Lately I feel as though I have been channeling my dad--not in some otherworldly Vincent Price-as-Horror-Sttar way--but the essence of his love of life and the way that manifested into extraordinary encounters. What I am discovering is that, if you open your heart to life, it responds wholeheartedly right back.
We all know this intuitively: How many wonderful chance encounters have we all had while traveling when, freed of our daily cares and habits, we risk a conversation with a total stranger that leads to one of our more memorable experiences?
For me, breaking out of my comfort zone of isolation and workaholism on this trip by saying YES, I have reaped the rewards or new friendships and widening my view of what is possible as we move through the world!
Yesterday was a perfect example. I had emailed a restaurant called The Orange Squirrel in New Jersey that I had read did annual Vincent Price cookbook dinners around Halloween. The chef owner, Francesco Palmieri, immediately invited me for lunch on his day off on my way into the city. Over the weekend, a woman with whom I had been corresponding about a book she had written emailed me to say that she saw this restaurant on the website and asked if I was going, as she lived nearby. With Francesco's blessing, I asked her to join us for lunch with his wife, Elaine.
The four of us met yesterday for two and a half hours of incredible food and equally wonderful conversation at the Orange Squirrel, right on the main street of Bloomfield, NJ--part of the larger foodie Mecca of Montclair, New Jersey. It is a lovely space--modern yet cozy with orange chairs, their squirrel logo stenciled in wood, family heirlooms such as an old wine press, and wonderfully idiosyncratic mementos such as a jar of hot sauce signed by Joey Ramone.
They had set out a table in the middle of the restaurant filled with cookbooks and photo albums. I loved that immediately! Their wedding albums, family photos, Vincent Price dinners and road trips, cookbooks they'd collected (including two by my parents)--all food for great conversation.
The way I like to describe my parents is as Collectors of Experience. Francesco and Elaine already understood that--and spurred by Elaine's love of Poe, artist Gustav Dore, and my father--they have been creating a life that reflects that appetite for life. From road trips like mine to eat at restaurants in A Treasury of Great Recipes, to an incredible wedding adventure in the Four Corners region of the Southwest that led to white-knuckling a mountain road and discovering an incredible off-the-beaten track restaurant with world-class farm-to-table cuisine in the wilds of Utah, these are people after my family's heart!
They opened their restaurant at a time of great family heartbreak--the death of Elaine's beloved sister and father within a year of one another--and right when the Great Recession began. But their perseverance and love of what they do (Elaine says that Francesco has the tenaciousness of a squirrel), they have succeeded and put their restaurant on their map.
Valerie Horowitz, who lives in nearby Montclair, had written me last year to ask permission to use one of the cookbook recipes in her mystery novel, Cinnamon Girl. Her mother, a lifelong New Yorker, had loved my father--and had owned both the cookbook and my father's "visual autobiography" called I Like What I Know. An art lover herself, she had taken Valerie's brother to an auction house when he turned 13 so that he, like my father, could acquire his first work of art at that age!
Valerie had heard about The Orange Squirrel, but had never eaten there. Four strangers quickly became fast friends, sharing stories, opinions about food and the restaurant world, and mostly encouraging one another to keep up our appetites for life.
The food was incredible. We began with a Celery Root Puree that I could eat on a daily basis. Comprised of white truffle oil, celeriac and potato, salt and white pepper, and finished with pistachio oil and white chestnut, it was simply divine. Plated with a small arugula salad with warm goat cheese, I was in heaven!
Next came perfectly cooked salmon on an asparagus puree. Cooking salmon well is one of the hallmarks of a good chef, I believe. There's nothing I loathe more than a paper-dry piece of fish. But--when salmon is perfectly cooked on the inside and out, it melts in your mouth as this dish did. The salmon was accompanied by four sides: Spicy broccolini which, I discovered, is a hybrid between broccoli and asparagus. (I had no idea!) Tempura asparagus with an outrageously delicious honey-mustard sauce (made with rice flour for gluten-free me!). (Serious addiction possibilities there!) Purple, white, and chartreuse pan-friend cauliflower dusted with danadal, which is a cardamom seed. Perfect! And a polenta cooked down to its decadent essence--smooth like butter. . .with a little mascarpone cheese added in for good measure.
After our meal, we took a tour of their perfectly appointed kitchen, which is the neighboring storefront with windows facing the street letting in all the light. And then, having become such great new friends, we made plans to see one another again tonight at Sardi's--as well as for me to join them at their next Vincent Price dinner in October!
As I drove into Manhattan to meet with my literary agent and the new publisher of my biography of my father, I saw the new World Trade Center and its landmark spire for the first time. I can never see the Manhattan skyline without a sense of wonder--now forever tinged by the memory of 9/11. I thought of Francesco, then a new graduate of the Culinary Institute and a chef at Windows on the World on 9/11--and the sense of loss and gratitude he must feel every day. I thought of all the loss that people face daily, and how it can only be survived by rediscovering daily gratitude. And suddenly I was flooded with immense gratitude for my own life, its many vicissitudes and its great promise--and I could only feel thankful to be on this road trip where I am remembering what matters. . .living a wholehearted life of joy!
Tonight is our big Sardi's dinner--but first, off to explore this city I adore! How fortunate am I!