My Evening With William Warfield and How Porcini Season Brought It All Back
As I walked through the local specialty food market earlier today, I spotted the first fresh porcini mushrooms of the fall season. The aroma of the earthy fungi drew me back to the memorable events of January 22, 2001. The porcini played a supporting role in an arugula salad served at a special supper in our home. That evening, Gino and I hosted the American bass-baritone, William Warfield, on the occasion of his 81st birthday.
Let me share with you the story of that unforgettable evening.
First of all, if you’re not familiar with William Warfield, let me tell you about this remarkable artist.
If you are of a certain age, you will likely identify William Warfield and the song Ol‘ Man River, from Showboat, the 1951 MGM remake of a Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein musical. This film, lavish in its costumes and characters, was particularly poignant as it dealt with interracial romance, a topic seldom discussed in that era. Today, the plot is mostly forgotten, but Warfield’s role as Joe, the stevedore on the Mississippi riverboat and his rendition of the plaintive ballad Ol’ Man River and “the river that just keeps rolling along” still provides an iconic musical moment, even though it’s been nearly 70 years since the film’s premier. roxychase
(For more information on William Warfield and his life and career, his biography is available on multiple internet sources, including https://www.williamwarfield.org/biography/
I had met Mr. Warfield several months earlier, during his tenure as a visiting voice professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Back then, I worked at Texas Public Radio, a 24-hour listener-supported and commercial-free classical music radio station. To keep the music playing, on-air membership drives were scheduled twice a year. And, to keep the drives as fresh as possible during the weeklong campaigns (there was a lot more talking than music) we recruited guests to help “pitch” and encourage listeners to send their dollars.
We tried to make these segments as interesting as possible and always saved the best guests for drive-times late in the week. So when William Warfield’s name came up, I did not hesitate . . . I called, expecting to leave a message with a member of the staff; instead, Mr. Warfield answered in that incredibly rich, deep bass voice. Without hesitation, he agreed to be part of the team for the upcoming Friday afternoon drive time.
On the appointed day, Mr. Warfield arrived, prepared to do his part to support radio classical music. I introduced him to the KPAC announcer, also a singer. The segment started as always with the guest “pitcher” and announcer asking listeners to call and pledge their support to the radio station by joining or renewing their membership. I watched through the window that separated the studio from the pledge headquarters as Mr. Warfield and the announcer chatted about his musical memories.
Though it was only October, their talk turned to Christmas and the beloved seaonal melodies. I had looked away briefly from the action in the control room when suddenly, I heard this wonderful sound, coming through the speakers. The voice was deep and rich and the words “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles schläft; einsam wacht . . . filled the airwaves for listeners to ponder throughout South Texas. I turned back towards the window. Here was William Warfield, the great bass singing Silent Night in German, the language in which it was written. No piano, no accompaniment, just Mr. Warfield providing a memorable moment for the listeners.
A gift of music, completely spontaneous, is never forgotten!
Time passed; fast forward several months and Mr. Warfield’s return to the UTSA campus for the spring semester.
One day, in mid-January 2001, Christopher Wilkins, the San Antonio Symphony Music Director, and I were chatting. Chris, ‘tuned in’ to everyone in the music world, knew that William Warfield was about to turn 81. Even though it wasn’t a landmark birthday, Chris thought that it would be lovely to mark the occasion with a small birthday observance.
It sounded like a good excuse for a party. Gino and I were happy to host the birthday celebration in our home and Chris was in charge of the guest list. By chance, we had a short trip to Manhattan planned so I knew I could find special dishes on which to build a menu.
I was right!
Close to our New York hotel, in a tiny below-street level space, a small catering and imported food shop owned by two Italian women produced takeout meals far beyond anyone’s idea of heat and serve.
Walking down the short flight of stairs into the shop and sniffing the best of Italian cheeses, oils and specialty seasonal items, I knew I was where I needed to be in order to plan a glorious supper.
I wanted to try everything!
It wasn’t a proper sit-down restaurant but tables and chairs scattered throughout the small space provided seating for several diners or more likely, those waiting for their takeout. The artfully plated arugula salad with porcini and Grana Padano cheese, brightly colored and waiting patiently in the refrigerated case could not be ignored. I decided to test it while I waited for my large order. By God, the salad was as good as it looked, which led me to the decision to add this salad to my menu. What person in their right mind makes a salad like this for 20 guests? In those days, I was fearless! Can’t imagine making such a salad now for that many people.
The menu was set. For the main course, two lasagnas, one with fresh porcini mushrooms and the second with cheese . . . Neither had the traditional meat sauce; the porcini replaced the protein with a tantalizing flavor and taste. (I cannot remember the desserts but they looked good in the photo with William Warfield.)
A Word About Porcini
They are fungi and similar to truffles; although not quite as expensive as their truffle cousins . . . both hide under the roots of trees; both pop up every fall, and although no one hunts porcini with a dog like some truffle hunters still do, the earthy porcini mushrooms are also foraged in northern Italy wooded areas during the fall and early winter months. Locations where they are apt to pop out of the ground are guarded as secrets by mushroom hunters. Not all porcini are sold fresh, even during the season. Dried porcini, packaged and sold year round, are highly perfumed. They have to be reconstituted in water or stock before being added to a recipe.
Now, let’s get back to the story . . .
In those pre-9/11 days, you could take anything on the plane that could be stuffed into the overhead bin so for our return to San Antonio, I trundled out to LaGuardia with multiple reinforced shopping bags, filled with containers of lasagne and porcini mushrooms and lasagne with parmigiana cheese. Also packed into the bags: fresh porcini for the arugula salad that I planned to recreate from the one I had tasted at the shop.
Two days later, it was party time! Mr. Warfield arrived at our home, pleased to be remembered on his birthday. He chatted, ate heartily, and in the manner of vocalists everywhere, protected his voice by speaking softly while gently refusing any requests to sing. Who could blame him? (Singing at an unplanned event is treacherous territory for a musician; add age to the mix, and it becomes perilous. No singer in his right mind would do it.)
Fortunately, we had another fabulous baritone in our midst. Timothy Jones, at the time, a professor of voice at UTSA, and Chris Wilkins, a fine pianist as well as an outstanding conductor, unbeknownst to the guests or hosts, had planned a very short musical program. Chris played our Steinway piano and Timothy sang Praline and Fudge, originally written for Bass and Chamber Orchestra by Robert Xavier Rodriguez. Not content to just sing it in the Handel style in which it was written, for the repeat, Timothy used a falsetto, à la Julia Child . . . goes without saying, he brought the house down!
Waiting for porcini season: Even though I’ve spotted the first fresh porcini at a market here in San Antonio, the price has kept me from buying. Here’s a beautiful variation of the salad I served that evening. It takes me back to that wonderful evening with William Warfield. A simple salad for an everyday meal or for a memorable occasion.
Italian-Influenced Arugula Salad
Depending on the number of servings:
Baby arugula, well-washed and dried
Imported Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano, sliced thinly
1/2 cup good quality olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Just before serving, toss the cleaned, well-dried leaves in a bowl. Season to taste and add the dressing. (Do not over-saturate greens. The unused sauce can be stored refrigerated until needed.)
If/When you buy fresh porcini mushrooms, wipe them well with a slightly damp paper towel or cloth. Trim the rough edges around the base and stem. Do not immerse them in water. Slice clean, dry mushrooms, and add them to the salad.
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