Nana’s Table.

So Thanksgiving is in a few weeks. My favorite holiday. Whenever the holidays roll around, I can’t help but think of my Nana’s table. Now it may seem odd to think of a table when so many others are thinking of turkey and stuffing, and later on presents and Santa Claus. It is odd, but for me it’s perfect. This mahogany table with its Colonial-style chairs and its lacy tablecloth is for me the complete representation of family holiday and tradition. So many memories were created there and so many stories are deeply embedded into its rich dark grain and curlicued chair backs. It remains at the heart of my family. Growing up, it was where we all gravitated to when the holidays arrived. You could even say it is our family’s heart.

Creepy 1950’s Thanksgiving instructional video…creepy like your Aunt Ida, and sloooooow, like treacle…

My Nana’s table resided in the middle of her dining room and was so large it almost filled the entire space. Eight people could sit at it comfortably, and we did, often, when Nana was still alive. Since her death in 1999 it seems we’ve gravitated to other tables to create new memories. It’s a shame because I can remember sitting in the chairs that looked like they came from George Washington’s Mount Vernon tracing my hands through the curlicues carved into the backs. The wood was always so slick and shiny. It felt like glass. People would be eating or just sitting, sipping coffee and telling old stories that I’d heard a thousand times before. I would trace my fingers over the familiar patterns in the back of the chair. There were three teardrop-shaped holes in the top of each chair. A poet would say they looked like flowers. Then I would tap my hands on the lacy rough tablecloth, careful not to spill anything. Even as a very young child I knew it was special and therefore not to be messed with.

It was the holidays that brought the Jordans to the table at River Drive. The town of Front Royal is small, a factory town, but still relatives would travel from far and wide to make it to Nana’s. There were no fancy holiday parades, and most of the streets were and still are quiet by 8pm, but at Nana’s the feast was never-ending. Every inch of Nana’s table was covered with food for hours on end. When dishes were emptied of their stuffing or greens or succotash or candied yams, new ones would be brought out to replace them. All of this rang true except for Nana’s staples: pickled eggs, Watergate salad, and country ham biscuits on potato rolls. When these were gone, more of the same would be put in its place. The constant grinding whine of the electric knife in the kitchen was a symphony to our ears because it meant that more country ham was on its way. Nana was known around our table for her specialty dishes. Every year she would ask us what we wanted to see on her table, and every year we would beg and plead for these three. I’ve already written about my love for Nana’s pickled eggs. Her table would be empty without them.

Thanksgiving at Nana’s table always involved saying grace. But not just any old way, our grace ended up being a 15-minute affair complete with tears and memories and so much reminiscing the food threatened to get cold. First of all there were at least 10 people around the table, and most of the time twelve or fifteen or twenty – friends of relatives who had tagged along for their second or third Thanksgiving of the day. Those numbers didn’t even include the kid’s table – a card table set up in the living room for all the young cousins, including me. My Aunt Judy always made us hold hands all the way around, so inevitably, I’d have to stand up and stretch my arm through to the dining room. Being the oldest cousin, I had the longest arm. It looked like we were about to start singing Kumbaya, but instead, Aunt Judy would have everyone go around and say what they were thankful for, all the while holding hands. This took at least 10 minutes, the food getting colder, and our hands getting sweatier by the minute. But I loved it.

Because inevitably, Aunt Judy would start crying when she talked about what made her thankful. That would start everyone else to crying happy tears. I also loved it when she said she wanted to remember all the people no longer with us – people like Pop-Pop, who passed away when I was eight, and Ya-Ya, my great-grandmother. I always felt they were right there with us at that moment. Still around the table, watching everything. Once I had a dream I was watching everyone around Nana’s table, standing just off to the side – invisible like something out of “A Christmas Carol.” Pop-Pop’s arm was around me. He softly whispered in my ear, “Remember this.” I watched my mother spoon food into my mouth – I was in a high chair, a toddler, with bangs, wearing a celery-green sundress. I woke feeling warm and cozy like I had just taken a nap before a roaring fire.

Nana’s table changed its meaning in March of 1999. I can remember driving to her funeral – through the rolling mountains surrounding Front Royal. Nick Drake is on the stereo, and I’m thinking about all the times before when I’ve made this trip. I know the route by heart. As a young child, bundled up against the cold, Nana’s table was a beacon guiding us to home, food, and family. As a sullen young woman, hitching a ride with my cousin, smoking, dreading the visit, the questions, the looks, all the expectations placed. Traveling in my own car much later, now looking forward to the embraces, the questions, the looks I now knew to be love, the high expectations for reunion and feeding of the soul and spirit. Where before I just wanted to be left alone, I eventually came to see how important and how rare these family connections were to my well being.

And now I was traveling to Nana’s funeral – very sad, feeling much older somehow. I just couldn’t believe Nana was gone. The early spring sun was cold, but still I was comforted every time it decided to make an appearance. At one point a buzzard flew low and hovered over my car just as I passed under it. I was flying fast up a huge steep hill, the buzzard swooping down over me, just pausing before moving on. It was actually more sublime than creepy.

As I entered Nana’s house, I found my whole family sitting around her table – eating. The activity that brings so many people together. There were platters of country ham, vegetables, fried chicken, homemade biscuits, baked beans, coconut cake, green bean casserole, all those southern fixtures. All of it brought by friends and family offering those two essential Southern funeral elements – sympathy and victuals. Enough to feed an army. The Jordans sat there for hours, picking, as more visitors dropped by and more platters were placed on every available surface. We’d eat, get full, talk some, then eat again. We were stuffing ourselves with comfort. Stuffing ourselves against grief at Nana’s table. I couldn’t help but imagine old southern hands pulling down the cake pans, the flour, the sugar, saying, “Erma’s passed on, better make my special apple spice cake to send down.”

I took my place at Nana’s table, surrounded by cousins. I felt a part of something then, something greater. My Aunt Judy kept saying this was meant to be a celebration of her life. And it was…it was like a typically great Jordan get-together. Nana would’ve been so proud.

After the funeral, which was sad and beautiful and poetic and at times so poignant you couldn’t breathe, we of course all gathered again around Nana’s table to eat. This time I found a corner, my quiet corner at the first bend in the stairs just next to Nana’s table. As I nibbled on a peppery piece of fried chicken I thought about how often I had sat on these stairs, watching everyone at the table below, just like in my dream, thinking about all of them and where we’d been. It seemed very right that I had found my hiding place on this day once again. Hundreds of people filed through the house and made their way around the impromptu buffet set out on Nana’s table. I watched them pass, plates piled high.

Later on the beer began to flow and Aunt Judy’s friend Dewey stopped by with his guitar. Into the night he played and sang song after song. Everything from Roy Orbison’s “Crying” to Tom Petty’s “Free Falling.” There was even an extended version of a Crosby, Stills, and Nash song that I can’t remember the title of but sang all the words to. Everyone sang, even if it was only to hum along. Dewey’s 3-year-old daughter Rena danced and laughed and played with Easter eggs. it was nice to hear music in Nana’s house again.

I sat on the couch for a while and thumbed through an ancient photo album. In it were sepia-toned pictures of Nana as a teenager out with her girlfriends – all of them in cloches and sitting with guys in fedoras, smirks tucked into the corners of their mouths like small cats. There was a picture of three guys, one with a mandolin, another with a fiddle. A small jar of moonshine lay on the ground between them. I imagined Nana in high-topped shoes smiling and tapping her foot as the fiddler eked out a tune. Laughing in that way she had – that soft, rolling chuckle that sounded a woodpecker whose beak was wrapped in cloth. How I miss that laugh. Looking at that picture, and all the music it contained, then watching the musical scene unwrap itself before me felt like two periods of time wrapping themselves around each other. So tightly, until you couldn’t tell what was modern and what was the past. It made me feel like she was still there, in the room. And like we were carrying on this tradition of drinking and dancing and celebrating the dearly departed. In the Jordan way.

About midnight I went off to bed – fully realizing I would not sleep. Dewey was still going strong – his repetoire was endless. From Bob Dylan to the Bee Gees “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” to Buddy Holly. But I needed solitude – after so much hugging and talking and crying my spirit was tired.

I lay in Nana’s featherbed and listened for hours to the music coming from downstairs. It was so sweet, such a proper sound for this moment. It made me smile at the rightness of it. I can’t imagine a better way to remember her. I can’t imagine a more perfect ending to her beautiful life. She created this – all of this. She had connected with so many people. When Dewey began a soft, lilting version of Linda Rondstadt’s “Blue Bayou” I couldn’t help but sing. Which was ironic, because as a child I had HATED this song. But now, in this moment, it seemed perfect. The melody was perfect. The words that spoke of hope and longing so poignant. It all felt so utterly right, and I hoped with such a force in my heart that Nana was hearing it – hearing the wonderful music emanating from her house at this hour. All of the people at Nana’s table singing to her. Thanking her.

Culinary Heirlooms.

So I watched Tony Bourdain’s new one-off show last week, something on the Travel Network called, “At the Table.” It was supposed to be an insightful hour where food experts come together to talk about food issues. What’s hot and happening and worrisome with the culinary world. It was SUPPOSED to be this. In actuality it came off as a bunch of New York pretentious foodie wankers bragging and complaining. A lot of the viewers agreed.

However, one knight at Tony’s foodie roundtable did make a worthwhile comment – something that really stuck with me. Bill Buford, founder of Granta (I heart Granta) and the terrific book, “Heat” which chronicles his experiences as a “kitchen bitch” for Mario Batali, actually said something resonating. One little thing – and it came at the very end of the show, which made me even more annoyed at this phoned-in piece of television offal. It’s like they ended the discussion before it even really started!

Bill stated, “This is the first generation of people that won’t have family recipes to pass on to their children.” The plethora of pre-cooked convenience foods and the amount of restaurant traipsing has made extinct recipes for all-day cooked spaghetti sauce and things like homemade biscuits, pies, and cakes. People don’t even roast chicken anymore but buy a pre-rottiseried one from their local superGiantEagleKrogerWegmans mart. Not that those aren’t delicious (they are) but gone are the days when recipes were passed down like precious heirlooms.

This got me thinking. He’s right. What I wouldn’t give for my Muddy’s recipe for coconut cake. She passed away in May before I could get it. Or my Nana’s Waldorf salad. Or my Aunt Ann’s pound cake. How will our cuisine evolve when things like this aren’t learned and treasured? I don’t even know my own mother’s recipe for lemon-raspberry tart, which was my favorite. She made it every time I requested – usually for birthday dinners. Hell, she didn’t halfway remember it herself. When asked, she’d reply, “Oh, a little of this and that. If you want I could TRY to write it down…” Things like this are important and should be treasured like photographs or old slides. Once they’re gone they’re only good memories. Delicious taste memories that fade.

Several years ago I had a moment of clarity and grasped one of these taste memories for a time. It was scribbled in shaky hand on the back of an envelope, the edges tattered, the paper wrinkled. It’s for my Nana’s pickled eggs. I love her pickled eggs. To me they sing of home, Christmas, jingle bells, and all things Yuletide. She only made them then. Sometimes I could get her to make them as early as Thanksgiving, but never in the spring or summer. No, pickled eggs were purely cold weather food. Delicious pickled cold weather food. Eggs the color of beets and so pickled your lips would pucker when you bit into them and so purple your tongue would look like a Chow dog. I loved them.

As Nana grew older, I realized my time with the eggs would grow shorter and shorter unless I did something. Unless I learned to make them myself. And so I got the recipe. I actually sat my Nana down and made her give me the pickled egg recipe. Nana gave measurements like “a pinch” or “just enough,” nothing concrete. I made them numerous times over the next several years with varying amounts of success. They tasted good, but they tasted different. Never as good as Nanas. But at least I was making them.

Ironically, when I looked for this recipe to put in the blog, hopefully passing it on to the Internet generation, I couldn’t find it. I thought it was glued carefully into a recipe book I made for myself. Alongside other treasured recipes culled from magazines and the Internet. My foolproof favorites I call them. But it wasn’t there. I even looked in my crate of “as yet to be glued” recipes to no avail. It was nowhere to be found. Lost forever. Somehow I felt as if I proved Bill Buford right. Sure, I could find a similar recipe on the Interwebs, but it wouldn’t be hers.

The hunt wasn’t all in vain though – I found other things. Recipes torn from newspapers and magazines, photocopied onto white paper with handwritten suggestions like, “Use more turmeric than is called for,” and “Black beans work just as well.” These were my mother’s foolproof favorites. She had given me my own collection of them as a “starter pack” for my first foray into the outside world as a young woman. I still have them and by now they are mixed in with my own. There was even a scribbled slip of paper called, “Ingredients for a Happy Life,” that Momma had come up with. Her food poetry I suppose. Finding these forgotten treasures was a small revelation, easing the pain of my pickled egg loss.

One recipe, “Granny’s Apple Sauce Cake” was photocopied from a newspaper article. Evidently my mother had sent in this gem to the local paper. Mee Maw (the Granny in question) was my grandfather’s mother. The local Waynesboro paper printed the recipe and here it was – passed on to the next generation. There’s no date, but I have to think it might be from the late 1950’s. A true culinary heirloom.

I love the lack of direction in this recipe. Cook for how long? Until it’s done. At what temperature? Whatever one is needed. It’s got a directness that’s refreshingly simple in this age of foams and food alchemy. I’ve no children to pass this recipe to – and so I cast it to the winds and whims of the Interwebs. Maybe somebody somewhere will make “Granny’s Apple Sauce Cake” and keep the taste memory alive. Mee Maw would’ve liked that. I haven’t made it yet, but after rediscovering this recipe, I sure plan to. It’s not pickled eggs, but I love apples too.

Granny’s Apple Sauce Cake
1 cup butter or lard
2 cups sugar
2 cups sour apple sauce
1 tsp soda in each cup sauce
2 tsps each of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice
2 cups cooked raisins
4 eggs
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 cup nuts (if desired) black walnuts preferred

Add soda to apple sauce. Add sugar, eggs, salt, spices and stir. Add flour gradually. Then add raisins, nuts, and melted butter. Cook raisins almost dry. Seeded raisins need no cooking. Bake in tube pan in moderate oven.

Anna Lee May.

(My grandmother, left, Kathleen Critzer and Anna Lee May, 1949).

My great-aunt, Anna Lee May, passed away recently. She was 92 and had been in failing health for many years. My grandfather’s sister – someone described as always doing for others instead of herself. When her father died she was 17 and so went right to work in a textile factory. She went from taking water to her brothers out on the farm to working a corduroy machine. For 33 years she did that. When her mother took ill, she took her in, caring for her until her death. She married, but never had children and so showered her nieces (my mom and aunt) with affection, pound cake, popsicles, and ice cream. She had a Pekinese named Weegee and her husband Charlie, who never spoke it seemed but always looked like Sitting Bull in his favorite tapestry chair in the corner of the living room.

This is some of what I remember. I had not seen her in many years. She had severe Alzheimer’s and had lived in a nursing home since 1996. I do remember her house, a small bungalow full of doilies, and pound cake, and dogs. I remember Mee Maw (her mother) looking puny and sick in her chair near the door. Never talking, always watchful. I remember Aunt Ann’s trailer that she’d hitch up to the car and camp with up on Skyline Drive with my grandparents. They did everything together, those four. They even double dated before they married – my grandfather and his sister Aunt Ann, going out with my grandmother and her brother, Charlie.

I remember she always commented on my dimples whenever I saw her. “So cute!” she’d exclaim. Then squeeze my cheeks for emphasis. An old friend of the family did the same thing at Aunt Ann’s funeral and it brought back the memory so painfully and powerfully that I felt sick to my stomach. I never liked that she did that – pointing out what I already knew. Everyone back then always mentioned my dimples, and I always took it to mean that while I would never be a great beauty, at least I had dimples. Those dimples might land me a husband. At least there was that.

This funeral was so weird for me. To mourn someone I had said goodbye to so long ago. To mourn someone so like myself in so many ways. She worked at a monotonous job she probably hated. So do I. She never had children. Neither have I. She was tall, with broad shoulders, more mannish than Marilyn. And so am I. It’s odd and uncomfortable to stare at a family member in a casket, dressed in a blue chiffon blouse, clutching a handkerchief, surrounded by tattered, sepia-toned photos and think that someday, that might be you. That someday that will be you. Why do they have open caskets anyway? Open “viewings” they call them. What are you supposed to view? Your future? Your own mortality? In my case my own face 50 years from now. I felt sick for days after.

The only solace came from the graveside service. As we sat and listened I looked over and saw a gravestone for “Bertha Hutchens” my favorite aunt, my grandmother’s half-sister. In life as in death Aunt Ann and Aunt Birdy were neighbors. At least there was that. Birdy had taught me about gardening, had taught me about loving animals, had shown me how to grow an arbor and herbs and tomatoes. Her porch was and still is my favorite place in the world. In a parallel life I imagine buying her bungalow and living there as an old woman, never leaving my yard. As she didn’t for 30 years after her husband died. Just tending my garden and watching the world go by from my porch swing. At least there is that.

It’s as if Birdy was supposed to be there that day, to remind me. I hadn’t thought of her in years, but here she was. Next to her husband on a beautiful sunny day, reminding me that there are other better things beyond this life. And it isn’t so bad, looking into your future. Resembling your family so much it hurts. It’s kind of okay. And at least there is that.

Memory Walks.

It is dawn – the blue of dawn before the world awakens. The only light is deep blue and hovers over the trees. The mountains are dressed in fog, the blue light arising behind them. I am running, panting, trying to make it up the next hill. I eventually do and light is present there, a soft yellow glow, mixed with blue, run through with fog like a swirl of cream when you make soup. I glance over at the mountains again. They seem almost as if they’re waiting. The yellow glow is coming from there and it promises I won’t be in the dark much longer. I run past horses standing very still all in a row, the fog washing over them. Spiders have lain their webs in the grass like washerwomen and they are shining with dew jewels. Haybales appear in the mist as the light arises, their edges soft like a Van Gogh painting. The air is cold, my lungs and legs hurt, and I smell wet mossy earth, rotting leaves, and the burning wood chill smell that is October. It is autumn and oddly, I’m reminded of marching band.

Since we moved to the country my world has grown infinitely smaller. From the entire metropolitan city of Pittsburgh to just one lane in our neighborhood. Now sure, I travel through Charlottesvile to work each day, but I find when I’m not working more than anything I want to be home. Nowhere else. I’ve never lived in the country, and so I’m not used to it. The silence. I’m learning to love it though. Quiet afternoons walking my dog Lois and the only noise I hear is the “slap slap” of acorns falling through the trees, hitting each leaf on the way down. We walk the woods and I’m reminded of when I was a kid, and LIVED in the woods. We’d build forts, chase each other on our bikes down the paths, pick blackberries, pretend the old farmhouse at the end of our lane across the pond housed an evil witch. Stay out way past sundown until Momma called us in for dinner. Running barefoot through grass after the dew has fallen. As corny as it sounds, I did all these things. I just forgot to miss them.

I walk these woods with Lois and the silence forces me to remember. My world has shrunk, but in my mind the memories grow and grow. I’m not old and yet feel like I’m going over my life chapter by chapter when I walk her. The silence guides me along.

Where in Pittsburgh I heard sirens, now I hear the low murmur of a cow. The squeal of a city bus has been replaced by crickets. And while this world is so much smaller in size, it’s so much greater in scope. I could walk my dog once a day for the rest of my life and each of those days I know in my heart I’d discover something new. The moment a slight breeze hits the back of my neck. The squawk of a bird calling out to the day. A tiny lizard with a bright cyan tail skittering under our front stoop. When I hear traffic now it’s like a roar, something very different that doesn’t belong. Both Lois and I perk up to see who it is. Each car is an event, a new possibility that your day will change – for the better (UPS man) or the worse (repair man). In the city those things were minutiae, here they’re something to talk about over dinner.

I’ve been learning to run, dragging my sorry ass out of bed at 6am to heave up the hills around my house. In the dark here lately, which has made it that much more difficult to force my eyelids open, all the while telling myself, “This is good for you, this is good for you,” when what I’d rather be doing is getting some shuteye. Even Lois looks at me from her bed, an expression on her face that states matter-of-factly, “What? Are you kidding?”

But once I get out there I’m glad I did. Watching a sunrise here is like nothing else on earth. And for some reason, at this moment in my life, a sunrise seems to be the most potent memory grabber of all. I watch the sunrise, watch the colors turn from blue, to light purple, to gold, red, and yellow. I smell the dew-soaked grass, and I’m transported to 7:15, any weekday morning of my teenage life in autumn. I am 15 and standing at attention in a wet field. I am cold, hungry, still half asleep, grasping an ice-cold flag pole, and about to perform my color guard routine. The flag swings through the wet grass and promptly wraps itself around my legs like a snapped towel. I am miserable and oddly at peace at the same time. It’s early, but I know this is good for me.

It never fails. Sunrise in autumn brings back marching band for me. I was a band geek all four years of high school, which meant every September saw me standing at attention at the crack of dawn, wondering what have I gotten myself into? But always glad after when we won competitions, when we went on out-of-state trips. Glad about the friendships I made. Holding tightly onto the team’s camaraderie which came at a time in my life when I really needed it. Parents fighting, separating, divorcing. Me feeling out of place in every aspect of growing up. Marching band was the refuge I hid in. Swinging that damn flag was a meditation. It brought me peace.

And here I am again in my 40’s out at the crack of dawn learning to run, wondering what have I gotten myself into? My Mom ran in the early mornings when I was a kid, even in bitter cold weather. Sometimes she’d run right past me during those early morning practices. I used to wonder what the hell she was thinking. But now I get it. I run along, struggling most of the time, but wondering at the beauty of the light. I run and remember other mornings, other autumns. And it brings me an odd sense of peace.

Paul Newman.

Paul Newman’s death a few weeks ago made me recall my brief encounter with this screen legend. I was 19, working as a service bartender at Allen’s Clam and Lobster House in Westport, Connecticut. I had told the owner I was 21, and that was good enough for him. Ron owned the place with his brother. As far as I know he may still. Ron worked the front of the house, brother was king of the kitchen. That place had been open for eons when I worked there, serving lobster, steamers, and clams to Westport businessmen, who often accompanied the seafood with two and three-hour Campari lunches. I first tasted Campari that summer, but I couldn’t take its bitterness. I’ve since learned if not to love it, to certainly appreciate a good Negroni when I’m in the mood.

Working at Allen’s became an experimentation in extended family for me. The two brothers ran the place with their wives and children.
I worked there with my boyfriend, which made us a part too of this raucous, close-knit family. Every day before service we’d meet in the dining room for a family-style meal. Usually pasta or some sort of fried cutlet with sauce. Anything hearty you could make quickly and serve to a crowd. We’d eat, then go off to smoke, to capture some moments of peace. Those mornings before service were the first and last time I was ever part of a large family. I kind of liked it, the teasing, the camaraderie. I felt I was part of something – that together we would succeed or fail at service, but we would do it together. I’ve never had a job where I felt that way before or since.

I had moved to Westport from Virginia with the boyfriend, my first foray into the real world. We rented a room in a farmhouse 10 miles outside the city in Easton, having traveled with all our belongings plus a parakeet in an old AMC station wagon (another story entirely). We were determined to make it work. Marc had worked at Allen’s as a bartender three summers in a row, and he convinced Ron to give me a job too. I worked lunches, Marc worked dinners. Afterwards we’d pool our tips to pay the rent. We kept expenses low – I would bike each way to work (the car had died), past horse farms and humongous estates, change clothes when I got there, make myself a ginger ale with Rose’s lime, work some, and ride home. If the boyfriend wasn’t feeling well I’d work his shift too – hanging out at the little slip of beach (Allen’s was right on Long Island Sound), before tackling the dinner crowd which were more families and couples. Then the boyfriend would pick me up in his baby blue VW bug (newly purchased and barely running), stuffing the bike in the back. I remember we both had Cannondale bikes which when I think of it now makes me snicker. We could barely pay our rent, but had $1,000 bikes. Sigh. The audacious, foolish notions of the young.

The day of Mr. Newman’s visit was uneventful. I arrived 10 minutes late, as usual, quickly changed into work clothes (white shirt, black pants), and began to prep the bar – my own version of mise en place. This involved making the bloody mary mix, filling wine jugs, cutting fruit, stocking shelves, and hauling ice. The bloodys were my specialty. Old Bay and extra horseradish, that stuff was positively CHUNKY. Filling wine jugs involved opening wine bottles then filling the jugs through a funnel, but I had the hardest time working the bottle opener. It was one of the old-fashioned kinds, just a little corkscrew at the other end of a church key. I crumbled so many corks that summer, but eventually became an expert. When you have 200 businessmen clamoring for a refill, you have to.

After all that I would cut limes, lemons, fill the olive tray, fill the onion tray (for Gibsons), make sure we had backups for the popular stuff like vodka and the dreaded Campari, and haul ice. I hated hauling ice. The bin was heavy, your hands froze, and half the time it would melt then refreeze into a big block. But it had to be done. Woe be to the bartender at Allen’s who didn’t fill up the ice bin before service then was hit so hard with orders he’d have to refill during. It happened to me just once. Just imagine a bunch of waiters, OLD TIME New York waiters who have a lifetime of smoking and taking orders beneath their belts yelling out orders to you and you have no ice. At nineteen that scared me enough to fill the bin to overflowing.

When I prepped that particular day, I was ready. I remember I was cutting lemons when I noticed our hostess was in a tizzy, in the corner whispering excitedly. It was her job to greet and seat customers as well as take reservations. What could she possibly be yammering about? And then I heard it. A little whisper traveling through the restaurant. Waiters were folding napkins, line cooks prepping their stations, the owner’s kid sweeping the floor. “Paul Newman’s coming.” Who? “Paul Newman.” We couldn’t believe it, it must be some sort of prank. He did live in the area. But would he eat………….here? Maybe it was some other Paul Newman. But no, the hostess was assuring us, it was THE Paul Newman. And he was coming to eat lunch. At Allen’s. Today.

His reservation was for 11:30, early. So as the minutes crept by and people pretended like it was just another lunch service, my heart began to race. What would he drink? Gin and tonic? Martini? Manhattan? Shit, hadn’t made one of those in a while, what went in there again? I remember the “VT’s and GT’s” (vodka tonics and gin and tonics) were always so easy to make when the waiters barked the orders, but something like a Rusty Nail or Old Fashioned had you running for the bar book. Here they actually drank those things. Once this customer brought me a list of ingredients for a “Girl Scout Cookie” some kind of minty chocolaty drink that actually had mint chocolate chip ice cream listed among 10 other ingredients. He bypassed the waiters and brought the handwritten list directly to my station. In the middle of service. On a Saturday. What is he kidding? I shook my head, sorry buddy. When I told the head waiter about it later, a gravelly-voice Buddy Holly-glasses wearing old timer who had earned that voice from a lifetime of smoking non-filtered Camels, he shrugged and suggested the guy, “Grow a pair.”

Such were the thoughts racing through my head that morning. What if Paul Newman wanted a drink like the Girl Scout Cookie? Some strange thing I had never heard of? I had only bartended maybe three weeks, tops. What if the drink I made tasted like crap? He was a frikkin’ Hollywood legend! Worse, what if he wanted a GIRLY drink? What then? Even worse, what if I made him something and he sent it BACK?!?!

I realize in the grand scheme of things this particular episode might not warrant such scrutiny, but at the time, you have to understand this was the biggest event that had ever occurred to me. I was 19, newly out of the house. I had never experienced much of life, only lived it vicariously through movies. Mostly Paul Newman movies. I always wanted to be the girl on the bike in “Butch Cassidy” or Eileen Brennan’s character Billie in “The Sting”. Or hell, even Patricia Neal’s character in “Hud”. Anything. After a lifetime of living through movies, I was intent on striking out on my own to succeed or fail on my own terms.

Well, here was real possibility of true failure staring me right in the face. Speaking of staring, how was I not going to? I mean it’s frikkin’ Paul Newman and yeah, he might be 70 or whatever, but he’s still the hottest movie star of all time (did you SEE Cool Hand Luke?) with the bluest eyes on the planet. How to not stare deep into them, even if he’s giving you that withering look that says, “Get a life psycho.” With a period, not an exclamation mark. Because he’s Henry Gondorff.

I kept prepping, my heart racing, waiting for him to arrive. And eventually, he did. He walked through the restaurant with some friend of his to be seated at the far end of the restaurant. They looked at menus. They ordered lunch. They ordered drinks. Meanwhile everyone is walking around going about their business, stealing glances his way pretending they’re just looking at some other old guy with white hair wearing a cardigan sweater, chinos, and Chris Craft tennis shoes that ISN’T Paul Newman. Did I tell you how sexy he looked in that getup? Only the sexiest grandfather that ever walked the earth. And the eyes? They are definitely as blue as they say. Bluer even. He glanced once, a millisecond in my direction as he walked past, and in that millisecond I totally drowned. Whew. The wine glass I was polishing almost fell to the floor and shattered in a million gazillion pieces. Holy crap were they blue.

After they ordered the waiter began to walk in my direction. This was the moment of truth. The HOURS that it took to walk in my direction were in excrutiatingly slow motion. What would it be? Wine? Scotch? Martini? Planter’s Punch? Girl Scout Cookie? The waiter, napkin draped over his arm, finally reached my station. His mouth formed a smile and began to say some words. His voice slowed to a crawl. My heart was pounding. “IIIIIcccccceeeeeeeed teeeaaaaaaaaaaaa.” He reached for a lemon and walked toward the kitchen.

Iced tea.

Iced tea.

Iced tea?

I didn’t make the iced tea. I only handled cocktails and sodas. Water and iced tea were handled by the waiters. I only cut the lemons for the iced tea. That was why he had told me the order, taken a lemon, and walked away.

The realiziation settled on me like a blanket floating to the ground – in slow motion of course. It covered me heavily – and I was crestfallen. Iced tea!?!?!?! What the fuck!?!?!?! No Campari? No Scotch? What kind of man orders iced tea for lunch!?!?!

Paul Newman that’s who. He and his friend both ordered iced tea, clams casino, and they ate lunch, talking about their golf scores for all I know. I polished glasses, made drinks, and continued to steal glances in his direction, if only to look at the back of his head. He sipped his iced tea after squeezing the lemon into it. The lemon I had cut just moments earlier.

He was just a guy after all. And I was just a young girl. At the first job she ever had on her own, out of her parents’ house. Embarking on a life. Cutting lemons.