I’ll Drink to That

StritchMy friend Jay has given me countless gifts over the years and exposed me to a great many things, not all of which are printable. But if there is one thing for which I am truly thankful, it was my introduction to a woman who sang with a voice that sounded as if someone might have soaked a chain-smoking cat in scotch, then attempted to beat it to death with a megaphone.

Several times a month, I would wander over to Jay’s apartment in the Hollywood Hills after work and find him poised in front of his stereo with a finger ready to hit “play” on a cd because there was always some Broadway show tune I absolutely had to listen to: Into The Woods, Follies, Sunday in The Park With George, Assassins. There were occasional forays into other composers but, for the most part, my musical education was Sondheim-centric. I’d take a seat on his couch and give him my full attention. I was an eager student.

Then, at some point in my studies, he decided I was finally ready for her.

The song started off quietly enough– low clarinets and soft piano chords. And then the voice of what I assumed to be a woman, all sandpaper and Lucky Strikes, croaking the words “I’d like to propose a toast.” From what I could make out, she was raising her glass to ladies who lunched, lounged in caftans and chose hats without very little pleasure.

“Does anyone…still wear…a hat?” she asked.” I’ll drink to that.” Jay paused the song briefly in order to repeat that line and say “God, I love her.

The number picked up speed as the woman seemed to go from wry observation to disgust to self-recognition to anger:

Another chance to disapprove
Another brilliant zinger,
Another reason not to move.
Another vodka stinger.
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!
I’ll drink to that.

The song finished with her screaming at everyone to rise. I sat there on the couch, mildly shell shocked. And all Jay had to say was this:

“Strrrrrrrrrritch.” He looked very pleased with himself. And he had every right to be.

“Ladies Who Lunch” was my new favorite song. Elaine Stritch was my new favorite singer. I demanded a copy of the Company cast album so that I might learn every single, potentially disturbing lyric. Which I did.

Not long after, I found myself once again on Mr. Floyd’s couch, but this time flanked by two female friends, Theresa and Cynthia. Jay took up his customary post at the stereo but, this time, instead of his customary Broadway musical lecture, he spoke only one word:

“Vegas.”

We were all young and single and utterly devoid of any real sense of responsibility, so naturally we all nodded in agreement. After two hours of frantically searching for a misplaced kitten and wondering what to wear, we left on our otherwise-spontaneous road trip to Las Vegas.

It was midnight before we left. The girls slept in the back seat as Jay and I chatted and chain smoked in the front. We drove straight through, not even stopping to pay our respects to The Bun Boy and his world-famous thermometer. As we crossed over the state line, our excitement and our energy increased. A few miles later, Jay put on some music he felt suitable to the occasion.

Strrrrritch. We both sang. Very enthusiastically.

A toast to that invincible bunch,
The dinosaurs surviving the crunch.
Let’s hear it for the ladies who lunch–
Everybody rise!

The timing was ideal. As we neared the end of the song, we crested a hill on Highway 15 and caught our first glimpse of the lights of Las Vegas. We finished with a near-manic gusto.

Rise!
Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise!
Riiiiiiiiiiiise!

The girls in the back seat were unmoved. Physically, at any rate. Neither of them sprang to attention at our gritty screeching. But then we both knew that Cynthia was never one to jump to the commands of any man, so we didn’t worry.

Our performance– if not brilliant– was, at the very least, cathartic. I sank back into the bucket seat, lit another cigarette, and mentally counted all the money I was about to win at the Blackjack tables of Binion’s.

Which, of course, didn’t happen. In fact, the only thing I won on that trip was that glorious four minutes and twenty-seven seconds of singing in the car with Jay and Elaine Stritch. I left 12 hours later with no money and a terrific case of strep throat. And for a week afterward, if I could speak at all, I sounded alarmingly like Ms. Stritch herself. Was her song the cause of my bad luck? Doubtful, but for whatever reason, I stopped listening and put it and her out of my mind.

But I would be dusting her off a couple of years later.

It seemed an appropriate choice of tune for a mixed tape. I was working at a place in Beverly Hills where the type of ladies who lunched in the song did precisely that. And dined and supped on dry salads and white wine. Remembering the catharsis I felt after my Stritch duet with Jay, I placed it at the end of a mixed cassette tape I obsessively played on my rides home to Anaheim. Late at night with the freeway  deserted, I allowed myself to get depressed along with The Cowboy Junkies; become tearful with Jacques Brel, begging an imaginary person not to leave me, singing along in a language I could speak but conveniently not fully comprehend; and cap it all off with a good old-fashioned show tune full of screaming and self-loathing for a final, full release a few minutes before pulling into the driveway and collapsing into bed for a few hours before I got up to help my mom look after my brother, slowly wasting to death in his darkened bedroom.

So here’s to the girls on the go–
Everybody tries.
Look into their eyes
And you’ll see what they know:
Everybody dies.

For nearly a year, I played the hell out of that tape. Because I was ostensibly acting out the emotions of other people, I felt free to rid myself of my own fears and anger and sense of infuriating helplessness for 45 minute every night. It proved to be a miraculous release valve for my own, overwhelming emotions, which I was too afraid to deal with alone. It helped to keep me relatively sane. And Elaine Stritch was always the closing act.

She brought down the house every time. Which, in this particular instance, was a 1978 Volvo. I’ve felt a deep sense of gratitude to her ever since. And to Jay and Mr. Sondheim.

Sadly, Ms. Stritch has sung her final number. But, as Jay put it, “She did it well, didn’t she?” I am rather inclined to agree. She had a remarkable life, did some incredible work, abused the hell out of her liver, and still somehow managed to live to the ripe old age of 89.

Hell, I’ll drink to that. And to her.

(Warning: This is a rather subdued version of the song. For the full vocal effect, please click here.)

Vodka Stinger

Vodka Stinger

The vodka stinger is a clear derivation of the original stinger cocktail, which is made with brandy.

Being neither a traditional fan of neither vodka nor white crème de menthe, I am surprised that I find this cocktail remarkably benign-tasting. It’s like a subtle mouthwash for alcoholics that one can swallow without too much worry. It’s vaguely sweet– far from cloying. And it packs a punch. Just like Ms. Stritch.

The stinger was commonly thought of as a “hair of the dog” beverage drunk to revive one’s self if one had had one too many the previous evening. If you feel inspired, have one this Saturday morning alongside a Bay’s English muffin*. By having two stingers, you may very well ensure that your muffin won’t be the only thing that’s lightly toasted.

Makes One Spirited Drink

Ingredients:

• 1 ounce vodka
• 1 ounce white crème de menthe
• A few ice cubes

Preparation:

1. In a cocktail shaker, place your ice cubes.

2. Pour vodka and crème de menthe over the ice. Close lid of the shaker and shake vigorously. If you accidentally add green crème de menthe, you will have made something called a Green Hornet. Act as if nothing wrong has happened and continue with directions.

3. Pour into a small, chilled cocktail glass. If you pour it into a large one, you may be accused of being miserly. Or Canadian.

4. Serve to yourself in a quiet moment and watch Elaine Stritch in 30 Rock on YouTube as you drink. Or make several and serve to your own ladies who lunch, who you secretly detest. Drink two as you quietly loathe yourself for being one of them. Or drink four and scream-sing how you really feel about them.

 

*Elaine Stritch was the widow of John Bay, heir to the Bay’s English muffin fortune.

 

Posted in Celebrities, Liquids, Rants and Stories | Tagged , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Pride Week Drink: The Debbie Gibson

IMG_4651I never do much for Gay Pride. In fact, I typically go into hiding, which makes it very much like every other weekend of the year for me.

I don’t go to parades for fear of raining on them. I prefer to avoid the crowds because I’ve never cared for large masses of drunk people of any ilk. I much prefer to do my drinking in more intimate settings and with as few people as possible. Like my apartment, for example.

I can’t wear pink, because it has an unfortunate effect on my skin tone; I prefer my rainbows in the sky; and I never, ever get my money’s worth at a beer bust because I get the hiccups if I drink from a keg too quickly.

In many ways, I am a terrible homosexual.

And yet I am very happy that Pride Weekend exists. I enjoy the idea of the parties, the celebrations, and the parade and all wonderful gaudiness these things invite. I love them because I know they’re important for other people who need them.

I prefer to celebrate in my own way. Much more quiet-like. I’ll be watching old movies featuring Franklin Pangborn, Judith Anderson, and Eric Blore. While imbibing a smart cocktail or two.

And to honor Pride, I’ll be drinking something I’ve created for by myself and for myself. Something pink and strong with a ridiculous name.

Something I like to call The Debbie Gibson.

It satisfies four important, personal needs:

1. Its name harkens back to the period in which both Ms. Gibson experienced a brief vogue and, more importantly, I first started exploring and accepting my own gayness– sneaking into West Hollywood clubs in the late 1980s. Alternately terrified of getting caught and exhilarated by the knowledge that I was surrounded by people with whom I had something fundamentally in common.

2. It gives a nod to the 1930s*, when pink gin was all the rage among the lavender set.

3. Drinking more than two of them will knock you silly.

4. It’s pink, which makes me feel as if I’m doing something important, Pride-wise.

IMG_4659

The Debbie Gibson

Named in honor of the Queen of 80s Bubblegum Pop, the consumption of which might cause you do to forget whatever you might need to. Including the career of Ms. Gibson herself.** It is bubblegum in color, but nowhere near bubblegum in flavor. It is as dry as Edward Everett Horton’s delivery.

Makes: One Stiff, Pink Drink. 

Ingredients:

• 2 1/2 ounces dry gin
• 1/2 ounce dry vermouth
• An unheard of amount of Peychaud bitters
• Cocktail onions
• Ice cubes

Preparation:

1. Place as many cocktail onions as you think you might need for the time being into a small container. Shake your bitters into the vessel until the onions are submerged. Let sit for at least two hours, unmolested. In the interim, you may wish to contact the Peychaud organization, sharing your innovative way to get customers to use a tremendous amount of their product at one time.

2. Fill a small cocktail shaker with ice. Pour over your gin and vermouth. Stir until extremely well chilled. Strain the liquid contents into a clean cocktail glass.

3. With precision, impale one or two now-pink cocktail onions with a cocktail pick. Or, if you are poor and/or unprepared, a toothpick.

4. Gently place the skewered onion(s) into your gin mixture and retire to a comfortable chair or divan.

5. Seductively swirl the onion into your drink until it’s as pink as you please while you listen to one of Debbie Gibson’s greatest hits, like “Electric Dreams” or “I Think We’re Alone Now“. It doesn’t matter one bit if it was actually Tiffany who sang the latter, because no one of any value has ever been able to tell the two singers apart.

6. Drink it alone, because the only one you’ll be seducing is yourself.

*To me, the most fascinating decade of the 20th Century.

**Although this can easily be done sober.

 

Posted in Holidays, Liquids | Tagged , , , , , | 17 Comments

The Chef’s Kitchen.

IMG_4616I was at a party in New York a few weeks ago when I became worried that one of the people I was chatting with was having a small seizure. But what I mistook for a minor convulsion turned out to be her way of pointing without resorting to the use of her fingers, which were already occupied with a glass of rosé.

“That’s Nancy Silverton!” she said to our group in one of those whispers that is anything but.

“Which one is she?” I asked, curious.

“The one with the glasses behind Ruth Reichl.” I made a mental note for later. I had a question I’d always wanted to ask her but wondered if the asking of it might sound creepy or stalkerish. I considered this as I drank another glass of orangey-pink wine. I knew I’d hate myself if I didn’t take this opportunity to say something, so I gathered up enough courage to tap Ruth Reichl on the shoulder, say excuse me, and sidle past her because she was blocking my path to Ms. Silverton.

I introduced myself and then asked, “Did you used to live on the corner of 6th and Cochran?”

“Yes?”

“Ground floor apartment?”

“Yes…?” The tone of her response made me worry that I was, in fact, sounding creepy and stalkerish.

“The reason I’m asking is because I think I lived in that apartment immediately after you.”

“How would you know a thing like that?” she said.

“Because Emmy told me when I moved in. You know, the old lady who lived upstairs? The building manager?” No recognition seemed to register on her face, which made me feel as if I’d made a mistake by asking her my question in the first place. How could anyone not remember delivering a monthly rent check to a woman who refused to let a slight facial paralysis prevent her from the triple comfort of vodka, Marlboro Lights, and keeping her apartment exactly as it was when her husband died?

To be fair,  it was more than twenty years ago. And she had plenty of other things to think about.

“Oh, yes. I think I remember her. Wow. And, hey? What was the name of that coffee house around the corner? I loved that place. And the club?”

Neither of us could remember. I let her go and told her if I remembered either place, I’d tell her. And as I walked away, my life flashed before my eyes. Or at least a very specific part of it did.

IMG_4623
My friend Craig and I were shown the apartment by the ancient, aforementioned Emmy who, at first glance, reminded me of a female Gabby Hayes. I loved her on sight.

We loved the place even more– a two-bedroom, 1 1/2 bath Streamline Moderne with lots of character, a small formal dining room, and a closet window shaped like a porthole. But the kitchen was the most inviting room of all, thanks to its black-and-white checkered linoleum, lots of light, and ancient Wedgewood stove. I’d never had much interest in cooking, but I was keen on looking as if I did. And I looked good in that kitchen.

“Nancy Silverton was the last person in here,” Emmy said with a faint slur. I had absolutely no idea who she was talking about and said as much. “The chef– moved in here while she and her husband got that restaurant around the corner ready.” I still didn’t know what she meant, but it did sound impressive.

So impressive that Craig and I signed the lease on the spot, which seemed to please her, but not nearly as much as it pleased us.

We quickly got to know our new place, our new neighbors, and our new neighborhood. We had dinner at Campanile, “that restaurant around the corner” and bought bread at the adjoining La Brea Bakery.

Perhaps it the pressure of knowing that chef Nancy Silverton and her chef husband Mark Peel inhabited the space before us. Perhaps a bit of their cooking spirit lingered in the larder. Or maybe it was because we both looked so good by that Wedgewood stove. Whatever the reason, Craig and I both took to cooking enthusiastically soon after moving in.

Craig brewed hoppy beer and aged it in Kingfisher bottles we got from the Indian restaurant down the street. I attempted a spinach roulade which was to be the centerpiece of an all-spiral-themed dinner, but were more like grassy pucks that held more promise of whitening a dog’s teeth. We experienced the intense ocular and genital discomfort that comes from not washing one’s hands well after handling Scotch Bonnet peppers and then proceeding to rub one’s eyes and use the restroom. Craig fell in love with my friend Shannon that year. A good part of their courtship was spent in that kitchen trying to out-macho one another in a never-ending spicy Thai food tournament. He comforted me with a quesadilla that brought tears to my eyes when my boyfriend dumped me after an especially depressing Derek Jarman film. We had dinner parties. Friends came over to cook. Bread was baked, Hungarian food was attempted.

IMG_4615It’s little wonder that a very drunk Basque man brought to one of our parties, who we were told spoke no English, sat on the black and white checkered linoleum and declared rather emphatically, “The party…is in…the kitchen!” Filled with gratitude, I then took him into the bathroom and held his hair for him as he placed his head in the toilet.

For two years, the party was indeed in that kitchen.

The following year, Craig moved East to attend NYU. I lived alone and wondered what the hell I was going to do about grad school. I knew that a Master’s Degree in Art History would be useless without a Ph.D. chaser and the thought of spending my life examining the creative expression of others left me depressed. I turned to baking for comfort without realizing what I was doing. One evening as I was baking a three-nut torte, I came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t go to grad school at all. I’d go to culinary school.

It wasn’t until I walked away from Nancy Silverton at the party in New York that I remembered the book I was baking from on the night I had my epiphany: Desserts by Nancy Silverton. Page 262.

*     *     *     *     *

IMG_4606I felt a bit overwhelmed by that realization. I grabbed another glass of rosé and rejoined my fellow partygoers. I chatted, but my mind was elsewhere. I knew Nancy Silverton hadn’t actually changed my life, but still she was there, in residual spirit or in book form,  during a very important part of it. I wanted to thank her in some way. I wanted to tell her everything that was going on in my head but lacked the words at the time. And I knew that it would probably sound weirder than what I’d said to her earlier. Instead, I decided I’d find her again and say something else entirely.

“The Pikme-Up– that was the name of the coffee place. I just remembered.” She smiled at that.

“And King King was the name of the club,” she said. But then she added something else. “Tell me, did you have a problem with termites, too?” she asked. I told her I couldn’t remember. “Well, when we lived in that apartment my three year-old kept asking me why there were poppy seeds all over the kitchen floor. I didn’t have the heart to tell him what they really were.”

Poppy seeds. And I was worried that what I wanted to tell her might sound strange.

(The cookies depicted in the photo are Silverton’s Orange Poppyseed Cookies [p.52 of Desserts by Nancy Silverton] I am not giving the recipe for them because I did not ask for reprint permission from the publisher. Why not buy the book instead? I can’t promise that it will change your life. But it just might.)

 

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Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

ann b davisAlice Nelson-Frankin of 4222 Clinton Way was found dead in the home of her employer/companion Carol Brady, homemaker, on Sunday morning, June 1st. Her death was sudden and came as a great shock to all who knew her.

“She was never sick a day in her life,” reports Janet Brady-Covington, a former resident and frequent visitor to the Clinton Way household, “except when she would occasionally throw her back out, forcing us children to do light housework during her recoveries.”

Nelson-Franklin began a promising career in housekeeping in the service of Mike Brady, architect, and Sarah Wilcox-Brady, whose profession is unknown, soon after their marriage in 1956, to help care for their son, Gregory Stanford, who was born out-of-wedlock the year prior, and stayed through the subsequent birth of sons Peter Edward and Robert Eric. After Wilcox-Brady’s mysterious death in 1967, Mike Brady married divorcée/widow Carol Tyler Martin and officially adopted her daughters Marcia Lila, Janet Elizabeth, and Cynthia Sophia.

Nelson stayed on to cook and perform un-taxing domestic chores to help the Bradys’ now burgeoning household as they coped with various problems, often assisting in their resolution in less than 30 minutes’ time and– astoundingly– at the same time every week: 8pm on Friday evenings.

She left the Brady household in 1974, feeling she was no longer needed, and married Samuel Franklin, a local butcher. She spent the next 34 years helping run her husband’s business, honing her knife skills, discovering innovative ways of dealing with meat, and explaining to everyone who would listen that she was not Alice Brady, the Oscar-winning actress, but Alice Nelson-Franklin, the butcher’s wife.

Upon Samuel’s bowling-related death in 2008, Mrs. Franklin sold the butcher shop, which had recently seen a decline in business, in part due to her faith’s prohibition of both locally sourced charcuterie and sleeve tattoos. Having remained close to the Brady family, Franklin returned to 4222 Clinton Way as the paid companion of Carol Brady, who herself was widowed in 1992.

Mrs. Franklin is survived by her sisters Emily and Myrtle, and identical cousin Master Sergeant (Ret.) Emma Nelson.

Foul play is not suspected. Though in excellent health for a woman of her age, her ratings had been in decline for some time. She was 88.

Always a fan of economy and pork, one of her favorite recipes is shared below.

Alice Nelson Porkchop

 Pork Chops and Applesauce

A favorite of the Brady household, pork chops served with applesauce was certain to please even the pickiest of personalities.

Although a bit of forethought is required, this meal can be made in less than 30 minutes, if you include commercials.

Serves: 2, but the recipe is one that can be multiplied to accommodate as big a bunch as you need. (It is a well-known fact that the Brady family never ate all together, but two or three at a time in the kitchen).

Ingredients:

• 2 two-inch thick, bone-in pork chops
• 1 quart of buttermilk
• 1 yellow onion, roughly chopped
• 3 or 4 cloves of garlic, smashed and minced
• Plenty of salt
• A few fresh sage leaves (optional)
• Flour for dredging, if you like (this is also not absolutely necessary)
• 3 tablespoons of Wesson oil. (Olive oil may be substituted.)
• A jar of your favorite applesauce– if you are solving the problems of two adults, six children, and an accident-prone cousin, you do not have time to prepare and jar your own.

Preparation:

1. In a large casserole dish, place the pork chops and rub them well with salt. Sprinkle the chopped onion, garlic and (if you feel like it) sage leaves around them and then drown everything in buttermilk. Cover well and refrigerate overnight.

2. Pre-heat your oven to 400°F.

3. Add your cooking oil to a large cast iron skillet, which has been placed upon your stove directly over a burner– either gas or electric– and turn the heat to medium.

4. As your oil is heating, remove your chops from the buttermilk, shaking off the excess, and then pat them somewhat dry with paper towels. Dredge the chops in flour, if you are using it, and shake of that excess. Check the temperature of the oil. If a drop of buttermilk sizzles and spurts, jumping out of the pan, burning your forearm, the oil is hot enough. Sear each chop on one side until said side is golden brown (about 3 minutes). Turn them over and let them brown a bit on the other side, but do not worry to excess about their color. Pop the skillet into the oven, ensuring that both chops are still inside said skillet.

Cook for about 20 minutes, checking in on them with a gentle prod to their centers at about minute 15. If the chops are firm, they are most likely done. Remove from the oven. If the bottom sides of the chops are not browned to your liking, return them to the stove top and finish your business with them. But this isn’t really necessary.

Let the chops rest for a few minutes before eating.

To serve, place large spoonfuls of applesauce onto a dinner plate and a heaping dollop of mashed potatoes*. Lay a chop on top of both pulverized substances, serve on your favorite orange formica pedestal table and enjoy.

* You may, if you wish reserve some of the mashed potatoes for dessert– a reliable source (a teenaged Universal Studio tour guide) has told us that they made an excellent stand-in for ice cream under the hot lights of the Brady Bunch set. Serve with Bosco, which, as everyone knows, made an eerily good stand-in for blood in the shower scene from Psycho (1960).

 

 

Posted in Celebrities, Savories, Stage, Film, and Television | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

The Cheese Toast Incident

Cheese ToastThe evening might have gone perfectly, if it weren’t for the cheese toast.

And perfection was what Mrs. Lewis demanded from everyone the night she and her husband invited Debbie Reynolds to dinner. They were notoriously hard to please.

It’s just a pity she didn’t think to demand it of herself.

I spent my college years working for Harry and Marilyn Lewis, a married couple of advanced but painstakingly-achieved indeterminate age, who made their fortune from a chain of fancy hamburger establishments and enjoyed the sort of celebrity that sometimes comes from catering to the truly famous. They sold their small empire and, with some of the proceeds, opened a restaurant in Beverly Hills as bright and large and intimidating as Mrs. Lewis’s teeth, which she was rumored to have designed herself.

My good standing with Mr. Lewis ended the day I expressed alarm over the raw, salve-covered flesh of his face, asking him if he was okay and had he seen a doctor. It was also the day I learned about the existence of chemical peels. And that he had, in fact, seen a doctor.

My good standing with Mrs. Lewis, whose occasional visits to the restaurant were met with a mixture of terror and morbid fascination by most of the staff, began when I summoned the nerve to point out a critical error in her New York Times crossword answers. The look she gave me was appropriately puzzling– part “who are you?”, part “how dare you.” She stared at me in this way until my life began to flash before my eyes, then returned hers to the crossword, rubbed out a few letters with the eraser on the end of her pencil, and without looking up said, “So what’s 26-Down then?”

I wasn’t surprised when she chose me to wait upon her important business dinner with Miss Reynolds.

I was initially excited by the prospect of waiting on Debbie Reynolds. After all, she had danced with both Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. And I heard she could swear like a sailor. I prayed she’d tell stories.

untitledBut I was also annoyed. Harry and I didn’t like each other. Marilyn could be sweet as Splenda to me, but I knew that could change the moment anything didn’t go her way. But fortunately, I knew precisely what she expected of me because she had recently blessed the waitstaff with a short series of “service classes” at which she personally imparted her version of the finer points of table service. Serve to the left. Champagne corks should never make noise. Don’t say “parmesan cheese”– it’s like saying “cheese cheese”. We were given a written test to prove that we were listening.

At the beginning of service that night, I told my manager to give away all the other tables in my section– I wanted to devote my full attention to Marilyn, Miss Reynolds, and Harry. I’d be damned if I’d let any cheese cheese within 20 yards of them.

When the threesome sat down to dinner, I offered them drinks. Miss Reynolds would have white wine. For Mrs. Lewis, a J&B on the rocks with a twist. For Harry… I don’t remember. They chatted. They smiled. I stood back and scanned the table for flaws. Plates of food came to the them: crab cakes, salad… they nibbled and talked and drank a little more. I poured Miss Reynolds more wine. I brought Mrs. Lewis a fresh J&B without her asking. She patted my wrist approvingly.

Things seemed to be going well. Debbie Reynolds had a hotel in Las Vegas. Harry and Marilyn wanted to open a restaurant inside of it. They made small talk, but the chatter on the Lewis’s end seemed as unnatural as their chemical and surgery-altered faces. Everything was fine, but the conversation didn’t flow. So I made certain the alcohol did.  As I leaned in to top off Miss Reynolds’s glass, she paused the conversation to pinch my cheek and tell me I was adorable. When she did this, I caught Marilyn’s eye. She looked annoyed because I was pulling focus away from her.

So I did what any true professional server would do– I stepped away from Miss Reynolds and the table as a whole. And then I did what any true professional enabler would do– I went straight to the bar to order another J & B for Marilyn– a stiff one. I gently placed the sweating glass in front of Mrs. Lewis as visual proof that I cared more for her than I did Carrie Fisher’s mother. But really, I just wanted to see her to get plastered. I brought another drink of whatever-it-was for Harry, too.

It seemed to be working. Marilyn relaxed. Miss Reynolds laughed. Harry seemed less ineffectual than usual. I changed plates for the dinner course as unobtrusively as possible and let the food flow out to the table in slow progression.

The white bean chili was met with success, as were most of the other dishes that landed in front of them. Marilyn leaned back in her chair a bit, scotch in hand. She flashed a smile to expose her enormous designer incisors as she surveyed the room. Everything seemed to be going perfectly.

That is, until she spotted the cheese toast. Harry and Debbie were chatting away, but Marilyn was no longer participating in the conversation. I watched the gradual change of expression on Mrs. Lewis’s face. Her painted lips, so recently expressing pleasure, slowly closed like red velvet curtains over the Cinemascope wideness of her teeth. I could feel the whole room going dark. All she could do was stare at the slice of cheddar-topped bread in front of her. Then she suddenly forced her mouth upwards again, but the overall effect this time was more crazed than happy.  Harry noticed Marilyn. Debbie noticed Harry noticing Marilyn. The table fell silent and I stood by helpless.

“Excuse me a moment,” Mrs Lewis said quite calmly. She rose from the table in her white pantsuit, picked up the plate of offending toast, and slowly made her way across the dining room to the kitchen expediting station. The cooks saw her coming and scattered like roaches.

WHO MADE THIS?” she screamed. Everyone in the granite and steel restaurant could hear her, but no one dared to respond.

WHO. MADE. THIS. CHEESE. TOAST?!!!?” There was one line cook who didn’t run. He seemed to have been so transfixed by her insane stare and her fiery orange mane of hair that he was instantly rendered immobile.

“DID YOU DO THIS?” she demanded. “DID YOU?!!!? CHEESE TOAST IS TO BE SERVED HOT IN MY RESTAURANT! THIS….THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE!!!” As she shrieked those last words, she slammed the plate down onto the counter. The cheese toast bounced from the plate and hit the poor cook in the chest. The plate itself rebounded and smashed on the floor.

cheese toast floorBut I knew that plate wasn’t the only thing that was smashed. Mrs. Lewis, having found an outlet for her expression almost as satisfying as her time spent designing gowns for Marlo Thomas, made her way back across the stunned dining room to rejoin her guest and her husband.

I didn’t know the proper thing to do in this sort of dining situation. Mrs. Lewis hadn’t covered it in her classes. As I wondered whether or not it would be a good idea to serve them more alcohol, Debbie Reynolds broke the unbearable silence.

She looked directly at Mr. Lewis and said,  “I’ll bet she’s a real bitch to live with, isn’t she?”. He and Marilyn laughed uncomfortably. And then she finished them off in what I can only describe as her Unsinkable Molly Brown voice, “But you know, Harry, I’ll bet you’re a real pain in the ass, too!”

They didn’t laugh at that one, but she did. I excused myself from the table, got my manager to watch over the mess for a minute while I ran outside and around because I knew it wouldn’t do for my embarrassed owners to witness my own, uncontrollable cackling. I returned to the table with an appropriately neutral expression.

Debbie Reynolds didn’t stay long after the cheese toast incident. She made her excuses, thanked her hosts, and went home. There was to be no dessert. And, thanks in part to a plate of tepid cheesy bread and plenty of Justerini & Brooks on the rocks, there was to be no Lewis-owned restaurant in the Debbie Reynolds Hotel.

From that evening on, Miss Reynolds has been at the top of my list of favorite people. Because, apart from having starred in my favorite Hollywood musical of all time, she managed to do something I’d always wanted to do– call out the appalling behavior of my bosses — and gave me one of the most satisfying laughs of my life as she did it.

For that, I salute her whenever I eat a piece of cheese toast. And when I do eat it, I always eat it cold.

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The Patron Saint of TV Dinners

TV DinnerI can’t remember how old I was when I first saw her standing on top of my neighbor’s television set, but I do remember the feeling of not being able to look away. She was tiny– no more than five inches tall– but her presence was large enough to pull my focus away from the action on the screen to her absolute stillness above it.

When I asked my friend’s mother why there was a little statue of The Virgin Mary on top of their Sylvania, she corrected me in a tone which faintly suggested that her family were better Catholics than mine would ever be. “Oh, Honey, that isn’t the Virgin Mary. That’s St. Clare of Assisi– she’s the patron saint of television.”

I approached the plastic idol with what I hoped was a reverential pace to examine her more closely. She held one hand upward in a gesture of blessing and her face looked up to the heavens. Or perhaps she was simply keeping an eye on the antenna which was fastened to the roof directly above. It was impossible to tell. I tried to pick her up, but discovered that she wouldn’t budge from her place.

I’d heard of people having their eyes glued to their television sets, but never their feet. It was a day of firsts.

When I came home, I took my usual place at dinner– the seat farthest from my mom. It was the lowest position in the family pecking order, but it also happened to be the only chair at the table which afforded a clear view of the family room and the television in it, which was always miraculously turned on and which I always (just as miraculously) got away with watching. I could now tune out the conversation of my older siblings and tune in to early evening network programming knowing there was a new saint in my life who was watching over me as I ate in silence, just like (as I would learn many years later) the sisters of the Franciscan Order founded by her, The Poor Clares.

I felt doubly protected by Saint Clare on the evenings my working mother was too tired to cook dinner and resorted to the convenience of pre-packaged meals. Eating a Swanson’s TV Dinner by the distant glow of our television set now seemed like a holy act, as I experienced the agony of eating re-heated peas and carrots without complaint– a supreme expression of childhood piety– so that I might move on to the ecstasy of dessert which nested between the mashed potato and vegetable compartments of the aluminum serving tray.

But such rapture was never to be found at the end of a tv dinner. The sweet portion of the meal was clearly an afterthought on the part of its creator. Frequently under baked and always flavorless, it was consumed without joy. I suffered from a rare type of frozen dinner amnesia which lead to a near-perpetual state of disappointment in this matter.

I never thought to ask her to intercede on my behalf to the Swanson’s Frozen Food Company because I wasn’t certain that was her department, so I would pray to no one in particular that there was ice cream to be had in the freezer instead*.

I saved my prayers to St. Clare for the really important stuff, like making sure The Muppet Show would never, ever be cancelled.

Roman Apple Cake

Roman (Catholic) Apple Cake

It’s clear to me that St. Clare of Assisi wields a true heavenly power, for there is no other explanation for three seasons of The Flying Nun.

In life, St. Clare of Assisi was an early follower of St. Francis, also of Assisi. She was a daughter of noble parents who shed her earthy riches to take a vow of extreme poverty, ultimately founding a religious order (The Poor Clares) who still follow her example.

St. Clare was given the job of watching over the world’s television sets in 1958 by Pope Pius XII, who based his decision on the story that, when Clare was too ill to attend Mass in person, The Holy Spirit projected the proceedings onto her bedroom wall so that she might both see and hear it happen, which gives weight to the idea that flat screen tvs are truly a godsend.

As for her divine help in creating a decent tv dinner dessert, that remains to be seen. I have what I once thought was a solid childhood memory of one of these “treats” being labeled “Roman apple cake”, but I can find nothing to confirm this as fact. My sister Lori doesn’t remember such a thing, but then again, she doesn’t remember seeing John Wayne’s testicles either, so there’s that. It has been a true test of my faith.

But that name didn’t appear out of the blue. There is such a dessert, but it is not the one from my memory. The recipe below is simply one I made up. But I’m afraid to take sole credit for its creation because it may very well be the result of St. Clare’s gentle, guiding hand coming to my aid after all these years. God’s helpers move in mysterious ways.

It is a simple dessert, but one which requires a smidgen of straightforward, honest labor, which the Poor Clares tend to look upon favorably. It is not terribly sweet, but the reward of making it with your own hands instead of pulling it out of a cardboard box to thaw may very well bring you an inch or two closer to God.

Serves: Enough. You should thank the Lord you’re getting any dessert at all.

Ingredients:

For the batter:

• 1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour
• 1 cup of white sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon of salt
• 1/4 teaspoon of baking powder
• 1 teaspoon of baking soda
• 1/2 cup of milk
• 1 cup of vegetable oil
• 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
• 1 egg
• 2 cups of thinly sliced (peeled and cored) apples (2 apples suffice. I use Pink Ladies.)

For the Frangipane:

• 3 ounces of almond paste
• 3 tablespoons of butter at room temperature
• 1 1/2 teaspoons of sugar
• 2 tablespoon of flour
• 1 egg

For the Crumble Topping:

• 1 cup all purpose flour
• 1/2 cup white sugar
• 1/2 cup light brown sugar
• 1 cup slivered almonds
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 8 tablespoons of butter, melted but cooled
• a heavy pinch of salt

Preparation:

1. Make the crumble topping first by combining all of its ingredients together and mixing it with your (clean) hands, because this method is both effective and feels wonderful. Place the topping in the freezer to chill, which facilitates clumping, which is a highly desirable feature in this particular case.

2. Pre-heat your oven to 350°F. Butter the inside of an 8×8-inch baking dish and set aside.

3. To make the frangipane, combine all of its ingredients together and mix until they are in complete harmony. Set aside.

4. To make the cake batter, combine all of the dry ingredients together and stir. Then combine the oil, egg, milk, and vanilla extract and beat until unified. Add these wet ingredients gradually to the dry and mix until thoroughly one. There should be no apples in the batter at this point. 

5. Spread about 1/3 of batter into your baking dish to form a solid foundation for the cake. Next, generously dot the surface of this layer with frangipane. You will have plenty of frangipane left over which you may then give to the poor, thus gaining Clare’s good favor and ensuring that your cake will be a success.

6. Add the sliced apples to the remaining batter, thoroughly coating them. Pour all of it over your frangipane dots and gently smooth out the top to a more-or-less even layer. Place a generous coating of crumble topping where it belongs– on top.

7. Bake on the center rack of your oven for about 1 hour and pray that it rises like a nun’s Holy Bridegroom. Should you find yourself cursed with uncertainty, check it every so often and poke at its center with your finger like a doubting St. Thomas until your faith is restored.

8. Remove from the oven when the center of the cake springs lightly to the touch and the topping is golden brown. Let both your passions and this dessert cool completely before consuming. In fact, wait even longer, if you can– this cake is better on the second day.

Serve it  alone or with lightly sweetened whipped cream. Serve to your loved ones as you watch your favorite (family-friendly) television program. Serve it to the poor. Serve it up to God, if that pleases you. Just please do something with it.

And, as you’re serving it, should any of this cake fall onto your silk tie, your lovely table linen, or your nun’s habit, you can still keep on praying to St. Clare. She just so happens to double as the patron saint of laundry**.

Sadly, there is no patron saint of ice cream. As yet.

** This is completely true.

 

 

Posted in Sweets and the Like | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

I Killed Audrey Hepburn

Poison CrushIt’s true that travel can broaden the mind but, in rare cases, it can also lead to an international celebrity killing spree.

And I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize for mine here and now.

It started so innocently. I was sixteen years old and on my first trip to Europe. I sat next to an auburn-haired 14 year-old, who did her best to impress me with her general nonchalance regarding celebrity. Her father, it turned out, was a popular Emmy-winning actor on a hit television show. She mentioned that Peter Sellers occasionally slept on the family couch as casually as another 14 year-old girl might mention she occasionally had pudding for breakfast. Knowing she may have seen Inspector Clouseau in his pajamas, I was under the impression that no one famous could cause her to lose her poise and was therefore rightly impressed. I wasn’t much older than she and was already guilty of nearly wetting myself with excitement upon witnessing Ann Miller allowing her dog to defecate on my aunt and uncle’s front lawn.

But her cool, Hollywood attitude was destroyed on that flight to London. Restless after hours of sitting, my new friend decided to stretch her legs. Her preferred method of calisthenics included climbing up the spiral staircase of our Pan Am jet which led directly to the first class cabin. I admired her nerve but wondered how long it would take for her to be ejected by a rabidly class-conscious flight attendant. She was gone for what seemed like ages, and when she reappeared somewhere over the North Atlantic,  stopped half-way down the steps and stared at me. Or quite possibly through me. Flushed and shaking, she returned to her seat next and whispered, “Cary. Grant.” she halted, “is on this plane. Cary Grant is up there.” I followed her look upward with my own and we stared at the ceiling as one would stare up at heaven, because Paradise to us at that moment was a first class cabin paved not with clouds, but with red carpet, and populated by a single, silver-haired, cleft-chinned angel.

We spent the remainder of the flight more or less silent. We were fortunate enough to be near the front of the plane and so were the first from cattle class to disembark. We spotted the object of our adoration and ran up behind him, then slowed to keep ourselves a few respectful paces behind; our heads tilted in awe at the back of his head. We continued to worship him in this manner for a few minutes until he disappeared behind a door. Quite possibly the men’s room. And just like that, the spell was broken.

He died four months later. I was saddened by his death but felt no guilt. I was too young to know that I may have been the cause.

On another excursion six years later, I met my brother at Charles de Gaulle airport to fly back home to California. After catching up on our separate adventures, we checked in for our flight home. Doug thought he might try charming the woman behind the counter to see if he could wrangle a ticket upgrade. My French has never been very good, but I somehow understood the most important part of their conversation: “I’d love to help you sir, however our First and Business Classes are full. But I’ll let you in on a little secret… Audrey Hepburn is on your flight today! And so is Julia Roberts!”

Telling two gay men that Audrey Hepburn is on their flight might be considered an extreme breach of security today, but everything was much more relaxed in the 1990s. Except for the two of us, thanks to this important piece of information. I’d planned to grab a drink somewhere before boarding, but that was now out of the question. I was intoxicated enough at the thought of sharing the same cabin-filtered air as my favorite film star in the Hollywood firmament. But our excitement turned to extreme anxiety when we saw Miss Hepburn being escorted onto the plane in a wheelchair, much thinner and frail-looking than usual. For the second time in my life, I was rendered silent by a celebrity over the Atlantic Ocean, but this time it wasn’t from excitement, it was from worry. The eleven-hour flight felt like eleven years.

Four months later, I learned of her death from cancer. I nearly cancelled my card night with friends, but decided against it, thinking it might help crowd out the sad news from my mind for a few hours, but the evening ended with my feeling worse that I did before. “Did you guys hear Audrey Hepburn died today?” my friend Itay asked without a hint of emotion. But then again, we were playing poker. I shared with the room what I’d seen of her on my flight home from Paris and told them about the coincidence of Cary Grant, too.

“Well clearly you’re to blame for both of their deaths,” he said. His face was obscured behind his cards. “Remind me never to fly with you– you’re like some time-release killer or something.” As the only gay man in the room, I found both his lack of emotion and the general absence of sympathy for either Miss Hepburn or– more importantly– for me around that table deeply upsetting.

“Why couldn’t it have been Julia Roberts?” I asked to no one and to everyone. I’d wanted to yell it, but held myself back, so the words came out in a sort of dry squeak, which made me sound exceptionally pathetic. After a moment or two of uncomfortable silence, Itay spoke up. “Just keep an eye on the obituaries. Maybe it’ll turn out you killed her, too.”

And with that, the poker game continued more or less interrupted, but I left feeling dirty and diseased. I didn’t speak of this coincidence again for a long time.

It wouldn’t be the last time I’d be called toxic by another human being, but was I really that lethal? How many other lives had I claimed by simply breathing the same recirculated air? I was tired of feeling responsible for the earthly exits of these two people adored by the entire film-going world. For years, every time I entered the cabin of an airplane, I would scan the first class seats for the elderly famous, hoping to warn them to flee while there was still time. I could no longer bear the weight of my guilty burden.

So I decided to rid myself of it.

There had to be another reason for their deaths. But what sort of connection could two extremely famous and beloved actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age possibly have other than myself? After extensive research, I discovered that Hepburn and Grant had, in fact, met before. They made a film together in 1963 entitled Charade.

I watched the film over and over, searching for clues– anything that might exonerate myself and free me from my own unintentionally-criminal pain. Did they eat both something that might have spoiled on the set during production, which may have ultimately lead to their deaths 23 and 30 years later? No, they did not. Hepburn only eats in front of Walter Matthau– a chicken sandwich as he speaks with his mouth full of liverwurst. A French onion soup is ordered, but pushed away in favor of cigarettes. Endless amounts of what seem to be breath mints are consumed, but only by her. The one time the two stars sit down together for a meal, they do not touch it, but chose to talk in veiled terms about intercourse instead. There was a double ice cream cone Hepburn manages to get a lick or two from, but the rest winds up on Grant’s lapel. I was near the end of my emotional tether, about to give up on my search, when I suddenly hit upon the key to my own innocence: An orange.

OrangeThe fruity object of an innocent but sexually suggestive game may very well have been the agent of their slow deaths. I was certain of it. In one particular scene, the Master of Ceremonies at Le Black Sheep Club has patrons line up to pass an orange from one player’s neck to the other’s without the benefit of their hands. All of the actors who came in contact with the offending citrus are now dead: Hepburn. Grant. Ned Glass, the villain to whom Hepburn passes the orange before fleeing was the first to die in 1984. And what of the ample-fronted woman who starts the game? Her career, at the very least, is dead. It became clear to me that someone– most likely a psychotic prop master or vengeance-seeking wardrobe mistress– had poisoned that orange. I briefly wondered what the motive behind this act of horror could have been, but realized that such things are often a waste of time when dealing with the emotionally deranged.

I looked up various slow-acting poisons which might have been used. Hemlock? No evidence of paralysis present in any of the victims. Dimethylmercury? Possible, but difficult do disguise. Tetrodotoxin? Doubtful. Too fast-acting and difficult to come by unless one has ready access to puffer fish. Cyanide? Too much discoloration. Which leaves but one obvious answer: arsenic.

It would be a simple matter to coat an orange with arsenic and let it sit until some of the poison absorbs into the skin of the fruit. The prolonged contact with human flesh– endless takes for what looks like a difficult scene to perfect– would be all the murderer needed to get the contamination ball rolling. But how did he or she continue this deadly scheme and keep the victims’ arsenic levels at a steady but still-undetectable level? In two ways, I have decided: 1) by gifting his victims annual holiday citrus baskets and 2) consistently providing oranges for all major airline carriers with clearly marked instructions which read “For Celebrity Cocktails Only”. It was a brilliant plan. And I felt equally brilliant for uncovering it.

Before I start popping the champagne to celebrate my freedom from a self-inflicted manslaughter rap, I must remind myself that this is only a theory. And one which has not been thoroughly tested at that. All I can really do is wait and see. So I shall wait for Julia Roberts* to get a few more years on her, book the same flight as she, offer her a cocktail with a slice of innocent-looking orange muddled in it, and keep a close eye on the obituaries for the next four months.

Old Fashioned

Slow-Acting Old Fashioned Cocktail

I have no evidence that Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant ever shared around of these beverages together, but I can guarantee that the combination of alcohol, tainted orange, and recycled airplane oxygen makes for a deadly delicious drink.

Makes one generous cocktail suitable for your favorite old fashioned movie star.

Ingredients:

• 1 Valencia orange
• 1/2 cup powdered arsenic (organic)
• 2 maraschino or Amarena cherries: 1 for muddling and the other for garnish
• 2 sugar cubes
• About four dashes of Angostura bitters
• 2 airline bottles of whiskey
• A splash of club soda
• Ice

Preparation:

1. Thoroughly wash and drip-dry the orange to remove any pesticides. With gloved hands, dump the arsenic powder onto a small plate and roll the citrus around in it until it is fully coated. Let sit for up to three days. When you are ready to make this cocktail, wipe the skin of the orange clean so that no white powder is noticeable.

2. When you are ready to serve your drink, roll the orange on a generously-fronted German woman until the juice cells of the fruit are sufficiently loosened. Cut a 1/4″ inch slice from the from the orange and then cut that slice in half. Place one half in the bottom of an old fashioned glass.

3. Add your 2 sugar cubes, 1 cherry, and 4 dashes of bitters to the glass, then show no mercy as you pummel the ingredients until they are more or less unrecognizable. Remove the orange. It has done it’s work. Or leave it in for extra oomph.

4. Pour in the splash of club soda and stir until the ingredients are sufficiently mingled. Add ice, then fill the glass to the top with whiskey. Garnish with the second cherry and the other half of orange slice.

5. Serve to any remaining stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, like Olivia de Havilland or Mickey Rooney. Or even Eli Wallach. There aren’t many left to choose from.

Repeat every four months until the desired effect has been achieved.

* I must apologize to Miss Roberts, who will more than likely never read this post. I have nothing against this actress in the least and, in fact, find her rather likable.

Posted in Celebrities, Liquids, Rants and Stories, Stage, Film, and Television | Tagged , , , , , , | 31 Comments

Thank You.

thank youThe past ten days have been a little overwhelming, but in a very good way. I think.

The other Saturday as I was getting ready to begin work, I found out from my friend David Leite, who was in Chicago at the time, that I had won the International Association of Culinary Professionals award for Best Narrative Food Blog.

And then I immediately had to shut my phone off for the evening because no one likes a waiter who’s constantly distracted by his own smart device. It happens to be one restaurant policy with which I fully agree.

But there was to be no celebration for the next several hours — I was far too busy taking care of other people’s needs. So I just walked around the dining room with a stupid grin on my face for the duration of my shift. And as a pleasant way to end the night, I opened a bottle of Krug for a table of four gay men, two of whom were friends and neighbors of Rita Moreno. I didn’t  take it so much an omen but rather an appropriate final touch to the evening. For those of you unfamiliar with Miss Moreno, the woman has won pretty much every award known to the Entertainment World– an Oscar, Emmy, Tony, Grammy, and Lord knows what else.

When I finished my shift and headed home, I turned my phone back on and found myself flooded with congratulations and well-wishes. It felt good. It felt energizing. So much so, that I had to stifle the urge to yell a Moreno-esque “Hey you guyzzzzzz!” out of consideration for my Uber driver, whose ears were less than two feet in front of my mouth.

I’d never won anything in my entire life. I was grateful and happy and a little confused, as if somebody had made a wonderful mistake. I had never felt closer to Rita Moreno than I did at that moment.

Until the following Tuesday morning, that is, when I heard my name announced as a James Beard Award finalist for Individual Blog, and the congratulations and well-wishes started all over again. It was a far too much for my brain to take in all at once. So instead of celebrating, I spent the next few days in quiet solitude to try and process the information.

And here, in a furry little nut shell,  is what I’ve come to think about all of this great stuff that’s happened over the past few days:

1.) I’m grateful that I was both fortunate enough to have been nominated for both an IACP and James Beard award last year, but I am even more appreciative of the fact that I won neither. I honestly believe it’s helped to make this year’s bounty that much more enjoyable. I’ve experienced the stress of awards nights, know what to expect, and can be much more relaxed about the whole hullabaloo this year.

2. I don’t really care who wins. Yes, it would be (very) lovely to win a James Beard Award, but I happen to both like and respect my co-nominees, Elissa Altman of Poor Man’s Feast and Lisa Fain of Homesick Texan. Whoever wins the award on May 2nd, I’ll be smiling and clapping. And it won’t be fake.

3. Most importantly, I am grateful to my readers– especially to those of you who take the time and effort to comment on my posts. More than you know, you’ve helped to pull me out of terrible funks and innumerable bouts with writer’s block. You’ve prevented me from giving up. You’ve made me laugh. You’ve given me so much encouragement. You’ve given me an incredible amount of joy.

A thundering amount of good has come into my life as a result of writing this blog. It would be nothing without readers. So thank you for your readership and your friendship. You are the best award. You make me happy. And, dare I say it? You make me feel– just a little bit– like Rita Moreno.

So, Hey You Guyzzz, thank you.

 

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Dressing Up and Playing God.

Good Seasons PacketWhenever I see salad dressing being made, whether vigorously shaken in a mason jar or cruet, I can’t help but feel– for a brief moment at least– that the End of The World is coming.

And it is entirely my brother’s fault.

When I was studying for my Catholic First Communion, Doug took it upon himself to augment my religious education.

“Do you want to see what happens to people’s souls when they die?” he asked.  At seven, I didn’t  know many dead folks, apart from a great-uncle or two, but I’d often wondered what had happened to my recently deceased beagle, who my Sicilian father said he was “taking for a little ride*” and then returned an hour later, alone.

I followed my brother into our father’s kitchen, where not so very long before I had nearly found my own way into the afterlife .

He pulled out bottles of olive oil and red wine vinegar from the pantry cupboard, along with a cruet and packet of Good Seasons® Italian Dressing Mix and set to work on both the evening’s salad and my permanent enlightenment.

He carefully poured the vinegar up to the “V” line in the calibrated cruet which the salad dressing company had thoughtfully provided. “This represents Hell,” he said with as much gravity as his 15 year-old voice could manage. He trickled in a bit of water. “I don’t really know what this represents,” he confessed. And then he let a large amount of oil cascade down the inside of the glass vessel and said, “Now this… this is Purgatory.”

“But where’s Heaven?” I asked, noting that there were no more liquids to pour into the cruet. This caused me great concern.

“Ah, yes…Heaven.” He motioned for me to put my face closer to the container. “See the surface of the oil? That’s Heaven.”

That’s Heaven?” I asked, my distress over the salad dressing rapidly increasing. “It looks kinda small.”

“Well, there’s not much room in Heaven because it’s only for the very, very good.” I had a very bad habit of believing everything my brother told me and he knew it. I was completely in his thrall.

IMG_4221He tore open a small corner of the seasoning packet and poured out a few bits of dried onion and garlic onto his finger, dropping a single piece onto the surface of the oil. “There, that’s a good one. She made it to heaven.” He let drop the few remaining souls he had on his index finger and noted that they seemed worthy of Paradise as well.

He then began to shake the packet into the cruet with the exasperating slowness and gentleness with which he did nearly everything in life. My eyes remained permanently fixed upon the fate of all those bits of salt and spice and xanthan gum as they tumbled from the aperture of that foil-packeted gateway to The Afterlife my brother held in his fist like God himself. And he knew he was playing God. It was a role I sometimes feel he thought he was born to play.

As dehydrated spirits gathered along the top, my anxiety– along with the surface tension of Heaven increased. Great masses of the imaginary dead would huddle together– the smaller ones sinking into an oily purgatory, while the larger ones plunged like brimstones into a red wine vinegar Hell. By the time Doug had finished pouring out the souls of, as he put it, “all the people who have ever lived,” there were only a few left in Paradise. And most of them looked as if they were holding on for dear afterlife to the side of the container.

IMG_4238“You said ‘people’,” I said. I still wanted to know what happened to Heidi, our ex-beagle. “What about dogs?” I asked, my face about an inch from the glass which held the spiritual cosmos.

“Oh, Michael…” he said. I was too young to appreciate his condescension. “All animals are innocent creatures and are therefore without sin, so they all go to Heaven. For the first time in several minutes, I felt relieved. But the relief was short-lived. As I continued to stare at all of those Unfortunates at the bottom of the cruet, wondering what they did in life to deserve such a fate, my brother snapped on its plastic lid and snatched the bottle away from me.

He began to agitate the container with a sort of violence I hadn’t remembered seeing in him before. His cocked eyebrow and grimace only enhanced what I now imagine he hoped would be an overall feeling of menace. “DO YOU KNOW WHAT THIS IS?” he growled as he shook. I said nothing. When he’d reached sufficient emulsification, he gently placed the cruet back onto the counter, took a couple of breaths and, his voice returning to studied benevolence, and said:

“Judgement Day.”

I looked at the cruet and all the souls desperately trying to sort themselves out within it. My brother asked me if I had any more questions. I didn’t. He placed the vessel in the refrigerator until dinnertime. I returned to the living room as shaken as the dressing.

When we sat down to our evening meal, my sister shook the cruet again to re-emulsify it. She’d been through First Communion, so I assumed she knew what sort of power she was wielding at that moment. When the bottle was passed to me, I hesitated a moment before I poured the dressing onto my salad. I didn’t try to count the number of souls I was about to eat. In fact, I have the feeling I simply tried to put the idea of being a soul-eater out of my head entirely. But when I was offered the ground pepper, I know I declined.

The thought of spicing up my salad with even more ground up, blackened souls was almost too much for my own soul to bear.

 

*For those of you unfamiliar with this phrase, it is a Mafia euphemism for a car trip in which something invariably unpleasant happens to the invitee. And, incidentally, my father deeply loved that dog. It was a matter of black humor used to mask his own sorrow and prevent his child from indulging in a screaming fit of hysterics.

Posted in Rants and Stories, Salad | Tagged , , , , , , | 18 Comments

The Brown Russian

Dangerous Face WaterI couldn’t even begin to tell you how excited I am for the politics-free, global feel-good expression of Brotherly Love that is the Winter Olympics to start.

I’ve been brushing up on my sporting knowledge for the past few weeks, which means I can now tell the difference between a luger and a bobsledder or a Biellmann Spin from a Besti Squat and discuss them all in great detail. I’ve got my ice dancing costume all set.

I feel as ready for the games to commence as the Russians do.

Or almost. Today I realized there was still one area in which my preparations were sorely lacking. I hadn’t given a thought to one of the most important events of the season: Olympic Drinking. What on earth would I serve to friends who might drop by to have me explain the significance of The Kiss and Cry in Men’s Figure Skating all the while doing my best Dick Button impression?

Thanks to the miracle of social networking, a dear woman named Sandi Timberlake offered up the hypothetical name of a cocktail I found too irresistible to ignore: The Brown Russian. To my ears, everything the Sochi Olympics promises to be. And so much more.

I plan on making several over the next few weeks. I won’t be drinking any of them, mind you, because it has been advised that one should not put some of the ingredients close to one’s face.

Brown Russian

The Brown Russian

The excellent thing about this drink is that, in keeping with the official motto of The 2014 Sochi Games, it may be served either hot or cool. Whichever way, it’s yours.

Makes One Cocktail

Ingredients:

• 100 millilitres of Russian vodka
• 200 millilitres of brown water
• 4 to 5 cubes of ice, hand-hewn by construction workers who can be found chain-smoking near your unfinished hotel lobby.
• Cigarette butts for garnish (optional)

Preparation:

1. Place your ice in a hefty tumbler. Pour vodka directly over the ice.

2. Add brown water. If you are staying in Sochi, you may simply turn on your hotel bathroom faucet to obtain it. If you are not so fortunate, you may make your own by adding any of the following to your own tap water, if they are not already present: cadmium, hexavalent chromium, arsenic, plutonium, or fecal matter.

3. Stir vigorously with your index finger.

4. Wash index finger even more vigorously.

5. Garnish with cigarette butts, which may also be provided by construction workers.

6. Place the cocktail beside you as you watch The Games. Pour yourself a stiff bourbon over ice in the same type of glass and set it next to your first drink. Become absorbed in the Olympic drama unfolding on your television screen and enjoy the game of Russian Drinking Roulette at your elbow.

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