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.


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


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.


• 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


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


• 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)


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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The Dessert That Dare Not Speak Its Name

IMG_4129The dessert in question is called Galaktoboureko and, to be more precise in my titles, it isn’t so much that it dare not but rather cannot speak its name because it is a pastry and therefore does not possess the capability of speech.

Galaktoboureko” also happens to be one of the most challenging words for my restaurant guests to pronounce and the one I love to watch them struggle with the most. Some people call it “galactic burrito” because of its shape and the basic sound of the word. Others more cheekily ask for a “galactic booty call” for reasons I imagine are too personal to ask. But most people just point at the menu and ask for “the custard one with the really long name.”

Galaktoboureko also happens to be my favorite item on our dessert menu. As something which must be eaten on the day it is made, any remaining pieces of this custardy pastry are left out at the end of the night for the staff to devour– usually cold and sometimes beginning to limp and seep. I’ll gladly eat them at any temperature or state of turgidity.

For our guests, galaktoboureko is formed into what is essentially the shape of an egg roll, served warm, two on a plate, with crème fraîche ice cream and a seasonal spoon sweet.  It is a remarkable combination but over the years I’ve become so accustomed to shoveling them into my mouth unadorned that it’s hard for me to think of them served any other way but plain.

I have no idea why I decided to make galaktoboureko at home, given the fact it’s always available to me at work and prepared by people who make them on a daily basis and therefore much better than I do. But the more I thought about making them over the weekend, the more I realized how much I have taken them for granted. They have been an accepted part of my life for longer than I care to remember, but know that one day they won’t be. And that thought made me take pause and consider the other things in my life I might assume would always be there.

I talked to both of my parents over the weekend and found myself missing more than I normally do. Each conversation was longer than usual, which made me happy, but I couldn’t help prevent an acute sadness from seeping in. They’re both essentially fine, but they’re also both in their 80s. I couldn’t help but ask myself if, like the galaktoboureko, I’ve taken them for granted, too.

And the answer was: of course I have. What child hasn’t? I have the bad habit of wanting to believe that all the important things which have been with me since the beginning will be with me forever. But all good things eventually come to an end: relationships, The Dick Cavett Show, decent airline customer service, careers. If you can think of it, it will more than likely disappear sooner or later, whether you want it to or not.

If someone you love, whether it be a grandmother or father or spouse– anyone really– has a recipe they are famous for, or at the very least, one you strongly associate with them, learn it from them now if they’ll let you. Find an excuse to get together and cook. When they are no longer in your life, you can make these things for yourself and feel their presence.

You may find it strange that my premature nostalgia has found me making something from my workplace, but I don’t. After the many years I’ve spent there, it’s become something like a home to me, inhabited by something very much like a family. Dysfunctional at times like any family, but a family just the same. And like any home and family, child that I am, I will leave it someday.

So I figure I’d better start learning to prepare some of these things on my own because I won’t have mommy or daddy or a team of pastry cooks to make them for me forever. And, for lack of a better idea, learning to make galaktoboureko seems like as good a place as any to start. It’s a word I’m much more comfortable pronouncing than the word “goodbye.”




Traditionally, you would find this dessert prepared deep-dish style, with layers of phyllo on the bottom and top and as much semolina custard as you can cram between. But I happen to like the elegance and portability of the rolled version. It is the way I was introduced to the dessert and it’s one thing I prefer not to change.

I also respect galaktoboureko‘s ephemeral qualities. Phyllo dough envelops and protects the custard during baking, but it is fragile. It tears and shatters easily and loses its crispness within hours. It must be eaten the day it is made.

Makes 12 to 16 “galactic burritos”, depending upon how much custard you decide to cram into them. 


For the custard:

• 1 cup whole milk
• 1 cup half and half (you may also use heavy cream, if you like)
• 1/2 cup sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract (or 1 eviscerated vanilla bean)
• 1/4 cup semolina flour*
• 1 large egg
• A heavy pinch of salt

For the pastry:

• 12 sheets of frozen phyllo dough, thawed
• 1/2 cup clarified butter
• 2 tablespoons sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon grated orange zest
• 1/4 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
• 1 teaspoon orange flower water


1. Thaw your phyllo in your refrigerator overnight

2.  In a small saucepan, combine milk, half and half,  1/4 cup of sugar, and if you’re using vanilla bean, add it now, scraping the seeds into the milk. Bring to a simmer and make certain the sugar is dissolved.

3. Meanwhile, whisk together the other 1/4 cup of sugar, semolina flours, egg, and salt until it is a uniform mush. Whisk about half of the hot milk into the semolina mixture to temper it, making certain to keep up the motion to prevent curdling. Return this mixture to the milk remaining in the pan, bring to a boil and whisk constantly until the custard is smooth and thick and therefore custardy. When it bubbles like molten lava or those delightful mud pots at Yellowstone National Park, remove it from the heat, place into an awaiting bowl, cover the surface with plastic wrap to avoid the creation of a top skin, and let cool.

IMG_41264. To assemble the galaktoboureko, place 1 sheet of phyllo on a large clean work surface with the short side facing your (hopefully) apron-covered crotch. keep the remaining phyllo under plastic wrap covered with a lightly dampened towel to prevent them from drying out. Brush the phyllo with the clarified butter (which I assume you have melted and are not attempting to brush said phyllo with hardened, cold clarified butter), brushing from the center of the sheet toward the edges. Top with two more sheets, brushing each with butter in exactly the same way. Cut the layers of phyllo in half vertically and horizontally to make 4 rectangles.

5. Place the cooled custard into a pastry bag fitted with a plain 1/2-inch tip (or simply dump it into a large freezer bag and cut the correct amount off one of the corners to improvise– it works like a charm). Pipe at least 2 tablespoons of the delicious goo in a more or less straight line parallel to the short side near your nether-regions, leaving a 1 inch border along the sides and top of the phyllo. Fold the short side of the phyllo over the filling, tucking it under the filling, then fold in about 1 inch along each side of the longer sides. In other words, pretend you are making a burrito. Continue rolling until you have a log that is about 4 1/2 inches long. Repeat with the other three awaiting phyllo rectangles. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet and repeat until you have used up all of your custard. Or all of your phyllo. Or until you get tired of doing this. Whichever comes first. Cover the baking sheet and refrigerate until well chilled.

6. To make the syrup, unceremoniously dump the 2 tablespoons of sugar, 1 tablespoon of water, the lemon juice, and orange zest into a small saucepan. Swirl over medium heat until it seems appropriately glaze-like. Let cool and add orange flower water.

7. Pre-heat your oven to 500° F. Pierce each log with the tip of a paring knife in 4 strategic places to allow steam to vent during baking. Otherwise, you will experience undramatic but rather upsetting galactic explosions inside your oven. Bake until golden brown. Start watching them like a hawk after 8 minutes. Remove from the oven and immediately glaze they pastries with syrup while they’re hot.

8. Serve them warm to people you’d prefer not to take for granted, or learn nothing from this exercise and let them stay out all night untouched. Just don’t expect someone else to make them for you the next day.

*Thank you Tony, Memo, and Harry for your kind donations of semolina and orange flower water.

Posted in Sweets and the Like | 18 Comments

Ensuring A Better New Year.

Screen Shot 2014-01-08 at 11.32.56 AMRather than toss confetti with friends at the end of 2013, I found myself alone in my bathroom, tossing up the contents of my stomach.

When I’d finished this involuntary abdominal exercise at a quarter to midnight, I found myself in a kneeling position on the cool tile, examining the contents of a white porcelain toilet bowl as a Greek might examine his coffee grounds in a white porcelain cup. Was vomit a viable medium for fortune-telling ? I turned on the light to have a better look. There wasn’t much to see. I’d had this bloody stomach virus for nearly three days and had eaten very little.

So much for my future, I thought. I brushed my teeth, washed my face, and went to go sit down in the living room.

I reflexively poured myself a finger or two of bourbon to drink at midnight but immediately thought better of it. I set the tumbler on the table beside me, but the vapors rising from the glass were too tempting. I poured the whiskey back into the bottle. Feeling depleted, I found myself in the kitchen reaching for a small container of Ensure nutrition shake instead. Too tired to agitate it properly,  I just poured it into a champagne flute to be mockingly festive. I toasted the New Year by myself with eight ounces of viscous dark chocolate liquid which promised me nine grams of protein.

“Another year down the toilet”, I said to myself as I raised my glass to bid the year adieu. “And good riddance to a shitty 2013.” But as soon as I said it, I realized how absolutely wrong I was.

2013 was a great year, wasn’t it? Yes it was. Or rather, it was a mixed bag of good and bad, but all years are like that. For me, it was the year of being careful what I wished for.

For example, I had wanted to lose a few pounds over the Holidays and my wish was immediately granted. Upon reflection, I should have been more specific as to how I planned to go about it. But the wish fairy gave me a three-day stomach virus and presto! I can now fit into most of my pants again.

And my wishes were granted for this little blog, too. It could not have been more successful, critically speaking, than it was in 2013. In food writing terms, I hit the triple crown– an IACP nomination for Best Culinary Blog, a James Beard Award nomination for Humor, and a second, unsolicited entry into the Best Food Writing anthology. The fact that I didn’t win either award turned out to be a blessing– the experience taught me how to be a good loser (something I needed to learn) and the sheer volume of love and support I received from friends and colleagues was overwhelming and much more gratifying than any medal or certificate or blog badge ever could be. And I say that honestly.

But again, I should have been careful what I wished for. All those lovely, shiny honors have their dark side, too. To be fêted and congratulated is wonderful, but when the party was over and I saw that my life didn’t magically change, I felt ridiculous for thinking it would, and depressed because it didn’t. For a while, all I heard was “book, book, you must write a book and you must write it now.” I dragged my heels. The joy of writing diminished. I stopped doing it for myself and worried that I needed to cater to some imaginary, larger audience. I resisted the advice of more than one literary agent. I managed to talk myself out of writing the books I really wanted to write, convincing myself that they were too “out there” and would never sell.

My depression deepened; I wrote even less. I felt as if I had no real future in writing. For a while, I contemplated not doing it at all. But I forced myself to write something once a month out of fear of disappearing altogether.

But I am grateful that I have not disappeared and amused at the fact that it took me being hunched over a toilet to help me realized that. When I saw next to nothing in the bowl, my first thought was “no future”. Upon reflection, however, I think it shows that my future simply hasn’t been written. In the stars or in vomit or otherwise.

It was an appropriately cathartic ending to a roller coaster year.

I spent New Year’s Day feeling happier and much lighter and sought out the company of friends to spend the afternoon with. The afternoon with them turned into evening and all the while my head filled with new ideas, new plans, new goals. It was time very well spent. I promised myself I will write more in 2014. Not exclusively for the blog, but I will write regularly– on projects I want to do. To please myself and to help me make more sense of the world. If it pleases others, that will be an added bonus.

I’ve come out of 2013 a smidgen wiser, a little more experienced, and even a tad thinner. And I somehow managed to leave the depression of last year where it belonged– flushed down the toilet.

I can’t wish you nothing but success and happiness in 2014. That’s far too unrealistic. Instead, I wish you an interesting year. One complete with wish-fulfillment and the wisdom to successfully navigate the sometimes dangerous rapids of those wishes fulfilled.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 24 Comments

Christmas is Coming.

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 11.08.19 AMGirlfriend out of town for Christmas? No family to go home to for the holidays? Wife leave you for someone with a more promising Advent calendar right after Thanksgiving?

Are you still somehow bursting with the Spirit of the Season? Well I’ve got just the thing to help you release your unspent Holiday energies.

When the candy cane of Life has been sucked to a sharp point and aimed at your pupil, my advice is to grab it firmly by the handle, turn it around and poke it before it pokes you. And I find that the very best poking can be done in the privacy of your own home. With your friends.

You owe it to yourself to throw a Stag Holiday Cookie Party.

That’s right. Men only. No girlfriends to criticize your frosting technique. No wives to accuse you of making a mess on the living room carpet. No Stag Hags with their fancy nonpareils and piping tips to complicate things. Just good, old fashioned male bonding with a bunch of guys standing around a cookie and drinking. A lot.

“But so many of my friends are out of town”, you might complain. That’s nonsense, I say. There are plenty of guys in your life who would love to come to your party, if you’d only ask. Your co-worker who had to cancel his trip to Palm Springs at the last minute because  of some unnamed “roommate drama”? Ask him. That nice, well put together older gentleman at the gym who always offers to spot you when you do your squats? What better way to show your appreciation than by finally inviting him into your inner sanctum? Your downstairs neighbor with all those cats? You know he’ll be available. And what about your poker buddy whose always telling you his wife just doesn’t understand his needs? Definitely ask him.

How to throw a Stag Holiday Cookie Party

There are four primary requirements to throwing a successful party:

  1. Cookies
  2. Frosting
  3. An inexhaustible supply of alcohol
  4. An exhaustible supply of male guests

There are four secondary items which are not required, but are very helpful to have on-hand:

  1.  A plastic tarp. (If your flooring is of the hardwood variety, bravo, but still put something down for easy clean up.)
  2. Plenty of fresh towels, one for each guest.
  3. An appropriate selection of music, such as Queen’s “Thank God, It’s Christmas”, or anything by Barry White.
  4. Poppers. Or, as they call them in the UK, Christmas crackers.

You are welcome to use store-bought cookies, but it is often difficult to find them unfrosted. But making your own is marvelously easy and is a great way to show the male members of your party that you’re willing to make an effort on their behalf.

How To Make Holiday Cookies

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 3.12.10 PM

First, you’ll need the appropriate ingredients, most of which you may already have in your kitchen:

• 2 cups of all-purpose flour, plus a little more for rolling.
• 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder
• 1/4 teaspoon of salt
• 1 stick ( 1/2 cup) of room temperature butter
• 1 cup of granulated sugar
• 1 large egg
• 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

Second, you’ll need to turn on your oven (to 325°F). Sorry, these cookies cannot be microwaved.

To make the cookies:

1. Cream together the sugar and butter in a standard mixer. A stand mixer is a big machine that lives in the back of your cupboard which probably says KitchenAid on it your parents gave you for your graduation/1st wedding. Use the paddle attachment to cream these ingredients. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, and salt.

2. When the butter and sugar are creamed, add the whole egg (minus the shell) and vanilla, then slowly add the dry ingredients to this until it all has been incorporated and looks very much like dough, which is what it is.

3. Dump the dough out onto a lightly floured (but otherwise clean) surface and roll it out into the shape of a soft pole until you achieve what you consider a pleasing length and thickness. Sheath the dough in plastic and place it in the freezer for about 10 minutes to harden.

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 2.30.22 PM4. Remove dough from the freezer, place it back onto the floured work surface and, with a sharp knife, attempt to slice the dough into 1/8″ to 1/4″ slices. Next, become haunted by the memory of your childhood emasculation nightmares, put knife back in its drawer and pour yourself a drink. By the time you have recovered, the dough should have warmed up enough to now be reformed and rolled into two unoffending discs, re-chilled, and then cut with round cookie cutters. If you lack such cutters, you may use the (cleaned) open end of a soup or pork-n-bean can found at the bottom of your recycling bin to make your doughy circles. Place them on a baking sheet, place back into the freezer for another ten minutes, and then pop the sheet into your oven to bake for about 15 minutes or until done. Do not let them brown. Remove from the oven and let cool. (You really only need to make one cookie, but it’s nice to have back ups.)

To Make The Icing:

Mix 2 cups of sifted powdered sugar with 4 tablespoons of whole milk and stir until smooth. Next add roughly 1 tablespoon of light corn syrup and whisk until all is incorporated. Too thick? Add a little more milk. And what a great reminder to rehydrate your own self.

Many people do not like the taste of cookie frosting, which is why I now suggest you flavor it almond extract or more vanilla. Add whatever scenting you like. Some folks enjoy a whiff of papaya or mango, though I don’t know where you’d find such essences. I do not recommend asparagus extract. For an added touch, sneak in a tablespoon of protein powder, for nutritional purposes. You’ll be certain to get a rise out of your friend from the gym when you tell him!

Place 3 to 5 millilitres of frosting in several small, plastic baggies (at least two per guest), close and set aside. Make certain to have plenty of frosting left over to decorate one, special cookie with a bull’s-eye motif to be placed in the center of your party room.

It will make for an excellent conversation piece. In fact, it will soon become the focus of all your Holiday fun.

It’s Time To Party

When your guests arrive, offer to take their coats, hats, and any other article of clothing they might care to give you. Next, offer them a double shot of Holiday Cheer. Wait exactly five minutes and then give them at least two more. Make certain that there is no food available other than the bull’s-eye cookie. 

If the conversation begins to wane, it is always a good idea to bemoan the fact that the weather outside is frightful and how disappointed you are that it’s too cold to play a little  basketball, but how much fun it would be to play a similar sort of game indoors. If one or more of your guests agree with your sentiment, suggest that said indoor game be played “shirts-and-skins”. Re-apply beer and liquor until all of your guests agree.

Screen Shot 2013-12-18 at 2.31.06 PMOnce you have selected teams and are all dressed or undressed accordingly, point to the bull’s eye-themed cookie and comment on how perfect it would be for a round or two of target practice. Hand each guest a bag of frosting, instructing them to tear a tiny hole in one end or, if you are a truly excellent host, offer to do it for them.

Each team will take turns aiming their icing at the bull’s eye cookie. Imagine the fun of discovering who among your friends can shoot the farthest and who can shoot most accurately. And who simply prefers to dribble.

Should at any point during the excitement, any the members of the Shirts team find that he has been squirted with a Skin’s sugary goo, insist that it is probably for the best that everyone play skins. Immediately offer everyone another drink and offer those who have been unintentionally iced a rub-off with a fresh towel. This is a nice, personal touch.

Continue the game until everyone’s icing has been spent. By this time, every one of your guests is likely to be:

a) fairly cold from lack of sufficient clothing.
b) extremely intoxicated  and
c) understandably hungry.

At this point you may wish to:
a) offer the cookie to the guest who hit the center of the bull’s eye first.
b) offer the cookie to your drunkest guest (who is most likely to
to be the friend whose wife doesn’t understand him).
c) eat the cookie in front of your guests (which, as a host, is in very
poor taste.
d) offer to let everyone take a hot shower (see: clean towels), order
several pizzas (with a gluten-free option for your gym buddy), and
spend the rest of the evening all curled up on the couch together
watching Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer by Rank & Bass.

Letter “d” is generally the best option because no one really likes the taste of Christmas cookies, however you try to frost them. And honestly, you’d be surprised how many of your male friends might go for that because, to paraphrase my friend Christian’s sage words, “Most guys are just a six-pack away from being Merry.”

And it’s so, so true.

Here’s hoping you’re Merry, too.

Happy Holidays.

Posted in Holidays, Sweets and the Like | Tagged , , | 26 Comments

A La Recherche du Pain Perdu.

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 3.59.18 PMOn the last day of our week in Paris, I ate pain perdu for breakfast. I ordered it not because I had a craving for French toast, but simply because I liked the name. I understood enough of the language to know that I was ordering griddled bread “lost” in a goo of egg and milk, but my American brain couldn’t help but see the French word for bread in fully English terms: “pain perdu” in my mind translated to “lost pain”.

Which was precisely what I had come to that city to lose.

When, a month earlier, my friend Thrasso mentioned he was spending a week in Paris after attending a conference in Germany, he suggested I join him there. I immediately thought of all the reasons I shouldn’t go: I was broke. It was madly impulsive. I’d made a stupid promise to myself that I wouldn’t go back to Paris unless I was in love. And I doubted I would be in love again for a very long time.

It had been three-quarters of a year since the person I was convinced I would spend forever with turned out not to be. A man who one week talks of setting up house and growing old together and the next leaves for someone younger, wealthier, more attractive, and geographically remote.

I like to think of that time as my semi-hysterical pregnancy. I no longer crumbled to the floor in fits of convulsive sobbing, but after nine months, I’d managed to carry an alarming amount of pain, confusion, and anger to full term. It needed to be delivered and left on a rock somewhere to die of exposure. Montmartre, I thought, seemed just as good a place as any.

I then began to think of all the reasons I should go: I was broke, it was madly impulsive, I turning forty, and had a phantom baby inside of me that was eating me alive.  The invitation to Paris suddenly sounded like lifeline, but one totally beyond my grasp. I’d send off an email to Thrasso to politely and regretfully decline.

And then, in a stroke of brilliant timing on his part, my father called. I mentioned Thrasso’s offer with an audible shrug. He casually asked when my friend was going to be there. It was a short conversation. Thirty minutes later, however, he called back.

“Happy early birthday, kid.” He knew I’d had a shitty year and has a deep understanding of midlife crises. In the space of half an hour, he’d cashed in airline miles and made my reservation for me.  And then he added, “I love you,” and signed off.

I think Thrasso was shocked when I told him I was coming, but not more so than I.

I was overwhelmed by what my father had just done for me. Later that afternoon, I shared the news with co-workers, joking that I had the plane tickets, but no place to stay and no money to spend while I was there. Small details.

Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 9.39.28 AMThe next morning at work, my friend Lillith asked if I still needed a place to stay. Her friend Julie was planning to sublet her apartment in The Marais for the summer, but the people who were to take it backed out at the last minute. Her friend was now scrambling to get people to stay there for any length of time. Even a week’s rent would help out. I emailed Julie as soon as I got home. She asked me if $200 for the week was fair. I told her it wasn’t, but that I would pay her $250 instead. Within 24 hours of Thrasso’s email, I had airfare and lodging secured.

Word spread at the restaurant about my sudden trip. A regular guest handed me an envelope with euros “she wasn’t using”. My mother sent a small check. I picked up extra shifts. Within two weeks, I had everything I needed. Within four, I was in Paris.

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 4.02.15 PMWhen we met at our little student apartment, Thrasso handed me a book by Edmund White, entitled The Flâneur. I devoured it and we both embraced the concept of flânerie– spending our days together strolling the streets of the city with no goal more pressing than seeking the random pleasures of whatever lay before us on our walks. We  lived on a steady diet of tartines, beer, and Berthillon ice cream. I did my best to simply live in the moment. In Paris. With my friend.

But there were several times my mind would travel back 10 months and 5,560 miles to San Francisco and wonder what I did wrong and what life would have been like if I were richer, handsomer, more exciting, and my boyfriend hadn’t left me. If I had been able to bring him to Paris instead. It was a pathetic thought. But then I’d look across a café table and see Thrasso scribbling in his journal, or he’d make an odd observation that required no response and I would return just as quickly. A human yoyo who would periodically fling myself down onto the pavement, but by a thin piece of string, find myself snapped back into the capable hands of my companion. And so it would continue until our last day– the day I ordered pain perdu.

We reserved our final day in Paris for doing all the touristy things we swore we weren’t going to let sully the rest of our week. We found an outdoor café table in Place Beaubourg, ordered our respective breakfasts, and made our plans for the day.

Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 9.47.06 AMWhen my pain perdu was placed in front of me, I was faced with a slab of brioche pock-marked with currants and mounted with a  scoop of vanilla ice cream. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I picked up my fork, took a bite of the pain, and swallowed it. There was nothing especially sweet about it, but then I thought, there rarely is with pain, whether it’s of the French or English variety. I pushed it aside, concentrating on our day’s battle plan and my disappointing café noisette instead.

By the time I had returned to my breakfast, what was once very cold French ice cream had melted into an impromptu crème anglaise, which gave the brioche the impression of being not only truly lost, but drowning. I took another bite. The bread was sodden, making it softer and sweeter. I found the soggy mess on my plate satisfying, but I didn’t give it any further thought. We had sightseeing to do.

We made a surgical strike on the Louvre, attacking only the Nike of Samothrace and a few innocent bystanders as I lost my personal battle to stifle the urge to channel Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face as Thrasso struggled to take pictures of the winged, armless statue with as few Japanese tourists in them as possible.

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 3.59.48 PMMaking our escape from the museum, we found ourselves in the Jardin des Tuilleries among the female statuary. Thrasso noticed that the figure closest to us was that of Medea and made a casual reference to a scene in the 1960 film Never on Sunday in which Melina Mercouri plays Ilia, a whore from Piraeus, who has the charming inability to see any evil in Greek tragic theater. I confessed that I knew the story of Medea, the demigoddess who avenges herself on her husband Jason after he abandons her for another woman by sending his new wife a poisoned gown and murdering her own children, but did not know the scene in which Mercouri’s character retells Medea’s tale in her own way to a humorless American philosopher.

Disgusted, Thrasso decided this was something I needed to understand sooner than later and so began to re-enact the scene as only a professional actor of Greek heritage could. He took on the role of the happy-go-lucky whore. As he began, I could feel a light sprinkling of rain on my face.

“The play is about what a woman suffers for a man,” he began as he moved slowly in front of the statue.

“Once upon a time, there was a princess from faaaaar away. Her name is Medea…” he said, affecting a smoky Greek accent. “Medea was very sweet, but sometimes she had a bad temper…She goes to Greece to marry this man. He is a prince, his name is Jason…She is good to him. She gives him two beauuuuutiful children…But he, right away with a blond princess in Athens…”

It began to rain a bit harder. We were getting soaked through, but Thrasso was so wrapped up in his performance, he didn’t seem to care, so I didn’t, either. “Everything she does for Jason. She even gives presents to the blonde…Everybody says bad things about her. There are 12 rich ladies in beautiful dresses, but they say bad things about her too…And Medea cries. I tell you she breaks your heart…”

He pulled off his scarf for better gesticulation. “She’s afraid. She takes the children and she hides them,” he says, crouching in front of the statue,”But in the end, Jason sees how much Medea loves him and they get a wonderful chariot and she gets the children…”

He leapt up, flinging his scarf into the wind for the final line, “…and they all go to the seashore!”

I clapped because I didn’t know what else to do. It wasn’t his interpretation, it was me. Between the start of his performance and the finish, my life had changed and I knew it. It was one of the most intense, surreal moments I have ever experienced. As Thrasso pranced and emoted around the statue, I couldn’t help but think of all the people who helped to get me to Paris in the first place. People who enabled me to be here in this particular park at this exact moment in time to have this specific man show me that life is simply a matter of perspective by dint of channeling a fictional Greek hooker.

At that moment, I felt as though I had never loved anyone more in my life than I did Thrasso. I also understood it was precisely that– a moment. But it didn’t matter. Because I’ve also never felt more loved. Not just by him, but by everyone in my life who mattered. And that those who didn’t matter were not as important as I once thought they were.

So I just stood there clapping. Dumbfounded, grateful, and soaking wet in the Parisian rain. The dull, dead slab of human brioche I’d been not five minutes earlier finally softened and was penetrated by the sweetness that had always surrounded me. I’d just been a fool not to know it. I was alive again, revitalized. My pain, one might say, was truly and finally perdu.

Posted in Breakfast Time, Holidays, Rants and Stories, Stage, Film, and Television, Sweets and the Like | Tagged , , , , , | 26 Comments

Holiday Spirit: The Coping Mechanism

Coping MechanismIt’s that special Holiday time of the year, which can only mean one thing: like many Americans, I need a drink.

I’ve seen Halloween candy on store shelves as early as August. Department stores piping Christmas music in September. If companies start merchandising Veteran’s Day, I may begin to foam at the mouth.

By Thanksgiving, I’ve just about had it, which is a pity since it happens to be one of my favorite holidays of the year. But now that it’s riding tandem with Hanukkah, I very well may have to lock myself in the bathroom to have my quiet Holiday breakdown.

And I’ve found the ideal cocktail to take in there with me– it’s a take on The Filibuster cocktail by Erik Adkins of Oakland’s Flora restaurant, but altered just enough to help me cope while appearing festive enough to look as though my Holiday spirits are high.

Which they will be, thanks to the three ounces of booze per cocktail.

The Coping Mechanism

Short of a magic wand to transport you elsewhere, this cocktail has everything you need to help cope with Holiday get-togethers: plenty of liquor to take the edge off; maple syrup, which acts as a mild anti-depressant; egg white, which provides enough protein to help you forgo a plate of dry turducken; and lemon juice, which is excellent for softening dry elbows. And that little hint of nutmeg screams “Thanksgiving” just loud enough so you don’t have to.

But the most satisfying part of this cocktail is in the making of it. It must be shaken to achieve its eggnog-ish foam. And quite vigorously. It’s a marvelous way to vent one’s aggression, seasonal or otherwise.


• 3 ounces of bourbon. Use a decent one. Especially if someone else is paying for it.
• 1 ounce dark amber maple syrup. I like using Canadian because they seem as baffled over what to do with Thanksgiving as I do.
• The juice of half a lemon. Either Eureka or Meyer will do just fine.
• The white of one egg freshly liberated from a moderately healthy chicken. Turkey eggs are to be avoided. As are turkeys in general.
• Freshly grated nutmeg
• Plenty of ice


1. Into a large cocktail shaker, drop the ice. Pour over bourbon, maple syrup, lemon juice, and egg white. Close lid firmly.

2. Wrap a clean kitchen towel around the shaker to protect your hands from the cold. The wearing of mittens for this exercise is not recommended. Begin to agitate the contents of your shaker. Step One: Start the exercise as a pleasant dance routine– a conga tempo works very nicely in this case. Step Two: Increase the vigor of your shake, imagining that what you hold in your hands is not a mixology vessel, but rather the neck of your least favorite person in the room. Step Three: Feel incredible remorse at your formerly violent thoughts towards said person, crumble to the floor in a fit of tears. Your body’s own shaking will do the rest of the work for you.

3. Remove the lid of your shaker, strain the frothy contents into a cocktail glass, garnish with a pinch of nutmeg, consume the drink in one or two large gulps, and tell everyone who’s been staring at you for the past three minutes that you’re just fine.

Repeat as often as necessary.


Posted in Holidays, Liquids | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments