A two-part series on Martha Rose Shulman's "pop-up" restaurants in the 1970s and '80s:
Part 1: Martha's Moon House in Austin, Texas.
Part 2: Chez Martha in Paris, France.
“Would you pay a dollar fifty to come to dinner at my house?” I asked my hippie co-workers at the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center library one Wednesday afternoon in “the olden days,” before computers, Facebook and pop-up restaurants. One of them had just told me about a “supper club” that a mutual friend had started, a sort of dinner party that you paid to attend. This struck me as a very good idea; I had recently decided to turn my passion and talent for vegetarian cooking into a career and was trying to figure out just what I would do. I knew I didn’t want to open a restaurant; the business side was too scary for me, and I had no restaurant experience. I would teach cooking instead. I was slated to give classes through the University of Texas extension program the following autumn. But I still needed a showcase and a way to develop more recipes. A supper club would provide me with an expense account for my cooking; it could be like opening a restaurant without going into business.
I lived, with two roommates, in the perfect house for this, a Spanish-style bungalow with a moon-shaped window in the front door that we had appropriately named the Moon House. It had a large kitchen that I had fitted out with island worktables I’d built myself and shelving made from end cuts and wooden grape crates. The kitchen gave onto a living room where I could seat 25 people — on the floor. In those days, nobody had furniture. We used wooden electrical spools for dining tables and made bookshelves out of cinder blocks and boards. The sliding doors from my bedroom closet were easy enough to remove from their casters and set on cinder blocks; they made perfect low tables. With a couple of extra spools I’d be able to serve 30 to 35 people comfortably.
I sent out handwritten announcements to all of my friends and acquaintances:
ANNOUNCING MARTHA’S MOON HOUSE SUPPER CLUB
THURSDAY NIGHTS, 7:30
$1.50 members, $2 nonmembers
There was a tear-off for people who wanted to join and pay for four dinners in advance. They were to fill in their names, addresses and phone numbers, check if they would be there on the first night of “Phase 1,” indicate if they needed to carpool with somebody and send me cash or a check in the enclosed pre-addressed envelope. In my notebooks, I kept a running handwritten spreadsheet to keep track of my membership, expenses, balance and mailing list. Looking at the detail and business skills that went into those notebooks decades before Constant Contact, LinkedIn, Quicken and Excel, I’m perplexed that today I sometimes feel challenged by the world of self-promotion.
Martha’s Moon House Supper began in September 1973, and it took off quickly. For two years, until I moved to a smaller house, I fed 30 to 35 people every Thursday. Dinners always began with a soup course, the soup made in a huge stockpot and served up in Mexican ceramic soup bowls, followed by a main dish and salad. Every week I made four loaves of mixed grains “Moon Bread” to serve with the meal. People brought their own wine (I served iced peppermint tea). I didn’t do desserts, but part of the fun was the dessert after-party that would invariably occur someplace else.
My menus were vegetarian (“but you’d never know it,” said one regular); one from June 20, 1974, begins with a tomato-avocado soup served with moon-shaped homemade sesame crackers, followed by my signature black bean enchiladas and a spinach salad. A late September menu offers stracciatella, lasagna and green salad; ratatouille, spinach and onion quiche, and green salad are on another fall menu, and as Hanukkah nears, I’m serving cream of mushroom soup and latkes. All the while I was learning about quantity cooking, taking on the challenge of new techniques and expanding my horizons and repertoire as I cooked my way through my ever-growing collection of cookbooks.
The next house I lived in was too small for a supper club. By then I was catering — Moondream Catering catered every vegetarian wedding and conference in Austin, it seemed — and launching my career as a food writer. But in 1981, when I moved to a big Left Bank apartment in Paris, the notion came to life again. I waited a year, until I knew enough people, then sent out announcements that resembled those I’d sent out a decade earlier in Austin. Of course the price had gone up, but the “participation” was mainly to cover expenses. I needed to break even, but I wanted the dinners to be affordable for artists and lawyers alike. The mix of people — French, Americans and a smattering of other nationalities — was important; it was a wonderful meeting ground, a soirée.
Black Bean Enchiladas
This was my signature dish at Martha‘s Moon House Supper Club.
¼ cup canola oil (as needed)
For the beans:
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until it begins to soften, about 3 minutes, and add half the garlic.
- Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute, and add the beans and soaking water (or 2 quarts water if they have not been soaked). They should be covered by at least an inch of water. Add another cup if they are not, and bring to a boil.
- Reduce the heat to low, and skim off any foam that rises. Cover and simmer 1 hour. Add the salt, remaining garlic, and cilantro.
- Continue to simmer another hour, until the beans are quite soft and the broth is thick and fragrant. Taste and adjust salt and garlic. Let sit overnight in the refrigerator for the best flavor. Note: If you can get hold of a sprig of fresh epazote, add it to the beans with the cilantro.
- Pour off half the liquid from the beans and set it aside. Puree half the beans in some of the remaining liquid and stir back into the pot.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium-high heat in a large, wide nonstick skillet and add 1 tablespoon of the cumin and 1 to 2 teaspoons of the chili powder. Allow the spices to sizzle for about 30 seconds, then stir in the beans.
- Allow the beans to bubble and thicken for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often and scraping the bottom and sides of the pan. They should be like runny refried beans.
- Taste, adjust seasonings, and transfer back to the bean pot. Clean the pan and wipe dry.
For the enchiladas:
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Oil two (2-quart) baking dishes.
- Heat the skillet over medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon of the oil and a generous pinch each of cumin and chili powder. Add 3 tablespoons of the tomato sauce and stir together.
- One at a time, soften the tortillas in the mixture, turning as soon as the tortilla begins to bubble, about 10 seconds on each side. Use a spatula to scrape off excess sauce.
- Remove from the heat and set aside in the baking dish or on a sheet pan. Add oil, spices, and tomato sauce to the pan as needed and continue to soften all of the tortillas.
- Set aside 1 cup of the black bean sauce and ¾ cup of the grated cheese. If necessary, thin out the bean sauce with the black bean broth that you set aside.
- To assemble the enchiladas, spread a large spoonful of black bean sauce over each tortilla, then a sprinkling of grated cheese. Roll up and place, seam side down in the baking dish, filling each baking dish with one layer of the enchiladas (you should be able to get six to eight enchiladas in each pan).
- When all of the tortillas have been filled, pour on the reserved sauce and sprinkle with the reserved cheese and the optional walnuts. Cover tightly with foil and bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 40 minutes, until the cheese is bubbling.
- Uncover, garnish with chopped cilantro, and serve, using 2 spatulas as these tend to fall apart.
- Pass salsa at the table.
Photo: Martha Rose Shulman, far right, with friends at the Moon House Supper Club.
Credit: Courtesy Martha Rose Shulman