Friday, February 19, 2010


Jim and I knew that the Meatball Shop at 84 Stanton, between Allen and Orchard in the Lower East Side, was about to open for business. We'd been reading about it everywhere: Daily Candy, the New York Times foods section, Time Out New York. I couldn't help but wonder how my book Free Fall, coming out in April, might garner such notice. PR like that must be pricey.

The idea of a place that features meatballs — chicken, pork, beef, etc. — is too good to ignore. Good ideas get notice all on their own. Jim and I knew the Meatball Shop was going to be a destination for the two of us even if the chef and co-owner, Daniel Holzman, was not an old family friend of Jim's.

I must pause, momentarily, to pay tribute:
Hail, fabulous meat ball. You perfect bundle, pumped up on protein and open to infinite flavor permutations. Saucy. Sassy. Spicy. An ethnic wonder. Swedish, Italian, or mongrel in my kitchen where identity reveals itself in relationship to the larder. Raisins? Cilantro? Nub of Parmesan? No pasta as grounding necessary. No sub roll enfolding my treasures. I take my meat balls unencumbered. Wonder of wonders, so, too, does the Meatball Shop, though there are certainly options for those insistent on muting their pleasures with dull and simple carbs: pastas, hero rolls, slider buns. End of reverie.

On a recent Monday evening, after we'd heard author Jonathan Dee read from his new novel "The Privileges" (here's a link to my book review: at Half King in Chelsea, Jim and I planned to head to a pre-opening party at the Meatball Shop.

We ate at Half King, however, a place well known for its creative, tasty comfort food. We split a burger, a sort of meatball without ambition but delicious when you're hungry, especially with a slab of red onion and a few freshly cut fries and a talented writer at the lectern reading to us. Perfection is the confluence of food and literature and wine and people, though there were only a few of us that night despite a starred review in Publishers Weekly and a big, positive piece in the New Yorker that day. After reading, Dee asked if there were questions and Jim queried, "Is that the best part?" to which Dee immediately rebounded with, "It just builds from there." Jim, reliable for his impertinence and hearty laugh, jumped up, bought the book, asked for an inscription, and once home, read it in a day and a half.

Already well fed, our arrival at the Meatball Shop would satisfy another appetite, that of curiosity. I never got past the front entrance area. The place was mobbed, as expected, and among the people seated at the long tables were many from the Gurdjieff Work in Manhattan, where Jim had been a participant for 25 years.

For Jim, there were lots of familiar faces including the chef's brother Eli Holzman, whose new CBS reality show Undercover Boss was already, after just one episode, generating a great deal of buzz. I saw the first show, about a waste management company, and found it commendable in the way it reminds us how important the workers are in any successful organization. In our country, where the middle and working classes are devalued and shrinking, shows like this are important. And there was its canny, young, subversive creator and producer, just a few feet inside the front door. Jim burrowed on in but I stayed put in order to to acquaint myself with the boys' father, John, also a longtime friend of Jim's who now lives in Southern California.

I'd heard a lot about John, and knew that he'd been interested in what Jim was up to. He'd asked about me and followed the progress, if you can call it that, of our relationship. John had come East last year, but I'd been in New England.

John was flying high. And why not? He'd been in a sky box at the Super Bowl 50 yard line the night before and on this night he was witnessing incredibly exciting and promising moments in both of his sons' careers.

I conclude this blog posting, another one that is too long and for that I apologize, with the stunning words John uttered in that hot loud deliciously fragrant full-of-laughing place where we stood, face to face, straining to take each other in, straining to hear, bending, smiling, noting Jim as he reached Daniel, shook his hand, spoke his congratulations.

I could tell John wanted to say something. "I hope you don't take this the wrong way."

"All right," I said warily.

"I've known Jim for a long time. He's a good man. Here's the essential thing about Jim. Jim's a lover. But I think you know that. I think you must be, too."

I hadn't expected anything like this. A good friend protecting another friend? An urgent message before it's too late. Jim a lover. Such an unusual way to describe the essence of a person.

I breathed, finally, and smiled. "Well, then, you'll have to read my book."

The message — "Jim's a lover" — in John's hands, had seemed sacred, important. I must have understood what he was trying to say because I'd written a whole book about that one thing.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Time out

My Sunday morning was spent reading and relaxing after Saturday night's dinner party. For me, making dinner for friends requires several hours of advance work: recipe research, an inventory of staples, list making, and, if I'm in NYC, some truly contentious shopping and waiting-in-line angst at one of the city's mobbed Trader Joe's. After that, I put in a full day of cooking and Jim did some serious cleaning. What followed on Saturday night was a great time spent eating slow-cooked food, drinking wine and sharing all of this with new friends from NYC. Food and friends. There's magic there.

The food was tasty but not inspiring, which is too bad since there were two restaurateurs and another two serious foodies at the table. Luckily I hadn't really thought this through in advance. Had I, I would have made myself crazed as the day of chopping, browning, stirring, blending and tasting began to reveal the lackluster nature of the dinner I would be serving. Sometimes a little more salt just can't rescue your baby from the doldrums.

The coq au vin would have benefited from a more robust red wine. I found the recipe for the ricotta pie (I had wanted to replicate the ricotta cake from Mike's Bakery, now closed, in Gloucester, but I couldn't find a recipe.) in my old "Joy of Cooking." James Beard gave the recipe to Irma Rombauer, but I am neither of these master chefs. The crust, with its 2 tablespoons of brandy, was chewy not flaky. I blame myself since I don't even eat pie crust and I doubt you can create something as tricky as pie crust without a little enthusiasm. While rolling out the dough, however, I recalled how my friend Linda, another master pie maker, used to produce beautiful pies any time the need arose and with an ease that belied her expertise. She died in childbirth, young and beautiful and suddenly gone. Food, with all its sensual components, has the power to provoke wonderful memories like Linda laughing and talking as she shaped a soft, pliable ball of pie dough and rolled it out in seconds flat.

Among the subsidiary items on my menu was a zesty green goddess dip. I spotted the recipe in last week's NY Times Food section. Happily, the bowl of dip the color of a meadow in springtime lent the whole spread a needed jolt of color and a lively garlicy edge. Outside, it was bitterly cold and windy, with flakes of snow flying about and guests arriving half-frozen at our front door. Vernal green looked awfully good.

In the course of our conversations, I learned a lot about Fela from Ayo, our Nigerian friend whose family knew Fela's family (The musical, now playing at the Eugene O'Neil Theatre, is astonishing. I've seen it twice.), and even more about the art of coffee making from Ayo and Ross, co-owner of the fabulous Chat 'n' Chew in Union Square, and David, who has put his many years of coffee research into satisfying practice.

Sunday morning Jim and I were up by 7. We finished washing the dishes, had toast with real Irish butter left over from dinner, and cups of coffee that, we realized, were not going to be nearly as good as the coffee Ayo and David and Carol were having. Alas.

Dinner parties require a certain post-party period of rest and rumination, which explains this blog post. But rumination is important. That's when we fully appreciate the friends we have, assess the recipes we use, and recall the pleasure we got from our conversations. If you like good conversation, by the way, check out my book review this week. The book is titled "A Good Talk" and you can find my review posted on Amazon and at the Wicked Local newspapers' Web sites. Engrossing conversation is like breast feeding and orgasm, says the book's author Daniel Menaker, in that it produces neurotransmitters that make you feel awfully good.

Bolstered by my intake of calories and my fill of very good talk, I turn again to the ubiquitous to do list and greet Monday morning in good spirits and well fortified. Sometimes it takes a little special effort to feed the spirit, especially in winter.