Friday, July 1, 2011

The Ghost and Mrs. S

Around the corner from my Belltown crib was a sketchy pizza joint. Right behind the statue of Chief Seattle. The kind of place where pictures of every famous Italian-American blend un-seamlessly with cheap prints of gondolas and the Coliseum. Run by the worst sort of owner, the kind who frequently appears on Kitchen Nightmares blaming the staff for his failure while GR digs rotten chicken out of the walk-in. The manager was a dead-ringer for Sly Stallone in the first Rocky, before surgery prettied him up. A few drops of sweat were always right at the end of his nose ready to season the food. I ate there once and got food poisoning which should have been an indicator that I never wanted to get behind THAT line, but for a few weeks one summer when I needed some work, I caved to the perpetual "Help Wanted" sign and joined the ranks of the rotten sauce that dwelled therein. 

There is a painting of a small bouquet of purple flowers next to the vanity in Barbara Sinatra's bathroom. They are in a vase tied with a ribbon with a sky blue background. It's inscription, in tiny crooked letters, reads "to BAS love FAS"

4th of July reminds me of beach. Beach reminds me of Malibu. Malibu reminds me of living in Frank Sinatra's house.
Let me say that again in case your jaw didn't drop and you didn't get a little impressed. I lived in Frank-to-tha-mother-effing-Sinatra's house. Cooked for his widow. An ant moves a rubber tree plant.

I spent a snowy spring driving back and forth between Pilchuck Glass School, where I was cooking and my apartment in West Seattle where I catered Friday night shabbat for the Jew Crew, when an unexpected turn in the love department sent me reeling. A certain smug son-of-a-biscuit-eater named MICHAEL DAVID NELSON (waiter/glassblower, fuck yeah, I  name names) told me I was a loser who would "stay trapped in her room forever" waiting for him. Really dude? I threw aside ten years of hard work, clients and friends and went running back to LA. Trapped in a room to be sure, but a fancy-ass one with an ocean view and a charge account at Hows where the mangoes cost $6.99 and NO ONE EVEN CARES.

I never realized the clout the name Sinatra carries until I told people where I worked. I was pretty punk rock and even though we've all heard the songs, celebrities were all the same to me. I didn't realize they have their own caste system and Ol' Blue Eyes is plunked right on the top of that heap. Even in death. Chairman of the Board for a reason, yo.

Me and the Mrs. had a routine.
When she woke up she buzzed me.
A trip down the leopard print staircase to the living room and the monster steel shades that covered the house would be lifted, the stereo flipped on with disc after disc of Guess-Who ready to go. She listened to him all day long, the sound of his voice keeping him close to her, I suppose. Imagine the greatest crooner in history singing to you daily in that magic voice. Then imagine it drowning slowly in a sea of dementia and despair until it is silenced altogether. You couldn't blame her for wanting to hear it. Except for the fact that it drove you apeshit after the third day.

After the newspapers were gathered and the dogs let out for the walker to pick up, a Martha sort of moment would occur with oats and berries and hot lemon water on white porcelain and I would wait at the foot of her bed until she decided what she wanted for lunch. There was no menu planning with Mrs. S. If she said she felt like a Honey Baked Ham, then you enjoyed the hour and back drive down the coast to Santa Monica to get the lady her hunk of meat. I assure you, they have twenty different places in Malibu to get some damned ham, but it needs to be cooked on the bone, natch and she likey their cranberry mustard.  She would eat 2 whole slices before tiring of the taste and I would be forcing it on Hector and Eva the rest of the week.
Sometime after lunch she would hip me to her evening plans and I would either be back in the car in search of something special or I'd be loading up my tray with snacks from the larder for a big night in front of the TV. For reals. A larder. Have you seen one? It's a huge thing that looks like a pantry, but is humidity controlled. Built just for them to keep their cut onions wrapped in paper towels so they wouldn't lose their taste. Not kidding. I have never seen another one and I've been in a lot of fancy kitchens.

Five o'clock was crudite and cocktails. "Mr. S's Martini" Extra dirty. Of course. Forever a reminder that no matter who we are, the same three ingredients make up our mixed drinks. It's a good lesson and one of which I'm sure the Chairman would approve. A few slices of carrot, radish, jicama.  Overpriced heirloom tomatoes. I don't know how much Hows makes off their produce markups, but dollars to doughnuts that man is driving his Murcielago down PCH with a hooker right now. 

On the nights that she didn't go out, she'd bring her tray out by the beach and have me keep her company for a bit. Am I in a movie? I don't know, is Danny DeVito next door having drinks with Robert DeNiro?
Getting relationship advice from this dame was incredible. The best, paraphrased, amounts to "if you marry a cheater, instead of throwing his ass out, do your hair, put on make-up, cook him dinner and remind him why he wants to come home to you instead of that ho'".  Maybe a little fifties, but I now appreciate the sentiment as a married woman with furniture I would not want to have to split up.

One afternoon she came down to the kitchen to show me how to make pasta Mr. S's mom's way. The sacred Dolly. Who taught her son, who taught his wife who was about to teach me. It seemed very special and Italian and I am sure there are restaurant owners in Jersey who would weep at the chance to experience a cooking lesson in this particular kitchen.

I've eaten a lot of noodles, I've made quite a few. I've had them fresh from the masters, in sauces of truffle and caviar.  But Frank Sinatra's pasta sounded like the angels might be carrying that recipe card around in a gilded frame and I was lucky enough to be there for that heralding, that day.

She took off her rock of a ring, started pouring flour into a pile on the counter and instructed me in her stock method. Not my favorite. I don't think a boiled raw chicken, carrot and onion are going to get you anywhere but Ireland and who the hell eats THAT food? But I did it. I was drooling in anticipation. This was FRANK'S FAVORITE after all, it was bound to be the most italian-y pasta-y best thing ever.  God, I get my hopes up easily.

We rolled out the dough, hand-cutting scraggly long noodles, dropped them into simmering chicken stock, and fished them out a minute later. Tossed with butter and parmesan, they were the most disgusting noodles I have ever eaten.

If you Google Mrs. S, you will read many shitty things written by his daughters and jealous ex-girlfriends. Things that suggest she didn't love him, that she kept him away from his friends, that she was a gold-digger who somehow facilitated his death by not getting him the care he needed.

I would argue that the painting on the wall tells a better story about their love than these attempts to slander. I would say after living in the palace for awhile and getting to know Frank from the vibe of those who loved him, that he was a king on this earth. And I can unequivocally swear, 100 percent, without a doubt, that the best pasta I've ever had, was from that guido in Seattle with the sweat dripping off his nose.


Boil, cook, drain a pound of pasta. Whatever your kid doesn't have a fit over.
Melt half a stick of butter in a pan, saute a big clove of chopped garlic for 30 seconds, add a pint of whipping cream.
When it starts to break, add noodles and stir around for a minute.
As it starts to simmer add a cup of grated parmesan.
Stir around again to emulsify.
Add bacon iffen there happens to be any cooked laying around.
Tons of pepper, little salt b/c of cheese.

Eat it now. Right now. Don't do anything else. Especially don't consider the fat content. Next time make twice as much, because you won't want to share.