The Gate Is Always Open For You!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Nothing Could Be Finer Than To Spend A Meal With Ina In The Haaaaaamptons!


Any obsession that has had a stately rule over me has blossomed out of the lotus of escape. It’s been this way ever since I can remember and it wasn’t until my late teens that I discovered the reason: Reality boars me. Many people have told me that I live with my head floating in the clouds. They are correct, but I’m a lot smarter than I let on to be. I don’t think they understand. I don’t believe anyone truly understands me. Several of the people who have criticized me for my actions are indeed some of the most uninteresting folks I’ve ever encountered. Perhaps something in their life massacred their ability to fantasize. They don’t see the beauty I behold. My good friend and chef John Michael Lerma (who is banned from the Minnesota State Fair baking contests because he’s too good) gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever been given: “Kevin, create your own reality.”

I believe his statement counterparts perfectly with the holy creed of The Rocky Horror Picture Show: “Don’t Dream It. Be It.” He told me this when I was unemployed. The added bonus to his endearing advice was that Barbra Joan Streisand was in such poverty in her fresh years as a chorus girl that she was sleeping in a bathtub in Manhattan and making audition dresses out of the material of her couch which sat stripped down to the frame in her ghastly little apartment.

My mother is a tremendous cook. I grew up watching her cook and bake. She has a genuine passion and is a fine entertainer. She’s first class and fabulously flawless. She once told me that cooking is relaxing to her. Believe me, there truly is something therapeutic about suspending flour, sugar, eggs, and butter into a delicate cake batter. It’s pleasurable browning ground beef, chopping onions, cutting up mushrooms, mincing garlic, adding tomatoes in their juices, adding a dash of sugar, a pinch of salt, some pepper to taste, a sprig of thyme, one bay leaf, some oregano, and a splash of red wine to create a seductive marinara sauce from scratch. I could elaborate more, but I believe you get the picture.

Mom gave me my first exposure and appreciation to foodstuff. I loved observing her methods and watching her hands work fast. I relished seeing the smile on her face as she was creating, and exercising her timeless expression of joy as she watched my father, brother, and I devour her meals. Before I go any further, I should add that she was no Aunt Bea or Stepford Wife. She was a loving parent and wife raising a family. Her kitchen (the heart of any home) was her happy place. I’ll always love the bookshelf in her kitchen that is filled with her well-used, lovingly stained, and tattered cookbooks which are highlighted and annotated with her gorgeous handwriting. One day, I hope I can have her cookbooks.
The Food Network revolutionized my life. It truly is like porn for hungry people. I became a “foodie” in 2000 and later that year, a special show aired entitled Barefoot Contessa, which changed my life. It stares Ina Garten who had previously spent over 20 years running a specialty food store in East Hampton, New York named Barefoot Contessa, which is christened after the classic film starring Ava Gardener.

I had never heard of Ina Garten previously. Her show produced a safe comfortable atmosphere around me. Watching her cook these expensive and elaborate meals in the simplest form was relaxing to me, motivating. Perhaps the best feeling was that after a long day, I could watch her and dream I lived in her gargantuan house (bordered by huge hydrangea bushes) which has a massive garden in the back yard, (constructed by her good friend and renowned landscaper Edwina Von Gal) encircled by her All-Clad set, Le Creuset dutch ovens, Kitchen Aid Mixer, her copper pots, and her luxurious uniform kitchen cooking and throwing dinner parties. Ina Garten instilled in me greatness and long before I became obsessed with Julia Child, it was Ina that taught me to not be afraid to try.

Ina adores the Hamptons and in the show she takes you on scenic tours within her BMW or Mercedes to her local farmers market, or her favorite specialty food store, Loaves & Fishes (owned and operated by her friend and fellow published cookbook author Anna Pump), and other favorite places. The Hamptons seems absolutely enchanting; after all, it’s a playground for the rich and famous.

I was engulfed heavily into her show and started researching her, becoming acquainted with her cookbooks. I possess almost all of them to date. (obsessed much) Ina did not become the Barefoot Contessa overnight. She’s a former Government worker who resided in the White House under President Jimmy Carter. She was responsible for the Nuclear Energy Budget. Dissatisfied with her life and wanting something more, she turned to cooking for relaxation and entertaining. She would throw elaborate dinner parties for her friends as she studied Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking religiously.

She became totally unhappy and bored in the White House. Meanwhile, she ran across an article in The New York Times advertising the sale of a specialty food store named Barefoot Contessa. Ina and her husband Jeffery drove up to the Hamptons, looked at the place, and Ina fell in love instantly. Having no experience at all in the food industry, she purchased the store. The former owner spent one month teaching and coaching her in all the tricks of the trade and through hard work Barefoot Contessa persevered, taking on a life of its own, becoming a favorite through word of mouth. Steven Spielberg, his wife, and even Martha Stewart became some of her best customers. (I should add that even though Martha Stewert wrote the forward to The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, their friendship fizzled out when Ina discovered that Martha stole one of her recipes) Ina then proceeded to cater weddings and other significant parties throughout her Hamptons while still managing her own business.

In the long run, she grew tired and sold her store to some of her employees. (The store is no longer in business) The abrupt hiatus in her career turned into a spiraling depression. Her husband recommended she write a cookbook. She thought he was out of his mind. However, the work was essentially already done thanks to her archive of crowd pleasing recipes from her store. But to make sure they were full proof, she went back, tested, retested, and rewrote many of them to form her now classic bestseller The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. Not long after, the Food Network approached her about a cooking show which would be filmed in her house. They agreed to do everything they could to make her comfortable if she took their offer. She agreed, and her show is still one of the most beloved programs on the channel.

I should add that many of the folks in the Hamptons were not too happy about the influx of wealthy gay men moving into the neighborhood. Ina saw this happening and gladly took them and their partners under her wings. Her best gay friend Miguel owns and operates the local florist in the Hamptons. I can’t figure out if Edwina Von Gal is a lesbian or not. Ina spent an entire episode cooking up a “Welcome Home” surprise for two of her good gay pals who spent an extended weekend in Paris, France. She sneaked into their house and filled their fridge up with goodies. What an awesome friend. I’d sure do that.

Ina Garten is one of my heroes because she is self-made. She taught me that it’s important to love your friends, and to value time with them. One of the most remarkable things I’ve heard her say is, “I want to fill their stomach and send them home saying, ‘wasn’t that fun?’” That’s what I want to do for my friends. I dream of having my own place. I wish my current landlord would hurry up and call Terminex in order to bomb the kitchen to kill the roaches so I can throw a dinner party. Until then, I’ll keep studying Ina’s cookbooks, Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking.

On November 13th, Ina will be coming to San Jose's Sur La Table for a book signing. I can't wait to meet her.

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