One Christmas I Dined Alone
by David Lambert
A month before Christmas ’76 I hired on as a writer for a small newspaper in Burien WA, 20 miles south of Seattle. Back then Burien was a slow-life bedroom community that fed the newly awakening Seattle metro. I was a reporter with flair for soft news, features — and I was the new guy from The South. My editor was Ed Penhale, a skinny guy with Woody Allen lips and a scraggly beard. Penhale was a Live Free or Die New Hampshirean with a big heart and a quick laugh. I enjoyed working with him and he was a very competent editor.
And editor Penhale, God love him, was a music freak—a progressive post hippy brainiac from the Woodstock era who still clung to the best of the flower power ethos. He’d been given a set of tickets for dinner and a performance at Seattle’s old Pioneer Bank, a 19-century architectural relic that had survived both fire and quake. The building sat amid the concrete tats of other times in the Northwest. Downtown Seattle — cool place if you like architecture and history. I did and I do.
Penhale knew I’d be alone that Christmas. New to Northwest and new to my job, I’d had little time to make new friends, and the ones I’d begun to regard kindly were leaving for home and holiday. So before he took wing, Penhale gave me those tickets for a Christmas Eve repast — drinks, dinner and a ticket to see jazz violinist Joe Venuti downstairs at the Pioneer Bank. This, by the way, compliments of the news edit desk.
Early Christmas Eve 1976 I dressed in my only coat, a worn and drafty woollie, and drove deep into Seattle, deep into the cold and hilly downtown, which like me, wore its old and only Christmas finery. This was the year I’d eat Christmas dinner alone.
Pioneer Square was alive with last minute shoppers, and there were plenty of revelers, so I was alone but not lonely. I sat down to a near-Authurian repast, lamb with mint and a pear chutney, golden roasted birds with golden roasted vegetables, great slabs of juicy beef that leapt from the carver’s knife, and oyster dressings and tangy white cheeses and hard crust breads and fruits of all roundness and flavor, all of which I doused with bricky, rich red wine.
And the desserts, my God, the pie crusts alone were art — rhubarb, mince, apple and cherry and pear. But I tasted none of these because my heart was set on one dessert only, a simpler prize — bread pudding.
Is bread pudding not the most democratic of desserts? A sumptuous aggregate of throw-aways and have-arounds — stale homemade bread, raisins, milk, and cinnamon — covered with a buttery sugar and bourbon sauce. Only this dessert seemed reasonable after the lordly meal at which I’d just spent hours.
Pioneer bank was dressed in lush Christmas tones, fat golden bows and ribbons of scarlets and forest greens. The staff had done the old girl up. Still, regaled or not, most diners abandoned the place after their feast and before the music started.
Around 11 p.m., with a swollen belt line and a body on the verge of revolt, I pushed away from the rich coffees and post-dinner brandy and walked downstairs to the little show venue, not much more than 50 seats and a stage. I heard Joe Venuti’s twirly, rollicking jazz violin before I could see the group. He was on stage with two sidemen, a pianist and a stand-up bass player.
The band was in mid-song and it was very dark so I grabbed a quick seat in the rear. The song finished and the stage lights perked up to show that I was the only body in the audience. It was me and the band.
Venuti looked at me and said ‘Merry Christmas, you by yourself?” I said yeah. “Like jazz?” he said. I said yes sir. “Come on up if you want.” I did, moved myself to the front row.
I stayed for two sets. I bought the room a round of drinks, but the band were pros, which means they politely tasted their drinks then set them aside. It was Christmas, what the hell. They were on the road and I was away from home and I was just tanked enough to not be intimated. . .much. I figured they knew I couldn’t play by the way I talked. If I had been any kind of player, they might have had me sit in.
At midnight the band came back from a break and Venuti had the house bring out a bottle of champagne. We toasted Christmas 1976. The band cranked up for another set. I stayed for a final drink and in between songs, I bid my farewell. I told Joe Venuti this was maybe my most memorable Christmas and I thanked them for their kindness and friendliness. Now when I think back over my many holiday seasons, I think maybe what I told Joe Venuti and band was right: 1976, the Christmas I dined alone.
I have a theory. I believe God keeps the really good old Southerners around to show the rest of us how life should be lived, how we ought to do it. That’s why guys like my friend Charlie Heston stay around, bright, clear, and classy, well into their eighth decade.
Charlie died awhile back. Ultimately, when his cancer coursed system-wide, when the purse wasn’t worth the bout, Charlie quietly put down his hands. He handled his illness with the same quiet style, class, and grace as he handled daily life. And he is well missed.
I think Charlie was around 85 when he died, but I never asked. What counts most to me is this: When Charlie died, all of us took one small step closer to losing the old Southern grace and culture I admire. That grace, those Southern values, they’re part of a culture we need more of these days. Not the Hollywood version – Tennessee Williams, syrupy drawls, and sweat-soaked wife beaters. More the Atticus Finch style – courteous, persistent, and strong, especially when the situation demands.
In Charlie’s culture, people are taught manners, and manners mean respect. In Charlie’s world courtesy is commonplace, people have worth and merit and value. You respect them and they respect you — at least until either of you is shown otherwise.
There aren’t that many old Southerners left, fewer now that Charlie’s gone; but he was surely one of them – a man of quiet grace and soft dignity, a man settled with his place in the world, a man who didn’t want or need attention.
Charlie Heston was a gentle man, a comfortable and comforting soul. He was a kind man, and the kind of man who was always willing to take the new guy fishing. Charlie figured he could shorten their learning curve.
No telling how many anglers he hooked over his eight decades. Charlie wouldn’t give much thought to it, but there are lots of them to be sure. Find any fishing club in North Florida and Charlie will have contributed to their ranks. Fact is, Charlie Heston found many members their first fish. While he may have fished conventional tackle on occasions, his real love was fly fishing.
Here’s a guy who, in his 80s, could and did out fish most of us on a regular basis — not that he’d ever tell you about it. Charlie could find ‘em, all right, and he could catch ‘em. He was a skilled and serious angler, dangerous to fish. You knew it by the way he talked. That he did it from a banged up 12-foot aluminum jon with a scarred old Johnson 10-horse is a testament to his skill. It was never spoken, the concept was never aired, but we learned from Charlie that fishing wasn’t about spending money.
My friend visited Charlie after his first few cancer treatments. She asked if he needed help. Anything. Some of us would have looked for sympathy, bitched about our illness or cranked about the life unfair. Not Charlie. He thought a minute, then said he needed someone to rake his lawn. Leaves were falling; it didn’t look good to him, but he was too sick to do it himself.
Into his nine-month fight with the disease, soon as he was well enough, Charlie fished with Jacksonville, FL guide John Bottko. He caught a backwater slam that day — a nice redfish, a trout, a flounder. Grand slams don’t come around all that often.
“It was the damnedest thing,” Bottko told me later, “the fish were just there for him.”
I have a photo of Charlie holding the redfish he caught that day. His face is wan and drawn, but he’s happy to be fishing again, happy to feel the sun, happy to be on home waters. You can see it in his eyes. He died weeks later. A peaceful death, I’m told. We would have expected no less.
I’ll think about Charlie next time I hear an strange accent barking at a boat ramp or see a driver festering with road rage. I’ll think about how we’re losing the good old Southern values, how courtesy is an inconvenience now, how manners are taken for weakness, how refinement seems out of place. I’ll think about where we’re heading as a culture and I’ll ask myself do we really need to get there?
I think about my theory — how God gives the good ones more Earth time to show the rest of us how it should be done.
Maybe I’ll think it’s not a theory. Maybe I’ll think it’s really a prayer.
© 2010 David Lambert
Randy Wayne White’s Gulf Coast Cookbook
review by David Lambert
I love The Lyons Press, not because they bring to print classic and classy fishing literature, which they most certainly do, but because they sometimes send me these great books to review.
So it is with a recent Lyons’ offering: Randy Wayne White’s Gulf Coast Cookbook.
Randy Wayne White is a recovering fly and light-tackle guide from Sanibel who made a forced but very successful professional segue into writing. White has authored 17 Doc Ford novels and assorted books of essays, the latter having former lives as adventure-travel pieces in Outside and other magazines.
His novel Sanibel Flats was voted one of the 100 best mysteries of the 20th Century by the American Independent Booksellers Association and his books show regularly in the NYT Best Sellers List. Rightly so. White’s Doc Ford novels are a fun read, with head nods to McDonald and Steinbeck, two Johns the author openly admires. RWW novels entertain, true, but they educate too, as though Travis McGee and Ed Rickett’s traveled the same celestial circuit but in singular temporal form.
Randy Wayne White fans will find much to like here. His Gulf Coast Cookbook is a well whisked amalgam of recipes, local flavor, quotes, and photos of old friends, both animate and still. Part of the fun for RWW fans are the behind-the-scenes clips and photos of real-life people who morphed into characters of White’s dozen or so Doc Ford novel — the guides, marina owners, managers and anglers who negotiated the wobbly docks of Sanibel’s Tarpon Bay Marina. It’s like recognizing old friends.
There’s nothing fussy about these recipes; it’s not haute cuisine, but it’s not Cracker cooking either. Randy Wayne White likes food and drink the way he likes his friends, sincere and funny, but with style and substance — maybe a pinch of eccentricity to spice up the mix. Recipes like Banana Leaf Snapper with Lime Cilantro Sauce reside on the printer’s plate next to Captain Gene’s Mullet. Seafood and citrus are gloriously represented here, but they are not glorified. RRW and friends have chosen their menu well. For your palatal pleasure: chapters on salsas and hot sauces; soups, chowders, and stews; herbs, salads, shellfish, shark, vegetables, meats and poultry, and tropical drinks.
RWW likes his eccentricities. The book has a section devoted to foods cooked in beer (“Beer; frankly, I admire it.”) and a few off-the-wall recipes like Brine Cured Pork and Grilled Marinated Shark Fillets (which, like Tiger Soup, should begin with this admonition: ’First you catch the shark. . .).
The bulk of recipes are more conventional, like Brazilian Potato and Meat Pie, or ‘Perfect Beans,’ a drolly names recipe that frankly I’m dying to try.
What follows is a sampling of entrees and appetizers from White’s Gulf Coast Cookbook: Pan-Seared Pompano in Summer Marinara Sauce. All-Crab Crab Cakes. Grilled Grouper Wrapped in Prosciutto on a Bed of Salsa. Bonita Bill’s Salsa, a roasted corn ménage with lime, cumin, tomatoes, peppers and cilantro. (“Bonita Bill’s is a quirky outdoor restaurant and bar. . .it may be the only restaurant in Florida with an unlisted number.”) Mesquite Grilled Chicken with Herbed Wild rice, Apples, and Walnuts. Belizean Chicken Stew (“Belize city is a rat hole but the country people are wonderful and great cooks.”). Twice Fried Plantains (Tostones) and Watermelon Jam.
Beverages and desserts play no small role: Delights such as Bananas in Paradise, Dan’s Sanibel Rum Cake, Vodka Oyster Shooters, Doc Ford’s Hemingway Daiquiri, and Mindi’s Mojito can bracket any of the book’s fine entrees. Consume enough of these, though, and you may forgo the meal altogether. It’s your choice.
Either way, Randy and friends have compiled enough sumptuous suggestions to keep you in Palatal Paradise for a few good months, even if you’re not a Doc Ford fan.
Randy Wayne White’s Gulf Coast Cookbook: With Memories and Photos of Sanibel Island; by Randy Wayne White and Carlene Fredericka Brennen; 256 pages; The Lyons Press; 1 edition (December 1, 2006); ISBN-10: 159228096X; ISBN-13: 978-1592280964
© 2010 David Lambert
“Nothing that a roadside Floridana shop carries is of any value. . .all is junk.” I wrote this in a journal when I was 12 years old, after the belly of a newly purchased stuffed alligator came unsewn.
I bought it from a Florida gift stand on US 1, between St. Augustine and Jacksonville. This before the nation’s superhighways had come to our part of Florida.
But I was wrong it seems. Palm masks and carved coconut heads have found an appreciative voice. The trendy world of art has discovered this niché craft and violá . . . it is art ─ and therefore a solid investment. I know this because between the ages of 10 and 13, I bought nearly 2 carved coconut heads and a similar number of carved palm masks. Each of these cost me less than $1.20, a very good value at the time I thought. Plus they looked cool on my side of the bedroom.
Years later, these items sell online for $5-7 dollars in medium condition. Exceptionally preserved 60s era cocoanut heads command an amazing value, upwards of $10 each. Think of it, that’s nearly a thousand-fold increase in value. Nothing else sold in a Florida roadside stand comes close.
Nor in the Dow for that matter.
We are children of the South. Our culture derives from mountain and ocean, from country church and cotton field. We are equal parts red clay, sea salt, and urban brick. Our South is a genetic melange, an accumulation of cultural cross-overs. Because of them, we are.
Our artists are celebrated, our writers are revered, and our whiskey is favored worldwide.
Jazz found its form in our bars and back rooms; our churches fathered gospel, soul, and rhythm and blues. We defined rock and roll, we invented bluegrass, and we can be moved to tears by Elvis’s Battle Hymn version of Dixie.
We understand that butter is not poison, tea is sweetened and served cold, and that sugar is also a term of affection.
We know that y’all is plural and that grits are ground corn. It’s no surprise that the best Scotch in the world derives its distinct flavor from our cast-off bourbon barrels.
As children of the South, we acknowledge the dark moments in our past but they do not define us. That was then.
Southerner’s Journal celebrates and illuminates the South, both new and old, with word and image. . .and maybe a song.
We’ll do it in little bits, when we can or when we’re moved, since ours is a labor of love.
We hope you’ll find it interesting, moving, enlightening and occasionally funny.
Come back soon, now.
© 2010 David Lambert