat and insanely lavish desserts, including the 'Medovichok,' a sort of dry-ice volcano ... something. There was also an immense chocolate and raspberry dome dubbed the Cafe Pushkin (pictured below).
Elena Siyanko, one of the creators of the event (and a Russian!) said the idea behind the evening was to have a "more transformative intellectual" experience, rather than just "popping in, popping out from the next book party." Elana was good to have on hand, too. Aidan Flax-Clark, an associate editor at the Quarterly, made sure to check with her that his dirty Russian toast wouldn't offend any actual Russians in the room (the translation of which was something like "Good fortune for us, dicks for them!") She said it was fine.
Later into the dinner, one reporter said he doubted the veracity of the anecdote in Lapham's initial toast. A Lapham's employee, quoting Dylan Thomas, said that it didn't really matter if story was true or not. It just makes a good story.