Tuesday, September 21, 2010


During my eight months in New York, I started by renting a very expensive apartment in Brooklyn—in the area known as Boerum Hill. At that time (in 1974), it was an area that was “gentrifying.” I had no furniture to put in it. I was waiting for Cecille to leave Clearlake City, Texas and to move in with me.

But she was having too much fun. She worked for NASA as an editor, cleaning up conversations between Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts living together in the Skylab.

I didn’t realize how much fun she was having. On faith, I started fixing up the apartment. It had a really spacious living room facing the street (on the ground floor), a cute little garden space, and a very handsome kitchen. I started by chopping up about 100 square feet of concrete and dropping it into a cistern that probably dated from the mid 19th century—at least before city water. I purchased a lot of used bricks, which were delivered on the street, and I hauled them across the apartment, through the beautiful French doors, into the garden, and set them in, herringbone pattern.

During the spring, I finished the 9 units required for graduation. I took 3 courses by correspondence: Spanish, Vegetable Crops, and Nutrition. The Spanish course was the best, as I got to practice it at work and the textbook was especially well written. The Vegetable Crops book was poor, and the chapter questions were moronic: basically, you found the part of the chapter that answered the question and parroted it back. I found the Nutrition course to be useful, though depressing. I remember two facts from it: you can live indefinitely on sliced tomatoes and cottage cheese and one slice of cake contains 400 calories that require one hour of hard running to wear off.

Some time during that summer, I did a crazy thing of which I’m proud. Ah, youth. After my dinner shift was over at Quo Vadis, I walked from 63rd and Madison to my place in Boerum Hill. This took 3 hours. I walked through the Bowery, across the Brooklyn bridge, and through much of downtown Brooklyn, arriving around 2:30 AM. I then dropped myself into the bathtub and fell asleep, waking up at around 7 AM in ice-cold water. A life should have adventures like that.

During the summer, I started hanging out with the Rosenbergs. Ben was a friend from college and by spring, he had graduated. So, actually had I. Ben returned to stay with his mother, Marilyn, along with two other brothers. They all lived in a large brownstone on Congress Street in Brooklyn Heights. Marilyn decided that I needed mothering and mentoring, so she graciously invited me for dinner on numerous occasions. And in the fall, I moved in. I wanted to save my money, and Marilyn was a lot of fun to be around. She knew a lot of people and she introduced me to them. For example, I met the New York Times Science editor, who lived down the street.

In the summer, Marilyn got a used Saab. I drove it around town periodically. Once, I was driving on the East Side Highway and the temperature gauge needle moved to Hot. I pulled over at a gas station and asked the attendant what to do. He turned on the engine, opened the radiator cap, and shot cold water into the radiator. It shot back out as a 15 foot geyser. He said, “That’s a hot block!”

At some point in the summer, we drove two of her sons to Dartmouth for summer camp. We rode bicycles all day around the campus, dropped off the two boys, took a nap until 3 AM, then drove back through Massachusetts. I fell asleep. Driving. When I woke up, reflectors on poles were smashing into the front hood; I was plowing the down like blades of grass. Then, quite suddenly, the car lurched left and rolled backwards down an embankment. Marilyn woke up and we crawled out of the ruined car.

We stood on the side of the road and flagged down a passing truck which took us to the nearest police station, which was in Springfield, Massachusetts. As we stood at the counter and described the accident, four officers were sitting around a table, playing cards. We asked if someone could give us a lift to a motel. They said that there was no one available. So, we walked back to the highway and got a lift to a motel. It was about 4 AM at this time. The old man who opened the door took one look at us (a 40-year-old woman and a 24-year-old man) and he told us that he would not rent to people who live in sin.
So, we walked once again back to the highway, thumbed a ride back into Springfield, and I took a bus back to Brooklyn and then wired money to Marilyn. The amazing thing about the story: she forgave me.

They say that insanity is when you make a mistake twice. Years later, I fell asleep at the wheel—this time in Switzerland on the side of a mountain. I came within inches of plunging the rental car into a ravine that was thousands of feet deep. I got out of the car and a man pulled up behind, “Was für ein Dumbkopf sind Sie? Gehen Sie sofort zu ein Hotel! (What sort of idiot are you? Go to a hotel immediately!) Of course, that’s what I was planning on doing, but I wanted to reach Interlaken, which I did.
As summer progressed, I decided that the standing invitation by Patricia to start a business together in Austin, Texas was just too good an opportunity. I could move closer to Cecille. I could live in the southwest, which seemed exotic. And I could start my own business and have fun!

So at some point in the summer, I gave notice. Chef Bernard was really mad at me. He couldn’t understand why I’d throw away an opportunity to become a really well trained chef. And of course, he was very right. But it wasn’t the only opportunity I’d thrown away. Years before, I’d had a chance to be the personal assistant to Arne Larson who had the world’s largest collections of musical instruments, and I’d thrown that opportunity away as well. Now that collection is housed in the Shrine to Music collection in Vermillion, South Dakota. And, I’ve thrown away a lot of other opportunities since.

I bought a Ford station wagon weighing 4400 pounds with a 400 horsepower V8 motor, so big in the back that you could lay a 4X8 sheet of plywood flat in it. I paid $300 to the owner of an air-conditioning business. He used it to haul stuff and then he had given it to his daughter, who rammed the back-end into a tree, breaking the tail-light and the latch on the back gate. Also, the transmission was missing first gear. Otherwise, it ran well.

I taped a duo-tang cover onto the back left tail-light and fastened the gate closed with a coathanger. Ben wanted to come along to visit a friend, so we started out. We drove to South Dakota, stayed with my parents, then drove south to Oklahoma, where we stayed with friends of my father’s, and finally one evening we pulled into Austin. It was dusk and we arrived at Patricia and Joe’s just in time for dinner.

We walked into the kitchen and there, on the table, was a bag of dead pigeons, all with their feathers, and all with a bullet somewhere in their body. Turns out that one of Joe’s fellow professors had stolen a nightscope rifle from a local Army base and shot 12 Austin city pigeons in the park along Lamar, then brought them over for someone to clean. That was my introduction to Austin. We each ate a roast pigeon that night. Park pigeons are very tasty. Too bad they don’t know that in New ork’s Central Park or Venice’s St. Mark’s Square.

We wasted no time getting started. We looked into getting a small business loan, but these are designed for companies that have been in business for 5 years and that lack capital to grow. We made an appointment with a banker, and we quickly learned that banks don’t loan to new businesses unless they have some sort of collateral they’re willing to lose. I was able to borrow money from my father and from my aunt and Patricia and Joe sold value in their life insurance policy in order to raise $10,000. We used that money to start a pilot project that consisted of renting a restaurant at the top of the city’s highest building from midnight until 8 AM.

We started by producing cakes for various restaurants. One of our earliest cakes was an almond torte ice with almond flavored buttercream. We specialized in using fun-shaped molds. I remember delivering a fish-shaped cake complete with almond scales to a sorority party. I walked into a large room just bursting with Texas femininity, complete with feigned helplessness, stunning looks, and the requisite drawl.

During this period, we were researching our next step during the day while producing pastries and cakes for wholesale accounts at night. Sometimes, right around 3 AM, I would get so tired I would disappear into the bathroom. After a half hour had elapsed, Patricia would call in to me to see if I was still alive. I suppose the snores gave me away.

Working in the wee hours of the morning was not easy, especially considering my own clock. I remember getting so tired that things would start to move in my peripheral vision—a garbage can would unexpectedly shift a foot to the left. One of our memories of those early days was of my breaking eggs and separating them to make a cake and throwing the shells into the trash can. I would crack an egg, separate it, then throw the shell over my shoulder into the trash can.
The next day, we delivered a cake to one of the posh restaurants and later got a phone call regarding an almond torte with eggshell right in the middle. One of the egg shells hadn’t made it into the trash can and Patricia, equally tired, had placed the next layer right on top.

In the beginning, I ate at Patricia and Joe’s house regularly. They were extremely generous people and, besides throwing the best parties in all of Austin, both of them were highly accomplished cooks. Joe was a born meat-roaster and smoker. For as long as I knew him, he made the best smoked salmon, smoked anything. Roaster/smokers are born, not made. He was born with the gift.

Patricia really knew how to bring the flavors out of food. The best thing she made, which I haven’t had since even though I’ve tried, is chile relleno. I am not talking about the cheese-filled one, which seems to be the only version one can find in restaurants. I’m talking about roast poblanos stuffed with rice, nuts, raisins.

Patricia had spent a junior year abroad in Mexico, and whoever she came in contact with really influenced her. She also made excellent guacamole and huevos rancheros.

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