THE DINNER DIAIRIES
As with so many things in life I suspect that it was a combination of circumstances that lead me to start the Dinner Diaries. Obviously, the date of the first entry is October 16, 1983, but I don’t recall anything exceptional in regard to the date and I don’t recall myself pondering a rationale that led to my deciding to keep a record of my culinary efforts. But something clicked, some cog in my mind turned and it was done. Just like that summer in Providence when I cooked Ellen dinner. There was something right about it, something that I needed to do. Of course I can’t leave out ego and compulsion from the mix. I wonder if a friend might have made the suggestion. A friend, a dinner companion that thought enough of my cooking to think that it should be put to paper; a dinner companion who knew just how obsessive I could be.
I’m disappointed that I didn’t start writing them sooner because so much is lost: the honey-almond mousse, the first glazed ham, the first burned turkey and the last Adelle Davis dish. When I started writing them I was cooking a lot, regularly had friends over for dinner and was always looking for new dishes to cook and new ingredients to cook with. OK, some things haven’t changed. I was getting pretty good at the cooking thing, loved it, and I wanted to remember what worked and what didn’t, what I had served to friends so that I didn’t serve it again the next time I hosted them, how long something should be cooked, what amount was enough for how many, which dishes would become icons and which should be consigned to an eternity in the trash can. The diaries are contained in two handwritten volumes that run from 1983 to 2002, after which I began putting them on the computer. I prefer the torn, stained, smeared, warm reality of the handwritten pages to the computer, but the diaries now contain a lot more information than they used to and my cramped hands aren’t up to all the writing. I haven’t included all of the diaries. Some of them are boring, some of them are repetitious and some just don’t have a tale in them. I have included those diary entries that are noteworthy for any number of reasons: funny, sad, instructive, something that I felt was important, a good tale.
It’s a memory lane trip to go back through the diaries – and there is, of course, good and bad and sorrow and joy in that journey. The diaries are the keys that unlock ‘the rest of the story’. Through them I can conjure up the ghosts of that particular slice of time: lovers, friends, jobs, family, homes and kitchens and, most importantly for this story – the cooking. They are my own time machine.
I look at them, read them and think that, despite the fact that my life’s been pretty much plain vanilla, it’s been pretty damned good. There’s been a whole lot of living, a whole lot of cooking and there’s a lot to be said for a good plain vanilla.
The Dinner Diaries – 1983
Dinner Diary – The First Dinner Diary Entry – October 16, 1983
Is this history or what? It seems such a long time ago in so many ways from my current perspective. What I knew then about food and cooking, how I approached my life and what part food and cooking had it that life.
This is a nice little menu and a good start to the Dinner Diaries. While looking back at the Diary, I’m struck by several things. The fact that I love cooking enough to keep a diary about it, that I’m egotistical enough to want to tell you about it, the people that move in and out of my life, that so many of the menus are so good and that, thankfully, not many of the menus are too bad. A whole lot of cooking. A whole lot of living.
Nina and John, both ‘art people’. He, a well know ceramist. She, a ceramist who later went into ceramic and leather fashion accessories. Nina’s accessories were so ‘hot’ and ‘au current’ that she was made an offer that couldn’t be refused by a world famous shoe designer in Milan, Italy to design for his company. Talk about not knowing where life’s going to take you. Of course she accepted, she’d have been a fool not to. No, John did not go with her. So, who’s Maura? A woman that I was dating at the time. You don’t need to know more than that. She was very nice, but the relationship didn’t really go anywhere. More often than not they don’t. At the time I was still renting the small house in Princeton that I had been when I was married to Swintbn and still enjoying Conte’s pizza, but nowhere near as often as I had previously.
I remember that the kitchen in the house was small, but you know, you manage to work with what you’ve got. I’ve never, yet, let a kitchen dictate what I wanted to do. In a pinch, there’s always the propane and charcoal grills.
This menu isn’t too bad, maybe a little overboard and heavy. You’ll soon see a trend in that regard. I don’t remember suffering any histrionics, gnashing of teeth or screams during the preparation of this meal – maybe I’m blocking. It seems that it was one of my first times making Osso Bucco – what a SUPER dish – how did I live without ever having tasted this wonder! God Bless Bone Marrow, our children should have it at least once a day. I use marrow bones in soup base when they don’t need to have a clear broth. If Santa really thought that I was a good boy, he’d have brought me a set of marrow spoons by now. The ‘N.Y.T.’ is my abbreviation for Craig Claiborne’s, The New York Times Cook Book, which is the source of the recipe. Another in the pantheon of great cook books mine attests to its place on the podium by its missing dust jacket, split spine, one cover falling off and many stained wrinkled and pot burned pages. When I cook the Osso Bucco these days, it does not have, “too much liquid”, I have learned to do sauces and reductions. Sometimes I finish the cooking in the oven, sometimes on the stove top and once in a while in the pressure cook (a great too l- it’s fast and yields a finished dish that’s flavorful, tender and moist). The Fettuccine with pine nuts is my recipe (OK, so it’s pretty simple) and I still think that it works well. I made the fettuccine on an Atlas pasta machine (I used to have more time) and I hope to God that I toasted the pine nuts. While it does need butter or olive oil and cheese it probably did not need, “plenty of butter and cheese” as an accompaniment. I’m intrigued by the “Bitter Chocolate Ice Cream with Orange Confit”. The recipe’s from ‘bon appétit’ magazine. They usually do a pretty good job of making their recipes ‘work’. I’ll have to try that recipe again – I’m assuming from the notations that Chef didn’t do a good job making it. Buried at the bottom of the page, herbed zucchini. Eat your vegetables.
Dinner Diary – November 19, 1983
Rice with mushrooms and walnuts paired with shrimp and scallop curry? What was I thinking? That’s a horrible combination. However, with the exception of the rice/walnut/shrooms the menu isn’t too bad. I’m also ignoring the fact that, in my review of this menu, the rum raisin cake doesn’t really “go” either. OK, I should have left it at the shrimp/scallops, served that over a basmati or jasmine rice and kept the salad. For dessert? Seasonal berries and sabayon, a lemon or orange mousse or home made sorbets.
Maura has been introduced in the previous diary. Kev is one of my brothers, Shawn is his wife. My brothers, Kevin and Mitchell, and I used to get together more often in the past. John and Mary, a wonderful couple and, at one time, close friends. People do drift in and out of each others lives. John and I worked together in an architectural firm. He was more driven and focused than I and has become one the principals in the firm. I, on the other hand tend to wander. He and Mary were wonderful enough to invite me and my current significant others to dinners at their home. Chris and Pat were introduced to me by John and Mary. See, I can meet new friends!
It’s always nice when that kind of thing happens. When old friends lead to new friends. John had, hopefully still has, a good, dry, wicked, witty sense of humor and I remember one dinner at their home where he served appetizers from an attaché case that was brought to the cocktail table. Speaking of appetizers, where the hell are they on my menu?
Once upon a time I was more concerned with each individual course, rather than the menu as a whole, but boy did that viewpoint ever change. For me nowadays the whole damn thing better work together, “a superb pairing”, AND each dish should be GREAT – not necessarily fancy just – GREAT.
You F***ing Bastard!
The single life continued and as we all know there are many dangers inherent with that lifestyle – most of them worth the risk. Most, not all. I was enjoying a nice relationship with a lovely lady, a relationship that found us enjoying, among other earthly delights, cooking and going to restaurants. Actually, I was doing the cooking including parties at her house for her friends. She would show me off as if I was a trophy at those events, “and yes, David did all the cooking! Isn’t he wonderful?!” Yes, I am wonderful! Sometimes it’s nice to be the trophy. The cooking; as I recall there was still no rhyme or reason to the menu. No thought given as to how all the courses worked together. That came with time, but at this particular point it was simply, “let me figure out how to make a crème bruleé.”
Our time together included a long-planned vacation trip. But alas, for me, by this time, my affection for this wonderful woman was heading south. I was beginning to feel that this relationship wasn’t going to go anywhere; that I didn’t want it to go any farther than it had. She was really looking forward to the trip, so I figured that I couldn’t let her down – not at that moment. Yes, I felt very conflicted. Bonnie has often chided me about this, accusing me of letting her pay my way on the vacation – not true, paid my own way – and saying that if I had any backbone I would have kissed her goodbye before the vacation – easier said than done from my perspective. And so we went on vacation and it was good, not great, but good.
The week after we returned I drove to her house on Saturday morning, was let in and given a hug, and I then said to her, “Please sit down, I’ve got to talk to you.” She sat and I knew that puzzled and apprehensive look on her face. It had been on my face several times in the past. I took a deep breath and in a shaky voice said, “I don’t think that we should see each other anymore. I’m sorry, but I just don’t feel the same way about this relationship as you do. I’m sorry, but goodbye.” For her, there was much gnashing of teeth, soul wrenching sobs and rivers of tears, but I was out less than 10 minutes from when I entered. For me, blessed relief, tinged with sadness. I do find it hard to intentionally tell someone something that’s going to hurt them. Unintentionally I do it all the time because I’m something of an idiot.
You out there!!! All the women that are at this second trying to find out where I live so that you can find me and take part in providing me with a very slow and agonizing death – stop. The clean and quick goodbye is the way to go. Isn’t it better and more truthful to have it done in a second rather than spreading it out over months? Like getting a tooth pulled. Like pulling a Band-Aid off. She may have a different take on that.
Just like they say, payback IS a bitch. She called a month or two after my departure. I was startled when I picked up the receiver and heard her voice, as the conversation proceeded, she sounded rational and I could hear no ‘institutional sounds’ (clanging shut of cell doors, roll calls, activity announcements, calls for medication) so I thought that the call might go OK. She asked how I was and said that she’d like to see me for dinner, just to say hello. I was so startled that I said yes.
When will I learn that public venues, restaurants in particular, may not be the best place for a Grunwald to be when ‘there’s something in the air’? Probably never, I’ve repeated it too many times. Before any of you go out to a restaurant in the northeast you may want to call and ask if there’s a reservation in my name. If there is, I leave it to you to decide whether or not to stay home, out of the line of fire, or come and enjoy the possible show.
I picked her up and we were seated in the restaurant, so far so good. For my part, I was a tad nervous. We each had a drink, dinners were ordered, I kept looking for the glint of a knife blade and saw none other than the butter knife and fish knife, I saw no inappropriate bulge that a gun might make, no shadowed thugs hung by the door, small talk of what we’ve been doing (I made NO mention of anyone that I had been dating) and I actually began to relax a bit. I should be relaxed. It was an expensive restaurant with good food and service to match.
It was in that air of normalcy that her SCREAM was so absolutely unanticipated by me, as well as the rest of the diners. I almost hid under the table, I almost ran for the door, but the intensity of that scream had me frozen in my chair. It was a scream that immediately drew everyone’s attention; all heads swiveled to look at us. On reflection I am tremendously impressed by this scream as it seemed to rise from the very depths of her tortured and vengeance craving soul; so dark and full of anger that it froze my blood and stiffened the hairs on the back of my neck (and I almost peed in my pants – almost). It was a scream that both literally and figuratively started on a high note, “YOU F***ING BASTARD! Do you think that you can just go on vacation with me, tell me that you care about me and then just say GOODBYE!?!?!? The hell you can! How could you do that to me!? I thought that you loved me!? I was crying for days! I gained ten pounds! I haven’t slept! And, And, And, I missed my period and thought that I was PREGNANT! Well, I’m not, but you are a damned bastard and I hate you! I wish you were dead!” There was more, quite a bit more, but you get the gist of it.
As you know I’ve been a member of the cast in this play before. I’ve also been in the audience. In one of our dining experiences Bonnie and I have seen a woman stand up, throw her drink in the face of her male companion and say, “You bastard!” and walk out the door. Now that was a good show: short, to the point and it leaves you to ponder exactly what it was that he did or said to her. My dining companion told the audience exactly what I did to her – from her perspective. There was nothing to ponder. Having been in the audience and on the stage, I think that it’s much more fun to be in the audience.
The ambush was over, the bastard had been outed; I’m still betting that one of her girl friends talked her into it. Eventually she was calm enough so that we could leave the restaurant, without eating of course, and I drove her home – blessed silence for the entire trip. The irony – I ended up paying the dinner bill. Maybe I got off cheap after all.
And now in the rearview mirror were college, entrance into adulthood (arguable, I know), an introduction to life’s dramas and routines, and a divorce. Paths had been taken, but I knew that I didn’t have to stay on them and ahead I would be meeting the love of my life. Life had been full of surprises so far and I knew that was the one thing that I could count on ahead. When the craziness got to be too much, or simply because I wanted to cook, I could escape to the food, stove, pans and my knives. The Dinner Diaries had been started; the quality level of the dishes improved and the menus began to come together as a whole. I was beginning to realize, more and more, just how important the cooking and the food were to me; sanctuary, friendship, love and sharing.
The Dinner Diaries – 1984 – Dinner Diary – January 14, 1984
This is a very good menu – simple, not overloaded. Iconic dishes: Bouillabaisse and the Baklava recipe from the Apollo Phyllo dough package. Attended by brothers Kevin and Mitchell, Kev’s wife Shawn, our family friend Greg and I’m still dating Maura. Most dishes made ahead so that I could join in conversation with my guests – an unusual situation, the usual situation being a mad hurried dash to complete the cooking and plate the appetizers, yelling at my wife about the table not being set as I envisioned it and gulping down martinis trying to stay calm. I have happily ceded the table settings to Bonnie, because she does such a spectacular job of it.
Bouillabaisse, what a wonderful dish: the fish, the saffron, the good bread to sop up the broth. This is one of those recipes that there is no ’single’ recipe that is the ‘correct one’. That’s why I picked and chose from both a ‘New York Times Sunday Magazine’ article’ and ‘The Silver Palate Cook Book’. There are required basics such as the saffron and tomato broth, good fish and maybe shellfish; the rockfish (rascasse) is supposedly ‘de rigueur’. But it is most certainly open to improvisation. It started as a peasant dish, a dish for the working stiff. Do you think that some poor fisherman wasn’t going to make it because he didn’t catch any rascasse that day?
Fisherman Jacque, “Fisherman Pierre. Make us some bouillabaisse tonight, no?”
Fisherman Pierre, “No, no, I cannot do zeese. While we have many, many fish, we have no rascasse!”
Fisherman Jacque, “No rascasse! Sacre Bleu! Then we shall have no bouillabaisse tonight!”
So it’s tough to go too far astray making this, though you could; you could leave out the saffron and you could use Tilapia, one of the most tasteless fish in the sea, rather than a fish that has some flavor and character. This is a great dish to kick back with: elbows on the table, tear off hunks of bread with your hands and pinch your lover’s butt when they get up from the table to get another bottle of wine. The Saffroned rice with mushrooms: a redundant flavor with the saffron and unnecessary. Stick with the Bouillabaisse served in oversized bowls, a good bread and salad.
The Baklava recipe on the Apollo Phyllo Dough package. As far as I’m concerned this is one of the defining Baklava recipes, if not THE defining Baklava recipe. You could screw their recipe up, if you didn’t like to cook, or tried to cut corners (I know! It’s just SOOOOO hard to get fresh lemon juice from a lemon), or tried to make it ‘low fat’. You could substitute Splenda for sugar, margarine for butter, those pre-made crescent dinner rolls that come in a cardboard tube for Phyllo dough ( I mean really – hasn’t the manufacturer suggested that you can substitute these dinner rolls for everything from pizza to socks to Tilapia?) and bottled lemon juice instead of fresh lemon juice. We should kneel and kiss the Apollo people’s feet – it’s that good. Keep it real. If you don’t, I’ll hunt you down and deliver justice.
At one time in my culinary life I gave a Baklava cooking demonstration in conjunction with a Christmas Celebration that a nearby town was holding. I see nothing odd about a Polish lad giving a cooking demonstration for a Mediterranean dessert. Do you? I’ve still got my ‘battle plan’ notes (Mise en Place babe!). It was fun, I made no errors and I managed to stop the little girl who was going to mix the nuts, sugar and cinnamon with her bare hands from doing that until she had washed them. I had seen her out of the corner of my eye, picking her nose moments before she offered to do the mixing.
I went all out here! I had one Baklava that I popped in the oven when I got there so that folks could eat it as they were ‘making’ the second Baklava. The recipe had been copied so that everyone could have one. I had all my ingredients, all the utensils. I had checked out the venue a couple of days earlier to make sure that I had a sink and a working oven. I don’t know about you, but for me perfect doesn’t happen all that often. Perfect it was, I was loved by one and all and Santa was good to me that year.
Next Week: Dinner Diaries from 1984, Pouffy Sleeves and the Sorceress of Soup and St. Marteen in the Rain