Saturday, August 14, 2010
Food As Creativity
I lived in Berkeley, CA in my mid-twenties. It was wonderful and the inspiration for many of my stories. I shared a big house with a bunch of people; we’d have spaghetti dinners at two a.m., long lazy Sunday brunches where we’d munch on lox and bagels while scanning the New York Times and the Berkeley Barb.
One of my housemates, Les, was an incredible cook. Beef Burgundy and French Chicken were his specialties. Looking back, the household was loosely organized around food, the preparing and consuming of rather large quantities of it. I learned to eschew the scant portions and irrational focus on presentation of California nouveau cuisine. A good jug wine sufficed—no pretentious labels or conversation about bouquet and palate in this household.
Chez Pannise had just opened over on Shattuck Ave. It was the be-all-end-all must-try place for anyone-who-is-anyone in the Bay Area. Alice Waters was becoming an upscale household name. We had to check this out. I took my personal scorn and sat across from my housemate, leaning my elbows on the white linen tablecloth. I couldn’t hide my disdain (and as a twenty-something year old, I had plenty of disdain) at the “salad” I’d ordered. Give me a flippin’ break already—this is a lettuce leaf, or leaf of endive, if I’m to be accurate—with a cube of something, a scallop perhaps, and with some other unidentifiable substance drizzled over the top in a decorative “z” pattern. I rolled my eyes over that for months.
Thank goodness we grow up, expand our awareness and our palate, step out of our self-important lives and take in some of the bounty of what culture has to offer or I would have missed one of the most exquisite experiences of my adult life. Some years ago, my friend and I, my daughter, and a friend of hers drove over to Yountville for a late night reservation at The French Laundry. There were seven courses—thank goodness they were all minuscule—each bursting with flavors to die for, beautifully presented, and paired with just the right wine. This was culinary art at its finest, and its most expensive. It was a glimpse of heaven on earth and set in my soul a craving for fine dining.
Give me a raw oyster bar and a good chardonnay, or an exquisite chocolate mousse and a fine cup of coffee and I’m a happy camper.
All this is a lengthy introduction to an excerpt from my story, The First Step, which illustrates how I call upon my life for background material in writing. In this chapter, Shalese, a no-nonsense, blue collar social worker from south side Chicago meets Jenny, a trust fund baby for whom fine dining is a given, and Florence, a wealthy octogenarian obsessed with power and control, at an upscale wine bar in northern California. Shalese’s goal is to create a half-way house for female ex-felons of which Jenny is. She’s also beautiful. Florence has more money than God to invest in a project that will further her own hidden agenda.
In the tiny parking lot of K Syrah there was an open spot next to Jenny’s silver Miata—a car that smacked of white privilege in Shalese’s book. She eased her old Honda in, turned off the ignition, and sat listening to the chatter and laughter of the early crowd on the patio. She unbuttoned the top button of her shirt, took a deep breath, slung her dressy jacket over her shoulder, and gently opened the car door, hoping to avoid the usual skreek of the hinge. Skreek. “Damn,” she muttered.
The old stone building looked like a place where you’d find big bosomed wenches draped over fat squires drunk on ale. The cobblestone pathway led to an intricately engraved oak door that opened into a dimly lit bar. Small red shades dripping crystals hung over low watt bulbs giving the bar a womb-like feeling. Wine glasses glinted overhead suspended upside down from a light oak rack. Soft music, something mid-eastern with zithers, gongs, and chimes subdued the clink of glassware and china.
Shalese spotted Jenny and Florence at a corner table. Introductions were made and the usual small talk gotten out of the way while they squinted in the dimness at the over-sized menus. A New Age Earth goddess named Brie guided them through the specials and returned shortly with the first round of wine and a variety of tapas to begin their evening. Shalese felt like she’d stepped into an ad in one of those pretentious California living magazines, but Jenny seemed quite at home, as did Florence in her matching sweater set and pearls.
Florence swirled her Cabernet, checked the color and clarity, and took a sip. "Mmm," she moaned, "when you start with the best, where else is there to go? So tell me dear, how did this dream of a halfway house come about?" She leaned back in her chair, hands folded in her lap and looked at Shalese in the way people watch pigeons from a park bench.
Jenny was absorbed in spreading soft smelly cheese drizzled with truffle oil on a crisp of bread, her mouth puckered in concentration. She wore a serpentine green sleeveless dress the color of her eyes, and her long blond hair was caught back in a casual bun with wisps curling along her cheekbone.
If I were in the desert, she’d be one long, cool sip of water, Shalese thought. She unglued her eyes from Jenny and with difficulty fixed them on Florence. "Long story short," she said, "a friend of mine was married to an abuser. When she recovered from the latest near-death beating, she bought a gun and shot him in the…well, crippled him for life. Went to prison, and a week after she got paroled, he hunted her down and killed her." Shalese sat back with a sigh, reached for her chardonnay, and then changed her mind, unsure that she could swallow right then. Memories of Vanessa’s petite body lying in a pool of blood on the living room floor came rushing back. She shook her head slowly. "She never had a chance to start over."
"So, that's what you want to do—give women a chance to start over," Florence said, "create a different life for themselves." She forked a bacon wrapped scallop into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. Shalese nodded.
Jenny swallowed a bite of butternut squash orzo and smiled. She fingered a strand of small amber beads that hung around her neck and looked at Shalese from under long blond lashes. "Where did she go when she got out—your friend? Where did he find her?" she said, joining the conversation.
"My house. I was at work. I couldn't protect her. Will you excuse me for a moment?" Shalese said, blotting at her eye with the corner of her cocktail napkin as she left the table.
"Oh dear, that poor girl," Florence said.
"Shalese or her friend?"
"Both," Florence said and took another sip of her Cabernet.
My future plan is to combine this story with two other novella-length pieces, Grapevine: A California Family Tree, and Sojourn, into a collection that will be called Best Laid Plans, dealing with the undiminishable spirit of women as they navigate the challenges of life. Watch for it.