Pat Brown - December 1991
Food Arts presents its December 1991 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Elaine Whitelaw for producing America's most successful and long-running blend of good food, celebrity glamour and good works: The March of Dimes Gourmet Galas.
With her stylish presence, shock of silver hair and basso profundo voice, Whitelaw has been mistaken over the years for everyone from Bea Arthur to Tallulah Bankhead (and has the hilarious stories to prove it), but she is, in fact, sui generis—a woman raised in privilege with an enduring commitment to helping others.
Franklin Roosevelt, who suffered from effects of infantile paralysis, was in the White House when his friend Basil O'Connor asked Whitelaw to organize volunteer efforts for the March of Dimes (M.O.D) foundation in 1943. Throughout the country, she helped raise the dimes ad dollars that supported research, care and the eventual eradication of polio. In the '50s, she was instrumental in setting up the successful nationwide field trials of polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk, who became a life-long friend. In these and subsequent travels for the Foundation, which in the post-polio years has focused on fighting birth defects, Whitelaw estimates, "I've probably visited more cities and towns than an other woman n America."
Her first job after graduation from Smith College, where she was a classmate of Julia Child, was reading for the Theatre Guild, and her flair for the dramatic has never deserted her. This was clear in the years when she spearheaded star-studded M.O.D. fashion shows. And never more so than in 1976, during the bicentennial, when she and her friend collaborator Nancy White, then editor of Harper's Bazaar, determined to top their own record—taking the dinner dance into high gear by combining it with celebrity cooking contest.
America's love affair with food was just beginning, and "the great idea," Whitelaw says, "was using prominent people as cooks while food professionals judges were James Beard, Helen McCully, Jacques Pepin, Craig Claiborne, Maurice Moore-Betty, Pierre Franey and James Villas.
From the first gala, when 20 stoves ringed the ballroom of Waldorf-Astoria, to the current average of 40 each year and a total of some 350 galas to date, innovations and local variations have kept the concept fresh and raised millions for M.O.D. Whitelaw herself marvels at what she calls "the astonishing shelf life of the idea."
The creativity of communities around the country has transformed those original, freestanding stoves into dazzling kitchen settings contributed by interior designers: florist vie for the honor of donating center pieces and ballroom decor; enthusiastic vintners provide fine wine. As Whitelaw puts it, "The galas create an opportunity for across-the-board community involvement, unleash the spirit of fun and imagination and provide the food world with a marvelous way to express its concern for the world beyond food."
Although typical galas feature amateur cooks who are celebrated in another field, on some special occasions food professionals such as Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck and Stephan Pyles have stepped away form the judges' table back to their familiar metier at the stove. The 50th anniversary of the foundation was such a time, when Paul Prudhomme and Elizabeth Terry from the South; Barbara Tropp and Nancy Silverton from the West; Larry Forgione and Jasper White form the East; and Harlan Peterson from the Midwest were among the group of 18 chefs who prepared the feast in Washington, D.C.,where the M.O.D was founded. That night, the finishing touches was a huge cake with replica of the Statue of Liberty wearing a torque and bearing aloft a whisk.
Recently, San Francisco celebrated its ten years of Gourmet Galas with an evening honoring Whitelaw and her achievement as "godmother" of the events. Under Co-chairman Jeremiah Tower, the gala's panel of judges included such good friends of Whitelaw—and the galas—as Sirio Maccioni, Ella Brennan, Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey. The evening's meal was prepared by a stellar cast: Bradley Ogden, Michael Richard, Jamie Shanon, Daniel Boulud, and Mark Frans.
Looking back at a career that has spanned 47 years of dedication to the March of Dimes—including 15 years of Gourmet Galas—Whitelaw is pleased that "the success of the galas gave encouragements to other causes to use food as a focal point," and adds, "For me personally, they provided a wonderful opportunity for service in a wholly new realm beyond education programs and such mass fund-raising events as the Mother's March--the realm of food. That, has been exhilarating...and delicious."