by Joyce H. Munro
This story needs music. Something mellow with a dash of mischief, kind of like Ray. Read while listening to “Memories of You” by Roger Kellaway and Ruby Braff (Track three on Inside and Out, Concord Jazz, 1996).
Ray may have been a pretty good short-order cook when he was a kid, but later on, his best work was done outdoors over an open fire. Breakfast in the park. Cookery and camaraderie in such high demand, it turned into an annual event with family and friends. Potatoes O’Stoney is a lip-smacking dish that’s always on the Breakfast Club menu. Directions are simple: make it like regular Potatoes O’Brien the night before, then, the next morning, once the wood fire is nice and hot, crisp it up in a skillet. Use the battered, blackened skillet torched by many campfires. Slather salsa on top before serving—that’s what makes it O’Stoney.
Salsa tells you a lot about Ray Stone. Self-proclaimed Chef of the Breakfast Club, Ray was one of those Mad Men back in the 1960s. Back when he commuted from South Salem to midtown Manhattan and churned out big ideas for mass media. Back when he won a CLIO award and sundry awards from various advertising associations for slathering zest and spiciness on projects.
Before that, Ray served in the Navy during WWII, and was awarded a Victory Medal and a Campaign Medal and seven Battle Stars for his stint as a radar man on the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier. Back when radar was so new it was considered a secret weapon. When the Navy was worried about how radar might affect radar men, so they sent them to a shrink to find out if sitting below deck in the dark staring at pips on screens the size of dinner plates was damaging their psyches. When personal diaries were not permitted (beware the spying eyes of the enemy), but Ray kept one anyway. And got yelled at for wearing non-regulation penny loafers and plunking his “Dixie cup” on his head at a saucy angle.
Unflappable, saucy Plank owner. A veteran who ripened into a Bertram Cooper type CEO, ever so slightly eccentric, crafty as all get-out. An ad man on Madison Avenue, creating image and hype for magazines and newspapers, doing his best to keep priorities straight, and oh, those one-liners he thought up.
At some point during his hectic advertising career, Ray thought up the Breakfast Club. And its chef-d’oeuvre—Wrecked Eggs, short-order recipe filed only in Ray’s head. One of his friends, a magazine editor, figured out the recipe and published it in the New York Times Magazine (“The Breakfast Club” by Abbott Combes, September 1, 1991):
¼ pound sweet Italian sausage
Butter for cooking the eggs
3 to 4 tablespoons bacon fat
16 large eggs
5 tablespoons medium-hot salsa
1 large green pepper, chopped
4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Anyone who has a problem with cholesterol or meat shouldn’t bother reading any farther—it only gets worse. And don’t try this recipe at home on the stove; it must be cooked out-of-doors. That’s imperative! First, you have to get to Ward Pound Ridge early with all the fixings to stake out a table and build a fire. Now heat the butter and bacon fat in the skillet. Break the eggs right into the skillet. Don’t worry about bits of shell getting in there; tell everyone it’s supposed to be crunchy. Add the rest of the ingredients and cook away, chatting all the while with guests about how this park is such a treasure, how you’ve been coming here for decades, how your three kids used to wade in the creek and annoy everyone with their squealing. Oops, forgot the Parmesan cheese. Oh well, who cares; it’s about camaraderie, not cheese.
It was always about camaraderie for Ray. During the war, he learned what togetherness really meant. With fellow radar men, with fighter pilots in the air, with other ships. And with girls in every port. But the girl he fell in love with at first sight was a twenty-seven-thousand-ton aircraft carrier. Turned out to be the romance of a lifetime. Although he set romance aside while he got another education, at the Art Students League, on the GI Bill.
Then came stints at This Week, the Newspaper Advertisers Bureau, Newsweek International. Generating huge ideas, priming the pump over two-hour lunches, pulling all-nighters, beating heads against the wall, creatively speaking. All those feature stories and photos and ads to cram into twenty-four pages. Plus what should the centerfold be that week—no, not that kind of centerfold. These were family magazines. Decency ruled the day. In later years, Ray went independent with a few fellow ad men and repeated the same process, only for different clients. So what did it take to be an ad man? Thick skin and a block head, he would say. That, and finding clients who wanted your brand of sizzle. And sometimes it took getting away from work with family and friends for lawn parties and breakfast in the park.
Hear that sizzle? Bacon, sausage, steak. A sound more enticing than the creek, not nearly as annoying as the geese overhead. And their honking signals you: tell the guests about how radar men would sometimes pick up mystery pips that turned out to be geese, not enemy planes. Nothing like sizzling meats to announce breakfast coming up. There’s no recipe for Mixed Grill—just plop everything in the skillet and fry to crispy perfection, while you talk about this cookbook you’re writing. Every dish made with a can of beer. Not the kind of dishes your dad had on his “dinner de luxe” menu at the Willard Grill in the thirties. What an elegant place it was, with original art, music; the kind of place the Mayor frequented.
Then you moved and Dad bought that all-night diner down in Cedarhurst, where regulars went after bars closed. Where you started slinging hash, Dad’s bulky apron wrapped around your waist. Helping out until you could join the Navy. Rustling up omelets. And one day, you got tired of ham and cheese. Baby food. In went onions, tomatoes, plus a couple of meatballs and some sardines and a few dollops of something from a pot. Flipped it on a plate, set it on the counter and said, with all the chefness you could muster, “Now try this. I call it my Sweep Up the Kitchen for a Sucker Omelet.” Oh, those one-liners you thought up.
Damn! Sorry, the meats are a little on the charred side.
While all this business is going on at the fire pit, someone needs to gather wildflowers for the centerpiece. No vase? Just grab a champagne bottle (there’ll be an empty by now). Fill it in the creek. Yes, a centerpiece for the breakfast table. And heavy-duty paper plates, mismatched silverware, those clear plastic cups that look like glass, and ceramic mugs for coffee that’ll make eyes bug out. Paper napkins—some nice ones. Even a fancy-schmancy tablecloth—another imperative. This picnic is nothing if not outdoorsy elegant. We are nothing if not resourceful picnickers.
It’s 2012 and this is the umpteenth gathering of the Ray Stone Breakfast Club. Four of us attend this year; some years have been eight or more. In fact, this is the first time the club has met for many years. I guess I’m to blame for resurrecting it, by emailing Ray, spur-of-the-moment:
Ever since I read about your breakfast club in the New York Times Magazine in 1991, my husband and I have had our own version of the club—in our backyard in New Jersey, South Carolina, Virginia, and now Pennsylvania. I kept Abbott Combes’ article to remind me of the menu and the collegiality of your group. The page is stained and full of notes about our own breakfasts to say goodbye to summer.
My husband and I are retiring in August and our first trip after retirement is to Ward Pound Ridge over Labor Day weekend. We want to be where it all started, cook up a batch of wrecked eggs and raise a toast to you and your club members through the years.
One email leads to another and before long, Ray decides to host another breakfast and he invites us. We’re going to meet the toastmaster, whose toasts never burn, according to his friend Kit.
The eggs are just about done. Hope everyone likes them wrecked beyond recognition. A few adjustments to the recipe this year: halve the recipe, substitute bacon for sausage and waive the green pepper, but not the salsa—use as much salsa as for sixteen eggs. Just don’t call the glop in the skillet glop. Many breakfasts ago, a child called it glop and you, spatula dicing the air, growled: “You’re going to eat that glop!”
At idle in the bucolic woods of Westchester County, NY, the Breakfast Club foursome has gobbled up every bite of that glop and all of the champagne. Plus Danishes and fruit. We’re mellow and so is our chatter. I’ve been telling Ray and his pal, George Konow, also an Intrepider, about my dad’s service in the Navy, though not onboard a carrier in the Pacific Theater. No, Dad—a skinny kid named Fred Huth—was trained in electronics in Washington DC, then in a highly-selective program in Chicago. He was assigned to operate a shore-side brain center at Norfolk. No kamikaze hits or torpedo strikes like Ray experienced, but nerve-wracking in other ways. Ray and George nod knowingly.
Meanwhile, my husband is over by the creek trying to earn the Order of the Floating Cork, tossing champagne corks midstream. For my efforts in table decor, I’ve earned Best Floral Arrangement on the Gallery Deck. And Ray awards both of us Oak Leaf Clusters (tugged off a tree branch overhead) for longest distance traveled to the club meeting. He’s local, we’re Philly suburbanites. George, a helicopter pilot deployed aboard the Intrepid in the sixties (with real awards of his own), earns the Supply Systems Deployment Award, as well he should for shoving so much picnic gear into Ray’s Chevy.
In the afternoon, when it’s time to go home and take our naps, we pack up, hug, and part ways. Promising to do this again, maybe in the spring. We’ll come back and visit at Elmwood Road, gaze at photos, Intrepid memorabilia, maybe the CLIO statue. Ask for an autograph on the flyleaf of My Ship! The USS. Intrepid, the book Ray wrote. Maybe in the spring.
Next morning, Ray emails before I had a chance. He was thanking us, inviting us to come back, spend the night this time, cook up another champagne breakfast. Quipping:
The brook was not babbling.
Shafts of sun were missing.
But the people were shining and blabbing blithely.
It was a glorious morning.
He reminds us of our only disappointment of the day: the dog didn’t catch a fish. Then he wishes us a retirement of beautiful happenings and signs: Ramon—the old salt with lots of pepper. I respond, it was our pleasure, maybe when he is in NYC for an event at the Intrepid and reconnoitering at Landmark Tavern, we’ll drive up and buy the first round for everyone; we have so many questions to ask, but they’ll keep. We’ll return. In the spring. But retirement can be so busy.
I’ve watched your speech at the Retired Men’s Association of Greenwich, and I watched you that day at breakfast. When you talked of the war, tears came to your eyes. That’s what battle life and death does… it makes a survivor emotional. Fortunately, it never made you despair. Maybe it was because you served on a ship called Intrepid. Gutsy, audacious, and a tad mischievous, that ship and her crew. Back when you were fighting the second war to end all wars. When you went through heaven and hell together. And you were gallant to the end.
(Sound of the Boatswain Mate’s pipe)
All hands stand by.
Now hear this:
Raymond Thomas Stone, Intrepid Plank owner, departed on eternal patrol 05 March 2015.
(Sound of eight bells)
For fifteen years, I lived in New Jersey, not far from the USS Intrepid. It was the landmark I looked for whenever I traveled the west side of Manhattan. But I never knew a growly-voiced radar man named Ray Stone was aboard back when a kamikaze plane crashed on the flight deck, setting it afire. And five minutes later, the second kamikaze struck, leaving a trail of flaming gasoline from stern to stem. That was when Ray and his buddies started helping their ship earn the moniker “The Fighting I.”
I wonder if he’s the one who thought up that one-liner.
(Copyright 2015 Military Experience & the Arts, Inc.)