Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.
~ Auntie Mame, by Patrick Dennis
Breakfast: Special K
The Elegant Gathering
TODAY on TV
9 June 2004
I am -- or can be -- a good cook. I really enjoy creating new dishes and trying new things. I'm not an intuitive cook, like our son Tom is. I've told people that Tom can open a refrigerator, take out a can of sardines, a jar of strawberry jam, an egg, and some pickles and somehow create a gourmet treat out of it.
I can't do that. I need a recipe. And I have recipes. I have a huge bookcase full of books that are full of recipes.
I didn't really know how to cook much when I went away to college, but I kind of taught myself when I volunteered to cook for the 7 guys who were sharing a house they rented from the Newman Center. The place was called "Newman Inn" and its residents were, logically, the "inn-mates." Walt was one of the inn-mates.
At that time, I was in my first or second semester at UC Berkeley and lived in a dormitory at the top of Dwight Way, overlooking the city. Newman Inn was at the bottom of the hill, and I ended up spending more time at the Inn than I did in my own dorm.
Since there were 7 inn-mates, they each took turns cooking dinner. The youngest of the group, a guy named Don Zinn, didn't know how to cook at all and someone suggested that I give him a break and cook for him on his night ('cause in those days you looked to the females to be cooks, right?) I discovered that I enjoyed it and it escalated into my cooking almost every night (except when it was the night of the gumpy guy, who wouldn't let me cook for him).
Once I became the official cook, I also did all the shoppping and cleaning up after dinner. Everybody (except grumpy guy) called me "Mom." Little did I realize how prophetic that would end up being!
I had a budget of about $1 a day, I think (OK--slight exaggeration, but we were all poor students, so there really wasn't much money). I learned a lot about cooking with hamburger. In those days I remember that you could buy breast of lamb, the high-fat lamb version of spare ribs, for ten cents a pound at Lucky's, when I could find it, and it seems that I cooked a lot of breast of lamb.
My friend Jeri and I decided to make a big Christmas dinner for the Inn-mates and friends that year, before we all went home for the holidays. We chose to have it on Beethoven's birthday, December 16, but neither of us knew the first thing about cooking a turkey. We didn't even realize that you probably couldn't thaw a big bird in a only few hours. I remember the two of us spending an hour or so with the frozen turkey in the sink, running hot water into it, thawing it, so we could cook it for dinner. I think we named it Murgatroid (or something like that), 'cause we were getting so intimate with this poor bird that we figured we should call it something.
One time we had a bean feast to celebrate Gerry Carlsen's birthday. The entire meal consisted of beans -- from bean kabobs for hors d'oeuvres to a "kidney cocktail," garbanzo bean salad, navy bean soup, chili beans, lima beans and string beans for veggies, and all the way up to jelly beans for dessert.
Newman Inn was an interesting place. It was one of those old Berkeley houses that had been quite something in its heyday (it has since been torn down to make way for the new church which was built on the site). Wonderful hardwood floors, a beautiful wooden staircase leading to the upstairs bedrooms. There was a huge kitchen with a walk-in pantry (where the inn-mates kept a bottle of gin stocked for me, 'cause those were my drinkin' days and I wasn't 21 yet, so I had to rely on the kindness of strangers--or friends--to keep me supplied with booze).
The house had fallen on hard times, however, and the only reason the inn-mates had the chance to rent it cheap was because it was soon to be torn down to make space for the church.
(Thinking back on it, I wonder if the pastor of the Newman Center had a permit to rent the place, or if it was even up to code for human habitation!)
The best thing about the kitchen was that the floor sloped. If you put a marble at one end of the floor, it would slowly roll down to the opposite wall.
This turned out to be a very good thing when the kitchen pipes started leaking one day and we had a flood all over the floor. Someone--it may even have been me--got the idea of drilling a hole in a corner in the low end of the room--and soon, voila! The water all leaked out into the back yard (I suspect the floor was also clean too!)
The experience of Newman Inn was a unique one. It stands as one of the most memorable of my early years. I wouldn't have missed a minute of it!
And I did learn how to cook!