bacon fryingMy phone was being x-rayed by airport security when I got the call. There was a voicemail from my sister Lori. I didn’t need to listen to the message– I knew what she had to say. I imagined the best thing to do under the circumstances was to get to my gate and find a quiet spot to sit down before I played the recording back. But I didn’t need to. My sister phoned again.

She was calling from the hospice. Our mother was dead. The mortuary people were already there. Death may sometimes be a slow affair, but the business of death is always alarmingly swift. My father and stepmother would pick me up at the airport and take the two of us to the funeral home to make the arrangements for mom.

I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, but I knew it was going to be a long day. I wandered over to the Peet’s coffee kiosk for a medium regular and the first muffin I saw.

When I returned to the gate, I sat down and picked at my pastry for a minute before I noticed on the receipt that it was called a “Morning Muffin.” I said to myself, “They forgot the ‘u’ in mourning.” I thought about my mother again. She couldn’t have eaten that muffin– it had sunflower seeds on it. She couldn’t eat seeds. In fact, there were a lot of things she couldn’t eat. But she didn’t have to worry about that anymore. I threw the muffin away, sat back down, and played a little game with myself where I pretend that everything is just fine.

I debated exchanging my free drink coupon for a tiny bottle of whiskey on the short plane trip home, but thought better of it. I worried I’d get emotional and become “that guy who cries on planes”. It wasn’t the right moment for self-medication– there were caskets and flower arrangements to select and such things are best done with as clear a head as possible under the circumstances. Besides, whiskey was one more thing my mother couldn’t have. It would have been her 40th sober birthday in February. I asked for water. No ice.

At the mortuary, we discovered that the only time we could book the church for our mother’s funeral services was the day before Thanksgiving. We knew a lot of people would not be able to attend. There was no other choice– waiting almost two weeks was not a possibility we were willing to face. And at the end of the meeting with the funeral director, my father looked directly at me and said, “You’re doing the eulogy,” which sent a ripple of horror through my body. He was right, of course. There was no one else to do it. I’m “the writer” in the family. I’m the one who’s supposed to have a way with words.

But how does one go about writing a eulogy for one’s own mother? How do you compress 82 years of a person’s life into a few minutes? How do you distill an ocean’s worth of information into a cube of essence the size of the cardboard box we’d soon be storing her keepsakes in? I stared at my computer screen for days trying to come up with something worthy. My sister had been there for her every single day for the past two years during her decline. I worried that I would fail in the one important thing I was asked to do.

I also worried that I was no longer a writer.

drying baconOver the past several months as my mother withdrew deeper and deeper into her dementia, I found myself withdrawing more and more from writing. My desire for composition directly correlated with my mother’s declining desire to eat. Perhaps we no longer saw the point in doing that which sustained us.

She had always been so proud of my writing. “You know where you got that gene from,” she’d say. She was the editor-in-chief of her high school paper and was studying journalism in college when she met my father. She was always asking when my first book was coming out. Later, when she started getting confused, she thought it had already been published. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that no publisher wanted it. I felt like even more of a failure that I never got to show her one. Not that it would have bothered her. Not too much.

But as I sat in bed in my brother’s old room on the day before the funeral, I realized there was something that really would have bothered her– that I was sitting in the dark feeling sorry for myself. Or worse, that I wanted to stop writing. She’d frequently told me how proud of me she was for never giving up. It must have been true, because she kept on saying it even after her mind began to go. The idea that I would use her death as an excuse to give up on writing would have really made her angry.

And she was a woman you really didn’t want to piss off.

So I moved out to the family room, which is the one bright spot in the incredibly dark house of my childhood, and took to heart the most writerly of clichés– write what you know.

I understood that there was a lot I didn’t know about the woman we were about to bury. She shared different parts of herself with different people– she was a friend, a coworker, a counselor, a wife, a neighbor and, in my case, a mother. So I started to write a list of all the things I could think of about her life and used that list as the basis for my eulogy:

mom working on the x-15Like how she turned down being a stewardess because the airline wouldn’t let her wear her engagement ring on the job. And how, instead, she wound up taking a top-secret position at North American Aviation working on the X-15– the first thing the US technically got into outer space– where she had to model Chuck Yeager’s fight suit (because they were the same size) and got to fly in a bomber plane with a briefcase handcuffed to her wrist like a Cold War spy.

Like how she was one of the first people to use a primitive form of the internet working for the Anaheim Convention Center, but still found it nearly impossible to send a damned email.

Or how everyone was so convinced she would die when I was six years old that a priest was called in to the hospital room to perform her last rites. And how she was somehow given a second chance at life and grabbed it with both hands.

That she managed to work two jobs, raise three children, and finally get her university degree at the same time.

That she fought like mad to keep my brother alive and healthy for years after he was diagnosed with AIDS. How she did so at the cost of her own health.

And how she still never lost her sense of humor.

That she was smart and loving, loyal, protective, beautiful and giving. That she could also be stubborn and hard and unforgiving at times. That she was as complicated as the next person. That she was wonderfully flawed and beautifully human.

And that, when I hear someone say that people are incapable of change, I always use her as an example to prove them wrong.

I was strangely relaxed when I delivered the eulogy. As much as anyone on the verge of burying one’s mother could be. I think my mom would have enjoyed my speech because it was as free of bullshit and white-washing as I could make it.  It was a small turn out, as predicted, but the people who were there were all important to her. My sister and I were pleased.

There were only eight of us who drove out to Pacific View Memorial Park. It was windy on the hill and the clouds had blown sufficiently apart to give us all an eyeful of the ocean promised in the name of the cemetery– so much so that we could see Catalina as we lowered her into the ground next to my brother. I took a flower off the casket before she was lowered. And then my father offered to take everyone present out to eat.

We lunched at another place with a view, appropriately named The Summit House. When our server commented on how dressed up we all looked and asked what we were celebrating, I responded, “My mother died,” rather bluntly. My father’s best friend Don suggested that the next time I might say something like, “We’re celebrating my mother’s life today.” I took his advice to heart. Our server was unfazed. Without missing a beat, she suggested that under the circumstances we might need a round of drinks as soon as possible. She was marvelous.

iceburg wedge


The restaurant was festive and even more dressed up than we were– they were ready for The Holidays. We placed our orders, most of us choosing the prime rib of beef for which the place was famous. For starters, seven of us ordered the iceberg wedge salad with bleu cheese dressing. It’s a dish I’d never ordered before in my life, but I remember how mom loved it– at least, in the days before my brother’s death when she could
actually eat salads without getting sick.

I thought about my menu choices and realized that my mother not only couldn’t have eaten the salad, but she could eat neither the prime rib nor the creamed spinach nor the creamed corn. She certainly couldn’t have had the martini I was drinking. Nor the second one I was planning on ordering. The only item she could have consumed in relative safety was the top of the Yorkshire pudding, which was the lone disappointing bit of food in front of me that afternoon. But she would have sat there with her iced tea and dried out suet pudding and not complained. She’d just have had a little sandwich and potato chips when she got home later– it’s what she liked.

And then it struck me that I would never share a meal with her again when the salad arrived.

The wedge of lettuce placed in front of me was dotted with crumbled bacon. “Kummer specks,” I thought to myself, playing with words to make such an awful moment seem less so. I knew the day I learned the word kummerspeck that I would always remember it, because my brain would never forgive me if I forgot such a marvelously specific German term for the weight gained from grief eating. “Grief bacon.” My wedge was literally flecked with specks of grief. I didn’t know whether to laugh at that or to cry.

I chose to do neither. I kept that little joke to myself. Instead, I decided to eat and drink all the things my mother couldn’t when she was alive. I lifted the martini glass to my lips, finished off its contents, and gave a subtle nod in the direction I’d like to think she headed when she left her body. I hoped that she was now in a place like heaven where she could order whatever the hell she wanted to, knowing that in doing so she would be finally free from all pain.

Then I ordered a second martini to help dull my own.

Posted in Rants and Stories, Savories | Tagged , , , , | 76 Comments

Man Buns

IMG_5534You may argue with me if you like, but I am declaring 2015 to be an annus horribilis. I consider it to be so for many reasons, none of which I can share openly at the moment. Instead, I’ve decided to focus my frustration on something awful and frivolous that I can talk about– The Rise of The Man Bun. I have borrowed the Latin term (annus horribilis, in case you have great difficulty sifting the non-English phrases from paragraphs)  from Queen Elizabeth II, who used it to great effect in 1992 when her favorite residence (sort 0f) burned down. She may not be the best example of someone who keeps up with the latest hair trends, but she certainly knows what works for her. Also, I just enjoy quoting royalty.

If you don’t know what a Man Bun is, please let me explain. Simply, it is the hair of a man which is pulled back into a tight, self-consciously sloppy knot at the top of the head. My assumption is that this is done to provide extra cushioning to protect the adopters of this particular hairstyle from the Wile E. Coyote-style anvils that I would like to drop on their noggins. Or, perhaps like the Hare Krishna, they simply want to give the deity of their choice a handy way to yank them into heaven, where I am certain not to run into them.

My irritation with the man bun is arbitrary and irrational. I have absolutely no problem when surfers and Sikhs and Willie Nelson do it, but when I see a guy wearing dress shoes with no socks show up with his forelocks pulled back tighter than a cheap facelift, I want to saw off his topknot with a bread knife and shove it up his annus horribilis.

This chagrin of mine is stupid, I keep telling myself. I need to be more charitable of spirit to victims of fashion. I mean, it’s not as if they’re evil, like Joseph Stalin or people who text during dinner.

It’s just hair. I need to calm down and identify the problem, which is when people (read: me) become frustrated and helpless and cannot address the real issues that make for their own terrible year, they find something trivial to attack and make fun of (read: man buns). At least, that’s how it’s done on my block.

But the thing is, I’ve still got two and a half months left of 2015 and I don’t want it to be a total wash out. So I’m doing my best to channel my not-so-pleasant feelings about this year into something positive. And the best way for me to do that is to take something I can’t stomach (read: man bun) and turn it into something I can (read: edible man bun).

It’s pretty much the best therapy in the world. And tasty, too.


Man Buns

I am unashamed to admit that I loved to eat Manwich Sloppy Joes as a child. I am also unashamed to admit that I recently went looking for Manwich cans and/or seasoning packets in my neighborhood and came up empty. So I decided to make my own from scratch, which is a very easy thing to do.

In this particular session of kitchen therapy, I have removed the offending sloppiness of the man bun (why can’t they just wrap it into a lovely halo, Auntie Mame-style?). Of course, I have also reduced the relative sloppiness of a Sloppy Joe by wrapping it into a lovely bun. A Manwich Bun or, Man Bun for short.

These may not solve the world’s problems, either personal or tonsorial, but they do make one feel much better after eating them. A full and happy stomach goes a long way to improving one’s approach to those things which one cannot control. And the things one can. So shove a few of these mothers in your oris horribilis (or is that horribilis oris?) today.

Makes 10 man buns you wouldn’t be embarrassed to be caught eating. 

To make the Manwich-like/Sloppy Joe-ish Filling:

• 1 tablespoon of olive oil
• 1 medium-sized onion, finely chopped
• 1 red bell pepper, also finely chopped (and seeded)
• 3 cloves of garlic, finely minced
• plenty of salt and pepper
• 1 pound of ground beef
• 1 15 oz. can of tomato sauce
• 1/4 cup ketchup
• 1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
• 1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce

To make the buns*:

• 1/3 cup of warm water
• 1 packet of active dry yeast
• 3 1/2 tablespoons sugar
• 1 3/4 cups of unsifted flour
• 1/2 teaspoon of salt
• 2 large eggs
• 3 tablespoons of olive oil

To glaze and decorate:

• 1 large egg
• 1 tablespoon of milk
• sesame seeds


To Make the Filling:

  1. In a large pan of your choice, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions, bell pepper, and garlic. Next, toss in liberal amounts of salt and black pepper. Cook until everything is soft and the onions are translucent but not brown, which should take about 5 to 7 minutes. Stir frequently.
  2.  Add ground beef, making sure to break it up into tiny pieces. Cook, stirring often, until the meat is thoroughly cooked through, which should take you another eight or so minutes.
  3. Now add the tomato sauce, ketchup, Worcestershire, and cayenne pepper. Simmer gently until thickened– you want to evaporate a lot of the moisture until your meat goo is nearly caramelized. By the time you finish, the man bun craze may very well be over.
  4. Transfer your Sloppy Joe mixture to a clean bowl, cover, and refrigerate. You are very welcome to make this filling the night before you stuff your buns.

To Make the Buns:

  1. In a little bowl, combine the water, yeast, and 1/2 tablespoon of the sugar, stirring to dissolve the yeast. Let it do its thing for about five minutes, until it begins frothing at the mouth.
  2. Combine 1 1/2 cups of flour, the 3 remaining tablespoons of sugar, and the salt in the bowl of your stand mixer (you can certainly do this in an ordinary bowl and mix with your ordinary hands, if you wish) until well-integrated. Next add the eggs and oil and mingle until thoroughly fraternized.
  3. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead the hell out of it, which is a wonderful way of venting one’s frustration about man buns and life in general. Continue to do so until the dough is as smooth and elastic as those little things hipsters use to pull their hair back into that annoying coiffure. Wash, dry, and oil up the same mixing bowl and place the dough inside, flipping it once so that the top side now has a thin sheen of oil upon it. Cover with a clean towel and let rise in a warm place until it has doubled in size (about 1 1/2 hours).
  4. In the interval, you may: tend to you fixed gear bicycle’s maintenance needs, update your Etsy store, or wax your mustache into a fascinating configuration.
  5. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
  6. Turn the dough out onto the previously-floured work surface (I hope you didn’t bother to clean up that mess.) Roll into a 10-inch log and cut said log into 10 equal pieces. Divide these lumps of dough onto your baking sheets, cover with more clean towels, and place them in your special warm spot to rise again for an hour.
  7. Reconfigure mustache, remove filling from the refrigerator.  Heat oven to 350°.
  8. IMG_5521Roll each piece into a 5-inch round and place 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of filling at the center of each. Slightly moisten the edges of each circle with a little bit of the thickened Sloppy Joe sauce and pinch them tightly closed and into a ball-type shape. Place your raw buns seam-side down, divided evenly on your to prepared baking sheets.
  9. Whisk together 1 whole egg and a tablespoon of milk until thoroughly networked. Brush the tops of each bun with this newly conglomerated egg wash and sprinkle generously with sesame seeds.
  10. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until they have turned a lovely golden brown color on top and feel light when you lift them (yes, they are hot, but you can do this. I believe in you)– as though there is no longer any raw dough inside of them, which is not to be desired.
  11. Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack.
  12. Serve them warm or at room temperature to friends and family, or hoard them for yourself and eat them quietly over your bathroom sink in full view of the mirror so that you can admire the way your Franz Ferdinand mustache rises and falls as you chew. Then suddenly remember what happened to the original Franz Ferdinand and shudder with horror, turning around to spit out the contents of your mouth into your lo-flush toilet.
Posted in Meatness, Rants and Stories | Tagged , , , , | 22 Comments

Sand in My Pants

pecan sandies crumbledIt was a Kiwi sailboat captain who first told me about St. Procopio’s beach. Spreading itself wide along the western coastline of Naxos, its shores were gently slapped and tickled by the cool blue waters of St. Procopio’s Bay as Mount St. Procopio cast its beatific shade from the east.

At least, that is how I assumed it would be, given the name. Captain Patrick suggested my friends and I might rent Vespas and ride down to the most Procopio place on earth the next afternoon. I imagined myself making a slow, pious progress to the water’s edge where, surrounded by my companions, I would plunge my hand into the fine, warm sand; raise my arm; and gently loosen my fist so that the granules fell gracefully (and neatly) into an awaiting, worthy receptacle.

“Don’t worry, Gary,” I’d say to one of my friends, “we’ll find St. Humbarger’s Beach… someday.” He would be comforted and moved to tears by my generousness of spirit.

But fate–or at least the prevailing winds– had other plans. We wouldn’t have time to make an official pilgrimage if we were to make our next port-of-call by nightfall. When Patrick broke the news, I looked visibly deflated. Not as if someone had let the wind out of my sails, but out of my lungs. Fortunately, he had another idea wherein I might have plenty of opportunity to refill them– this time with water.

“You could swim for it,” he said. He told me he could probably get our sailboat about a quarter of a mile from the beach. He stressed that fact that a great deal of swimming would be necessary on my part. “Think you can do it?”

I was about to brag that I was trained by an Olympic swimming coach, which was true, but thought better of it when I recalled that I was best remembered for repeatedly shitting in terror as I was flung into the deep end of the poor woman’s pool. I also thought of Shelley Winters showing off her swimming medals in The Poseidon Adventure just before diving underwater to save Gene Hackman. Her subsequent death scene was especially touching.

“Yeah, I can totally do it!” I said, hoping an outburst of Southern California enthusiasm might help distract him from the look of bowel-related concern my face probably betrayed.  I supposed I didn’t have to go through with it, but I was very aware of the fact that I would most likely never find myself in this situation again and wholly consumed by the idea that I absolutely had to collect sand from this beach to give to my father as a souvenir of my journey.

Patrick gave me a ten-minute warning before we were to reach the bay of Agios Prokopios, as it’s called in Greek I hopped into my swim trunks and searched around in panic for something appropriate in which to place the sand. With no ivory boxes with chased silver clasps to be found anywhere on our small sailboat, I dumped out the contents of my clear plastic, zipper-topped toiletry bag and shoved it down my pants. My treasure will be safe in there, I thought, as if sand somehow needed to be protected from water.

Above deck, my friends were waiting for me. Mostly, I imagine, they were waiting to get this thing over with. They were kind enough to humor me, but I had the sense that the grandeur of my quest was completely lost on them. I steadied myself along the starboard side of the boat and, when the boat reached its closest point to the shore, I jumped.

The water was cool and exceptionally clear. But there was so much of it between me and my precious sand. A quarter of a mile didn’t seem like much of a distance when I was dry, but now that I was floating in the Aegean Sea with a plastic bag shoved between the support netting of my swimsuit and my junk, I saw things quite differently. But I had an important job to do, so I swam.

And swam. And then I swam some more. My legs got tired. The plastic bag was threatening my chances of ever reproducing, so I shoved it into a side pocket, hoping it wouldn’t fall out as my graceful, Dick Cavill-esque Australian crawl degenerated into outright flailing. I looked back to see the boat slowly circling behind me. It didn’t seem far enough away from me for my liking. Not as far away as the beach, at any rate.

When I finally made it to the shore, it was on my hands and knees– gasping for air, spitting up salt water, and making obscene noises like a harbor seal crammed into a pair of navy blue trunks. I sat on the edge of the beach, trying to catch my breath, hoping my heart wouldn’t explode. Looking out to sea, the boat seemed very far away as it moved back and forth over the horizon, but it didn’t matter because I was now surrounded by my quarry– fine, white sand flecked with gold and brown.

Though disturbingly out of breath, I was proud of myself for not drowning.

My brief moment of self-satisfaction was interrupted by what sounded alarmingly like German. I turned around to find several people staring at me– every last one of them as brown and wrinkled as a shelled pecan. Two women, who wore matching, wide-brimmed sun hats and nothing else,  glared at me with palpable disapproval. A man wearing even less than his companions seemed to be trying to tell me something important, it was almost entirely lost on me until I heard him utter “Eff Kah Kah” while shaking his head and pulling at the imaginary waistband of a pair of pants he most definitely not wearing.

By some administrative oversight in the early 1980s, our cable company piped all of their available pay channels onto my family’s main television. I took an active (and clandestine) interest in a program called “Sexcetera: The News According to Playboy.” One particularly vivid segment was their visit to The Englischer Garten in Munich, which contained an area dedicated to Free Body Culture or, more commonly, nudism.

Eff Kah Kah. Freikörper-bloody-kultur. I was grateful for my early exposure to educational television, but saddened to know that my precious beach was overrun by naked Germans. And Germans who wouldn’t stop staring and making gestures at that. I turned my attention back to the water. I was still too tired swim back to the boat and didn’t wish to waste precious energy by moving to a more textile-friendly part of the beach. In front of me was a sailboat full of friends I feared would get bored and abandon me on Naxos like some hairy-chested Ariadne; behind me, a large group of increasingly irate, Northern European nudists. My situation was anything but relaxing. My vision of a Procopio paradise was shattered.

Or was it? I kept concentrating on the word “paradise” until I realized that no one wore clothes in capital “p” Paradise. Certainly not Adam and Eve. Noting that there were no fruit-bearing trees in sight, I decided that stripping was the safest and most energy-efficient thing I could do under the circumstances. I unknotted the drawstring of my trunks and shimmied out of them, placing them neatly, but dramatically by my side. I somehow hoped that my critics would be pleased by my gesture, but when I turned around, they had stopped looking as if the last five minutes had never happened. It was as though my nudity had made me somehow invisible to them. I felt both liberated and insulted by their inattention. I sat there pondering the state of my own nakedness for a few more minutes until I felt ready to swim back to the boat. I filled the plastic bag with sand, pulled on my shorts, and headed into the water before the Germans started grunting again.

I sensibly took my time on the return trip, opting for a more leisurely Esther Williams backstroke— one looks much more relaxed and inhales far less sea water that way.

When I climbed back onto the boat, a friend handed me a much-needed gin and tonic. I pulled the bag from my pocket and saw that at least half of the booty had been lost in my exertion, but as I sat there on the deck gently infusing alcohol into my bloodstream, I realized that there seemed to be plenty of it clinging to my own booty, which I had neglected to brush off in my haste to get away from the denizens of my beach.  I thought it best not to add it to my father’s gift. Instead, I rinsed out my trunks, letting the sand make its eventual return to its rightful home, somehow happy knowing that by virtue of some gentle chaffing, there would soon be a little extra bit of Procopio on Agios Prokopios beach.

pecan sandies

Pecan Sandies

These cookies are aptly named– crumbling to the texture of fine sand at the slightest pressure. Fortunately, these treats do not require thousands of years of pounding surf to make like real sand does. And they are infinitely tastier and more digestible.

Makes about 36 cookies. Or about enough fake sand to cover one square foot of an imaginary, confectionary beach.


• 1 cup of unsalted butter (room temperature)
• 1/2 cup granulated sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
• 1 2/3 cup all purpose flour
• 2/3 cup pecans, toasted and finely ground
• 1/8 teaspoon salt
• Powdered sugar for dusting


1. Heat your oven to 350ºF.

2. Cream together the butter and sugar until light and very fluffy and it looks alarmingly similar to Crisco. Using the paddle attachment of an electric mixer makes this an easy task,  but this effect can also be achieved manually with a great amount of exertion. Add vanilla extract.

3. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, ground pecans, and salt. Gradually stir in these dry ingredients into the sugary, buttery fluff until just combined.

4. Refrigerate for a minimum of two hours, or ignore the dough completely until you find you have use of it.

5. Roll the chilled dough into equal-sized balls (I like a 20g cookie, myself) and place them 12 at a time onto an un-greased, parchment-lined cookie sheet.

6. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the bottoms and sides begin to brown, like an FKK-er napping on his stomach. Remove cookies to a cooling rack and dust with powdered sugar while they are still warm. Do not dust actual nudists with powdered sugar without their consent.

7. When cool, you may now eat the cookies whole, letting them crumble in your mouth or you may crush them with clean hands, letting the grains of cookie sand tumble into an awaiting receptacle. What you do with this sand is now up to you. Gift it to loved ones and enjoy their confused faces as the smile and wonder what the hell you’ve just given them. Sit alone in your apartment watching Maggie Smith in George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess* on YouTube as you shovel the crumbs into your mouth with a large silver spoon. Invent an adult role playing game which involves you as a hapless traveler and your mate as an angry nudist on a pecan sandy beach.

*My preferred method of enjoyment.

Posted in Rants and Stories | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

A Bohemian Birthday

Foie Gras Cookie SandwichesI’d barely recovered from the shock of waking up to a naked Clint Eastwood when all those Republican governors started singing me “Happy Birthday”.

I was spending the better part of July as head waiter and bartender to a small group of rich, white Republican men up in the redwood forests of the Russian River at a secretive little sanctuary named Bohemian Grove or, as I liked to call it, Billionaire Sleep-Away Camp. It was a fascinating mix of people, where one might see Henry Kissinger in Bermuda shorts or Jimmy Buffet rubbing shoulders with Warren Buffet or just about anyone peeing on anything that didn’t move of its own accord.

I ran the dining room for one of the older groups called Roaring Camp and the bar I tended there was once owned by Jack London, who carved his initials on one of the inside mahogany panels. I wondered how depressed it would make him to know that his manly diet of beer and whiskey had been abandoned by the club’s present members in favor of oaky chardonnay.

Our camp was located between Poker Flat, a dull little cabin with a giant Ritz cracker adorning its front entrance, and Poison Oak, where Steve Miller and his musician pals lived in a giant tree house, jammed onstage nightly, and paid their employees considerably more than my conservative Republican members paid me.

But I wasn’t working for the money— I did it for the stories I could tell. And because my friend Danny asked me to. He needed someone with experience to run the dining room while he took care of the business details. And he wanted a homosexual because Ernie, the camp’s enormous president who reminded me of a pink-fleshed Jabba the Hut, didn’t want any “hippies or fags” working for him. Danny was the hippie. He thought I would be the ideal fag for the job.

And I think I was. I had promised Danny I would butch it up for my interview with Ernie, but it was one promise I was unable to keep.

The questioning had barely begun when I spotted a photo of him on the wall of his office standing with a dead celebrity. “Is that you with Phil Harris?” I asked.

“Umm, yes. You know who Phil Harris is?” He seemed a little stunned. He moved his entire body in order to move his head towards the photograph. His neck seemed to be made entirely of fat. When combined with his full-bodied swiveling, it gave the impression of being little more than a fleshy brace which served only to support and immobilize his gigantic head.

“Of course I do. Big Band leader. Voice of Baloo from the Jungle Book!” I got up out of my chair to look at the other photos. “And there you are with his wife, little Miss Alice Faye.” I had just blown my butch promise to Danny, but Ernie was so pleased with my celebrity identification that both of them failed to notice that I was channeling Elizabeth Taylor as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

I was hired on the spot.

Foie Gras Sugar CookieFor the most part, I liked the members of Roaring Camp. The gentleman who created the television shows Cheers and Taxi was a favorite. The founder of the unfortunately named Otis Spunkmeyer Cookie Company was nice enough, but he insisted we serve his wares after dinner, which had to be prepared in the special Spunkmeyer oven he thoughtfully provided for our kitchen, which sat on the counter near the giant Spunkmeyer instructional poster hanging from the kitchen door. The most famous member of all was Mr. Clint Eastwood, who seemed to be the only person in the camp who didn’t think breakfast dishes floated into the kitchen sink and magically wash themselves. We had a very lovely getting-to-know-you chat about amoebic dysentery. And then there was the morning I woke up to use the communal bathroom and found him standing there completely naked chatting with Ernie, who was equally starkers.

The realization that I just accidentally stumbled upon the intimate areas of yet another Western cinematic icon was almost too much to bear. The added sight of Ernie strutting his stuff made certain that it was. And it was that image I was desperately trying to rid from my memory when those governors started serenading me.

Roaring Camp was throwing a barbecue luncheon for about 100 people and Danny and I had our hands full running about replenishing food, pouring drinks, and preventing the place from looking like a superfund site. About four Republican governors were pointed out to me, but I can remember none of them because they weren’t in any way famous to me. But John Wayne’s son Patrick was there– he was in my favorite Aspen Soda commercial from the 1970s, so I knew who he was. I had to resist the urge to tell him about the time I met his father. John Ratzenberger (Cliff from Cheers) milled about looking a bit lost, and Jerry Brown was there most likely because he found out there was free food to be had.

At some point well into the event, Ernie called for everyone to pipe down, thanked his guests for attending, gave a little speech, and congratulated our chefs for the good grub. Then, to my horror, he singled me out.

“And the guy whose been pouring your drinks all afternoon, well, it’s his birthday. Let’s all sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Michael!”

I was standing behind the bar when they began to sing. I had not asked for this and my embarrassment caused me to sink slowly beneath the bar’s highly polished horizon. By the end of the tune, I was entirely out of sight, crouching in safety, and wishing I was anywhere else but there.

Later that evening, when the dinner service was over, the dishes were washed, and the Otis Spunkmeyer cookies were placed on the bar next to the tray of ports and whiskies, Danny commandeered a bottle of Dom Perignon and we headed next door to share it with our friends at Poison Oak. Steve Miller was jamming with some friends, which included members from various groups like ZZ Top, Foreigner, The Grateful Dead, and a gentleman who went by the stage name of Richard Cheese. These men were pointed out to me as we relaxed and drank our champagne. And then someone from my group pointed out that it was my birthday, so the gentlemen onstage obliged me with an acoustic version of the birthday song. I enjoyed it much more than I did the afternoon serenade.

As I sat there under the giant redwoods, it suddenly struck me that I would probably never have so many famous musicians and politicians serenade me like this again. I drank it all in with as much pleasure as I took in drinking my champagne.

Foie Gras MousselineDanny and I later hitched a ride to visit Kevin and Dave, our friends from culinary school who were the chefs at a much more gastronomically sophisticated but decidedly geriatric camp up the hill. They had liberated two bottles of Corton-Charlemagne from the camp’s wine cellar and supplied generous amounts of paté de foie gras, toast points, sugar cookies, and marijuana. They were, in my estimation, excellent hosts.

After smoking a little weed, we drank the wine and soon discovered there were not enough pieces of toast to support the amount of engorged duck liver delicacy provided. Undaunted, I slathered a generous amount onto one of the sugar cookies my friends had also thoughtfully provided. For good measure, I placed a second cookie on top to make a giant foie gras sandwich.

“It might be because I’m stoned, but this tastes really fucking good right now,” I said with my mouth full to no one and everyone about my current food pairing, flicking the crumbs from my chest. Initially, they seemed dubious, but eventually all performed the same experiment and agreed with my assessment. I thought I was being brilliant, as though no one in the known universe had ever paired sugar and animal organs together before.

I took a long sip of wine and another bite of the sandwich, concentrating on the sensation of foie gras melting and coating my tongue. It was rich and fatty, just like the men I was taking care of that summer.

And that made me think of Ernie again. He was probably sitting in the dining room back at Roaring Camp calling for us to pour him some of the port we left within easy reach for him at the bar. But in my pot-fueled imagination, he had suddenly lost his clothes and was now singing “Happy Birthday.”

I slowly sank down into my deck chair, but this time I didn’t have Jack London’s bar to shield me from the mental view. So I just poured myself another glass of Corton-Charlemagne and did my best to shake it off.

But I put the cookie sandwich down. I’d had more than enough.

Posted in Rants and Stories | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Meet Me at The SCOTUS Bar.

LavenderOn Friday morning, I awoke to the ding of an incoming email. It was from my cousin.

“With liberty & justice for all!!!” it began. I didn’t need to read any further to understand what she was talking about.

Energized but still rather groggy, I immediately jumped onto my Facebook feed, which had suddenly taken on such a dramatic and distinctive rainbow hue that I half expected to find a leprechaun when I scrolled down to the bottom. Apparently it was true– Marriage Equality was just made legal across the board in the United States.

Wanting to learn more, I clicked on a New York Times article about the landmark Supreme Court decision. But I had to stop reading for a moment when I got to the paragraph that read:

“As Justice Kennedy finished announcing his opinion from the bench on Friday, several lawyers seated in the bar section of the court’s gallery wiped away tears, while others grinned and exchanged embraces.”

My excitement about the decision was matched by another bit of incredible (and apparently erroneous) news. THE GALLERY OF THE SUPREME COURT HAS A BAR.

Wanting to add my own two cents to the wonderful wave of social media enthusiasm, I mentioned my own joy at discovering this new-to-me judiciary cocktail lounge. I imagined it must have been a very popular (and necessary) place to be in the weeks leading up to the decision. I also added something to the effect that I would like to buy the five justices who voted in favor of marriage equality a drink. And that I would be serving the other four iced water, poured into their black-robed laps with extra gay flourish.

The first person to comment was my friend Susan, who said she hoped I’d be creating a cocktail to mark the occasion. And I couldn’t think of any good reason why I shouldn’t.

Another friend jokingly suggested a Pousse-Café— a layered, rainbow-like drink so aggressively garish it would make a down-market drag queen recoil. No, what was needed was a cocktail sufficiently strong-yet-understated that it might help persuade a group of sober judges to become decidedly less so.

So here it is. Meet me at the SCOTUS bar and I’ll buy you all a round or two, where we can weep tears of joy into to them, for just a hint of umami. And drama. Because, well, obviously.

THE SCOTUS 75 Lavender cocktail

This cocktail is a take on The French 75, but made with American products. It is subtly flavored with lavender, which might also bring to mind the French (chiefly because it is called “French lavender”), but that cannot be helped. I assure you that, in this particular instance, said plant was born and raised in the USA.

I typically don’t have much use for lavender, apart from in cleaning products. When I was 16, I visited a perfume factory in Èze, France, where there was a bin of lavender flowers so enormous that I nearly passed out from the fumes. “Don’t you have the great illness of the head from such a large smell?” I asked our tour guide in the French I was taught by a conspicuously pregnant American high school teacher. Although she may simply have been struggling to understand the thought I was trying to express, the overall look on her face was one of surprised annoyance. “I smell nothing,” she replied with a curt, Gallic shrug. I suppose one can get used to anything if one is around it long enough.

And that, my friends, is what I plan on telling anyone who is upset with this recent decision.

To say that someone has “the touch of lavender” about them is to imply that they he or she is gay. It’s a rather archaic term from the days when nearly every aspect of the lives of gay men and women was spoken in code because concealment and discretion were often necessary for survival.

Added with a sufficiently light hand, a touch of lavender won’t smell or taste of your grandmother’s soap. Instead, it will give off a gentle, calming whiff, like the faded sachet she hid under the boxed-up bridal gown she saved in case her future granddaughter might want to wear it for her own wedding some day. Which, of course, now she can– regardless of whom she chooses to marry.

Makes one appropriately festive cocktail.


• 1 ounce of gin
• 1/2 ounce of lavender syrup
• 1/2 ounce of lemon juice
• A shake of Peychaud’s bitters
• A pipette’s-worth of tears, either real or, if you aren’t good at crying, manufactured.
• Domestic sparkling wine (Please note this may be the only time I suggest something other than French champagne but, in this case, it needs to be American.)
• A tall sprig of lavender for garnish

For the lavender syrup:

• 1 cup of water
• 2 cups of sugar
• 3 tablespoons of fresh lavender buds


1. Make the lavender syrup by combining all its ingredients in a saucepan and heat over a medium flame. Stir until all of the sugar is dissolved. Let the mixture gently simmer for about 5 minutes, then take off the heat. Let cool, then strain the flowers from the syrup.

2. To make the cocktail, pour the syrup, gin, lemon juice, and bitters over ice into a cocktail shaker. Stir until very cold and pour into the base of whatever glass you might be using. I have chosen a champagne flute because the sparkling wine added next is very much meant to be like champagne.

3. Fill the remaining space of the glass with said sparkling wine.

Adding Tears4. For an added touch, cry directly into your glass. Or, if you lack good aim, into a vessel wide enough to catch your eye rain. Tears of joy and relief add a certain amount of depth and character to the drink. Tears of anger, frustration, and disappointment may be added, but please note that bitterness has already been supplied by the Peychaud’s.

5. Garnish with a sprig of lavender long enough to double as a swizzle stick.

6. Serve to your favorite Supreme Court justice.

Posted in Liquids, Rants and Stories | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

“Curtains” or: “7 Little Von Trapps and Then There Were None.”

jam dollopsHow do you solve a problem like Maria? In the United States, the answer would probably be “by lethal injection”. Austria, on the other hand, has done away with the death penalty. It might not be an appropriate solution for dealing with a flibbertigibbet or even a will-o’-the-wisp, but a serial child murder? Quite possibly.

I’m not implying that the real Maria Von Trapp was anything of the kind. And I have nothing against Julie Andrews in the least. It’s just that, lately, I can’t stop imagining The Sound of Music as an entirely different sort of entertainment.

As I sat down to eat breakfast with my coworkers several days ago, I remembered my friend Katie was performing in a stage show on the peninsula, so I asked her how it was going.

“What’s the name of it again?” I inquired between slurps of bone broth.

“It’s called ‘Curtains’”, she replied.

“I think that name would be a good title for a Sound of Music murder mystery or something.”

“Why’s that?” she asked.

“You know, Maria made play clothes for the children out of her old curtains. I was just thinking how fun it’d be if the kids started dropping off, you know… one by one.” I was just being an idiot, but idiotic thoughts have a way of staying with me.

It’s not that I don’t care for the movie—quite the opposite is true. It’s just that it would have been so much better had the Von Trapp children been even remotely interesting. Or had they been able to maintain their vaguely English accents from one line to the next. Or had they been able to act. When I hear that wearisome septet sing “Doh, a dee-ya, a female dee-ya,” it makes me want to cry, to quote the otherwise unquotable Marta.

I feel The Sound of Music would be a much more entertaining film if Maria was a sugar-and-spice novitiate on the outside, but a cold, ruthless murderess at her amoral core. She may claim to the Reverend Mother that she is unable to control what she thinks and feels, but in truth, she is in full control of her emotions, such as they are, and lays on the kind-and-loving shtick so brilliantly that she gains not only entry to the Von Trapp house but gains the trust of everyone residing within it.

In my version of the film, the only person who sees through Maria’s song and dance is the beautiful baroness. Unfortunately, Baroness Schrader misinterprets the deception as mere gold-diggery, and not cold-blooded serial murder. She does the decent thing and distances herself from Captain Von Trapp when she realizes he’s in love with his governess (whom he promptly marries). Tragically, it is not within her power to send the children to boarding school as she had intended, where they would be safely out of reach from the deadly machinations of Maria.

But how would they go, these seven hapless Von Trapps? What a good question. I have a few ideas, but if you, dear reader, can think of more appropriate endings for them, do write in. This is a work in progress.

Here’s a tentative list, in the order of their demise.

 Liesl— Maria convinces The Captain that his eldest is indeed old enough to stay and taste her first champagne. After consuming an entire bottle at Maria’s insistence, it is suggested that Liesl retire to the gazebo in order to finish off a second, which she does. Her body is found the next morning. She had been leaping from bench to bench without the assistance of a telegram messenger and crashed through the glass structure. In the fall, which rendered her unconscious, she suffered a thousand little cuts, from which she slowly bled to death.

Friedrich— Trained in the precise and deadly art of alpine medicine ball tossing, Maria “accidentally” hits the poor boy directly in the face at family playtime. He was struck with such force and at such an angle that his nasal bones pierced his brain, killing him instantly*.

Gretl—The heavy brocade material used to make Gretl’s bib overalls were made even heavier by Maria’s subtle and inspired addition of lead inserts. Out on the lake one afternoon with her remaining siblings and governess-cum-stiefmutter, the boat overturns and the youngest Von Trapp sinks like a stone in the deepest part of the lake.

Louisa— Known for keeping jars of arachnids on hand to terrorize governesses, the sturdy young blonde has the tables tragically turned upon her when Maria releases hundreds of dornfingerspinnen, or yellow sack spiders, under the unsuspecting girl’s counterpane. Though not killed outright by the dozens of venomous bites she incurs, the pain and discomfort are so pronounced that she quickly goes insane and is shipped to a clinic on the Dalmatian coast to convalesce, which mysteriously burns to the ground with her in it shortly after her arrival.

Marta becomes the first (and to date, the only) case of a person dying from a surfeit of ladybugs, which were reported to have been one of her favorite things.

Unable to cope without her sisters, Brigitta listens intently as Maria sings “Düsteren Sonntag”, otherwise known as “The Hungarian Suicide Song”. Inspired, Brigitta decides to leave a note for her father stating that she is “glad to go, [she] cannot tell a lie.” She then climbs to the rooftop where she flits and floats. Having read his sole surviving daughter’s last missive, her father races to the roof in order to talk her down, but she fleetly flees from him and flies over the edge, breaking her neck on the lawn very near where her eldest sister met her own end.

And poor, incorrigible Kurt is once again overlooked and dies of neglect. No one notices.

Maria, who has now successfully eliminated all physical evidence of Captain Von Trapp’s prior marriage, suggests to him that they start a family of their own together, offering herself to him on the floor of the ballroom directly in front of the puppet stage which had so recently been the scene of so much happiness. He breaks down and tells her that he couldn’t bear the thought of bringing another child into the world for fear of losing it. She cradles his head in her lap as he cries, consoling him with a chilling rendition of “So Long, Farewell” as she reaches for the nearest available marionette, the strings of which she could use to strangle her emotionally weakened husband and thus inherit his fortune and lovely lakeside home.

At that very moment, the baroness and her gay best friend Uncle Max burst in. With a powerful combination of bitchy comments, fabulous style, and superior breeding, they foil Maria’s attempt on Georg’s life and drive her from the house. The Captain realizes his mistake of choosing a homicidal-yet-alluringly-musical servant with no significant references over a world-weary sophisticate with a heart of gold. Elsa Schrader gets what she’s always wanted– a man who needs her, Uncle Max gets unlimited access to the Von Trapp wine cellar, and the three of them live happily ever after. Until the Nazis take over the country a few weeks later.

And what of Maria? She flees on foot over the mountains. But instead of heading west to Switzerland, she veers north into Germany, where she is allowed to ply her hideous talents on unruly children until the end of the war. She is later found guilty of crimes against humanity at the Nürnberg trails and imprisoned.

Roll Credits.


Salzburger Nockerl

How fortunate it is that there is a dessert which fits the above story like a murderous glove? It’s a frothy little conceit, just like the original film, and yet it hides a bloody secret– dollops of raspberry jam are buried beneath powdered sugar-dusted mountains of meringue. Three mountains, to be exact: Festungsberg, Mönchsberg and Kapuzinerberg, which are the mountains which happen to surround the charming Austrian city of Mozart and Sound of Music tour busses. I’ve added seven spoonfuls of jam– one for each Von Trapp child. Name them as you place them one by one into the luxurious lake of cream.

This recipe is a modified version of one found on Epicurious. All other recipes researched were  confusing and very horribly written.

Serves 7 6 5 4 3 2 Whoever is left to eat it. 


• 1/4 cup of heavy cream
• 7 generous dollops of raspberry jam
• 5 large egg whites (at room temperature– you don’t want eggs straight from the fridge.)
• 3/4 teaspoon of kosher salt
• 1/2 cup of white sugar
• 1 tablespoon of all-purpose flour
• 3 egg yolks (hopefully you are smart enough to have gotten them from 3 of the 5 eggs you’ve already abused for their whites)
• 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla extract
• Powdered sugar for faking snow-capped peaks


1. Place your oven rack to the middle position in your oven. Heat this very same oven to 400°F.

2. In a 9-inch oval baking dish, pour the cream so that it shallowly covers the bottom. With a soup spoon or, if you don’t believe in soup, a similarly-sized one, place seven dollops of jam. I like to say the name of each Von Trapp child as I go, always placing Liesl in the center.

meringue3. Combine the egg whites and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer and whip until soft peaks form. At this point, continue beating as you add the sugar a little at a time until it is all gone and your egg whites have transformed into stiff, glossy peaks. Sprinkle the flour over your egg whites and fold in gently, but very thoroughly– streaks of flour in meringues are unpleasant, not to mention embarrassing.

4. Whisk together the egg yolks and vanilla until they are frothy but not rabid-looking. Fold them into the whites with the same élan you so recently performed with the flour.

5. Spoon three enormous globs of meringue into the awaiting, jam-speckled cream, shaping them to look like distinct peaks of a mountain chain, but making certain that all of the cream base is covered.

6. Pop into the oven and bake for 15 minutes. When it is finished, it will still be a trifle jiggly, but do not become upset by this. If you want a less custardy sort of nockerl, turn the oven off, but leave the dish in the oven for another 5 to 10 minutes. Or, you know, until you’re comfortable taking it out.

7. When you do remove it from the oven, dust it with powdered sugar to suggest snow– pure, innocent, cleansing snow.

Serve warm to the Austrian Navy Captain nearest you. If you are of a somewhat Shakespearean bent, you can pretend you’re Titus Andronicus and that he is Tamora, unsuspectingly eating her own children. It is an abrupt switch of gender to be certain, but I strongly believe your imagination can handle it.

Or you can just eat the whole damn thing by yourself and pretend none of this ever happened because no one is going to want to talk to you now that you’ve just hypothetically killed off all the children from their favorite movie, which they will never be able to watch in quite the same way again after reading this post.

So long, fare well for now,


* True fans of The Sound of Music will know that Nicholas Hammond, who played Friedrich, went on to portray “Doug Simpson”, who dissed Marcia after her own nose was broken (less fatally) by another type of ball.

Posted in Stage, Film, and Television, Sweets and the Like | Tagged , , , , , | 30 Comments

Dazed and Infused

Olive CocktailIn my opinion, vodka is the Daniel Day-Lewis of the spirit world. On its own, it’s as neutral and boring as it is strong. And yet it has an almost preternatural ability to absorb the personality of almost anything you can throw at it (or, in this case, in it), which makes it oddly fascinating. And highly drinkable.

I would have said “watchable” to continue the Daniel Day-Lewis metaphor, but the act of watching vodka is as painfully tedious as watching all 160 minutes of Gangs of New York. You could be doing something much better with your life. For example: infusing vodkas with interesting flavors which, with the help of a few friends, an immersion circulator, and a vacuum sealer, will take up the exact same amount of your time.

Like most of you reading this, I have neither an immersion circulator nor a vacuum sealer, but I do have friends. And some of those friends happen to own the above-mentioned equipment to make alcoholic infusions.

Lucky me.

A couple of weeks ago, I drove down to my friends Craig and Shannon Rosa’s house with my friends Sean and Paul for the express purpose of making vodka (and cheap brandy) more interesting to drink. We’d played around with infusions in the past with great success– the limoncello and candy cap mushroom-infused brandy were big hits. It gave me the idea that one could put pretty much anything into alcohol, suck out the air, warm it at a constant temperature for a couple of hours and have it be drinkable. So I decided to just go for it. What I ended up with was a sort of three-course Easter meal designed for alcoholics.

It wasn’t intentional– it’s just what happened. But I’m very glad it did because I’m of the mind that people who like to drink their dinner should be allowed to enjoy themselves at the table just as much as those who prefer chewing do.

On any given holiday in my family, there was always a large platter of antipasti available for noshing before we all sat down to dinner– olives, salumi, peppers, etc. A Clean Dirty Martini would make an excellent liquid replacement. By simply throwing a few of your favorite olives into 2 cups of vodka and preparing it the sous vide way, you can have a delightfully clear cocktail that is redolent of Castelventranos rather than a dingy-looking one that tastes of brine and formaldehyde. In a way, it’s a (marginally) healthier alternative to a Dirty Martini.


Ham CocktailWhen it’s time to sit down with your loved ones, you can now afford to say a polite “no thank you” to your uncle as he stands at the head of table slicing the Easter ham. Tell him you’ve brought your own this year– in your hip flask. By adding 4 ounces of ham steak, 3 rings of canned pineapple which have been studded with 3 cloves a piece, and 1/2 cup of simple syrup to 1 cup of vodka, you can have a cocktail that tastes alarmingly just like an Easter Ham in about two hours, the immersion cooking way.

Anyone for seconds? Yes, please. But do remind me to perfect my Green Bean Casserole Shooters for next year– even drinkers need a side dish now and then.

pompelmocelloAnd finally, no holiday meal is complete without a decadent dessert. After the long self-denial of the Lenten Season, a chilled glass of pompelmocello is just the thing to finish of your repast with elegant fluidity and a fine way to toast to Christ’s health, may it be better the second time around.

Pompelmocello, if it’s truly a word, is a grapefruit version of limoncello, but much better, because it doesn’t taste like Lemon Pledge. To make it, follow this recipe from Sean Timberlake*, who bore witness to my other sous vide experiments and didn’t even raise an eyebrow when I told him I wanted to make a smoked kipper liqueur. I really want to do that one next time.

If you do have an immersion circulator and a fondness for alcohol, there is almost nothing beyond your power. Think of all the other festive occasions you could drink your way through. Hot Dog Old Fashioneds and Sauerkraut Shrubs for Independence Day. Pixie Stix Fizzes for Halloween. Gingerbread House Cocktails for Christmas. Princess Cake Daiquiris to help cope with your daughter’s quinceañera.

Just the thought of being able to theme-drink my way through the calendar year makes me positively giddy. The actual doing of it, however, is sure to leave me dazed and infused.

But I’m game, if you are. Especially if you have an immersion circulator I can borrow for a few hours. I’ll bet Daniel Day-Lewis has one. He probably has one of everything. Except Oscars, I mean– he’s got three, which truly speaks to the awesome power of absorption.


*The link is actually to his limoncello recipe, but I have faith that my readers are smart enough to know what needs to be substituted in order to make it grapefruit flavored.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 18 Comments

The Biggest Sausage on Melrose

BockwurstThe evening started out innocently enough– a quiet back to school dinner with friends. But my highly prized purity was somehow called into question before the appetizers had even arrived.

My friend Alex had chosen a little Italian restaurant on Melrose as the gathering place for our last meal before we started our final year at UCLA. It was cozy and dark and employed a jazz quartet off to one side which played all the old standards. I can’t remember the name of the place, but I felt very much at home. There were enormous grissini placed in the middle of the table shooting up from the bottom of a water glass like glutenous phalluses. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but it was a centerpiece more fitting than flowers, given the direction the night was about to take.

We ordered drinks and appetizers, chatted about school, what classes we were taking. The usual banal conversation one makes with people one doesn’t know deeply. My martini arrived– beautiful in its enormity– and it reminded me that I should probably make a bit of room for it, so I excused myself and made my way past the jazz quartet and through the door into the men’s room.

It was a small facility, and there were two side-by-side urinals, which I never much enjoy, but I had the whole room to myself. I could relax and enjoy doing what it is one generally does when confronted with both a full bladder and a large porcelain bowl. But as soon as I began, the door opened. An old man approached the open spot next to mine and joined me. I nodded to him in the way most men do when forced to acknowledge each other when both of their hands are occupied with other business. He nodded back. And that was the moment I realized I was peeing next to Mr. Television himself, Milton Berle. He smiled at me, then did something that left me temporarily confused. He looked down at my equipment, turned his head to look at his own, gave a slight jerk of the neck in his direction, then smiled and nodded again, but then went back to concentrating on his own business.

Was I just cruised by The Thief of Bad Gags? It didn’t feel like it, but it did make me extremely uncomfortable. I finished up, washed my hands, and made my way back to the table. “You’ll never guess who I just peed next to,” I said. “Milton Berle!” Celebrity sightings are a common occurrence in Los Angeles– you  point them out to friends with the same level of enthusiasm as pointing out a squirrel running across the lawn in the suburbs, so I was very surprised by the amount of interest my remark caused every one of my fellow diners.

“Did you see it?” asked Alex, almost breathless.

“See what?” I asked

“His COCK!” he exclaimed. His English accent made it oddly acceptable to me that he had just yelled the word “cock” in public place. But few people could have heard it over the noise and the jazz music.

“I’m not in the habit of looking at other people’s junk when I’m trying to pee,” I responded somewhat indignantly. “Besides, why would I want to see an octogenarian’s cock.” I borrowed his accent for extra emphasis on the last word. The whole table groaned at my ignorance.

texaco-star-theater-milton-berle_thumb“Michael, Milton Berle is supposed to have the biggest dick in Hollywood!” he said, even louder.

“How do you even know that!?” I asked, somewhat disgusted, but matching him in volume. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, the men’s room door opened and the spotlight that was on the jazz quartet moved swiftly on to Mr. Berle. The band had seen him go in. They’d been biding their time for the moment he re-emerged. As soon as the light hit the rather surprised old man, they gave him an over-the-top musical “Ta-Da!” The whole restaurant erupted in laughter and applause. Uncle Miltie, ever the ham, bowed in thanks. With my newly found knowledge, I couldn’t help but think he was bowing to his own penis.

It was then that I was able to decipher his strange men’s room body language. He was basically telling me, “Yeah, it’s me. Go ahead and look if you want to. Everybody does.” I might have been the only person in the place who didn’t know about Milton Berle’s endowment,  yet I was the only person he invited to look at it. I found a small bit of comfort and satisfaction from that thought, then took a large sip of my martini. The eyes of everyone at the table had by then left Mr. Berle and returned to me, so I did the only thing that seemed appropriate, given the occasion: I picked up an exceptionally long grissini and toyed with it for a moment, and attacked it from the side of my mouth as Bugs Bunny might each a particularly challenging carrot. And then I raised my glass in a toast:

“To missed opportunities,” I said, taking another deep sip to help wash down the dry breadstick. It was well received and repeated back. I settled in with the menu to order my main course. There was sausage on the menu, but I declined. I thought I’d had enough for one evening.

But, as it turned out, I hadn’t. After dinner, we all wandered down the street to Drake’s at Midnight, a surprisingly well-lit adult store to gawk and giggle at sex toys and porn titles. It was there that I got an eyeful of a handsome, quiet Mormon co-worker from my restaurant– his sausage prominently displayed on the cover of a gay porn video right out in the open for everyone to see. It was impressive, but not so much as Mr. Berle’s.

Not that I would know. But everybody else does, so you might as well ask them.

Bockwurst sandwich

Open-faced Bockwurst Sandwich (aka The Uncle Miltie)

There’s more to the story, of course, but you’ll need to buy me a drink if you want to hear the rest of it.

The literal sausage in the story was of the Italian variety, sliced up and served with farfalle pasta, sun-dried tomatoes, and basil (as pretty much everything was in those days). I just don’t think it suits the story at all. The thought of slicing it sends shivers down my spine.

So the recipe has taken a decidedly German turn. Bockwurst originated in Berlin and, as luck would have it, the name Milton Berle was born with was Mendel Berlinger. Typically there is a bit of pork mixed in the the sausage’s veal stuffing, but Berle was quite the ham, so there you have it.

It’s open-faced, right out there for all the world to see. The only difference between it and Mr. Berle is that this sausage remains uncut when presented to the unsuspecting.

Serves One Unwitting Innocent

• 1 Bockwurst (Or whatever sausage suits your tastes)
• 1 slice of pumpernickel bread, toasted
• A thick slathering of good, German mustard
• A handful of sauerkraut, drained. Any more than that is a waste, I’ve heard it said.
• A few tender greens (I’ve used radish tops, but watercress would be lovely)
• A few dollops of mashed potatoes


1. In a vessel big enough to take a large sausage, pour in a paltry 3 to 4 inches of water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a gentle simmer. Slip in the sausage. DO NOT LET THE WATER RETURN TO A BOIL. If you do, the casing will explode and you will have a very disappointing and unattractive mess on your hands. Continue at said gentle simmer until the bockwurst is cooked through– turgid and yet giving. Keep warm.

2. As your sausage is simmering, toast your pumpernickel and warm your mashed potatoes (I am not teaching you how to make mashed potatoes today, so please don’t ask.)

3. Slather the warm toasted bread (it’s not easy to tell visually when pumpernickel is toasted, but it does make for a much more solid sandwich base) with mustard, cover with drained sauerkraut, blanket that with greens, spoon the warm mashed potatoes next, and then finally secure the hot sausage in its anchoring bed of potato-y fluff.

4. Bockwurst is traditionally served with bock beer, but I say have it with a martini. You’ll need something strong to cope with what’s on the plate in front of you.

5. Just how you go about eating it is entirely up to you– knifed-and-forked or picked up whole with your hands, eaten in the privacy of your own home our out in public for all the world to see. I’m the last person on earth who’s going to tell you how to handle your own sausage.

6. As a little something extra, try covering the wiener with some cheese and placing it under the broiler to make a Miltie Melt? No, I wouldn’t do that, either.

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I Don’t Know Your Life

OnionsIt was my friend Joe’s turn to entertain us as we sat around our campfire on the edge of the Sahara desert. It was more of an anecdote than a full-fledged story, but it contained within it a moral lesson I’ve never forgotten, but which took a long time to fully grasp. And, unfortunately, practice.

It involved an affluent, middle-aged white woman who entered a Kentucky Fried Chicken alone. When she placed her order for two buckets of Original Recipe, the young black girl behind the counter asked, “Will that be for here or to go?” Indignant, the older woman responded in a huff, “Do you really think that I’d eat two buckets of friend chicken right here? All by myself?” The girl behind the counter looked her up and down, shrugged her shoulders, and said quite matter-of-factly, “I don’t know your life.”

At the time, I took it for what it was– a punchline. I found the story funny and yet I resented it to some degree because it made me hungry for something I didn’t have– a bucket of crispy, salty, golden fried chicken– and more disappointed in the steaming pot of hen flesh in front of me that seemed to fall apart in my hand.

When my friends and I sat down at the beginning of the meal, our Berber host announced that he had a special dinner prepared for us– tagine. I was deeply dissatisfied. I was hungry from a day spent keeping astride the hump of a horny, angry camel and climbing sand dunes, but tagine was the one “authentic” taste I’d grown truly sick of during our two weeks in Morocco. Everywhere we went, dishes of aromatic braised chicken were presented to us with piles of couscous or bread in what seemed a gesture of obsessive national pride. It caused me to wonder how long a Moroccan visitor to the United States would be able to bear his American hosts offering him a cheeseburger at every meal.

I knew I was being ungrateful. But I was hungry and ate without audible complaint.

Chicken for tagineAfter dinner,we wandered the dunes in the moonlight, sometimes laying belly up in the sand to look up at the stars. We were the only source of noise for miles– no cars or insects or planes or scorpions–  just us. Someone cracked a joke, the others laughed. Someone else expressed his wish that our friend Dan could have been here to enjoy this. I wanted everyone quiet. It was the one place in the world where I had hoped to experience extreme silence and they, I felt, were ruining it.

I didn’t want anyone talking. I especially didn’t want anyone talking about Dan. Not anything kind about him, at any rate. I felt it was my job to talk about him, and then only to complain. I was the reason he wasn’t there. Frustrated, I yelled at everyone, “Shut. The Fuck. Up!” like I screamed out my window in college at drunken frat boys. My outburst was met with several minutes of well-deserved sniggering and imitation. But everyone did eventually quiet down to enjoy a few minutes of stillness before finding our way back to the camp and falling asleep side by side under our camel blankets and a full moon.

I awoke because my shoulder was cold. Jean-Phillipe, who’d been sleeping on my right, was missing and a chill had gotten in. When I sat up, I could see him a few yards away staring up at the sky. He motioned to me to join him. He headed up one of the giant sand dunes and I followed.

Olives TagineWe didn’t talk at first. We just sat there, looking up at the moon. The only sound I could hear was my own heart beating– I’d huffed and puffed my way up to the summit. It frightened me, because it sounded as if it would burst at any moment. The silence I’d begged for earlier now made me profoundly uncomfortable, so I started talking.

I shared with Jean-Phillipe my experience with our friend Dan and why he wasn’t here, which I’m sure he already knew: We were friends and drew closer to each other on an earlier trip. He left his boyfriend, feelings got very complicated, neither of us knew what to do about it. After much discussion and many assurances, feelings were acted upon. Then he went back to his boyfriend as if nothing had ever happened. I felt betrayed and lied to and became single-minded in my demand for an official apology. I couldn’t understand why my friends– most of whom were sleeping below us in the desert– refused to take sides. I played the role of victim with all the histrionics I could muster, like a hairy-legged, bourbon-drinking damsel tied to the railroad tracks by a black-caped villain. In other words, unconvincingly.

Jean-Phillipe put his hand on my shoulder for a moment to quiet me and then he began to speak for a long time. About love and loss, the sometimes shitty nature of men, and, most importantly, forgiveness. Not self-help book platitudes, but scenes from his own life he chose to share. The silence of our surroundings made his voice almost supernaturally clear– for those few hours on top of the sand dunes, it was the only thing that existed. There was nothing else for me to do but listen. When he’d finished, we talked of other, less important things and I sat there stargazing with him in the first state of inward calm I’d felt in months. I climbed down from that dune feeling as though my heart might explode from being pumped full of so much peace and forgiveness.

But that feeling evaporated with the daylight, as things in the desert usually do. Our midnight talk faded like a dream. Or a mirage, given my surroundings. My conversation with Jean-Phillipe didn’t magically dispel my unhappiness or desire for an apology– I still demanded one. But it did manage to form a tiny crack the foundation of my stony moral certitude. I was still angry and unable to forgive this terrible perceived wrong that had been done to me. And I stayed that way until the end of our trip, which terminated in London, where I planned to have dinner with my first boyfriend, Frank.

It was dinner which was organized so that I could officially apologize and ask forgiveness for being such an asshole to him nearly 15 years earlier, because what’s a story about the discomforts of personal growth without a nice dash of irony?

Frank patiently listened to my extended apology with the open calmness of a trained clinical psychologist, which he happened to be. He’d forgiven me ages ago and moved on with his life. But he was smart enough to know that I hadn’t yet forgiven myself and kind enough to let me talk. The slow, horrifying sense of what a hypocritical ass I’d been began to creep over me. I’d assumed Frank would have held a grudge against me for treating him poorly, because lord knows I would have held one against him if the shoe had been on the other foot. But he’s not that kind of person. I hadn’t seen him in years. I didn’t know his life, but he was clearly living a much happier one than I was.

I booked myself into psychotherapy as soon as I got home.

In the weeks that followed my first session, I found myself riding that angry camel into the desert over and over again back to that campsite and the tagine and Joe’s story.

I kept thinking about that woman in the KFC and the girl behind the counter who didn’t know her life. And then I imagined Dan as the woman and me behind the counter, not judging, for a change. I didn’t know his life or state of mind anymore than I knew if he could eat two buckets of Original Recipe at one sitting. It wasn’t up to me to examine his motivations or actions. My therapist hinted that it was up to me to start examining my own. And I really didn’t like what I saw.

But I took some comfort in climbing back up the sand dune with Jean-Phillipe, where I sit under a full moon and mine his words for wisdom. I did that frequently. I kept hearing him urging me to forgive and move on. It took dozens of exhausting mental ascents and therapy sessions to realize he wasn’t just talking about the need to forgive another person, but the necessity of forgiving one’s self as well. Or so I like to imagine. I found my behavior even harder to forgive than Dan’s.

Eventually, Dan and I met up at my local park to make peace. We both apologized. I felt it was important for me to give him one. The strange thing was that I no longer needed one from him. But I took that lesson from my first boyfriend in London to heart and let him do it because he simply might have needed to. Then again, maybe he didn’t. I really couldn’t tell you because I simply don’t know his life.



Tagine with Olives and Tomatoes

You may find yourself asking why I’ve chosen to make tagine, since all I’ve done is complain about it. The answer is this: it’s incredibly forgiving. The chicken can simmer more or less unattended for hours, cooking until it falls apart when you touch it, which is what it’s supposed to do. It is tenderness itself. And that’s something everyone could use a bit more of in our lives, both from within and without.

And I’ve wanted to write about that evening in the Sahara for a long time, but just didn’t know how because it was one of the most emotionally complicated nights of my life. I spent that dinner wanting something nonexistent and critical of what was warm and nourishing and present– not only the tagine, but the friends who shared it with me.

This month, Jean-Phillipe died very suddenly in Montreal. He has been in my thoughts ever since. With the exception of that night on the dunes, we were never close. On the few occasions when I did see him, he’d fondly remember our conversation. I just wish I could have told him how important it was for me.

Serves 3 to 4 people, depending on hunger level


• 5 to 6 chicken thighs, depending upon the size of your vessel
• 2 tablespoons of olive oil
• 2 tablespoons of frying fat from the chicken
• 1 whole yellow onion, sliced thinly lengthwise
• 3 cloves of garlic, crushed
• 2 tablespoons of tagine spice mix*
• 2/3 cup chopped olives (choose ones you prefer)
• 2/3 cup oil-packed roasted tomatoes
• The zest of 1/2 lemon, julienned or grated**
• 1 cup of water
• Salt


1. Add the olive oil to the bottom of your tagine, which has been placed on your stove top. If you don’t have one, any heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid (like a Dutch oven) will do. Turn heat to medium. Salt your chicken thighs, then add them to the pot skin side down until golden. Flip them over and brown the less attractive side. Set aside for later use. They do not need to be cooked through.

2. Remove all but two tablespoons of the chicken fat/olive oil mixture at the bottom of your pan. Reheat and add the sliced onions and stir to distribute the cooking fat amongst them. Add your spices and continue to stir until the onions are fragrant and softened, but not browned. Next add the water, olives, tomatoes, and lemon zest. Stir to blend, then place your chicken, skin side up on top of the mixture. Cover the pot with its lid and cook over a low-medium flame for about 45 minutes. Do not keep checking its progress— this is one instance in which letting off steam is not a good thing. Go do something else, like make couscous or something constructive.

3. After 45 minutes, remove lid and turn the chicken thighs skin side down. Cover and cook for another 30 minutes or until the chicken barely holds on to the bone.

4. Remove from the heat and immediately serve over heaping piles of couscous or, if you prefer, with slices of crusty bread to absorb the wonderful sauce.

5. Share with friends and be grateful for what you have in front of you. Tell your stories and listen to theirs. You never know when they might come in handy.

* I like to use a ready-made tagine spice mix, because it’s convenient. If you’re one of those people who like to do things the hard way, combine equal parts: cayenne, cinnamon, coriander, cardamom, turmeric, allspice, clove, and paprika. Also, if you’re one of those people who likes to do things the hard why, you probably won’t be making tagine– it’s too easy.

** You may use preserved lemons, if you like. I simply have neither the taste nor the patience for them.

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From Fork to Farm

Pre-seeded ManureThe Farm to Fork movement has made news in recent years, raising consumer consciousness about sustainability and where our dinner comes from. Many consumers of locally sourced, organic foods take pride in developing relationships with the farmers who grow their apples, spinach, and lettuces, but there is an expanding population of food enthusiasts who want to take this relationship to a higher, more intimate level.

“It isn’t enough for me to know where my food comes from,” says Doug Bottoms of San Francisco,” I want to know where my food’s food comes from.”

Bottoms is one of a dozen or so urban farmers who is turning the Farm to Fork revolution on its head. As he likes to put it, he and his friends are living a “Fork to Farm” lifestyle. Not only do they grow as much of their own food as possible,  they take pains to create the manure that nourishes it.

It is the ultimate form of recycling.

“I’m very careful about what I put into my body, because I know what comes out of it is so precious,” states Bottoms.

Creating one’s own manure isn’t for the faint of heart. The collection of materials goes far beyond saving bits of egg shell, potato peel, and coffee grounds, as one can imagine. “Gathering the prime material was a bit tricky at first,” Bottoms admits. “I originally tried using a kitchen colander, but my girlfriend refused to eat anything that touched it. And the handles made sitting uncomfortable.” He has now created a catch-all made from non-rusting steel mesh. “You’d never know it was there if you weren’t looking. Now I can create in total comfort.”

At work“Late Sunday morning is an ideal time for me to concentrate on my compost,” he added. “Armed with the New York Times and a double shot of Four Barrel Friendo Blendo, I head into the bathroom and get to work. All of it is compostable.”

But in an over-crowded city like San Francisco, space is at a premium.

“All available green space– window boxes, patio, emergency exit landing– are devoted to growing food. There’s simply no place for my composting bin outdoors,” confesses Bottoms. “So I use my roommate’s bathroom. He has anosmia plus he works in tech, so he’s never home. He’s a coder for Google, so it’s not as though he’d ever bring anyone home to smell it. I compost in his shower. It’s the perfect arrangement– although my girlfriend makes me keep the door closed with a bath towel stuffed in the floor gap.”

But it isn’t what comes from Bottoms that stinks, he claims. “I’ve carefully curated my diet over the past several months: carrots, lentils, charcoal pills– I’ve achieved an odorless ideal. I have not smelled a thing in nearly two weeks. I think that’s some kind of record.” He claims that the odor emanating from his bathroom compost heap is from the natural decay of other organic materials, noting that when he uses shredded bits of the San Francisco Chronicle Food Section, the odor is almost unbearable.

KohlrabiIs the bother of daily collection, of turning and wetting and tending an indoor compost bin worth the trouble? Bottoms thinks so.

“One of the unforeseen benefits of apartment composting is the heat it generates. My gas bill hasn’t been this low in years. And you should see what it did for my kohlrabi– it nearly exploded out of the soil. Although my girlfriend refuses to eat it.”

“Everything about the process of making home-grown compost has been rewarding. My garden’s taken off. I produce almost 50% of the vegetables I consumed this year. I’ve met some amazing people who share my passion for the organic lifestyle. And, most importantly, I’ve gotten to know myself much more intimately than I ever knew was possible.”

Bottoms has been so successful at being a self-composter, he’s admitted to having more of the stuff than he knows what to do with.

“My mother has been especially encouraging. She’s said frequently to anyone who’ll listen that she always knew I had it in me. She’s gone so far as to say I’m simply full of it and she’s absolutely right.”

As a result, Doug Bottoms is giving his locally sourced, artisan compost as Holiday gifts.

“I’m filling everyone’s stocking with it this year! My mail person, yoga instructor, friends, family. Everyone. Except my girlfriend. She says she’s had enough.”

“I am so glad that I can share a bit of myself with the world this Holiday Season,” he added as a final note. “I’ve reached deep within myself this year. I’d like to spread it around and touch as many people with it as I can. There is no better present than the gift of yourself. It’s what I’ve come to think of as the true meaning of Christmas.”

Jars of Shit



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