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Now reading Inside the Beggar’s Purse

Inside the Beggar’s Purse

"Put your hands behind your back, lean forward, and scoop it up in one bite."

“The customer was told, ‘Put your hands behind your back, lean forward, and scoop it up in one bite,'”  Barry Wine tells me. “Sometimes it would be on a candlestick, but sometimes they would come out on a five-pronged candelabra, if they ordered enough, or eventually a paddle, always with a slice of lime underneath, so they knew it was clean.”

“We moved on, over a period of time, to the handcuffs,” he continues. “Handcuffing them to the light fixture on the wall, or behind their back, to the seat. It depended on who it was. People had fun with it.”

Handcuffs

“People” being everyone who was anyone in New York between 1979 and 1992, the long ‘80s of big shoulders, glossy surfaces, and lots of coke: the era of Barry Wine’s restaurant, the Quilted Giraffe, the most expensive spot in the city at the time. And “it”—the “it” that was served on the candelabras to the handcuffed celebrities—was called the beggar’s purse. And by 1990, it, alone, cost $50.

Here’s how Barry describes it: “The tenderest crepe you ever saw, filled with beluga caviar and crème fraîche, tied up with a chive, dipped right before it left the kitchen in hot butter, and then with a mini paintbrush we’d paint a piece of gold leaf on top, flying in the wind. It was quite a dish.”

Candelabra

The name is a bad joke, and worse, one translated directly from French. Barry and his then-wife Susan first tasted the plump little moneybag at La Vieille Fontaine in the chateau-and-racecourse Paris suburb of Maisons-Laffitte. Over there, it was called an aumônière—literally, an “alms bag”—after its resemblance to the drawstring pouch that beggars, at some point in French history, would use as a purse.

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But Barry’s purses were gobbled down in droves—and gobble is the verb to use. It was consumption at its most conspicuous, money tossed down the chute, all rounded out with a submissive erotic edge. The vastly wealthy or guests thereof, reflected back in the dining room’s endless mirrors, paying out the nose to be watched as they were chained down and photographed slurping up delicate, testicular sacs of roe, and then swallowing, blushing, and wiping the gold leaf from their lips. Jeff Koons was a rising star; porn was coming home on VHS; the bourgeoisie were developing a taste for fun new ways to be épater-ed.

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The way Barry talks about it, the scene surrounding the beggar’s purse sounded like the best prix-fixe party in the city’s history. It was a restaurant filled with rich, beautiful people laughing, being handcuffed, and scarfing down caviar. And, based on the looks on their faces, people fucking loved it.

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Barry brought up Eleven Madison Park’s recent review in the Times. “Pete Wells says, ‘I finally got it,’ gives them four stars, because he looked around the room and saw how happy all the customers were with this kitschy, delicious food,” he says. “That’s why we had the purses, and put them on the candelabras, and handcuffed people, and took those pictures. It was fun that everybody was having.”

Paddle

The Quilted Giraffe’s been closed for twenty-three years, but QG alumni are all over the place: Tom Colicchio, David Kinch, and Katherine Alford, who’s now one of the Food Network’s senior chefs, all got their start on Barry’s line. Kinch still whips up batches of the purses at Manresa (though he sometimes subs crab salad for the caviar), and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, despite never working in the QG kitchen, regularly puts beggar’s purses on the menu at his restaurants.

When I asked for photos of customers eating the purses, Barry also showed me this:

pursedress

A dress covered with beggar’s purses. Barry’s been working on art for the past few years, mostly sculpture-ish things, out of a ground-floor studio in Chelsea. (Walk west down the north side of 23rd Street at night, and you might see a corridor of glowing, foam mannequin heads looking out.) Back in the day, he commissioned a Japanese fake-food company to make him a boxful of replicas, and only now figured out a non-prank purpose for them. (He used to throw bits of fake food—broccoli, beggar’s purses, whatever—in with the real dishes ordered by regular customers, just to see the look on their face when they popped a piece of plastic into their mouths.)

The dress, he said, was made for Barney’s: “They had a food theme for their Christmas windows, and I thought, What could be more appropriate for Barney’s than a dress draped with these things.” He found a willing helper from FIT to come design it, but the end result was just cobbled together with a glue gun.

This month, Barry’s finding someone to sew them on for real, and secure the matching earrings. “It’ll be fun for someone to go to some fashion event, you know, just wearing these.” What’s the point of a $50 dumpling, if not to be seen?