¡Vamos, Gigantes!

Gigantes FinishedBefore I begin, I should like everyone to know that I am a Giants fan, but one of an extremely subtle variety. Thanks to working for the Sunkist company at Disneyland as a teenager, I understand that the wearing of orange causes me to look as if I am suffering from Addison’s disease. And the only time I allowed myself to visit a psychic, she told me in no uncertain terms that it was dangerous for me to wear black anywhere near my face. It breaks my heart to be both physically and psychically prevented from the wearing of our great team’s colors. So, how then, does a person like me show support for our Messrs. October without resorting to sartorial display?

I very much enjoy baseball, but I’m just not one of those people who ever catches the fever, so to speak, even though I am surrounded by folks who cough and sneeze nothing but Giants, Giants, Giants. It’s nearly impossible to whip me into a frenzy about any aerobic activity which involves two or more players messing about with balls, which is why you’ll never find me cheering wildly.

And which is more than likely why I am single.

But take me to a game and I’m bound to let my beer get warm and my garlic fries get cold because I’m too busy peering through my opera glasses binoculars at the action on the field. Or, during the endless periods of inaction, at the impressive tailoring of the players’ uniforms. Away from the stadium, however, I don’t give America’s pastime a second thought, much to my great civic shame.

Until playoff season starts, that is. And then it’s all I hear about. At least in San Francisco.

DillI hop into a taxi and invariably, after a moment or two of silence, the driver asks, “So…are you a Giants fan?” Though I would like to respond with “Well, the Jolly Green one gives me the creeps, but I did find André the Giant’s turn as Fezzik in The Princess Bride so endearing that,on the whole, I’d have to say ‘yes'”, but I’m afraid of getting thrown out of the cab. Instead, I always respond, “Of course!” And then I let the driver go on and on while I nod in agreement and count the blocks to work where I can make my escape.

Except there is no escape. When I sit down to a pre-shift meal with my co-workers, The San Francisco Giants is the sole topic of conversation. Man or woman, cook or server, busboy or bartender– everyone seems to be discussing baseball, both in English and Spanish. Whether it’s The Giants, The “Yai-ants”, or Los Gigantes, I feel a supreme disconnect with my workmates because they are all speaking a language in which I cannot communicate well.

To me, Baseball-ese is a lot like Spanish– I understand most of the key words and structure, I appreciate the alien beauty of it, but completely miss the nuances. And when I try to speak it, I find myself stumbling and grasping for words, feeling like a complete idiot. So I clam up and wonder to myself if there is a Rosetta Stone program for Conversational Baseball.

When I am at my tables and a guest asks to know the score of a game, I apologize and imply that I’ve been far to busy attending to his or her needs to selfishly sneak away to find out. And then we’ll both hear half the restaurant either scream or groan in unison and the question is more or less answered.

It was while I was taking the order of one such guest that I hit upon the one way I could comfortably promote my team.

Raw BeansOn our menu, we offer a bubbling hot dish of Greek giant beans baked in tomato sauce and  topped with herbed feta and pesto. They’re called gigantes. A woman asked for them as an appetizer, mangling the word as she spoke it. “Can we get an order of dji-gan-tees, too, please?” She knew she’d mispronounced it and asked me the proper way to say it. “It’s yi-gan-des,” I said and then added, “Or if you want to get all Spanish about it, you can call them “hee-gahn-tes.”

“Spanish for ‘giants’, right?” she said. When I replied in the affirmative, she continued, “Well now we have to order them.”

Taking things one step further, I suggest that, rather than eat them prior to their meat course, I bring them out to accompany their shared plate of rotisserie lamb, explaining that each dish would be improved by the company of the other, to which she agreed. I was about to make what I thought was a clever baseball analogy by adding that the beans would act as cheerleaders for the lamb, but then I remembered that would be an unfortunate football analogy, so I simply said, “Yeah, that’ll be good.”

I may not found the clever turn of phrase I was looking for, but I did manage to find my own way to support my boys– through the magic of baked beans.

From now until the end of The World Series, I will be showing my civic pride by ensuring there’s a piping hot dish of beans on every table in my section of the restaurant. There’s going to be something in the air at Kokkari– the smell of excitement. Of team spirit. Of the beans that will help to win The World Series.

¡Vamos Gigantes!

Gigantes Prepped


These Greek beans (which can also be spelled “gigandes”, which is much less interesting to me) are large, tough sons-of-bitches. They must be soaked overnight and gently cooked for what seems like ages to coax out their softer inner qualities. It makes one think of Babe Ruth visiting that little boy in the hospital. Or maybe it just makes you think what a pain in the ass making these beans is going to be. And to that I say, if you can’t take 90 minutes out of your life to simmer beans, then you obviously don’t want the San Francisco Giants to win. And if you happen to be from Kansas City, I would completely understand. But if you are from Kansas City, you should make them anyway. You could burn them in effigy under the broiler or lace them with something unpleasant (but non-lethal) and serve them to those you suspect of having Bay Area sympathies.

Makes enough for at least 6 people to be very full of beans.


For the beans:

• 1 pound of dried gigantes. You can find these at most Greek markets. If you do not have access to a Greek market, dried butter beans will work as well.
• 1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped
• 1 large carrot, peeled and also coarsely chopped
• 2 celery stalks, chopped coarsely
• 1 large leek, light green parts and all, chopped in a coarse manner (when doing all of this coarse chopping, please bear in mind that these bits will be served with the beans as well, so don’t make them as coarse as, say, Wallace Beery in Dinner at Eight. They should be more like Denholm Elliot in Room With A View)
• 2 cloves of garlic, minced
• 1 tablespoon of  dried Greek oregano. Although, in this case, I think Mexican is appropriate, too.
• 2 bay leaves
• 1/2 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
• Plenty of sea salt and pepper
• 4 tablespoons (or more, if you like) finely chopped fresh dill

For the tomato sauce:

• One 28-ounce can of San Marzano tomatoes, juice and all
• 2 cloves of garlic
• 1/4 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 tablespoon of dried oregano from the country of your choosing
• Salt

To finish the dish:

• Plenty more fresh dill, minced
• As much Greek feta as you are comfortable with, crumbled.


1. Place the gigantes in a large bowl and cover them with cold water 3 inches above the bean line, making sure you have first removed the beans from their cellophane bag with Greek lettering on it you more than likely cannot read. Let them soak overnight.

2. When ready to use, drain and rinse the beans, then pour them into a stockpot and cover with cold water with 2 inches to spare. Bring to a simmer over high heat, skimming the surface foam as it rises to the top– an activity which is surprisingly satisfying. Add 2 tablespoons of salt, cover and adjust the heat so that the water bubbles at a gentle simmer. After 45 minutes, add your Denholm Elliotted vegetables, the garlic and the bay leaves. Kick up the heat to return the water to a subtle simmer and cook, uncovered, until the beans are tender. This could take from 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending upon the beans. Test one every so often towards the end of cooking to test for doneness.

3. As the beans are cooking for the second 45 minutes you could spend your time doing any number of things, like checking baseball scores or watching telenovelas, but the most efficient use of your time would be making the tomato sauce for the beans.

• Liberating the tomatoes from their can, purée them in a food processor with their juice and set aside. In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over a middling heat. Crush the 2 cloves of garlic with the heel of your palm against the flat edge of a knife– you want a release of juices and increased surface area, not total annihilation. Add the abused cloves to the hot oil and fry them until they begin to brown. Think: “khaki” or “desert sand”. Shades of brown-nose and beaver are to be avoided. Remove the oil from the heat source and discard the doubly-traumatized garlic cloves.

• Add the tomato purée to the hot oil– making certain you are not wearing any shirt or blouse you are particularly attached to because it’s really going to spatter and hiss– then return the pan to medium heat. Stir often while cooking and keep the sauce at a gentle simmer until it reduces, thickens, and doesn’t taste like raw tomatoes. You may use a bit of tomato past as a cheat, but why bother? Remember: you’ve got 45 minutes to kill. Add the oregano and cook for another 5 minutes or so. Season with salt to taste. Turn off the heat but leave the sauce on the stove to keep warm.

4. When the beans have been proclaimed tender, but not disintegrated, gently drain them into a colander. Remove the bay leaves and return beans to the pot. Pour over the tomato sauce, toss in a handful of chopped dill (that’s the 4 tablespoons in the ingredients list) and season with a generous amount of freshly ground pepper and more salt. Give everything a gentle stir until the beans are evenly covered with tomato sauce, then transfer them to a large baking dish to cool. Cover the beans and refrigerate overnight to let all the ingredients mingle and get to know each other better.

5. When ready to serve, heat your oven to 350°F and pop the covered baking dish inside until the beans are hot and steamy. If you plan on serving the entire baking dish to, say, the entire San Francisco Giants bullpen then dot the entire surface with as much crumbled feta as you dare, crank up the oven and place the whole thing under the broiler. If your ambitions are more modest, take as much as you need, place in an appropriately sized heat proof baking dish, top with an equally appropriate amount of feta and proceed. When the beans are bubbling and the cheese has melted and lightly browned (buff, not burnt sienna), remove from the oven, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with more dill.

To serve, turn on the World Series and consume as many gigantes as you possibly can. If you eat enough of them, you can cheer the team on with your own internal vuvuzela, if that sounds like something you’d enjoy. Or do vuvuzelas have something to do with another team sport where people play with balls? I forget.

* Please note that, although this recipe is heavily based upon the one in the Kokkari cookbook, it is not exactly the same. If you feel the need to know what I am talking about, you may purchase their book here. Also, I had absolutely nothing to do with the cookbook. Unless that is if you count the fact that I prevented the phrase “Kokkari has the cleanest rims in town” from being used in the introduction– an action I regret to this very day.


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The Great Leap Forward

10534687_10152615869789824_1637491072072861403_nI’m a very modest dreamer. In the evenings when I slip away to the Land of Nod, I never find myself gifted with the power of flight. Instead, I am blessed with the more demure ability of jumping a little higher than those around me. When I dream of my ideal home, it’s never as sexy as an Italian villa or a penthouse suite. It’s just me discovering a hidden room in my existing apartment or finding myself with the strength to push out walls another three feet so that I might finally be able to fit a dining table into my living room. And when I daydream about my ideal mate, I don’t conjure up a handsome prince on a white steed. I envision someone who is sane and patient and possibly bespectacled. And not prone to sudden abandonment.

It’s the same with this blog. I’ve always regarded it, more or less, as my little one-bedroom apartment on the internet which I could gradually fill with photos and food and emotional souvenirs. I may use it as a soapbox from time to time, but I’ve never much thought of it as a platform. I am relieved that none of my posts have gone viral because I’ve suffered through enough viruses in my day, and none of them have been especially pleasant. I didn’t start this blog thinking it would be a quick springboard to a book deal. I definitely didn’t start it to become an internet celebrity because, well, that would be silly. And highly unlikely.

I started writing here because it fulfilled the dual need of creative expression and keeping myself sane.

A lot of good has come from this blog. It’s allowed me to find my voice and gain a better understand of myself, both good and bad. It’s brought fascinating people into my life. Made me a better writer. And it’s helped open up the world again to its author who once felt his walls closing in.

Over the past few months I’ve come to the conclusion that, not only is it time to realize my little dream and find the strength to push out those walls in both my life and in my writing, it’s time to start dreaming on a slightly larger scale.  To hell (for the moment) with my living room.

So I am writing a book.

It’s an overwhelming thing to take on such a project. I’ve been fortunate enough to have other offers over the past couple of years, but I never felt ready, so I’ve always politely declined. I still don’t feel completely prepared for the adventure, but then does one ever feel ready for such things? Do people typically have children only when they feel ready or do they just do it? (Please don’t answer that.)

I may not feel completely ready for my own literary baby, but I have recently discovered that I am pregnant with its possibility. And I am very glad to let people know that I will no longer tolerate being called a book(ish) virgin.

There is no due date as yet, but I have put myself in a specialist’s care. He’s helped deliver the spawn of people like Mollie Katzen, Augusten Burroughs, and Jackie Collins, so I feel I am in good hands. Thank you, Dr. Troha of Folio Literary Agency.

10440938_10152457716129824_1548761307530597636_nWe don’t know the sex yet, but I’ve already picked out a name: Martyrs in The Kitchen. It will be a cookbook, but I believe (as all parents do) that it will be a very special one. It will be a book of recipes based on the fascinating lives and horrifying deaths of Catholic saints and martyrs.

I’ve always wondered why Saint Patrick, Saint Valentine, and Saint Nicholas get all the attention when there are so many other saints worthy of celebration. And bribing with good food and drink. For many who read food blogs, cooking is a near-sacred act in itself, so why not take things one step further and curry favor with one of God’s Elect while you’re at it? There’s a saint to help you with (or protect you from) nearly everything.

Girlfriend afflicted with toothache? Prepare her a three-course soft foods dinner with the help of St. Apollonia, the patron saint of dentists (who had her teeth knocked out under torture). Terrified of artillery fire where you live?  Why not call on the holy patroness designated to protect you from such things and have one of St. Barbara’s French 75 cocktails to help calm your nerves. Suffer from venereal disease? Make St. Fiacre’s delicious Spotted Dick for dessert, and he may just intercede on your behalf. It’s what he does.

And if you’ve been honoring St. Barbara a little too frequently, you can always turn to St. Bibiana, the patron saint of hangovers. Or to St. Monica, patroness of alcoholics, if it comes to that.

Martyrs in The Kitchen will be filled with dozens of saintly recipes and anecdotes. And each saint comes with his or her very own Feast Day, which means you’ll know precisely which day to hold your St. Lawrence barbecue (August 10th).

There’s no due date as yet, but I promise to send out announcements as soon as we’re certain.

I’ve already enlisted the aid of St. Francis de Sales, to aid me in my writing, St. Expeditius  to help me avoid procrastination, and St. Timothy to protect me from food poisoning as I develop the recipes, but I hope that I can count on my readers to keep me in their prayers as well.

And, if you are so inclined, wish me luck as I take this Great Leap Forward into the scary, unknown world of publishing. I know it’s going to be very tough, but I have the feeling that’s it’s also going to be a lot of fun. I think my dreams just started to get a little bit bigger.

Sadly, so did my belly. But now if anyone remarks on the fact that I’ve gained a little bit of weight, I’ll just tell them it’s because I’m a little bit pregnant. I may or may not tell them with what.

Posted in Books I Love and Loathe., Rants and Stories | Tagged , , , , , | 53 Comments

Animal Queendom

hummingbird-246114_640I’m not certain if my sister simply has a thing for animals, or if they have a thing for her. Whatever the case, the feeling seems to be exceptionally mutual. More than one animal has wandered onto our property and refused to budge. And I’m certain Lori had something to do with their permanent loitering.

Any dog that was deemed mine (or any one else’s) ultimately became hers. She didn’t bribe them with extra food or give them any extra attention– it was just a simple, animal preference. Creatures just gravitate to her sphere. Trying to get a dog to sleep with me became an exercise in futility. They would humor me by allowing a few minutes of cuddling, then invariably tire of it, hop off the bed, and beg me to open my door so that they might be allowed to get some peace and quiet in my sister’s room.

Even her rat adored her. Whereas mine seemed eternally annoyed with me as I tried to get it to speak or find its way through a Lincoln Log maze, Lori’s would insist upon showering with her, jumping at the shower curtain until she finally managed to slide down the porcelain and bathe at my sister’s feet.

snow-bird-11-500x375Her powers are positively weird. I swear I once saw a bird land on her finger, as if she were a slightly butch Snow White. Or a slightly femme St. Francis of Assisi, I haven’t decided which.

Her passions have always run to the animal, rather than the human. There was a brief flirtation with horses, like many little girls have, which included a stint at equestrian camp. But maintaining a pony is a very expensive prospect, no matter how much fun they are to brush and put make-up on. She moved on.

For brief while, we kept hamsters, which were difficult to develop any true affection for, thanks to their depressing (or blessed) habit of dying abruptly. My brother wisely refused to become emotionally attached to them, naming each one in succession “Samantha” so that, every time one was found expired under a pile of cedar shavings in the Habitrail, a new one could be obtained the same day and we could all pretend that nothing at all had happened. Not even my sister could do anything about extending their life spans. Soon afterwards, she proclaimed that rats were much nicer and smarter than our current rodents-of-choice and the House of Hamsters died out with Samantha V or VI. Or VII. We lost count. And interest.

JawsIn 1975, she became obsessed with Great White Sharks, thanks to a certain film, which fueled my nightmares but seemed to fill her dreams. Owning one was out of the question. Not so much because we had no place for a Great White, but because she understood that they tend to die in captivity and therefore would not be happy in a suburban Orange County swimming pool. Which we didn’t have, so there would be the added burden of convincing our bachelor neighbor to keep one in his, which would have been difficult. He liked to swim in the nude. So she contented herself by mounting shark jaws on her wall, wearing a shark tooth pendant, and painting them to decorate her walls, her Pee-Chee folders, and her Easter eggs. Had she ever met a shark in its own habitat, I am fairly certain it would never attack, but rather, ask for a cuddle.

Her obsession with these apex predators ended suddenly in the Summer of 1977, when the film Star Wars altered her life forever, but that’s another story entirely.

J&J Baby ShampooIn terms of animal cruelty, she has always been decidedly against it. When I was three, Lori branded me a murderer when she discovered me poking at our lifeless goldfish as it floated atop its clouded, foamy water. I’d decided it looked hungry and fed it Lucky Charms, which it seemed rather pleased about. It was when I added milk that things began to go wrong. Trying to clean up my mess by adding a capful of Johnson & Johnson Baby Shampoo more or less sealed its fate.

No more tears indeed.

Today, her tastes fly toward the avian. On a recent visit home, as we stood in our back yard one afternoon, she pointed out every bird in the sky, describing each species as they perched or flew overhead. And, like any back yard gossip, she proceeded to tell me about all the bird goings-on in the neighborhood. Who fights with whom, who’s having babies, who just got a satellite dish. But there is a particular family of bird she seems to care more about than any other : the one of the humming variety, Trochilidae. And, of course, she’d be the first to correct me by saying that hummingbirds don’t hum. And she would be right, as usual. She’s always right about such things.

nestHer hummingbird feeder, after months of trail and error, has found its ideal home on a small branch of the avocado tree which hangs over from our neighbor’s fence. She feels its location provides enough shade, protection, and privacy for them to feed in peace. The hummingbirds, which she seems to know individually, all appear to agree. So much so that two of them decided to make their nests there this year.

She showed me one of them. When she pointed out the bits of broken egg shell hanging off the side, she assured me that nothing bad had happened, but rather that the baby had recently hatched.

She’s spent so much time observing these creatures that she knows just about everything that went into the making of these nests: spider webs, grass, dryer lint, dog hair, saliva, feathers. She could even identify the neighborhood dog from which the hair derived. I was impressed, but then she’s always had an eye for detail.

We’re so different, she and I. Creatures flock to her and thrive, whereas I can barely keep a houseplant alive. I’m good at reading people, she’s good at reading animals. I’m cynical and sarcastic, she’s not. At all. Based on her interests, she’s more Dr. Doolittle-meets-Dr. Who. In a way, we balance each other out.

I haven’t the faintest idea how long this current episode of what I like to think of as Lori’s Animal Queendom will last, but I hope there are many more seasons to come. I can’t wait to see what creatures catch her fancy next.

I just hope to God it isn’t leeches. It would be excrementally difficult to come up with an appropriate recipe for them. Although I have to admit the idea of a tres leeches cake is intriguing.


Hummingbird Cake

Today, of all things, just happens to be my sister’s birthday, so I decided to bake her a special cake. Sadly, she lives five hundred miles away*, so I had to have other people eat it for her. But I can assure her that it was a very good one.

Terrified at the thought of being left alone in my apartment with a three-layered confection, I sliced it into quarters and gave one hunk to my friend across the street who runs a rather risqué breakfast place. He wound up feeding forkfuls of it to his guests as he sat on their laps. Another big hunk went to my godchildren, who wound up asking for seconds.

So, Lori, rest assured that this cake was damned good. I ate the rest of it myself. I did that for you because my love for you is unselfish. The recipe is from my friend Elise’s site, written Steve-Anna Stephens, which is I name I am very much intrigued by. My cake doesn’t look as pretty as hers does, but that’s because I’m a terrible cake decorator.

And, before you read any further, I just want you to know that no real hummingbirds were harmed in the making of this cake. Or not many, anyway.

Oh, and Happy Birthday.

Makes one three-layer cake, which can feed a good 15 people or about 22,500 hummingbirds.

Again, I should note that this recipe is adapted from Simply Recipes.


For the cake:

• 3 cups of all-purpose flour
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon of salt
• 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (fresh is really best)
• 1 teaspoon of ground, desiccated hummingbird (for vegetarians, use imitation)
• 1 cup of canola oil
• 3 hens eggs or 145 hummingbirds eggs (organic)
• 2 cups sugar
• 8 ounces of crushed, canned pineapple, with juice
• 2 cups mashed, very ripe banana (you really must think ahead on these things). About 4. • 1 cup finely chopped pecans (do this by hand, please)

For the frosting:

• 1 pound cream cheese, softened
• 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened just like the cream cheese.
• 2 pounds of powdered sugar (yes, that is correct). That’s typically two whole packages.
• 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
• 2 tablespoons of bourbon (this is a Southern cake, after all)
• 1 cup of pecans: chopped, toasted, praniléed, macraméed, etc. for decoration.


1. Preheat your oven to 350°F. Coat 3 9-inch round cake pans with a thin layer of softened butter, place a 9-inch circle of parchment paper at the bottom of each pan, butter them as well, then dust the buttery pans with flour, shaking off any excess with an upside down tap over the sink.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together all the dry ingredients (except the sugar): flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and hummingbird. (Note: If using hummingbird paste, add that to the wet ingredients.)

3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the oil,  sugar, and eggs together until very well combined. Then add the mashed bananas )which give one a heightened sense of well-being if mashed through one’s clean fingers), crushed pineapple (which do not), vanilla extract, and 1 cup of chopped pecans. Stir to integrate. Don’t beat them.

4. Using a wooden spoon, rubber spatula, or other handy spanking tool, fold the wet ingredients into the dry ones, and keep folding until all of the ingredients are just combined. You will regret over-mixing. I don’t know why, but I promise you will.

5. Divide the batter evenly among your three prepared cake pans. I put mine on a digital kitchen scale to ensure evenness. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, you should really think about getting one.

6. Bake for about 25 to 30 minutes on the center rack of your oven, checking on the cakes periodically somewhere after minute #15. Are there hot spots in your oven? Move the cakes around accordingly. They’re done when the sides of the cake begins to pull away from the pan and a toothpick inserted in their centers comes out clean. Remove the cakes from the oven.

7. Let the cakes cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes before attempting to remove them from their pans. Run a knife around the edges to loosen. If you’ve done the parchment circle trick, you will have absolutely no problem removing the cakes. If you somehow do have a problem, it’s yours, not mine.

To make the cream cheese frosting:

1. Combine the softened butter and cream cheese in the bowl of an electric mixer until they are thoroughly creamed and pleasantly fluffy. With the mixer on slow speed to avoid a choking, powdery mess in your kitchen, slowly add the powdered sugar. I drape a clean kitchen towel half way over my mixer to minimize the mess even further. When it’s all incorporated, add the vanilla extract and the bourbon, making certain to taste the latter at least two to three times to ensure quality before adding. Beat until the frosting is light and frothy, which is a sign that said frosting is begging you to stop the beating.

2. I’m not telling you how to frost a god damned cake. If you really need help in this department, I suggest you visit the Simply Recipes page for guidance. She has infinitely more patience with such things than I.

3. Serve to your loved ones. If your loved ones cannot be there to share it with you. serve it to your liked ones.

*I have the feeling Lori may know the precise mileage between Anaheim and San Francisco and will soon correct me on my error, but I’m used to that– she’s my older sister. And she’s much smarter than I am by a mile**.

**She’ll probably correct that mileage assessment, too.

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Jeeves and Worcestershire

L&PI need a man.

Not in the way you’re probably thinking, although that would be nice, too.

No, I need a valet. A gentleman’s personal gentleman. A grooming, babysitting, problem-solving factotum.

I need someone in my life to take care of me, since I seem increasingly unable to do the job myself these days. So I’m hiring.

I need someone to run me a hot bath and bring me a cold martini as I marinate. Someone to lay out my clothes just so– hoodie brushed, cargo pants neatly creased, and lo-tops shined– their soles free of any hint of gum or feces. Someone to subtly criticize my facial hair. Someone with infallible judgement. Someone to unravel my unwanted social entanglements. To bring me herring when I need it. Someone to cure my hangovers instantly.

In other words, I need a Jeeves.

CarryOnJeevesSadly, I live in a one-bedroom apartment. Where would I keep him? In the closet? Not in this day and age. I don’t have a butler’s pantry, but even if I did, it’s no place for a valet. The couch is out of the question because it’s only a loveseat and, which I’d like our relationship to be congenial, I’m certain we’d both prefer to keep it professional. I’m afraid I could only hire the services of an outcall gentleman’s personal gentleman.

Except that I’m no gentleman. Oh, my manners are generally shipshape (with occasional lapses), but I’m not a gentleman in the traditional sense of the word. The pedigree was bred out of my family generations ago and my private income amounts to what coins inhabit the little silver dish that sits on top of my dresser. Which needs dusting.

So I must accept the fact that my income has about as much chance of keeping pace with my needs as an asthmatic tortoise does against a whippet who breakfasts on amphetamines.  I couldn’t afford to keep a Jeeves, no matter how much I promised to pet him and walk him and feed him.

But if you know of a gentleman’s personal gentleman who does pro bono work, please contact me.

 Jeeves’s Little Preparation

Hangover Cure

One thing I’ll miss most of all about the Jeeves I will never have is his ability to float into a room noiselessly “like a healing zephyr”, knowing instantly what I need. Chiefly, his hangover cure, the effects of which are described by his employer, Bertam Wooster:

For a moment I felt as if somebody had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything seemed suddenly to get all right. The sun shone in through the window; birds twittered in the tree-tops; and, generally speaking, hope dawned once more.

Anything which causes hope to dawn once more is a must-have recipe in my book. The only trouble with this little preparation is that there is no recipe. Merely a few, tantalizing hints as to its ingredients:

It is the Worcester Sauce that gives it its colour. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlemen have told me they have found it extremely invigorating after a late evening.

Was that it? Egg yolk and a few shakes of Lea & Perrins and tabasco? I tried it. It felt more like someone strolling down my throat with a stale dish rag than a lighted torch. There had to be more to it than that. I scrutinized Stephen Fry in his turn as the television incarnation of Jeeves. He added a few generous glugs of brandy to the mixture. On the third viewing, I noticed a tin of ground cinnamon on the table. I added them to the mix. And a pinch of salt. It was a definite improvement, but I couldn’t be certain if this was what Jeeves had intended.

In fact, I couldn’t be certain if it cured hangovers at all because I wasn’t hungover at the time of drinking. But I can tell you I put in enough brandy to ensure a future one.

The truth is, no one but a gentleman’s personal gentleman can be certain. When Wooster asked for more details of the recipe, Jeeves demurred: “I’m sorry, sir. I’m not at liberty to divulge the ingredients, sir.”

Secrets of the guild and all that.

So the next time I find myself in bed with my head rotted through after an evening of heavy supping with the lads, I’ll more than likely be too wrecked to make this secret, restorative beverage. Rather, I’ll make a little preparation of my own–two parts aspirin to one part water– then crawl back under the covers and try to figure out a way to make enough money to afford a Jeeves of my own.


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I’ll Drink to That

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

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

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

The song started off quietly enough– low clarinets and soft piano chords. And then the voice of what I assumed to be a woman, all sandpaper and Lucky Strikes, croaking the words “I’d like to propose a toast.” From what I could make out, she was raising her glass to ladies who lunched, lounged in caftans and chose hats with very little pleasure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Strrrrritch. We both sang. Very enthusiastically.

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

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

Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hell, I’ll drink to that. And to her.

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

Vodka Stinger

Vodka Stinger

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

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

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

Makes One Spirited Drink


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


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

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

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

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


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


Posted in Celebrities, Liquids, Rants and Stories | Tagged , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Pride Week Drink: The Debbie Gibson

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

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

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

In many ways, I am a terrible homosexual.

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

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

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

Something I like to call The Debbie Gibson.

It satisfies four important, personal needs:

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

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

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

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


The Debbie Gibson

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

Makes: One Stiff, Pink Drink. 


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**Although this can easily be done sober.


Posted in Holidays, Liquids | Tagged , , , , , | 18 Comments

The Chef’s Kitchen.

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

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

“Which one is she?” I asked, curious.

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

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


“Ground floor apartment?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *     *     *

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

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

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

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

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


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Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice Nelson Porkchop

 Pork Chops and Applesauce

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

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

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


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


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

2. Pre-heat your oven to 400°F.

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

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

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

Let the chops rest for a few minutes before eating.

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

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



Posted in Celebrities, Savories, Stage, Film, and Television | Tagged , , , , , | 12 Comments

The Cheese Toast Incident

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Patron Saint of TV Dinners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roman Apple Cake

Roman (Catholic) Apple Cake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.



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