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The Crabmeat Caucus: A Brief History

By Jon Meacham

I can see it even now, all these years (and, in those days, a good bit of Jack Daniel’s) distant: a seemingly bottomless silver bowl, sitting on Julia Reed’s dining table at the far end of her spectacular double-height-ceilinged apartment on East 78th Street in New York. Bill Clinton had just been re-elected; Osama bin Laden was a familiar name in only the most elite policy circles; there was no email, and to “cc” someone still meant trying to find a sticky piece of carbon paper. 

And there in Julia’s domain there was … crabmeat. Tons of it. More than you can imagine. Crabmeat with capers served on delicate triangles of thin toast. A hot cheesy version on which hordes of party guests would descend until it was gone. Where it came from is still a mystery to me, but it was always there, in that bowl, and around that bowl, around that table, there was a similarly inexhaustible conversation between Julia and my wife, Keith, about—well, about anything touching on food, drink, entertaining, houses. And when I say anything, I mean anything. Julia and Keith thought it wholly just and reasonable to throw parties to celebrate the oddest of things. Birthdays I understood; books by friends, I was all in; Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter, I saluted and went along.

But such traditional occasions were, for them, only the beginning. A successful run to the dry cleaners? Let’s have drinks! A friend visiting from Mississippi whom you had just seen at the latest wedding or funeral? Send out for tenderloin! A Monday in March? Open up the Pol Roger!

The obsession—I choose the word with care—with party-giving led me to coin a tribal descriptor for my two favorite Mississippi women: The Crabmeat Caucus. Julia and Keith were the founding members, capable of endless conversation—though they mostly talk over each other, much to my mystification—about the details of, say, asparagus and cheese straws. They love each other madly and deeply (emphasis on the “mad” part). And they love to bring other people into their orbit.

As Julia likes to point out—always politely and always subtly, since politesse and subtlety are Reedian hallmarks—I have long benefitted from the flow of crabmeat and related items into our lives. And that is true. As the Greeks taught us, food and drink are more than means of sustenance. More than that, they are emblems of hospitality, and hospitality is an outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible virtues of grace, generosity, even love. 

The Crabmeat Caucus is a manifestation of the best, most important things of life—the things that elevate us and fill us not only with food but with affection and even purpose. And so I will always be a loyal caucus-goer. If you need me, you can find me near the silver bowl.

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