The Rector and The Rogue & Prosciutto-Wrapped Stuffed Dates
It’s old news that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Far more delightful is a tale that shows us truth is sillier than fiction. The Rector and the Rogue by W.A. Swanberg is a true story full of nonsense, art, crime, and spectacle. I laughed—no, guffawed!—out loud, couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, and wound up tickled to live in the weird world that we do.
Confession: here at PAPER/PLATES, we try to review mostly new works. I cheated. This book was published in 1968 but has only recently been back in print. While W.A. Swanberg does not have the name recognition of many Pulitzer Prize winners (he won for Luce and His Empire), he is considered one of the greatest American biographers of all time. An obsessive researcher, workaholic, and worrywart, with this tome Swanberg managed to stash away his dark side and use all the powers of investigative journalism to explore a bit of mischief.
This book is the story of a prank, its victim, and its mastermind. It centers around Dr. Morgan Dix, one of those Good Men who manages to squash fun like wind snuffs a candle. He is the severe, godly, respected, bespectacled rector of New York City’s Old Trinity Church, and imposes impressive levels of structure on his community and home. Conservative and prudent, Dr. Dix leads with a firm hand but does not try to ruffle any feathers by breaking up the brothels or giving nontraditional sermons.
It’s remarkable, then, when Dr. Dix begins to receive mysterious and unwanted visitors at his luxurious residence. First, a man who thinks he is delivering a set of metal safes, then the principal of an all-girls school planning to enroll Dix’s daughter, then a horse auctioneer bringing some of the finest bays in the surrounding area. All the vendors were sent identical postcards requesting their services, signed by a Dr. Dix impostor. The solicitation becomes increasingly worse over the course of a few weeks—competing salesmen are staggered 10 minutes apart for an entire day and will come from areas as far as Chicago and St. Louis. They include people selling church organs, shoe polish, fire extinguishers, punch presses, steam engines. Even divorce attorneys grace his door.
Such an important person experiencing such a strange humiliation can not go unnoticed. Naturally, the attention heightens. Gossipers, parishioners, and newspapers follow the story with great interest. The postmaster and police force collect postcard evidence obsessively and monitor the rector’s home around the clock. Meanwhile, the rogue responsible begins to call attention to himself with direct postcards to Dix and personal ads in the Tribune. He signs off as “Gentleman Joe.”
Gentleman Joe has a curly script and buttery way with words. It is impossible not to root for the playful, highly literate scoundrel who seems to have no motive or identifiable greed. It’s equally impossible to root against anyone who requests, “No humbug with me, if you please.” The public laughs at the serious Dr. Dix and ooohs at the bravado of Joe. But public opinion and the law do not always coincide. Will our favorite mischief-maker be found and locked up? Will Dr. Dix be lenient? Will reputations be tarnished?
I do hope old Swanberg isn’t relegated to the dusty out-of-print shelves again. But in case of that unfair fate, snatch up The Rector and the Rogue soon to learn all the answers!
I was inspired by the many layers of Gentleman Joe’s prank, and also by its surprising sweetness. His mischief was the talk of cocktail parties in New York high society for months. It seemed only natural to cook up a bite-sized, multifaceted, slightly sweet snack that is a perfect party appetizer.
PROSCIUTTO-WRAPPED STUFFED DATES
- 3/4 cup goat cheese
- 1 tablespoon minced shallots (or minced onions)
- 1 tablespoon fines herbes (or thyme)
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 24 whole pitted dates
- 6 thin slices prosciutto
Preheat oven to 350ºF.
Combine first 4 ingredients in a bowl, and stir.
Slice the dates lengthwise, not cutting all the way through to the other side. Fill each date with 1 teaspoon of the cheese mixture.
Cut each prosciutto slice into quarters.
Wrap each date with a prosciutto piece, then place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Bake for 8 minutes or until everything is heated through.