A Celebration of Chefs

pickles1.jpg It all started with my Mom’s 1/2 gal of dill pickles 40ish years ago....I was always facinated with the glass jar itself, the settling of spices in the bottom and the beauty of how the small cucumbers were so artful and lovingly arranged. Our Mother could cook like an angel inspired by Julia and the Time/Life series to guide her. Everyday of the week she watched and read and plotted and planned for the weekend.

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peachicecream.jpg A group of good friends, connected by a love of politics and good food, always used to get together every August in Santa Barbara.  Life slowed down; we’d cook together using all local produce – sweet corn, plum tomatoes, Armenian cucumbers, peppers, tomatillos, Blenheim apricots, avocadoes, Santa Rosa plums – and then feast as the sun went down behind rolling hills planted with avocadoes and lemons.

So you can imagine our excitement when we heard that Johnny Apple – the legendary political columnist and food writer at the New York Times – was coming to town with his wife Betsey.  Johnny was (as many have noted) a force of nature. I first met Johnny when he came to LA to do a feature on Asian Pacific food.  We hit three restaurants in four hours one evening, going from Vietnamese to Chinese dim sum to a Chinese restaurant famous for its “pork pump”.  I was so exhausted I begged off the next three days of eating. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone enjoy food and wine more (even that third dinner you have to eat when you’re a critic.)

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masteringfrench.jpgMy mother's bedside table was laden with books about food. On any given night it might be Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Or Michael Field’s Cooking School. Or the massive two-volume set of The Gourmet Cookbook.

I ended up with her copies of those books, and when I took them home and paged through, I wasn’t surprised that not a single page was soiled. That’s because although she loved, loved, loved food, she didn’t actually cook…except for blanching and roasting the occasional pound of almonds on the cook’s day off. 

The pages with Julia’s roast duck and basic quiche recipes are now well splattered, since I not only read those books but I also love to cook.  My cookbooks are well behaved and stay in the kitchen, but my bedside table is often loaded with books about food. 

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pancake.jpgIn the summer of 1966 I worked as a dishwasher in a summer camp near Hunter Mountain in upstate New York. This was in the pre-automatic dishwasher days meaning dirty dishes were dumped in a super hot sink of soapy water and washed and dried by hand. I used to come in around 6 a.m. to clean the breakfast pots and pans. Henry, a very tall, rail thin man who had been a cook in World War II in Europe, had gotten there at least an hour before me; I usually found him smoking a filterless cigarette and slowly beating  powdered eggs and water in a huge stainless steel bowl or ladling out pancakes on the football field-size griddle.

Though he was cooking for well over 150 people every morning he never seemed to be in a rush. Though there was no air conditioning and an eight burner stove going full blast, Henry barely broke a sweat. I started sweating from the moment I got there; and being a not very bright 14-year-old, I often compounded my problems by forgetting to use an oven mitt when picking up a hot pan or getting scalding hot water in my rubber washing gloves.

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paul_newman_320.jpgMy twin brother’s name is Paul Newman and when we were growing up in Beverly Hills in the 1960s, because Paul had his own phone line, and because he was listed in the phone directory, we often got calls from fans thinking it was the home of the movie star. When you’re a teenager and you’re desperate for something to feel superior about, this fit the bill quite nicely.

“How could they possibly think he’d be listed?” we’d scoff. 

I never had a crush on Paul Newman, the movie star. He was no David McCallum, that’s for sure.  But I could certainly appreciate what a good actor he was. After seeing him in Slapshot, The Verdict, Absence of Malice, Sometimes A Great Notion and The Hudsucker Proxy (the funniest I’d ever seen him) I was an admirer.

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