Food, Family, and Memory

me-modeling-70s-831x1024When I would visit my friend Lisa in London in the early 80’s, I would sometimes see my bi-country friend Allan.  He lived here in L.A. and also London where he was a television producer.  His flat was in the Holland Park/Notting Hill area, but I love the name Ladbroke Grove so much that I want to say he lived there.  I love all the names of the streets and villages in Great Britain.

On occasion, he took me along for a Sunday lunch he had been invited to.  Allan would say, “This bloke wants me to come round, would you fancy joining us?”  Once there, I was in awe of the carefree, unkempt, unfazed style of the host, hostess and everyone really. 

When I entertain, I’m stressed out, dressed up, have too much food and am just generally overwhelmed by it all.   Whereas, these folks looked like they stayed up too late (not a touch of makeup on the women) and hardly gave a thought to the guests they were now entertaining in their home. This was the antithesis of the Martha Stewart entertaining regime. 

The houses weren’t straightened up, nor the tables set.   Drinks went around first.  Drinks seemed much more important than food.  Then slowly (sometimes hours had passed), and oh-so casually, the women would find their way to the kitchen and start hunting for leftovers.  WHAT?  They invited people over without even the forethought of what food they might serve.  It was baffling. 

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brewedchocolate.jpgI remember first smelling the scent of coffee roasting in North Beach. I was a teenager and it was exotic and intoxicating like the City itself. Even though I didn't drink coffee, I loved that smell. Over the years whenever I've smelled fresh coffee, especially during roasting, it's been a combination of soothing and exciting to me, like the promise of something wonderful and dangerous. Sadly drinking coffee has never held the romance that smelling it does.

If you take the Scharffen Berger factory tour, and I highly recommend that you do, you will more than likely be enveloped by the scent of roasting cocoa beans. It is such a warm and happy scent it reportedly makes those who work there giddy. Even a few minutes will give you a profound sense of well-being. Having taken the tour twice, I've often wondered, would it be possible to make a drink out of the roasted beans? Not the cocoa powder or chocolate, but the roasted beans themselves, like coffee? 

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kayepicI once went to the most spectacular Hollywood funeral ever. And the love that poured out was well deserved. We knew her by one name, kind of like Cher or Madonna. Kaye. Do you all know whom I’m talking about? You do if you were lucky enough to grow up in Beverly Hills at that time. It’s Kaye Coleman, beloved Nate ‘n Al’s waitress of 38 years and star of our collective childhoods.

Although Kaye had a daughter, Sheri, and a son, Michael, she was the unofficial surrogate mother to some of the biggest mothers in Hollywood. And her “sons” looked after her well. I’d run into Kaye at the priciest restaurants, sometimes on Sunday at Matteo’s, in the booth near Sinatra, dining with her posse of waitress friends, the tab picked up by Lew Wasserman or Bernie Brillstein. Those two moguls would also send her on European vacations and Mediterranean cruises. At times, Kaye lived a fancier life than many of her Beverly Hills customers.

At the deli, she was on a first name basis with everyone, including the big agents and the bigger stars, but there was only one “Mr. Wasserman.” She’d be kibitzing with you, then spot Mr. Wasserman walk in and say, “Gotta go, there’s my twenty dollar tip!” Kaye would hit and run with her insults and barbs. She’d give you a tidbit, not finish the story, then walk away quickly leaving you wondering and wanting more. Later on, she’d circle back, finally giving you the punch line. And then she was off again to pick up the next order of Matzoh Brei.

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risotto-mushroom.jpgBack in 1990, rice and love became forever entwined in my mind. A man I’d gone out with for ten years broke off our relationship...and my response to grief was to learn how to make risotto. After I taught myself to make proper risotto, I went on a blind date with an Italian, and some time later found myself in Florence, seeking the approval of my future mother-in-law, whose favorite dish was risotto. Rice and love. From a distance of twenty years, the emotion and the starch wind around each other with all the choreographed beauty of ballet.

The year of my great misery I was living in a tiny apartment in the graduate ghetto of New Haven, Connecticut. Most of the space was in the kitchen, which I found inspirational. I spent my free time cooking, crying and reading. My favorite cookbook was Paul Bertolli’s Chez Panisse Cooking, a tome with long fervent essays that included a long piece on risotto. I would stand over the pot, stirring as Paul instructed, reading a romance borrowed from the public library, and crying every now and then when it seemed the heroines had a better life than I did. After a month or two of this, I was quite good at risotto and I started to think about men in a more cheerful manner, which led to a blind date with Alessandro, a graduate student in Italian with loopy black curls and a swimmer’s body. He liked my risotto. It wasn’t until years later, when I ate his mother’s creamy, delicious risotto, that I understood how important it was.

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blizzard.jpgOn December 24th, 1963, Philadelphia was hit with a rip-roaring blizzard.  I’ll never forget it.  By evening, the drifts were well past knee-high.  Snowflakes swirled in the halos of streetlights.  Driving anywhere was out of the question.  Wrapped up in coats, boots, gloves, hats and scarves, and loaded down with bags of presents, my girlfriend Bonnie, my mother and I set out on foot for Aunt Tilda’s house.  What would have been a 7-minute drive turned into an hour trek.   I remember laughing so hard we could hardly walk.  We knew we were crazy to be slogging through such a storm, but we were determined to reach our destination.  It was Christmas Eve, and Aunt Tilda had prepared the traditional Italian Feast of Seven Fishes.

Tilda’s house was decorated to the rafters.  Twinkling lights outlined every window.  Tiny red and green Christmas balls hung from each curtain ruffle.  Swags of tinsel garland draped the mirrors.  The huge tree was covered with hundreds of ornaments she had been collecting for decades.  At its top perched a gossamer angel.  And beneath its bedecked branches, nestled the white and gold 30-piece Nativity set that Tilda had stayed up into the wee hours painting on many a sweltering summer night.

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