For food writer and gourmet chef Wendy Franzen, creating the ultimate dinner party is like penning a memorable scene in a novel. Every detail has meaning and nuance—from how the menu unfolds to table settings that transport guests to a different time and place.
It’s an art form in and of itself, one that she has cultivated over years of practice.
But on Saturday, April 28, Franzen will literally get to do what she’s only imagined—bringing words on the page to life on the table. The Lake Forest resident is among several area residents who will be hosting one of Ragdale Foundation’s coveted Novel Affair dinners, giving guests the opportunity to dine with acclaimed authors and artists in an intimate setting.
“My friend Jeanna Park, whom I met when we were serving on Lake Forest Hospital’s Women’s Health Advisory Council, is a board trustee at Ragdale. Knowing my love for entertaining and giving dinner parties, she approached me about hosting one of the intimate Novel Affair dinners. I was thrilled to be asked and have the opportunity to contribute,” says Franzen, who writes about food and entertaining on her Fletcher + Fork and the aesthete and the dilettante blogs.
Franzen has been paired with novelist Curtis Sittenfeld (author of the best-selling Prep and American Wife) and Chicago-area creative nonfiction writer and professional storyteller Megan Stielstra (author of The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, Once I Was Cool). The menu and place settings were inspired by both.
“I didn’t want to pull directly from just one writer’s work, but I love a jumping off point when creating a menu,” says Franzen. “The food pairings I came up with are a marriage of what I would typically create for a modern spring dinner and what I imagined would have been served at dinner parties in the homes of the East Coast elite attending the fictional boarding school in Prep.”
Forest & Bluff recently had the opportunity to get a preview of what Franzen will be presenting her select Novel Affair party guests—starting with a delicious chilled asparagus soup (with crème fraîche) served in hand-painted bowls. That stunning starter will be followed by apricot glazed spring lamb chops over a tender herb and pistachio couscous with haricots verts for the main course.
“We’ll finish with individual lemon tarts with raspberries and whipped cream. And fabulous wine, of course,” she says, explaining that she and her husband became hooked on Ragdale and its mission after attending a dinner at the historic Lake Forest country estate of Howard Van Doren Shaw.
“We recently attended a very special evening at Ragdale where we met current artists in residence,” explains Franzen. “Sharing dinner in this cozy, bucolic setting while seeing and hearing about their work made us realize what an extraordinary organization we have nestled in the heart of Lake Forest. As one of the largest interdisciplinary artists’ communities in the country, Ragdale offers quiet, uninterrupted time for artists to work as well as an environment where they can come together and support one another.”
As one who grew up visiting art museums around the world, and then becoming an art history major and a studio minor at DePauw University, Franzen felt an immediate kinship with the Ragdale cause. Already a board member of the Lake Forest Chapter of Infant Welfare Society and a member of the Auxiliary Board of the Art Institute of Chicago, becoming involved with Ragdale Foundation’s nonprofit artists’ community was a natural.
“My father took great care in surrounding my sisters and me with distinguished literature, which gives me a greater appreciation for why it’s so important to support Ragdale. Beyond that, my mother was an extraordinary cook, my grandmother an avid photographer, so I was surrounded by delicious food and beautiful images throughout my life. These life experiences culminated in my blogs—spaces where I could share my love of food, photography, and writing. From there I springboarded into recipe development and food photography for outside publications.”
Franzen’s passion for preparing delicious food and creating beautiful tablescapes feeds her own artistic soul.
“You are creating an experience between the food and the person enjoying it where he or she will hopefully walk away not having simply taken it in. I derive great pleasure in the presentation as well as the meal. My children used to make fun of me for garnishing their school lunches,” she laughs. “The rewards far outweigh the challenges, though I enjoy the latter almost as much. The challenge is creating meals that work with the vast array of specialty diets and food allergies in today’s world. The greatest reward is bringing people together in an intimate, shared experience where everyone feels nurtured, sated, and wanting to linger.”