When he was living in Tangier, the writer Paul Bowles befriended the Moroccan author and artist Mohamed Mrabet, who taught Bowles how to make a chicken tagine with almonds and prunes.
According to literary and culinary legend, the dish became a staple at dinner parties Bowles hosted, and he often made it for the poet and publisher Daniel Halpern, who lived in the apartment downstairs in the late 1960s. Halpern used the recipe, crediting Bowles, in his 1985 cookbook, “The Good Food,” which over the decades gained a cult following among writers and foodies (its devotees include the novelist Michael Chabon and the chef David Chang).
Early one evening last month, Mrabet’s chicken tagine — as interpreted by way of Bowles and Halpern — was served to a small group of writers at a dinner party hosted by chef Wylie Dufresne at his apartment near Union Square.
The guests — a group that included the novelists Francine Prose and Jennifer Egan, the short story writer Deborah Eisenberg, the writer and foodie celebrity Padma Lakshmi and the journalist Steve Kornacki — had assembled to celebrate the republication of “The Good Food,” which Halpern is releasing this month through his own imprint, Ecco.
To mark the occasion, Dufresne threw a dinner party in Halpern’s honor and cooked a few of his recipes — a celery and raw mushroom salad with Emmenthaler cheese, followed by risotto with radicchio and the chicken tagine.
“This is very unfussy food,” said Dufresne, a food industry pioneer who is known for more inventive and technically challenging fare involving cubes of fried mayonnaise and something called meat glue. “I was thinking of what made sense for a family-style meal, which is very much not the way I cook.”
The small but lively party was like a Venn diagram of Halpern’s literary and foodie circles.
Wylie Dufresne and Daniel Halpern had planned to cook together, but Dufresne took the lead.CreditDina Litovsky for The New York Times
In the publishing industry, Halpern — who has an unruly halo of white curls and a dry, devilish sense of humor — is perhaps known as much for his culinary as his literary taste. In addition to editing novelists like T.C. Boyle, Richard Ford, Joyce Carol Oates, and Amy Tan, Halpern has wide and deep connections in the food world, and has turned Ecco into a hit cookbook factory. In 2011, Halpern gave Anthony Bourdain his own publishing line, Bourdain Books, and over the years, he’s assembled a large stable of star chefs, publishing cookbooks by Ferran Adrià, José Andrés, April Bloomfield, Daniel Boulud, Madhur Jaffrey and Danny Meyer, as well as books by Dufresne and Lakshmi, who published a spice guide and food memoir with Ecco.
With a celebrity chef cooking his dishes, Halpern wanted to know how his decades-old recipes held up. The instructions had barely been updated since 1985, when Halpern and his friend Julie Strand published a collection of soups, stews, salads and pastas, after guests of their frequent dinner parties urged them to write a recipe book together.
“It’s not a perfect cookbook, but the recipes all work,” Halpern said. Then he turned to Dufresne for a critique: “What was my biggest mistake?” he asked.
“I don’t know that you made any mistakes, man, that’s unnecessarily harsh,” Dufresne replied.
Still, Dufresne, as the professional cook among the pair, carried the weight of authority. Originally, Halpern and Dufresne had planned to cook together, but Dufresne took the lead.
“You were worried I was going to cut myself,” Halpern told him as Dufresne was preparing the salad.
“I didn’t want you to use this,” Dufresne agreed, holding up a razor-sharp mandoline.
The guests gathered around and watched in awe-struck silence as Dufresne rapidly sliced raw mushrooms into paper-thin slices on the mandoline. Dufresne tried to reassure the writers that they possessed technical skills he lacks.
“If it would make all of you feel better, I can’t type,” he said.
Dufresne and Halpern briefly conferred about the salad dressing — Halpern agreed that it could use a little lemon zest, which wasn’t in the original recipe.
Lakshmi offered to serve the salad. Everyone took a seat at the table.
“This is delicious,” Prose said. “It makes you think celery has been so overlooked.”
“Who knew?” Eisenberg added.
After a brief discussion of the underrated charm of celery, talk turned, as it tends to these days, to the Trump administration, then, less predictably, to serial killers.
It was time for the next course.
“We’re eating from around the globe tonight,” Dufresne explained. “I was trying to see the world through your eyes,” he said to Halpern.
“I don’t think you want to do that,” Halpern said.
The stew was delicious, everyone agreed, a sweet, savory contrast to the bright tartness of the cooked radicchio. Halpern and Dufresne traded compliments, as Halpern praised Dufresne’s cooking, and Dufresne generously credited the recipes.
The writers began comparing their relatively meager cooking skills.
“I can’t imagine cooking or baking without getting immensely nervous,” Eisenberg said.
Someone asked Dufresne how he handles the stress of celebrity chefdom. He explained that for most chefs, the adrenaline rush is a feature, not a bug.
“The average line cook enjoys a certain level of discomfort,” he said. “It’s like riding the Cyclone. It might be the last time you do it.”
The conversation drifted from kitchen war stories (Prose described the time her husband tried to make doughnuts and lumps of hot dough exploded from the pan, and rained down on the screaming dinner guests) to literary lore. Halpern told stories about his encounters with W.H. Auden and Jorge Luis Borges. Prose and Egan had a cathartic exchange about a review that Prose had written of Egan’s latest novel, “Manhattan Beach,” which criticized Egan’s excessive use of historical and technical detail.
After dessert — a wreath-shaped ring of doughnuts — guests began to leave, taking goody bags with a box of doughnuts from Dufresne’s Brooklyn doughnut shop, Du’s Donuts, and a copy of Halpern’s cookbook.
Before the group had dispersed, Halpern complimented Dufresne again on his execution.
“It was fantastic,” he said.
“Maybe it needed a little salt?” Dufresne asked.
Halpern was emphatic: “No!”