Welcome to the post-Thanksgiving (at least, if you’re in the USA) installment of EATING AUTHORS. I only just returned from a delightful week in sunny San Diego, California where I visited with relatives and ate far too much. I also seem to have munged up my laptop computer, and so this installment has been cobbled together at the eleventh hour, and as such is a bit shorter than usual
Our guest today is Mark Nelson, and I’m happy to tell you he’s another member of the society of authors at Hadley Rille Books. His first novel, The Poets of Pevana, has been described as both breathtaking and brilliant, a romance and a political tale, a floor wax and a desert topping (oh, wait, no, that last one is from an early SNL skit, sorry).
LMS: Welcome, Mark. Have you come up with an answer to my email about your most memorable meal?
MN: Your question got me thinking back, and I realized food, meals, my own growth as a cook and a writer–all of those variables combined in some way to punctuate the major events in my life. Memorable birthday dinners when I was a kid, the first time I cooked for myself at college, meeting my wife’s entire family over a very Catholic Easter Reunion, feeding forty members of my daughter’s cross country team pasta for a pre-State Championship meal. It’s uncanny how often food played a role as instigator or setting for the sequence of make-ups, break-ups, resolutions and conflicts and just about every other moment I’ve retained as a milestone in my life. I love the weird connection!
Of all the meals I recall from my life the one that stands out most to me happened a number of years ago on the last night of a family trip down to Phoenix to spend time with the grandparents. My father decided to take us out to an Italian place that served authentic fare straight from the old country. The fact that the place was located in a strip mall on a busy street had nothing to do with the quality of the food or service.
This was my daughters’ first experience with a real, slow-paced, multi-course meal. As young parents, my wife and I had perfected the dine-and-dash meal thing at home. The kids up to that point were just too young for the leisurely nibble, sit around and talk about the day kind of meal. I was a little worried they would get bored quickly and make the evening difficult. Nothing of the sort happened.
I think several things contributed to the magic of that evening. The food came out in platters that everyone had a chance to sample. My kids astounded me in digging in with a will regardless of the offering. We had fifteen people around a table, parts of three families, many of us meeting for the first time. My father’s friend, Dominic, a retired Doctor from New York dominated the proceedings like a benevolent grandpa Corleone. The accents sounded as spicey as the food tasted. The bottles lined up as the meal progressed, and I found myself viewing the evening from an altogether unlooked for perspective.
As I mentioned, most of us around the table were meeting for the first time, and yet within minutes I felt like we were one extended family. I think food can have that sort of magic on people, especially if it is prepared with skill and honesty. All the dishes that night were spot on perfect: sausages, pasta, sauces of varigated piquancy and color. I will never forget my middle daugher’s face when she tried her first pickled anchovy…
I have never forgotten that night, and I find that I hunger to recreate it in some fashion every time I consider cooking for friends and family. Over the years I have realized that such times often come as gifts to be savored. The real gift that night was meeting my dad’s friend Dominic.
In the space of a two hour plus meal I went from total stranger to family friend, somewhere towards the dregs of the fourth bottle and fifth serving of egg plant parmesian. Dominic was amazing, sharp, witty, a gregarious, accented eighty-year old pisano. It was as if he had the pulse of the room monitored, and I can’t help but think he must have been a great doctor in his prime. He had a true healing spirit about him. I could sense it weaving itself about the conversation, in and out of the smells of oregano and marinara, beaming out, reflected in the smiles and laughter of all of us at that table.
That was the only time I ever talked with Dominic. We left for home the next morning. I learned later that Dominic passed away less than a month after that meal. I have always treasured the memory of that night as a gift. Often we give food for gifts, but something special happens when we wrap it up with our better spirits…
Thanks, Mark, Further evidence—not that we needed it, mind you—that great meals make for great memories.
Next Monday: Another author and another meal!
Tags: Eating Authors