One day, earlier this year, I went to pick Eli up at school. Her drama teacher pulled me aside and warned me that I was in for an emotional tsunami. The casting had come out for Peter Pan and she didn’t get the role of Captain Hook. She was less angry and more aghast. She was positive her audition was better.
I grabbed a pint of Smitten’s Brookies & Cream and a spoon, and we had a mommy/Eli bedroom powwow when we got home where we talked about how I had to always play boys at school because I was tall, and about how sometimes the better person doesn’t get the role.
“I was in a play called Trojan Women,” I told her. “‘Women’ is in the name! Guess who had to be King Meneleus?”
I made her a solemn vow: I am always here to talk to you whenever your heart is broken, no matter what the reason is. And I will always bring high quality ice cream, even if you are halfway around the world and I have to do the Door Dash equivalent of that. We’d call it the “Captain Hook Special.”
She later agreed, actually, that the girl cast as Captain Hook was better in the role, and she made the role of John her own, by fashioning a blanket as a gown midway through act one. But the ice cream vow is serious business.
Food is my love language. I love cooking for people. I absolutely hate to waste calories on anything that isn’t filling up my soul as much as it is my body.
But I wasn’t always this way. I was an incredibly picky eater as a kid, and later I had an eating disorder. Food was the enemy to me.
Obsessively planning future meals is the only kind of planning I do these days.
I’m not sure when the shift happened.
Maybe around the time I moved to California and realized that really great biscuits weren’t a given outside the South. And that good BBQ had to be packed in dry ice and FedEx’d from Memphis. I spent two years trying to figure out a truly great fried chicken recipe, because there was no option for that out here.
Those who’ve had my fried chicken know, it was well worth the effort. My fried chicken takes days to prepare but you won’t find anything like it elsewhere on the West Coast. It’s what my partner Paul asks for for his birthday every year.
On the other end of the spectrum, my kids love my tacos better than any other tacos. (We live in the Mission!) My tacos are Ortega tacos in those atrocious but delicious doritos shells, made with lean turkey meat. But you know what? They ARE delicious. There’s something about the way I make them that Paul and the girls’ dad can’t replicate. You are always the secret ingredient when you cook.
There is so much I miss from Memphis. Ripley tomatoes with salt and pepper. That white bread they always serve with BBQ. Really good cornbread. A tray of Uncle Lou’s biscuits slathered in honey and butter. BBQ cornish game hens from Cozy Corner. For the last twenty years, when I go home I plan every meal carefully.
I guess it was when I lost Southern food that I began to feel like food was more than fuel and more than my enemy.
Adrift in the West Coast in the wake of the dot com bust, without a lot of money, I got serious about learning to cook. My then-husband worked Saturdays and I would Tivo a week’s worth of Martha Stewart Living and then sit there on Saturdays when pen and paper taking notes.
It was in those days I discovered two of my favorite recipes still: A simple lemon chicken and a turkey meatloaf. My ex-husband didn’t eat ground beef so I became a genius at ground turkey. I subscribed to Food & Wine and scoured every issue, trying and tweaking recipes.
Later, when I was working on my second book and I spent more than 40 weeks traveling through emerging markets, I asked people to teach me to cook their favorite meals everywhere I went. I learned to make dal and simple curries with chickpeas in India, hummus in Israel, spicy peanut sauce in Indonesia, and brigadeiros in Brazil. I would roast peppers and spices and broke way too many grinders making custom rubs and masalas throughout the years, gifting them for the holidays when I was short on cash. The many Mexican and Asian markets in my neighborhood were a treasure trove of new items to experiment with.
Despite what I lost in Southern food, I gained culinarily living in San Francisco. Everything is grown or raised here and it’s nearly impossible to make a bad meal out of a farmer’s market haul. And when I don’t want to cook there are 15 Michellin starred restaurants within a quick stroll of my home.
Which brings us to this newsletter.
I am embarking on a food crisis (of the most privileged proportions, I know). Food is top of mind in a way it hasn’t been since I had an eating disorder, and then first lost Southern cooking.
For a lot of good reasons, we are moving from San Francisco to Palm Springs. Not really moving so much…right now we spend 75% of our time in San Francisco and about 25% in PS. That is swapping in August.
Palm Springs will be only the third city I’ve lived in in my life…
And while there are so many many wonderful things about it….
It is hands down the worst food city I’ve lived in. :(
There are some gems. And I’ll write about them here. But in Memphis, even the worst BBQ joint would be better than any BBQ West of the Mississippi. I would have turned my nose up at a $2.50 sandwich from Tops in my teens. That’s part of the very serious rotation when I go home now. (With dill chips on top and the crinkle fries dipped in extra sauce…yum.)
Likewise, it’s hard to get a bad meal in San Francisco. The rents are too high and the competition too serious.
So as I set on a quest to find the best food in the Coachella Valley, and find I probably have to cook more myself, I also am savoring every bite I take the times I’m in San Francisco. I’m even more mindful of everything I eat, why and what it means to me beyond physical nourishment.
And because I get in conversations about food constantly, and so many people ask me where to eat or what I’m eating when they visit either city, I decided to set up a newsletter.
It’s not about fine dining, although there may be some of that. It’s not about guilty culinary pleasures although there may be some of that. It’s about my definition of comfort food, and yours. I’d love to hear from you.
I’ll end each newsletter with recent highlights of what I’ve eaten/where/when. I hope they inspire you coming out of a year in which we couldn’t dine out and we got reaaaaallllyy sick of cooking endless meals for everyone in our house.
It’s free for now, but I’ll turn on subscriptions at some point. Your few dollars a month will help fund my food habit and give me some accountability to take a moment each week and reflect on the food I’m grateful for.
What I’ve eaten and enjoyed in the last week:
Sunday night: Last Sunday, we were in Palm Springs and went to our favorite fancy place, Mr. Lyons Steakhouse. This is where we go for Thanksgiving every year, my birthday because we are usually down south then, and when we have special guests in town. The occasion was that our close friends Andy and Andrea were in town from SF.
It was their second time at Mr Lyons in a weekend and BOTH TIMES they were out of the parker house rolls. I LOVE parkerhouse rolls. It’s a big reason you go there. Especially for A&A who are pescetarians.
One of the janitors of the elementary and highschool I went to, Fannie, had a side businesss making and selling huge sheets of parker house rolls during the holidays and we always bought a few. Everytime I have them I am taken back to those hours before Thanksgiving waiting on the PHR to bake, and then slathering them with butter. It was one of the few things that we bought in excess for a family of seven, and I got my fill of.
Mr. Lyons, on the other hand, seemed to have a major PHR supply chain breakdown. How on earth could a steakhouse run out of bread this often? We’ve been at Mr Lyon’s in peak season and never had this problem. I needed to know. New supplier? Sabotage?
The manager came over and explained: By mid-June Palm Springs starts to get into the 110s and starts to become a ghost town. It’s only been in the last few years that many restaurants in PS even stayed open all year. And so they’d lowered their parker house rolls quota. But thanks to hot post-vaccine summer, business is still surging and early out-of-towners had drained the PHR supply. What Mr. Lyons thought was a one bachelorette party fluke, was a new pattern.
I hope it’s adjusted next time we go, but the food was delicious anyway. And Marco, the manager, compensating by sending us ALL SIX desserts from the menu. We were achy for a few days but well worth it. (I still like the mint chip sundae the best.)
Anyway, let it be a lesson should you dine at Mr. Lyons this summer: Order them the second you sit down, just in case you get the last basket.
Paul and I had solo dinner dates with my kids. Last time, I took Evie to dinner because she’s starting to expand her palette and wanted to try dimsum. I wanted to reward this, while not fighting with Eli about trying things, so I figured a special night out with mom would do just that. Paul, meantime, took Eli for burgers.
Evie had missed Paul because he spent an entire week in Palm Springs, so this time I got to go to dinner with Eli. We went to Chez Maman, a 20-year SF fav of mine and home of the best non-fried chicken sandwich on earth. (Make sure to add brie and harissa.) Eli was promised a burger, which she didn’t love, but valiantly fought her way through. She did love the baguette brought to the table to start. She even took a “jealous?” baguette face selfie for me to text Paul and Evie. Evie shrugged eating chicken tenders for 4505 (second best chicken tenders in California, according to her) and said “why would I be jealous of bread?”
I was feeling all yes-mom with the school year coming to an end, and so we ordered three desserts. Nutella and banana crepe, salted caramel gelato and raspberry sorbet. She said she liked the first two but declared the raspberry sorbet “mind blowing.” One of the best desserts she’d ever had.
The waiter brought me a surprise port and the end and winked and told Eli, “come back in ten years for yours.” (San Francisco waiters love single moms.)
So new mommy and Eli tradition on trips back to SF: Chez maman for wine (for me) sorbet (for Eli) and browsing at Christopher’s Books for both of us after.
Wednesday & Thursday:
This post is a little dated… but last week SanFrancisco was in the throes of a heat wave. There were triple digits inland, but because this heat wave came so early in the summer the ocean was still frigid. That meant the natural San Francisco AC from the pacific was on full blast. The weather was PERFECT.
Hot in the Mission, yes. But Paul and I took a few hours in the middle of the day to walk to Golden Gate Park for hot dogs. As we made our way the cool ocean breezes lapped around us, and our several mile walk was rewarded by a can of wine (for me) a Diet Coke (for him) and chicken apple sausages from Annie’s. We also split a pretzel, with a cheese cup for me.
I love Golden Gate Park so much. I try to walk or run there from the Mission at least once a week when I’m in San Francisco. Sitting down in the grass with a hot dog and pretzel feels indulgent and comforting at the same time. Indulgent because it’s San Francisco. Comforting because it’s from a stand.
Believe it or not, pretzel-and-cheese actually feels like luxury for me for another reason. I grew up the youngest of five kids and my parents were teachers. We didn’t have a lot of money. No money for actual restaurants, going to McDonalds was only an on-your-birthday thing. But a few times a year, we’d go to the Raleigh Springs Mall, and if it was just me and my brother, Peter, my mom would splurge on Hot Sam’s pretzels for us, with cheese. It was so salty and hot and greasy and delicious and – yes– indulgent.
I still feel that way when I eat a soft pretzel with cheese. It’s one of those things that’s hard coded in my brain that I never want to change. Easy, attainable luxury.
Friday night graduation celebration
This newsletter is long but I have to tell you about one more meal because it was so important. Last Friday was mykids last day at their school in San Francisco. Eli is transgender and needs a fresh start. Evie wants to play soccer. Their dad and Paul areover the Bay Area for different reasons.
I’m kinda devastated about the whole thing. I had so much ego wrapped up in the San Francisco life I’d fought for and provided for them.
I was especially sad to leave our school which I’d day dreamed about them being in through 8th grade. All the dance shows and performances. Chaperoning the choir trip to Italy. The sing-and-dance 8th grade graduation.
It was an emotional week of Evie being devastated to leave her friends and teachers and Eli barely containing the “later b*tches, I’m off to be fabulous!” vibes. We watched the live stream graduation at home and I hard core ugly sobbed.
Eli sweetly put her hand on my leg, “Do you need a minute? Do we need to pause this?”
Afterwards, I had a plan of us going to Liberties. By no means the best San Francisco restaurant but a block from their school and it was their last day going to that school. Evie was in such a funk she refused, and I was not pleased. This was a meaningful night for Eli and I was also giving up A LOT for the good of the family in this move.
But I didn’t scold her and let her stay with Paul, and Eli and I went instead. It was another day of this “heat wave” and although we had sweaters, we both had shorts on. We walked down Valencia lit with lights, COVID parklettes full, the street closed so you could walk right down the middle. It was like our own asphalt red carpet. Eli was twirling and doing tap shuffle-ball-changes as we walked.
On a whim, we ran into Top Drawerand bought a polaroid camera and three packs of black and white film. This was a night not just for an iPhone. I let Eli pick two pens. She looked at every single one and settled on a purple brush ben and an orange fine point, and a squid notebook.
The guy at the counter asked if it was a special occasion and we smiled at each other.
We went to Liberties grabbed a seat on the patio, ordered and started to play hangman. Oh HOLY HELL! was it cold. That pacific ocean AC was on full blast and despite the moment, we were shivering.
“Do you have any hot chocolate?” I asked the waiter finally, grasping at straws.
“Um… we have tables inside,” he said after we’d shivered for a good thirty minutes. WHAT? We were so Covid conditioned we didn’t even ask. We grabbed a high top by the bar with a lush upholstered booth and Eli’s next hangman phrase was, “I HAVE NO IDEA WHY WE DIDN’T GO INSIDE IN THE FIRST PLACE.”
We couldn’t stop laughing.
I lifted my Cosmo (because it always feels like the late ‘90s at Liberties) and cheersed Eli’s lemonade.
“Do you know what we are drinking to?’ I asked.
“End of school?” she said.
“Nope,” I said. “The end of you pretending to be a boy.”
We were in that moment the closest any two people have ever come to being a modern West Coast Gilmore Girls reboot.