From the streets and playgrounds of Brooklyn, N.Y., to the Sunset Strip and the Las Vegas Strip, and at countless stops along the way, the women of “Cooking for a Beautiful Woman” honed the tastes and wrote the tales of the wonderful life I have known.
They were singers and secretaries, classmates and teachers, actresses and attorneys, mothers, daughters, granddaughters, friends, lovers and mentors. Together and separately, they wove a tapestry of smiles and tears and inspired the warm, funny, tender and sweet stories that fill these pages. Some achieved fame and celebrity and you will recognize them. Others you will meet for the first time. But all were memorable women, strong and independent women, intelligent women.
There’s my mother, who was a big band singer in the 1930s; an aunt, whose miraculous survival became headlines around the world; a teacher who left China two weeks before the Communist takeover in 1949; the daughter of an immigrant family from Mexico, who became my first girlfriend after our family moved to Los Angeles from Brooklyn. There’s the love affair that was supposed to last a lifetime but didn’t, and another one that continues to grow after 50 years. There is Maria Callas, my first opera obsession; Judy Garland, the most electric entertainer I’ve ever seen; and Peggy Fleming, the figure skating champion, who captured me the first time I saw her skate and later grew to heroic dimensions beyond the world of skating.
For each of the women whose stories are told in these pages, there are recipes appropriate to the time and place she filled: old country Romanian dishes handed down from my grandmother to my mother and then to me; recipes for Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Basque and Greek dishes; Jewish home cooking, New York soda fountain and pushcart recipes from the 1940s, and a few from one of Los Angeles’ most revered Sunset Strip restaurants.
My affinity for food and the kitchen started simply. The first thing I ever cooked was a Boston Cream Pie. I was 14 years old. My parents and sisters had gone to visit relatives on a Sunday afternoon in the fall of 1953 and I didn’t feel like going with them. Instead, I spent a few hours playing touch football at the park around the corner from our house. When I got home, I felt the urge to cook something. Why will forever be a mystery. It never happened before.
I found the recipe among others in a drawer in the kitchen, went to the market, bought the ingredients, came home and made a perfect pie. I set it on the kitchen counter and waited to see what would happen. That’s where Mom found it when she went to make dinner. “Where did this come from?” she asked.
The big smile on my face grew broader later, after we ate the pie and everyone raved about it. Mom told me she had tried the same recipe a few times and thrown the pie away each time because it didn’t turn out right. Next time I went to make a Boston Cream Pie, several months later, the recipe had vanished. It became a running joke in the family, with me teasing my mother about “losing” the recipe that worked for me but not for her.
That innocent pie was how it started, but the real cooking began about a year later. My mother wasn’t a great cook. There were some things she cooked exceptionally well. Her gefilte fish was matchless. No one ever made a better chicken soup, mushroom-barley-beef soup, kreplach (dumplings), lokshen kugel (noodle pie), pickled lox or pickled herring.
Spaghetti in red sauce, however, meant opening a can of tomato sauce, heating it and pouring it on the pasta. Dessert was canned peaches, pears, or fruit cocktail. Liver was cooked to the consistency of what one would imagine a baseball glove or shoe leather might taste like because that’s how Dad liked it. Ultimately, I told Mom I did not want to have liver anymore. Rather than ask her to make a separate dinner for me, I told her I would cook my own meals on the nights when she was making liver. The first time I did that I made calves heart and mashed potatoes for myself. It was something Mom made for the family on occasion and I particularly liked. She gave me the money and I went to the market to buy the heart. My two sisters said they didn’t like the liver either and asked if I would cook for them on the nights when Mom was making liver for Dad. Among the things I recall making were salami and eggs, baked chicken legs, broiled lamb chops – simple stuff like that. As time went by, I became more adventurous.
That was some 63 years ago. I figure I’ve cooked somewhere in excess of 30,000 meals since then. There have been holiday dinner parties for as many as 25 people and hundreds of breakfasts and dinners for Jennifer and me after our two sons moved out. There were the kitchen ballets I danced with dates in their apartments or mine as we prepared dinners together during my bachelor years and there have been countless meals I’ve served to my sons, their wives and our grandchildren.
There are few passions that rival food and cooking in my everyday life. A supermarket is like a playground, a place at which I chat with other customers, trade recipes and talk about food preparation. Restaurants are new frontiers to be sought and explored. And my kitchen is where I go to relax and play out some of my most creative instincts.
There is a certain irony that I’m sure Mom and Dad would appreciate about me becoming the editor and publisher of an internationally-read online food magazine. I was born with what at the time was referred to as a shut-down, inverted stomach. The medical term is gastric volvulus. When I was a kid, my parents told me only three babies in medical history had survived that condition before I did. After three days of not being able to take in food, my stomach righted itself and I became the first person to survive the condition without surgery. Later, my father joked that I spent the rest of my life trying to make up for those missed days of eating.
That survival was the beginning of the good fortune that has followed me through nearly eight decades. I have been fortunate to find success in three different careers – first as a newspaper and wire service reporter and editor, second as a political consultant, and third as a food writer and editor.
However, there has been no greater good fortune than the day Jennifer entered my life. Our journey has exceeded any expectations I could have had when we met. Through the years, there has grown an abiding love, two remarkable sons, two wonderful daughters-in-law and four grandchildren, who make me want to never stop breathing even as they take my breath away.
And I feel particularly fortunate that I never suffered from the “girls are yukky” affliction that infects so many pre-teen boys. For, from my earliest years, most of my best and most trusted friends have been girls and women. This book is my homage to them all, to the defining impact they have had in shaping the wonderful life I’ve enjoyed, and to the hundreds of memorable meals we shared.
~ LARRY LEVINE