I Don’t Know Your Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Tagine with Olives and Tomatoes

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

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

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

Serves 3 to 4 people, depending on hunger level


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From Fork to Farm

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

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

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

It is the ultimate form of recycling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jars of Shit



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The Tijuana Donkey

Tequila Bottle

I’ve never understood the allure of the Moscow Mule. Apart from the participation of vodka, it is decidedly un-Russian. At the time of the drink’s invention in 1941, what self-respecting Soviet would have chosen to dilute his precious vodka with anything, let alone a decadent Western fizzing beverage? Even more disappointing is that not one bit of the eponymous animal can be found in a Moscow Mule, just equal measures of cock and bull (see: decadent Western fizzing beverage.)

No, this ersatz Muscovite libation was the brainchild of a large Connecticut conglomerate who owned the rights to Smirnoff Vodka (which no one wanted to drink), who met a man in Hollywood with cases of un-consumed home-made ginger beer collecting dust in the basement of his restaurant, The Cock and Bull (see also: decadent Western fizzing beverage), who was friends with the owner of a copper factory who had far too many copper mugs on her hands.

In my opinion, there as never been a cocktail creation myth more American than the Moscow Mule. All that’s missing from the story is a plucky lime* heiress with a heart of gold.

The fact that the Moscow Mule is once again popular isn’t too surprising. It’s an excellent cocktail for people who don’t really care for the taste of alcohol, who lack any sort of booze-related imagination, and who are willing to do whatever Oprah tells them to do. It’s sweet, has a catchy name, and comes in a sweaty metal container which causes the uninitiated to wonder aloud, “What on earth are you drinking?” Its gauzy veil of Eastern exoticism distracts us from its essentially bland and neutral spirit.

And I reject the cocktail utterly. To me it is a symbol of three unforgivable evils: Corporate America, the inauthentic (How many Russians have even seen a lime?), and Russia itself (I am fond of its culture, but not its government). Why pay homage to any of them, I ask? Unless you’re simply a conformist. If so, then go right on drinking these little flagons of resignation.

As for me, I shall repurpose my little copper cups with the kicking mule embossed upon them and use them for a(n) (almost) totally authentic cocktail, which I am calling The Tijuana Donkey. Why drink a cocktail which glorifies cold, distant Russia, when you can drink one to celebrate our warm and friendly neighbor, Mexico?

It is a libation that brings back many happy memories of my teenage years– a time when I was too young to legally make caesar salads in my own country, so my friends and I would cross over into the welcoming arms of Tijuana, Mexico– a city brimming with hospitality and fresh, seasonal produce.

As we strolled down Avenida Revolución, looking for organic romaine lettuce and locally sourced Worcestershire sauce, my “amigos” and I were often personally invited into quaint, traditional Mexican drinking establishments with charming names like Señor Frog’s and Papas & Beer.

Spent LimeEventually, we accepted one such invitation because we had developed a serious thirst in the course of our quest. Almost immediately upon being seated, my always-thoughtful friend Douglas motioned to a waiter and pointed to me, indicating that I was very much in need of refreshment. A small glass was placed in front of me into which a quantity of beverage made from the exotic-sounding blue agave was poured, accompanied by an equal amount of carbonated lemon-lime drink. It certainly looked refreshing! As I was about to take a sip, imagine my surprise when our waiter covered the glass with the palm of one hand, picked it up with the other and slammed it down on the table in front of me! And, in what I consider a case of hospitality gone too far, pulled my head back and poured the now-frothing concoction down my throat, holding a dirty rag over my mouth and nose until I swallowed. Whistles were blown (in my ear), people applauded, and a wedge of lime was given to me for what I assume were its disinfectant properties.

Such a production for one little drink! Tragically, one was hardly enough to slake my considerable thirst. I found it necessary to consume several, which was exhausting but, after the first six or seven, I hardly noticed the rag at all. Or the ringing in my ears.  When we received the bill, I discovered that we had been drinking something called “Tequila Poppers”, much to my under-aged horror.

That was a very long time ago, but the memory– and my fondness for the blue agave–has stayed with me.

Unfortunately, a growing fear of loud noises and shattering barware has rendered me unable to drink tequila poppers exactly as I did in my college days, but that hasn’t stopped me from enjoying this delicious trio of los auténticos sabores de Tijuana: tequila, lemon-lime soda, and dirty rag lime in a my own way.

Tijuana Donkey

The Tijuana Donkey

Moscow has never been famous for its mules, but the donkeys of Tijuana are another matter entirely. Tourists have been famously fond of posing with ones which have been painted to look like zebras. And, for the more theatrically-oriented, donkeys can be found delighting (and surprising) predominantly male audiences in live variety acts on stages throughout the city.

Very few people can tell the difference between a kicking mule and an excitable donkey when confronted with one etched onto the side of a copper mug. After a few of these drinks, even fewer will be able to read the words “Moscow Mule” which typically accompany it. For the self-conscious, you may choose to have them either re-engraved or simply scratch the lettering out with a razor blade.

Makes: One drink with plenty of kick. If you’re catering to a crowd and happen to have a large copper bucket on hand, you can whip up a big batch and refer to it as “Tijuana Donkey Punch.”


• Decent, but not very expensive tequila
• A decadent Western, lemon-lime flavored fizzing beverage such as 7-Up, Sprite or Jarritos.
• The juice of 1/2 a lime
• Ice
• Coach’s whistle and dirty dish towel for garnish.


1. Fill a copper drinking cup with ice. Preferably one which has seen better days, much like Tijuana itself.

2. Add equal parts tequila and flavored soda. You may at this point serve the Tijuana Donkey to your guest or to yourself, squeezing in the lime at the last moment, and sopping up any stray lime juice or tequila with your rag.

Or, for a somewhat more authentic taste of 1980s Tijuana, proceed as follows:

3. Place dirty towel over the top of the cup, situating the palm of your right hand over that. Raise the cup approximately six inches from the surface of your table or countertop with your left hand and slam it down with great force several times. If you are doing this at your mother’s house, please use a coaster.

4. Find a strainer and the nearest willing recipient of this beverage. Making certain to first strain all the ice from the now-foaming drink, push his or her head back by the forehead, blow whistle directly into the victim’s drinker’s ear.

5. Pour drink down his or her throat, making certain to cover the mouth and nose with the rag to facilitate swallowing. When the beverage has been consumed, rub rag over the entirety of their face for dramatic effect. Applaud. Offer lime.

6. Repeat as often as they are willing.

7. If you are drinking Tijuana Donkeys alone, make certain to remove the whistle from your mouth before consuming to avoid unnecessary choking hazards.

* The first Moscow Mules were made, however, with lemon.



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¡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.

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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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