The first time was the morning after we arrived in Paris. Room service bacon, so it gets extra points. I give it a solid B.
The second time was late that night. After an evening nap, when all I wanted to do was get back to my friends Deuces Wild and Double Cherry Play Max Credits. But Dave said I should eat something so we stopped at a charming Parisienne cafe, where I filled out a keno form and waited for my Cobb salad. Bacon on the Cobb was smokey and nicely sized for the avocado. I give it an B+.
Third time was the next morning at the pool. Perfect weather, perfect water, perfect lounger. Followed by a late breakfast at the poolside cafe. Probably the same stock they serve in room service, but blandness more pronounced in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, Half Scale. B-.
Fourth and last was across the street from Paris, after seeing O and meeting Dave’s friend J—, who steals the show. Very proud of myself for watching the most death-defying bits with eyes open and ignoring the voice that said if I watched I would doom them to fall, so I ordered both roasted tomato soup and scallops Hollandaise. Sauce on the side as recommended by waiter. Three huge scallops, each sitting on a square of bacon which sat on a potato pancake, all topped with lobster garnish. Smokey, sweet, delicate bacon that magicalized the sandwiching factors into mouth bliss. I award this bacon an A.
Not much time before we head home. Will there be a fifth bacon contender? Ladies and gentlemen, betting closes in two hours.
We took a drive to a small town outside Vegas, to visit an old neighbor’s restaurant. It seemed reasonable to take a break from gambling, though I hated to lose the pool time. Cousin M— drove, in the SUV he rented to drive up from LA, and Dave and brother J— and I looked out at the red rock landscape as we rode along.
The restaurant is in an office park, surrounded by an allergy clinic and a cancer clinic. The food is fantastic. Genuine Italian beef sandwiches and sausage sandwiches and pepper and egg sandwiches, on fresh-baked homemade bread. He also does great entrees, mostly Italian or German (he’s half of each), or Greek (his wife). The place is super clean and the service is quick.
The restaurant is struggling. Our friend opened it in the spring of 2008. He chose this spot, north of the center of town, because a casino was opening across the street, Fedex and UPS were opening warehouses up the road, there was a Starbucks near by, a brand new Walgreens… the town was growing in this direction. The office park meant plenty of parking, and he could build his kitchen exactly the way he wanted it, in a clean, well-maintained space. Then the town council had decided the Fedex and UPS hubs didn’t fit the image of the wealthy leisure destination they wanted the town to become, so no delivery trucks would be crisscrossing past the sandwich shop. A month later, the market crashed. The casino never broke ground. Walgreens bought Rite-Aid and didn’t want their new Walgreens to compete with the established Rite-Aid downtown, so that closed. So did Starbucks.
The only food spots that seem to succeed in this town are fast food joints. No one has money. One of the three casinos closed a year ago, and 600 people had nowhere else to get a job. Many of the snowbirds can’t afford to come lately, and those who can usually eat in whatever clubhouse they’re golfing at. People tell our friend his menu is too large, even as they order the Greek lemon chicken and lasagna and deep dish pizza. Our friend says he’s not going to give up. “If I were doing something wrong, my concept was wrong or people didn’t like the food, then I’d have to consider,” he says. “But I’m too damn stubborn to call it quits just because of the economy.” So he makes adjustments and keeps going.
We drive back to Vegas, our bellies content, a couple of our pockets full of surprising wins from the town’s casino. I ask M— if he still mixes his cereals the way he had taught me to a few years ago when I visited him in L.A. “Oh yeah,” he says. “Sometime I mix four or five.”
“What’s a typical mix?”
“I start with a layer of frosted Mini-Wheats, because they float everything up. Then a layer of Life. Then some kind of granola, something heavy. Then maybe a layer of crunchy Raisin Bran, it’s different than regular Raisin Bran, it’s really good. And on the top, maybe a layer of Quisp.”
Brother J— is surprised. “They still make Quisp?”
“Oh yeah,” says M—. “You just have to order it from the company, a case at a time.”
If there are people in the world willing to order Quisp from the company by the case, just to use it as the fifth layer in their cereal mix, then maybe our friend is right. Eventually, his clientele will find him.
There are a lot of nerds out there. Tech nerds and sports nerds and art nerds. Improv nerds. Horse nerds. Last night Dave and I went to a concert at Mayne Stage, where we were surrounded by new music nerds. I was, as usual, dumbfounded by the seeming formlessness of the phrasing, that suddenly hits you with an exclamation point when you least expect it. It makes me realize how easy it is to spot periods in most music. You know when the end of the line is coming a mile away, which leaves you free to interpret everything before it. Like the cylons understanding love only once they understand death.
Or at least, I thought it was formless, until the first piece ended and Dave said, “Difficult piece, but at least it was in 4/4.” At intermission I heard someone say, “I think I’m writing really accessible music, but that’s just how I feel,” and then a bit later, “The problem with the alumni…” I missed the rest because Dave introduced me to someone who told me a funny story about some concert Dave did in college. Something about Dvorak that I didn’t understand but laughed at anyway.
What I heard most of the night were random notes that made sense only if I imagined them as the score to a film noir scene. Or rare moments when the sheer virtuosity transported me to awe. Mostly I thought if I knew where that phrase was going I’d know how to interpret the piece.
But I guess that’s the point. A friend who doesn’t speak to me anymore once said that he liked new music because it was the only thing that made him feel like someone had taken the top of his head off. I’m not sure what he liked about feeling like someone had taken the top of his head off. Too bad I can’t ask him now. Well, I could ask him. It would be like my own little new music composition. His silent response would perhaps be the perfect ending.
Today is Grandpa’s birthday. He would have been a hundred and something. Remember when we’d go over there on this day? Grandma always made ham sandwiches and Grandpa gave the presents. He’d bring out shopping bags full of his bargain basement finds – costume jewelry and ice skates and celebrity-themed knick-knacks.
Grandpa was a retired El train conductor who then took a job at Cannonball Messenger Service. This is back when they used foot messengers in addition to bikers, mostly for Loop runs. His retiree’s CTA pass was a bonus for Cannonball because they didn’t have to reimburse his travel, but he warned them, “My mind is made up. When I turn 80, I’m retiring for good.” His 80th birthday came and he kept his word. He couldn’t believe they didn’t put up a fight. It kind of hurt his feelings.
From 80 on, Grandpa left the house each morning with empty shopping bags, and travelled the city filling them up. He’d ride downtown to the Marshall Field’s basement, to the D’Amatos on Grand and May for his favorite bread, to Woolworths in Oak Park, to Maxwell Street, to some bakery in Belmont-Central for Grandma’s favorite pound cake. He knew all the El and bus routes, and knew people in every neighborhood. Years later, at his wake, the strangest people showed up.
Grandma would wait for him at home. She didn’t like to go out much, and she was nervous about having people over. Her medium was the telephone. She talked to each of her kids every day, transmitting family news through the filter of her particular world view. My brother used to say, “I make so much more money when it goes through Grandma Sue.” She only visited once or twice a year, and on Grandpa’s birthday my mom had to warn her we were coming. “It’s my father’s birthday, Ma. I want to see him.” “You don’t have to come,” Gram would tell her over the phone, “We still look the same.”
But once we got there, Grandma would relax. “How ’bout a sandwich,” she’d say, “I’ve got some nice ham.” I hated ham, so I always got straight to the pound cake. Then Grandpa would open the hall closet and bring out the shopping bags, with multiples of any really good buys. One year it was fake seed pearls and Brook Shields clocks. “You don’t have to keep her face in there,” he advised, “You could put any photo if you cut it right.”
I reached my hands into the bag, pulling out fistfuls of necklaces and bracelets. All mine, as many as I could hold. It was a very, very good birthday.
Lamb cake is one good thing that came out of the B days. My brother R and his wife started inviting L and B for Easter a few years ago, and they started bringing a lamb cake. The first year L got a fancy one from a bakery, all fluffy and perfect. But she left it in the car while she was at work and it froze, and all the buttercream frosting shrunk. So when it thawed, it tasted good but looked like a wizened, ancient lamb.
Was B out of the picture after that first year? Or was it the next? I don’t remember. Like the lamb cake his fluffy good nature hardened and staled, and today he graces someone else’s table. Probably in a diner and complaining about the service. Single again, L started making her own lamb cakes. She found a mold, I think of her mom’s, a smallish, upright lamb. Very English. Very delicious but the head kept falling off. So when she served it the first year, the head had to be displayed separately. R’s wife froze the head and hid it in our freezer at Thanksgiving. I passed it on to L’s freezer sometime after Christmas.
This year L made two lamb cakes, using that same mold. One regular yellow cake and one chocolate-zucchini. The yellow head had stayed on, but the chocolate-zucchini head fell off. L solved this by sticking it on with skewers which she decorated with mini-marshmallows, so they looked like fluffy antennae.
The lambs lay on a bed of green coconut grass and gazed at each other. It was hard to decide which one was uglier. Both bodies were perfectly molded; it was their faces, where L had only her cake-decorating tubes and imagination to work with, that things went so Halloween. The white one – actually, they were both white because the chocolate one was covered in mini-marshmallows – the yellow cake one looked drunk, while the chocolate-zucchini one had more of a stricken, please-don’t-eat-me, I’m-new-to-this-planet expression.
They were the perfect centerpiece for post dinner discussion about weird religious bits that no one really talks about. Why didn’t anyone recognize Jesus when he came back from the dead? If you believe that, is it an argument for reincarnation? And what exactly happened between those few recognition moments and His ascension into Heaven? Shouldn’t there have been some kind of festivities, gatherings, sermons-on-the-mount where He could be like, I’m back, now do you believe me? No, He just sort of faded up to Heaven.
L said she’d called our Auntie M this year for advice on decorating the lamb cakes. Auntie M said the lamb should wear a blue collar, that there was some religious significance to that but she couldn’t remember what it was. L didn’t have a blue decorating tube so her lambs are collarless. Like Jesus and B, they’re free. Except they’re made out of cake, so actually the rest of the chocolate-zucchini one is in my fridge and I’m going to eat some right now. Unless some Martian-lamb miracle has occurred and this is just a verse in someone else’s bible.
Yesterday I made my first batch of pasta noodles. Kate was making linguini, and invited me to come get over my fear of the pasta maker.
I didn’t exactly want to go, because although Dave bought me a pasta maker for Christmas (by request), and the thing is set up and sitting on the counter, I haven’t been at all inclined to use it. Store bought is usually good enough. And if I need fresh I have an excuse to drive up to Pasta Fresh out on Harlem and Belmont, where I can see owners Tony and Tina and be handed a hot slice of focaccia while I wait for them to pack my order, and where I can enjoy the feeling in that little shop, which always reminds me of the eve of Christmas Eve years ago, when I went there for the first time. I’d moved out to that neighborhood after a breakup and was thoroughly depressed about life and dreading the holidays and wanting only to hide out in my hobbit hole of a basement flat in my cousin Lizzie’s building.
But Lizzie dragged me out on some cooking errands. She made me go to Caputo’s so she could get her produce. Then she made me go to Pasta Fresh so she could get noodles for the lasagna. Like a zombie without an appetite I trundled along, waiting til I could get back home to my two loyal mutts who would not annoy me by speaking English and expecting me to speak it back.
Then we got into Pasta Fresh and something happened. They greeted us so cheerfully, the white-haired man and his sexy wife, and started making up Liz’s order. Then they brought out a warm arancini, cut up and steaming, and tried to hand me a piece. “I don’t eat meat,” I said. So they returned with slices of calzone. To be polite, I took a bite, and then another. It was like the cheerful ghost of a calzone — impossibly light, with chunks of fresh tomato, not too much cheese, not too doughy. To wash it down, they handed us flutes of champagne. I ate and drank, and felt cared for by people I’d never met.
Liz asked Tony how things were going and he said something slightly sad, maybe about missing people who were gone. But he was smiling and he raised his glass to us. I felt a rush of Christmas spirit, joy and nostalgia and some sort of fellowship you can only share with strangers. That moment picked me up and lifted me past my sadness, and the holidays went better after that.
Looking back, I don’t know what I had to be sad about. A breakup? So what. It wasn’t like I’d lost my parents yet. I hadn’t even lost a dog yet. But of course, your heart doesn’t grade on a curve. So anyway, I like going to Pasta Fresh. And I’m afraid of my pasta maker. It’s so shiny and silent.
But when my friend Kate cooks, I show up. She serves delicious food and always makes it look easy. So it’s not just good to eat, it’s fun to be around when she’s cooking. And having claimed I wanted to learn how she made noodles I figured I might as well do it on a night when she had a fresh Puttanesca sauce ready to top them. So off I went, accompanied only by dog Django since Dave had a rehearsal.
Kate let me do almost everything – add three eggs and two tablespoons of water to two cups of flour and a half-cup of semolina, mix them, knead them (Kate had to take over briefly because I didn’t knead hard enough), and divide into a couple of balls. Let sit a half-hour and then feed through the pasta machine, level by level until it’s thin enough. Then through the other part to split into noodles. Sort of amazingly easy. And heaped with the sauce, so so good. Django is not big on starches, but she kept her mouth open like a bird, waiting for each next delicious strip of saucy goodness.
I think the solution is not to go less to Pasta Fresh, but to have noodles more often, so I can fit in some of my own. Because I didn’t even mention the other thing about Pasta Fresh, how it’s right near Palermo Bakery, where the best cookies in the world can be purchased. But that’s another story.
I was at HarvestTime, the smallish and wonderfully stocked and also extremely reasonable grocery store where everyone in our neighborhood, from Viking stoves to WIC cards, loves to shop. Fresh and diverse produce, good organics, surprising treats like warm squares of spanakopita and fresh dolmades.
So it’s Sunday afternoon, so of course it’s crowded. I’ve just gotten my cart and started into the huge produce section. I’ve grabbed a pint of strawberries – $2.49! I see rings of dried figs, which can be either magnificent or too dry, and wonder if it’s worth the risk. There’s an extended line of carts along that side so I can’t get close enough to check them out. One of the carts belongs to a woman who was just ahead of me as we came in. Red hair, plump body that looks even plumper squeezed into tight black capri pants and some kind of fashion tee shirt. She was smiling so cheerfully when she extricated her cart that I assumed she was with someone, mid-conversation. But as we started through the store, her stretch pants jiggling in front of me, I realized she was alone. Something about her made me think Australian. The type that turns out to have this great, unfettered perspective on life and not taking it too seriously, that you feel you could appropriate just by becoming friends with her.
So we’re at the figs, and I could just wait until she or the Korean man next to her makes a selection and moves along, clearing the way. But instead I say, no preamble, just trusting my voice to cut through the shoppers’ din, “Could you just hand me a thing of figs?”
And she hears me like we’ve been friends forever and replies, in a British accent, “Certainly!” It’s almost too easy. My new international friend I met at the grocery store! She’s sexy and confident in her body and her easy breeze lifestyle. British can be as chill as Aussie if you get the right region, Suffolk maybe, or Cork.
She hands me the package of figs and I choose an appellation I sometimes use with my best girlfriends. “Thank you, Ma’am.” I say it with a slight Western twang, so it’s a sign of respect, playfulness, good nature, you name it. But also, I realize a second too late, just as her face changes from sunny look to closed book, it can sound like acknowledgment of an elder. I can’t add, “I don’t mean Ma’am like you’re older than me, because honey I’m sure you’re not,” ‘cause that’s just overkill for a package of figs. And maybe the frown is her just trying to remember what ingredients she needs for her Sunday barbie recipe?
But in any case, there is no more friendly interchange. Although we remain in sync throughout the deli section, dairy case, bread aisle, and even checkout lanes, each setting out our items on parallel counters in perfect time, there are no more easy smiles. I try to catch her eye as we leave with our bags full of food bargains, but nothing doing. Is she as sorry about our lost friendship as I? Is she wondering where the hell some middle-aged woman gets off calling her Ma’am? Should she have worn different pants? Was it cilantro or mint that went into the tilapia recipe?
We’ll never, ever know. My probably British or maybe even Aussie friend is lost to me forever. She’ll never know I kept the figs, which on closer look were definitely too dried out, in my cart as an homage to her. I will eat them as my penance. Next time, I’ll just say Thanks.