Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Lovely, cold New York.

No post from the memoir this week. I've just arrived in New York--plane five hours late--and it's freezing; also brimming with Christmas cheer, something New York does better than anywhere else I know. Peace and joy to all.

Monday, December 15, 2008


More, out of order, from my struggling memoir:

You might think, given the multiplicity of regional origins of my friends’ households, that their mothers’ cooking would have represented a panoply of Southern culinary styles. The fact, however, was that for real Southern cooking we had to turn to people’s maids, who were always colored (as we were on pain of a spanking instructed to describe all persons of African descent) and who ate no food but Southern. That was probably why we got more authentic, albeit lousy, food in the school cafeteria: All the cooks were colored. What the white folks ate was certainly Southern in some respects, but more significant was the triumph of processed, frozen, or canned “convenience” foods that had swept across the nation in the wake of World War II. The whites of Whitehaven clung fiercely to some of their Southernness—their casual racism, their home-country accents, high school and college football, mothers as housewives whenever that was economically possible—but cultural homogenization was big in the kitchen, nowhere more so than ours, my mother a Yankee and my father ferocious in his rejection of any food redolent of Depression poverty. He wanted “good old regular American food,” which in his way of thinking included fried chicken, fried pork chops, fried fish, and the cornbread which my mother never could master (it crumbled; he shook his head). In the homes of my friends whose mothers were Southern-born, or the few who had cooks, a great cultural fusion was under way, illustrated vividly in the locally edited cookbooks—of churches, Junior Leagues, ladies’ clubs—that were being published by the thousands all over the country and piling up on Whitehaven’s kitchen shelves.

My mother had over a hundred of these things. Among them:

The Memphis Cook Book, first published by the Junior League in 1952, preserved a few local classics—Okra Pickle, Southern Pecan Pie, Willie’s Bread Crumb Griddle Cakes, Wild Goose (“1st, shoot him”), Corn and Ham Fritters, Cheese Grits—but the like of those were sparsely distributed among the dozens of “convenience” and “fusion” recipes—Seven Can Soup, Fondue de Poulet à la Crème, Indian Curry, Casserole Supreme of Broccoli and Carrots, Frito Dish, Mushrooms Flambé, Hawaiian Delight (lemon Jell-o, canned pineapple, sour cream), Mock Plum Pudding, Mock Pizza Pie.

The Coahoma Cook Book, published by the women’s club of Coahoma, Mississippi—my daddy’s old neck of the woods—proclaimed itself “a book with a background, not the broad, general background of ‘Southern Cooking,’ but one made distinctive by the soupçon of Coahoma flavoring.” Exactly what that flavoring was is hard to glean from such dishes as Stuffed Dill Pickle, Moon Lake Party Punch, Fried Toast, Ham-Oyster Casserole, Shushed Eggs, Chess Pie, and Hebrew Cookies; but the book praises the local bounty of “fruits, nuts, poultry, dairy products, meat, etc., produced on the plantations” and “the game still reasonably plentiful behind the levees and in the cypress breaks.” Southern cooking was still in fashion in rural Mississippi, but even Coahoma wasn’t spared the incursions of Eggplant à la “Palmarissa,” Charlotte “Russee,” Marshmallow Salad, Venetian Apple Pie, and Olive Oil Pickle.

Our Delta Dining, published by The Mothers Club of the County Day School in Marks, Mississippi, preserved some local classics—Grandmother’s Spoon Bread, Lilly Mae’s Hush Puppies, Peach Fritters, Whoopie Pies—while also struggling for a sort of sophistication, of which the saddest example is “Petete ’De Jenue,” which I can translate only as petit déjeuner, meaning breakfast but in fact a casserole dish comprising butter or margarine, ground beef, canned tomatoes, onions, garlic, canned mushrooms, noodles, canned ripe olives, and Wisconsin Cheese.

The attempt to convey an impression of worldliness spilled into absurdity in Bayou Cuisine: Its Tradition and Transition, published by St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church of Indianola, Mississippi, which divided its recipes in a “historical panorama” of the influences underlying the regional style—Indian, French, English, Early Settlement, and so forth, even unto International Origin and Space Age. The principal influence on the true old Southern cooking—African American tradition—unsurprisingly did not rate its own chapter. This cookbook’s “Primitive Aborigine, Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations”—before Andy Jackson sent them packing along the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma in the 1830s—allegedlly feasted on Salmon Party Mound, Honey Dew Fruit Salad, Barbecue on Buns, Hasenpfeffer, Duck Nero, and, well, why not, Indian Pudding.

Hernando De Soto and his gold-crazed Spaniards, in the remarkably capacious view of Bayou Cuisine, brought to the region Egg Ring “Cheairs,” Cucumber Freeze in Avocado, Kum-Back Sauce, Thousand Island Dressing, Chicken Tamale Casserole Cuban Style, Chasen’s Chili, and Coctel Après Dinner.

The French, first as hairy voyageurs and later as lace-cuffed New Orleanians, truly did bring French food to the bayou country, though well to the south of Indianola. The trappers’ Boiled Beaver Tail and Squirrel on a Stick aren’t treated of in Bayou Cuisine, but such genuinely Creole delicacies as Pompano en Papillote, Oysters Rockefeller, Oyster Bisque, Jambalaya, Shrimp Remoulade, Beignets, and Pralines all have a legitimate claim in our region’s culinary ancestry (we didn’t invent them, but we cooked them). One wonders, however, about crediting French tradition with Liz’s Frozen Fruit Salad (with marshmallows), Light Opera Fudge, or a String Bean Casserole built on canned mushroom soup and Ritz crackers.

The “Mississippi Territory” chapter covers the period between 1798 and 1817, when the Chickasaw and Choctaw were still officially in charge while throngs of white immigrants, hundreds of mules, and thousands of slaves were slashing and burning tens of thousands of acres of native forest. Here again, as in the French chapter, Bayou Cuisine includes old dishes well worth remembering—Virginia Punch, Ham Pie, Fried Green Tomatoes, Hopping John, Okra Patties, Pecan Cake, and Raisin Pie. But neither Bobette’s Stew, Cheese Balls in Aspic, Ham Loaf, Chicken Salad Soufflé, Mushroom Rice Casserole, nor Shrimp Harpin can be achieved without canned soup, which I believe was unavailable in the early nineteenth century.

I pass lightly over the “Ante Bellum,” “Post Bellum,” “Delta Chefs,” and “Art” chapters in order to rush into the real fun, the dishes devised in my lifetime. From “International Origin”: Bloody Mary Soup, Cracker Ball Soup, Italian Sweet-Sour Slaw, Talarini (= taglierine, presumably), Chinese Cheese Wafers, Jezebel Sauce, and Torch Bananas. And from our own Sputnik-haunted “Space Age”: Hot Cheese Planet Puffs, Apollo Oyster Patties, Instant Russian Tea, Cherry Coke Salad, Curry Rapido, Moon Meat Pies, Pork Chops A-Go-Go, Milky Way Cake, and Twinkie Pie.

Some sort of new Southern cuisine was being born. Luckily, natural selection soon removed most of it from the meme pool.

Twenty years later, my mother and her peers would be traveling to New York, San Francisco, Paris, and Rome, and tasting the dishes that their church cookbooks adumbrated so clumsily. In the meantime, there were treasures to be found amid the marshmallow salads and canned-soup extravaganzas, including one dish I still adore, credited in The Memphis Cook Book to the Old Southern Tea Room of Vicksburg:

Oysters “Johnny Reb”

2 qts. oysters, drained

½ c. finely chopped parsley

½ c. finely chopped shallots or onions

salt and pepper


1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce

2 Tbsp. lemon juice

½ c. melted butter

2 c. fine cracker crumbs


¾ c. half milk and cream

Place a layer of oysters in bottom of greased shallow two-quart baking dish. Sprinkle with half of parsley, shallots, seasonings, lemon juice, butter, and crumbs. Make another layer of the same. Sprinkle with paprika. Just before baking, pour the milk into evenly spaced holes, being very careful not to moisten crumb topping all over. Bake at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until firm. Yield: 12 to 15 portions.[2]

The South had a rich culinary tradition which Whitehaven’s mothers were to a great degree trying to escape. My own mother’s escape was from the sooty industrial and railyard town of her childhood, six hundred miles up the Mississippi from Memphis. Despite much ethnic diversity—eastern Europeans of every stripe, Germans, Danes, Swedes, Irish, Pennsylvania Dutch, New Englanders—the food of Savanna, Illinois, was as grim as its mills. Mama’s collection held only one recipe compendium from there, Savanna’s Own Cook Book. The Cinnamon Apples Salad depended on cinnamon candy and red food coloring. There was Baked Cabbage, baked in white sauce. Casserole Potatoes were sliced, then baked in water and butter or margarine (baked in water?). Hamburger Pie combined meat, bread crumbs, “favorite seasonings,” canned tomato soup, and mustard. Molded Horseradish was made from lemon Jell-O. There was, vividly evoking the Depression, Mock Chicken. Texas Hot Dish brought together an unholy alliance of Spam, canned chicken noodle soup, evaporated milk, and oatmeal. Gumdrop Cookies: sugar, shortening, flour, and gumdrops. And these were Savanna’s fancy food.


Only a generation before, most of our Southern forebears had lived on farms or plantations, where not only the cash crop of cotton was grown but also chickens, guinea hens, turkeys, ducks, geese, pigs, and cows, as well as orchards and vegetable gardens big enough to yield fruits and vegetables for the entire year, fresh in summer and skillfully canned for the fallow months. Few of our grandfathers lacked a shotgun and a rifle, for in those days before the ruthless monocropping of postwar, chemical-based industrial farms there were still extensive forests, canebrakes, and swamps throughout the rural South, in which doves, quail, wild ducks and geese, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, bear, deer, and wild honey were to be had, and the yowl of the panther was still occasionally heard. I sometimes wonder if my father’s longevity—he’s 94 and going strong as I write this—may be due to his early diet of home-grown chicken, milk, and greens.

The cookbooks of my daddy’s parents’ and grandparents’ day were altogether different from my mother’s. Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Cabell Tyree, published in 1879, offered six recipes for calf’s-head soup, the very sight of which would have set most of Whitehaven’s housewives to shrieking. The quantities to be “put up” were prodigious—“Slice one gallon green tomatoes”; “Boil twelve pounds soft peaches”; “Put three pounds brown sugar to every squeezed gallon of juice”; “Separate 100 oysters from their liquor”—and the recipes were mouth-watering: cold sturgeon “scolloped” with homemade mayonnaise flavored with celery and cayenne; roast wild goose stuffed with celery, hard-boiled eggs, mashed potatoes, pork fat, butter, turnips, onions, and pepper vinegar; chicken fried in lard and served with cornmeal mush (we might call it polenta now); cymling (pattypan squash) fritters; tomato marmalade; dark fig cake; pork sweetbreads stewed in milk and butter. Not a can of soup in sight.

We were far from our history, and far from contemporary life beyond our circumscript horizons. Although corporate affiliations, fraternal organizations, and churches linked our families to the wider world, those ties were not avenues. Nearly everyone was far enough from his European roots to have no old country to visit or even remember. Our name was Irish, and we knew that the first American McNamee—Charles—had arrived in Virginia in 1820 from Newtown Stuart in Ulster, but not much of our blood was Irish, and none of our family culture was. Only my name connected me to him. Whitehaven’s old countries were Mississippi, Arkansas, and rural Tennessee. We vacationed just far enough beyond them to feel a gentle, unthreatening foreignness—the steaminess, gambling, beaches, and spicy shrimp boils of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast; the green, German hills and smoky sausages of the Wisconsin Dells; the hillbilly hardscrabble of the Ozarks and southern Appalachians, with their moonshine and air of sullen exclusion, where we could feel privileged and blessed.

My parents and my sister Janie and I went to the Gulf Coast, where gambling and liquor were illegal but nevertheless taxed by the state of Mississippi. Biloxi was little-league louche compared to New Orleans, but the same scents hung in the heavy air, of salt water, beer, fish, magnolias, cheap cigars, cheap perfume. We ate in restaurants! Every day! The Friendship House in Mississippi City with its tall, solemn waiters! The Black Angus, where they cooked thick steaks before your eyes with a little signpost stuck in each to indicate its desired doneness! We had blue crabs boiled in spicy broth, then spilled out on newspaper-covered picnic tables to be smashed with mallets. We licked that luscious juice from our fingers. I ordered a baked red snapper, and, something I’d never seen before, it arrived staring me in the face. You could get a mountain of fried shrimp for a dollar. And oh, my God, I swallowed oysters raw. Somehow my parents got a shrimp boat to take me out, and I brought back a mess of pink shrimp still wriggling in their net bag along with tiny flounders, crabs, shiners, eels, transparent squid.

My family’s sojourn in New York made us just a little exotic. For all her apartness, my mother had unavoidably absorbed a bit of Manhattan. Amid the dreary casseroles and congealed salads of Savanna’s Own Cook Book there were several blank pages headed, “Write Extra Recipes Here,” and on one, in her New York days, my mother had inscribed two of her own, one for broiled or barbecued South African Lobster Tails, the other for Rock Lobster Thermidor—dishes unlikely to have been tasted in Savanna, Illinois.

Recipes, in any case, came into use infrequently—at my mother’s ladies’ luncheons and my parents’ evening bridge club. I remember in particular her Pyrex casseroles of turkey Tetrazzini and her revolting Jello-based congealed salads. Our family dinners were much better: fried chicken, rib steaks cooked on the grill—my mother started the charcoal with lawn-mower gasoline, tossing a match from ten feet away and still having to duck from the stunning whumpf! of the explosion—excellent French fries, a dessert called apple float, comprising equal parts whipped cream and canned applesauce. Every Tuesday evening, my father went to Kiwanis Club, and my mother was then free to cook what she liked and he didn’t, such as chicken livers. My sister and I both detested those, and soon enough my mother gave in and started giving us what we really wanted: Chef Boy-Ar-Dee pizza, which came, as I recall, entirely out of a box; butter-and-sugar sandwiches (margarine, actually) or cinnamon toast; Swanson’s TV dinners, which we adored. Best of all, we got to set up little folding individual tables in the den and watch television.

Special occasions brought out my mother’s worst cooking. I remember one Thanksgiving when she got up in the middle of the night to start the turkey cooking at two hundred degrees; by dinnertime, it had long since given up its last ounce of fluid. We liked the cranberry sauce that came from a can; she made congealed cranberry salad with orange peel and other horrors in it. In the gravy gray, unspeakable chunks of turkey organs swam. The sweet potatoes were so heavily sugared as to set the teeth on edge. The rolls were store-bought and underbaked. Of the Brussels sprouts, the less said the better.


We were still so far from the great world! Whitehaven fought fluoridation of its water supply on the grounds that it was a Communist plot to damage American’ reproductive capacity. Whitehaven stood idly by as its innocent waterways were raped by the Army Corps of Engineers. Only a few in Whitehaven read books; I know, because I grew up going at least weekly with my mother (president of the local ladies’ book club) to the always almost-empty library. Our political heritage was the Democratic Party—the Republicans were still the party of Lincoln—but in 1960 most of Whitehaven voted for Nixon, to keep that left-wing Catholic snob Kennedy out (at a cost far more dire than anyone could foresee). My mother voted for Kennedy, a mild gesture but one sufficient to drive my father nearly to rage.

Elvis Presley was the idol of Whitehaven’s kids, the devil incarnate to their parents. His grandiose ersatz-plantation manse stood not a mile from our house, and sometimes he would suddenly, shyly appear at one of our pickup football games, astride a pink Harley-Davidson or at the wheel of one of his several pink Cadillac convertibles and usually accompanied by a bubble-haired, gum-snapping girl so utterly wrong in every detail that the gnashing of my mother’s teeth could be heard from every church pulpit in Whitehaven. The seeds of the culture wars had been planted, in our town and in our family.

The undoing of Whitehaven’s isolation was to come in a thousand tiny breaches, most of them at first no more than pinpricks. Through each came a tiny leakage inward of the world beyond; very little of Whitehaven would actually reach out into it until much later (as when I was launched, like an early space probe, into the barely breathable altitudes of Yale).

Among Whitehaven’s strongest defenses against cultural invasion was its all-pervasive racism. Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 had brought an official end to segregation, but the reality took until 1957 to penetrate our perimeter, when television brought us the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, only a hundred and forty miles to our west. We watched transfixed as Governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard against those skinny, scared, dark-faced kids. We watched the white students and parents snarling and spitting at them. We watched as the outraged President Eisenhower federalized Faubus’s Guard and sent in the 101st Airborne. At ten years old, I felt the first strange flush of shame in my whiteness. The “white only” water fountains in Lowenstein’s department store (and everywhere else), the separate waiting rooms in our family doctor’s office, the segregation of everything around us, were suddenly visible. Bobby Towery and I stole from the window of the laundromat at the Whitehaven Plaza Shopping Center the wooden sign that read


Or Maid in Uniform

and we burned it.

I had already seen plenty of poverty, among both white and colored, when my mother took me along with her either into our local ghettos or out into the country to bring Thanksgiving turkey and groceries to the reeking shacks of the poor. For the Cancer Society she took sick poor people, smelling even worse, to the hospital and home again, with me cowering miserably in the front seat. Our poor people were very poor, often hungry, and it was worse down in the Mississippi Delta, where my daddy’s kinfolks all still lived, but until the civil rights movement burst in on us poverty seemed yet another fixed property of our world. Beginning to understand disadvantage as political, a function of active discrimination, and therefore ameliorable, tore a hole in my isolation, and through it shone a light almost unbearably bright.

The few colored people I had known were all servants—maids, cooks, country club waiters—and I did not understand their unfailing niceness as professional obligation (and a fragile trap door above the pit of poverty). Like many another quality assumed at first under duress, this niceness, I believe, often became genuine. Modine, my favorite among the succession of maids who served our family, I loved with a purer and more open heart, I swear, than I loved my mother. Sometimes on Saturdays Mama would deliver me to the creaking, unpainted tenement where Modine lived in a one-room apartment, and it would be an afternoon in paradise. Modine cooked neckbone stew and lima beans and collard greens on a wood-burning stove. She smelled of smoke and good food when she took me in her arms and I laid my head on her bosom. My mother and father both had hard edges, hard voices, and the hard duty of disciplining a willful child; Modine was all softness, a voice like a whisper, hands of inexpressible gentleness.

I continued to visit Modine for years after I needed baby-sitting. Photographs of John and Robert Kennedy appeared on the doily on top of her little brown TV, to be followed by one of Martin Luther King. By then I could feel not only the gentleness but the strength of her grip. We didn’t have to talk about Dr. King and the Kennedys; without a word she understood that I understood. I saw in her profile and color some American Indian ancestry—another people I had now begun to recognize as abused and heroic. When I sat on Modine’s sagging, chenille-covered bed and ate her soup from a chipped plate on my lap, I now know, she was feeding me her strength and courage. She had, perhaps wittingly, put me under a grave obligation, to live up to them.

[1] Cheairs was my father’s mother’s maiden name, which first appears among the harried Huguenots of Rouen, France, seeks refuge in Bristol, England, in 1658, and about the year 1690 makes its way to Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, with no known stops in Spain.

[2] I take a little issue with this portioning. Mississippi’s obesity epidemic aside, I wouldn’t try serving this amount of Oysters Johnny Reb to more than eight people, and that as an appetizer.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Linguine with Lenny

One more story from my memoir this week, then next week we head elsewhere. This takes place in 1972.

Black Rock, as the CBS headquarters building was known to most of its inmates, was widely considered one of Eero Saarinen’s masterpieces. Its appearance was both elegant and forbidding, and certain of its floors were assiduously guarded from intrusion, notably the top, where the mighty William S. Paley ruled over us all, and the eleventh, which housed the senior executives of Columbia Records and its creative heart, the A&R Department. It was rather a shock to me, therefore, when one day in the fall of 1970 a teenage boy, having somehow dodged the receptionist, appeared at my office door asking me to listen to a demo tape. His name was Ricky Lyon, he was from Washington, D.C., seventeen, a senior in high school; and his tunes and his singing were terrific. “The lyrics, though,” I told him, “could be better.”

“I suppose you could do better,” he replied.

“As a matter of fact, I could.”

Ricky had a way of getting his way. Before long I had rewritten the lyrics for that song, and he composed music for several lyrics I had lying around, and pretty soon we were a songwriting team. The following fall, 1971, he started at Harvard, and so began four years of both of us yoyoing between New York and Cambridge. We also worked together on the phone. When Ricky was in New York, we fueled ourselves on the immense sandwiches of Wolf’s Deli on Seventh Avenue, many of which were named for obscure or forgotten actors. My favorite was the Maxie Special, roast turkey, tongue, and Russian dressing on rye, with a side of cole slaw and half-sour pickles.

For years I had been desperately wanting to make music, and nearly all my attempts had led nowhere. I had spent countless hours at Yale toiling over the piano in the Silliman College basement, utterly untrained in performance but nonetheless picking out tunes for lyrics I’d already written. I wrote harmony, too, and sometimes, after studying composition, I even orchestrated them. My senior year, I was a Scholar of the House, which meant I pursued an independent project and took no classes whatever. My project was to be both poems and music. My poetry tutor was Robert Penn Warren, my composition tutor a crazed Venezuelan ultra-modernist named Alejandro Planchart. It took only a couple of months for Mr. Planchart and me to agree that I really had no talent for composing music, and my project thenceforward was poetry alone.

But I still wanted to be involved with music, somehow. In the spring of 1969 I wrote to John Hammond, the legendary talent scout and producer at Columbia Records, who had discovered and recorded, among many others, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, and Bob Dylan. To my astonishment, he invited me to lunch, and shortly thereafter he offered me a job. The deal we hatched was that I would work for him three days a week as his personal assistant, and the other two days I would be a staff lyricist at April Blackwood Music, the music-publishing arm of CBS. I wanted to take off June and July, after graduation, to spend in Whitehaven with Louise, and Mr. Hammond said fine. When I arrived in New York to take up my glorious new job, however, Mr. Hammond wasn’t even in town. I sat for days in a miserable student room at the Biltmore Hotel staring out into an airshaft, and there I turned twenty-two. When Mr. Hammond finally came back, he told me he was terribly, terribly sorry (he had a grand old New York aristocrat’s voice, which always sounded cheerful, encouraging, and authoritative, even when delivering a death blow like this one), but he and the president of the company had had rather a dispute, and the long and the short of it was that he, Mr. Hammond, wasn’t being allowed to hire an assistant. So, so sorry.

The father of one of my Yale roommates was a lawyer in New York named Frank Platt. He had told me to be sure and call when I came to New York, and now I did. Helplessly, my tale of woe spilled forth. “Meet me at the club car on the 5:14 to Greenwich,” said Mr. Platt. “Bring your clothes. The guest house is empty.”

The next morning, this angel of a man began “working the horn” on my behalf. After three days of threats and cajoling, he had gotten me hired at Columbia Records, not as John Hammond’s assistant but as an all-around trainee. His daughter’s apartment on Park Avenue was empty for August, and I was welcome to stay there till I got settled in my job and found an apartment.

At Columbia, nobody had any idea what to do with me. Often I would just sit at an empty desk in a secretarial bullpen reading a book. I’d sit in on meetings, having no idea what any of the jargon meant. One thing I did learn was that the atmosphere of Columbia Records was savagely hostile. Nearly everybody was an up-from-the-streets New Yorker, and there was a lot of yelling. Finally I rotated into the advertising department, whose head, Arnold Levine, took pity on me. As it happened, I did know how to do what they did in that department: I could write. And so I did. The radio commercials in particular were wonderful training—one sentence to introduce the music, one in the middle over a transition, and a seller at the end.

Then Columbia had this amazing competition, to pick three young folks to become talent scouts and eventually producers. Two of them were chosen from outside the company, and I was the third. I got a modest raise. My two new hell-raising colleagues and I had our own secretaries and unlimited expense accounts. We jetted across the country and roamed downtown New York in search of great new rock and roll. We stayed up till all hours in clubs, and bumbled in at eleven in the morning. We didn't really have a boss: The head of our department was based in Los Angeles and had Parkison's disease, and the president of the company had no time to be bothered with us. So we hauled in every sort of bizarre talent we could find, and spent long, expensive hours in the studio making audition tapes, unchecked by even a whisper of authority.

I found a lot of talent, I felt, and took the artists into the studio and made a lot of demo recordings, but none of them ever passed muster with the higher-ups. Finally, one day I was in the studio control room watching one of my colleagues edit live recordings from the Atlanta Pop Festival when I heard something like nothing I had ever heard. I asked him to play it again. “You like that shit?” he inquired.

“I love it.” I found out who it was—the Hampton Grease Band—and I flew immediately to Atlanta to hear them. This was it—this was the genius music I had always wanted to be part of. Okay, I wouldn’t be writing any of it, but just to produce such great music would be glory enough. The music was rock and roll, but it was polyrhythmic, polytonal, improvisatory but also intricately structured; the lyrics were surreal, often hysterically funny; the lead singer, Bruce Hampton, had the magnetism of an undeniable star; and the musicians could do anything. It turned out they were partway through recording an album for a production company in Georgia. That was fine. I came roaring back to New York with tape, and this time it worked. We signed the band, and I produced the rest of the record—a two-LP set called “Music to Eat.”

The band’s New York début, just after the album’s release, took place at the Fillmore East (hard by Ratner’s Dairy Restaurant, where my Jewish friends had been introducing me to the wonders of blintzes, cheese kreplach, pickled lox, and, um, not so wonderful, baked gefilte fish with creole sauce). The Grease Band would open, then their spiritual cousins, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, would play, followed by John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band. The Grease Band was a sensation. The famously blasé Fillmore ushers were throwing their flashlights into the air.

But the record seemed to be in hardly any store in the country. And no radio stations would play it—the songs were too long, the music was too weird, Hampton’s voice was too harsh. The program managers (who decided which records would be played on the air and which not) hated it. So, it seemed, did nearly everyone at Columbia Records. With no support, the album swiftly sank from sight. It remains one of the lowest-selling records in Columbia history. I was fired.

Thus Ricky Lyon—the artist I had hoped to sign next—was flat out of luck. And I was utterly humilated. Except for giving up on music composition, which at least was by my own choice, I had never really failed at anything. This, undeniably, was failure. Then Louise got laid off from her job as a day-care center teacher, and we were both out of work. To console ourselves, we cooked. We cooked more and more elaborately, artistically, happily. But it couldn’t last. We had to have jobs.

It was dear old Arnold Levine who saved me, first by giving me freelance work and ultimately in hiring me as a full-time copywriter. It was ridiculously easy work. It took me an hour or two a day. The rest of the time I spent in my office, smoking cheap cigars, writing poems, and dreaming up a totally insane musical play, book and lyrics by Thomas McNamee, music by Richard Lyon.

I was at the time solidly and foolishly in the grip of Joseph Campbell’s four-volume The Masks of God, in which I discovered a ninth-century Irish monk named John the Scot from whose life my play was loosely derived. John the Scot believed that God was present not only in the human soul but in all creation—in birds, in blades of grass, in mosquitoes. For the medieval Church, this belief was uncomfortably close to pantheism, and John was excommunicated. My modern hero, John Scott, was a physicist who believed that something radical needed to be done about the exponential growth of the planet’s human population. He was haunted by two nude blonde spirit-women, and eventually went quite mad. He advocated infanticide, and imagined that he would spark a worldwide movement by killing, and eating, his twin daughters. I called the play Sirens. It struck me that it would make a dandy Broadway musical. I just needed a composer. Ricky happily agreed. We were both completely nuts.

Leonard Bernstein was awarded the Norton Fellowship in Ricky’s sophomore year. Unlike most Norton Fellows, Bernstein took full advantage of his honor by spending much of the year living on the Harvard campus, writing up his famous Norton lectures—which became a book, The Unanswered Question, a fierce defense of tonality against the forces of atonal chaos that claimed absolute hegemony over contemporary “classical” music. Bernstein also trolled for, and caught, a lot of Harvard boys. Ricky’s roommate practically had to fight to escape the advances of the great maestro. Ricky himself, as ever undaunted, persuaded Bernstein to listen to some of the songs we’d been working on for Sirens.

He loved them. He loved us—though he never made the slighest sexual overture. We loved him! It was unbelievable. Bernstein got his sister, Shirley, to be our manager. His own manager opened door after door for us on Broadway. Behind each of those Broadway doors, it seems now, lurked a short, fat, cigar-puffing producer in a dumpy brown suit and a tall, sleek, lacquer-nailed producer in an immaculate blue pinstripe; they would listen to Ricky play and sing our songs, then they would look at each other, and then they would look at us, and the guy with the cigar would say, “Is this a joke?”

Shirley got us an appointment with Otto Preminger. He was a very small man, as wrinkled and brown as a mummy, and behind his immense, nearly empty marble desk he seemed to be nearly comatose. Then he growled, without, I believe, opening his eyes. “Come forward.” Ricky played and sang our songs, and I talked my way through the story. Preminger hardly awoke, just waved us away.

Bernstein invited me to dinner at his penthouse apartment on Park Avenue. The first real butler I had ever seen showed me to a little paneled room where the maestro was sitting with his sock feet up on an ottoman, watching the news. Nixon was onscreen, sweating, trying out some more lies about Watergate.

“He’s going to jail!” I crowed.

Bernstein did not call me Kid, but he did say, “Not in a million years.”

“But they’ve got him nailed now!” I cried.

He favored me with an indulgent smile.

On the terrace, a uniformed woman with a German accent served us from a giant steaming platter of green spaghetti. The spaghetti was flat instead of round. It had almost no sauce on it, but the aroma was intensely wonderful. “This is linguine with pesto genovese,” my host replied to my baffled look.

When the waitress or cook or whoever she was returned and offered seconds, I took a mountain of linguine and slurped every last noodle down. I leaned back, in bliss, and lit a cigarette. “Lenny,” I said, stuffed to the limit and just drunk enough (on Watergate rage, my blossoming artistic ego, and Chianti) to have become his fellow man of the world, “that was the most delicious dinner I have ever had.”

Then the waitress came back again, with the main course. Veal, I think it was, swimming in sauce.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Another Chinatown story: The Happy Garden

First, thanks to all who responded to my first post. This week I've got another old Chinatown story, but this will be the last of those for a while.

We were stoned. God, were we stoned. We figured it was part of the job. Just out of college, full of intellectual beans and convinced that rock and roll music was a great art form and capable of becoming greater still, I was working at CBS, for Columbia Records, a nascent A&R Man. Artists and Repertoire Men were the guys who “signed” “talent” to “the label” and produced what the president of the company called “wrekkids.” There were three of us young guys who had won a big competition and gotten this inexpressibly great job. Our boss was based in Los Angeles, and was very ill, so in effect we had no boss except the president of the company, who was too busy and too grand to pay much attention to us. We had secretaries, and apparently unlimited expense accounts. We stayed up till all hours in clubs in the Village listening to rock and roll bands, smoking pot and scouting for talent to sign to the label, and it was uncool to get to the office before eleven.

I was still wearing what I’d worn in college, tweed jackets, khakis, bow ties, and clear-rimmed glasses, though I had grown a beard. My colleagues had long hair, tinted glasses, snakeskin boots. One of them would roll his first joint of the day—with one hand—before he got out of bed. He was nonetheless a fine banjo player. We would get together with his bluegrass buddies and “go for Chinese,” as he put it, usually to the Happy Garden, on the Bowery, because they served till four in the morning and we loved the knowing, ironic smile of our inveterate waiter, Mark.

We ordered the usual Sino-American crap: sweet-and-sour pork, moo goo gai pan, fried rice with ham and shrimp. Marijuana food. Mark taught us to use chopsticks. He told us to try salt-and-pepper shrimp, and to eat them shell and all except for the head. Delirious, we ordered a second portion.

“Next time,” he commanded, “you order in advance Peking duck.” We did as he said. It was bliss.

“You try whole fish with ginger and garlic. Sea bass.” My colleagues reeled at the sight, and we made a mess of the carcass. Mark came and picked out the many remaining good bits and distributed them among us.

“Combination seafood soup,” he announced, though we had not ordered it. He doled out bowlfuls of, oh, my God, what was that?

“Sea cucumber,” said Mark.

And that?


And that?

“No name in English.”

We learned anew, thanks to combination seafood soup, to chew.

“No use so much soy sauce,” he chided the banjo player, who always drenched his rice almost black. “Kill taste.”

We acquired a sort of boss, a guy a year or two older who never smiled and never told us to do or not to do anything. We took him to the Happy Garden. He wouldn’t touch the food. He went to sleep at the table. A junkie.

At the Singles Meeting, where the president presided over the release of that week’s hoped-to-be hits on 45-r.p.m disks, and the president either bobbed his head to the beat in approval—or shook it sadly, instant death for the song—the music was played at physically damaging volume over a pair of speakers each the size of a refrigerator. Anybody who was anybody in the company, or expected to be, was there. Heads of departments sat at the table, lesser lights behind along the wall. Our new boss sat at the table, as near as he could get to the president, but then one time he nodded out in the middle of a new wrekkid. He was gone the next day.


Louise and I were just married, and we shared a deepening passion for food. We learned to cook the hard way, following Julia Child to the letter. We walked the streets of New York’s neighborhoods in search of Turkish food, Cuban, Cuban-Chinese, Indian, and of course all sorts of Chinese. When Louise and I went to the Happy Garden, as we did often, we eschewed the sweet and glutinous hybrids that my stoned A&R compadres and I really did like. We also avoided Sunday nights, when the place was flooded with Jewish families following the New York post-sabbath tradition of indulging in the forbidden delights of shellfish and pork in a sufficiently foreign setting.

At ordinary dinnertimes, the Happy Garden was full of Chinese people gabbing merrily in Cantonese, mixing Seven-Up with Cognac, and feasting. Waiters loaded their lazy-susans with dozens of delicacies we had never seen, smelled, tasted, or imagined. Yellow banners taped high on the walls each bore a column of elegant Chinese calligraphy, and no English; these were the special dishes, for Chinese only.

We told Mark we wanted real Chinese food. “Like—that,” I said, nodding toward a table of twelve, three or four generations busily tucking into a dozen mysterious wonders.

He gave us a long, doubtful look. “American no like.”

No. We like (I hoped). I pointed to the banners. Would he compose a menu for us?

“What you like?”


He started us conservatively, with crisp-fried squid (people ate squid?), lacquered roast squab (served with the head, as authentication), fish-maw soup. But since we evidently would eat anything he put before us, it wasn’t long,before Mark began to exercise his prodigious creativity. Word had spread among our friends; our tables grew bigger, Mark’s menus more subtle and complex. He never forgot what we had had before.

“Last time you have black mushroom with fish ball, slice giant clam with sweet soy sauce, water spinach, Happy Garden steak.” The last was a chef’s specialty, its secret ingredient Worcestershire sauce. “Maybe tonight you try fresh frog with garlic.”

These were not the big ol’ bullfrog hind legs like the ones at the Whitehaven (Tennessee, where I grew up) Country Club. These were the limbs of much smaller frogs, not only the hind legs but the front ones, which looked exactly like tiny little human arms with tiny little human hands. “Fresh!” cried Mark. “Live ten minute ago.”


Mark led me (he did not invite the lady) through the kitchen into the black, stinking, rain-slimed back yard and bade me look into a dark wooden barrel. Hundreds of frogs’ eyes peered back.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Tom, No Eat Bone

Some years ago I published a bunch of food memories in Saveur magazine, and I'm now gathering them together along with a large amount of new material for a book-length memoir. I'm starting this blog (this is my first-ever post) to try out some parts of the manuscript as I move along. I'm hoping for helpful advice and criticism. Here's one little segment to get started on:

Dick Ward and my old pal Dave Graves had a winery called Saintsbury, in the Carneros district of Napa County, California, where they made, and still make, some of the most delicious pinot noir and chardonnay in the world. True to the winery’s Burgundian ethos (“Beaune in the USA,” it said on the official Saintsbury t-shirt), they both liked to eat, and prided themselves on their willingness to eat anything. So did I.

So when Dick came to visit, adventurous eating was in order. After a half-bottle of some good Champagne, we walked from the Village down through Soho and Little Italy, stopping at Vincent’s Clam Bar for a couple of drafts and two dozen littlenecks, hoping, though failing, to see Mafiosi. Then we moseyed on down to Lan Hong Kok, a Hong Kong seafood joint on Division Street, in the clangorous shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, where Chinatown gets seriously funky.

The principal ornament of Lan Hong Kok’s décor was a large, humming refrigerator whose glass doors were perpetually smeared with the waiters’ fingerprints. Their short, frayed, grease-spotted gold jackets attested to Lan Hong Kok’s casual attitude toward hygiene. It was about nine o’clock when we arrived; the last Chinese customers were putting on their coats, and only a solo roundeye remained, a thin-haired old hippie scarfing down some brownish noodle thing. The staff, disturbed in their evening meal, showed no great gladness in seeing Dick and me, though I was a regular by then. As we studied the cracked-plastic-covered menu, I thought I saw from the corner of my eye a rat scurry past along the opposite wall. That sort of thing was to me a badge of honor in those days. One of my frequent luncheon companions and I used the city health department’s list of dining establishments found to be in violation of various cleanliness codes, published weekly in the Times, as a restaurant guide.

“That was a rat, wasn’t it?” said Dick.

“I think it was, yes,” said I.

Hey, you didn’t go to Lan Hong Kok for luxe, calme, or volupté. Sharing the insalubrious character of the refrigerator, a number of smeary-walled aquariums filled with living creatures lined the front windows—advertisements for connoisseurs like us. A few of the aquariums’ residents, it is true, like the gasping catfish with mold growing out of its gills, and the upside-down carp, had little time left before their leases expired, but the eels were swirling gaily beneath their fluorescent moon, and the shrimp were scooting hither and thither, and the softshell turtles looked no worse than resigned. Also my favorite waiter was there, whose name I did not yet know but who knew mine. (“Tom, where you wife?” “Out of town.” Though she had braved it a couple of times, L.H.K. wasn’t exactly Louise’s kind of place, and the waiter’s brief flicker of a smile suggested that he understood that.)

Dick had brought along a bottle each of his latest chardonnay and pinot noir, both of which easily surpassed Saintsbury’s stated objective, deliciousness. Dick and Dave made a big point of making wine to go with food, and we were spotting all kinds of weird stuff on the menu that Dick said would be well matched to the wines in hand.

Dick’s tastes turned out to be even more adventurous than mine. He promptly proposed the sautéed goose colon. “It’ll be perfect with the pinot,” he said, “because it’s got this, you know, barnyardy element.”

“And that would be?”

“Well, to be blunt, it smells like chicken shit.”

“And that’s good?”

“A lot of the best red Burgundies have the same barnyard characteristic, Tom.”

Lan Hong Kok’s wine glasses held only a few tablespoonfuls, but I swirled and sniffed as well as I could. I was trying to remember the last time I’d smelled chicken shit, and I wasn’t sure if I smelled it now. The wine did smell, distinctly, of grapes. I tasted it. Tasted like red Burgundy, sure enough, but beyond that I couldn’t really say.

Anyway, I found myself cravenly drawing the line at the goose colon. We compromised on a somewhat less menacing part of the goose, the feet, with oyster sauce. Now, this waiter knew my heedlessness well—knew that I would plunge with reckless abandon into any damn thing short of goose colon, and knew that I would have absolutely no idea how to approach a goose foot. He presented a perhaps sarcastically high-piled platter of pimpled webbing, knobbly knuckles, and hooked goose toenails, glossed with slimy sauce. Dick and I looked at it.

The waiter stepped back, leaned forward behind my shoulder, and murmured politely in my ear. “Tom,” he said, “no eat bone.”