The Evacu-cation

The first sign that anything might be wrong came on a Thursday afternoon, driving my son Flynn to his baseball practice in Agoura Hills.

As we wound through Malibu Canyon, we spotted a large plume of smoke rising over approximately exactly where the baseball field was. “Uh, Dad…” said Flynn, pointing. We arrived to discover the fire was a ridge away, so practice proceeded as planned.

The next day we could see the smoke from our home, rising like a mushroom cloud over our drought-dry mountains. I was at an afternoon birthday party for a 7-year-old drinking wine when my wife pulled up unexpectedly. “Mandatory evacuation,” she said. She was on her way to our friends Bob and Shoba’s house in the San Fernando Valley. I went back home, gathered a few more photo albums and the important artworks, and descended on the valley to join her.

Bob and Shoba recently moved into a lovely new home that has two guest houses and a guest room. Already at the house when we arrived were our friends Heather and Johnny and her kids, as well as Jon (of previous “Jon” posts), with his daughter. “Come, stay with us!” Bob and Shoba said. Or at least I imagine they said. In any case, they didn’t turn us away when we all showed up on their door.

It was a dire situation. But out came the champagne — the party was ON.

Lovely hostess and two swarthy refugees

I brought a 1994 Chateau Lafite Rothschild my father had gifted me before he passed away — I didn’t want that going up in flames. The ladies stirred Aperol spritzes, there was plenty of mezcal as Bob fired up the grill and put thick ribeye steaks to the flame, the children unable to believe their luck at the spontaneous 9-kid sleepover. We drank and ate and laughed and watched movies.

The next morning we came out of our luxurious guest quarters into the main house to the smell of coffee brewing and bacon crisping. The second day was mostly consumed with watching reports of the fire on the television, subduing our nerves with beer and wine, and planning that evening’s dinner. Leslie called from Costco asking if I needed anything, and I told her I needed crab. Desperately. She came home with two very large just-in-season Dungeness, which I cleaned and cracked and stirred into a tomato saffron sauce for Shoba’s favorite dinner — spaghetti with crab. Now joined by Moira and Dan — never ones to miss a good party and pretending they had to evacuate too — we commenced another splendid meal that also featured spiral ham and stuffing for some one amongst us who, despite the bone-dry weather and fires burning around us, was feeling seasonal.

Gathering around the Evacu-cation table

“I talked to my lawyer,” Jon joked raising his wine glass in the air, “And we have at least thirty days before they can legally begin evicting us.”

By the third day, however, the party was beginning to lose its luster. Our clothes smelled stale, everyone was starting to look a little fried, Bob and Shoba were doing a lot of whispering to each other. We had some obligatory mimosas and then Heather and her clan left for Santa Barbara, Jon departed for Long Beach, and we cleared out for the day. That evening we drove across town to have dinner in Santa Monica with our Malibu friends whose home had just burned down. (“We were ready for new wardrobes anyway,” they said cheerfully as we sipped an Oregon pinot and ate kale salad.)

We stayed one more night, and quietly made ourselves coffee the next morning, as Bob and Shoba got onto their computers and conference calls. There was real life to return to.

Jon, day #3

I had been driving in and out of the eerily empty canyon through a dirt backroad ever since Saturday to feed the farm animals and check on the house. The fire seemed to be contained in Malibu Canyon, there was no longer smoke in the sky and the Santa Ana winds had died down. Our pal Steve had invited us to re-evacuate to his place. But we were missing our own beds. We decided to go home.

As I write this, a full week later, we are still under mandatory evacuation. But most of the canyon, like us, has snuck back in via that dirt back road. And the sheriffs seem to be turning a blind eye.

We got settled back into the house, re-hung the art, put the photo albums and paperwork away, and slouched onto the couches. What to do now? How about invite some friends over for dinner…



A Waffle Does Not Make Good Sandwich Bread (and Other Thoughts)

I received a Groupon in my in-box this morning (why I still receive Groupons in my in-box is another conversation) for a place called “Red Maple Café”. A rather generic attempt at an Americana tavern/eatery type name (the trend these days). Obviously not drawing the people they expected, if they are putting out a Groupon.

The photo included with the Groupon was of an ill-conceived sandwich, a meat of some kind — probably smoked heritage pork belly — suspended between two waffles. Making matters worse was a sprig of cilantro sitting ominously close to the meat. More

Lamb Shanks Two Ways, and the World’s Rarest Pasta

Awhile back, I was reading Saveur magazine, and stumbled on an article entitled “On the Hunt for the World’s Rarest Pasta.”

Su filindeu — or “threads of God” — are a hand-pulled pasta the width approximately of human hair, served at the end of a 20-mile overnight pilgrimage through sheep country on the isle of Sardinia, a tradition that has dwindled down to two or three woman still able to make it. Here’s the article, a great read, if you want to learn more of the back story.

Sardinian sheep

The fine filamented noodle supposedly takes decades to master. Repeatedly stretched by hand, it grows thinner and thinner with each successive round. It is only eaten one morning a year, following a foot bath, in the Sardinian village of Lulu at the Sanctuary of San Francesco, boiled in a sheep stock and showered with grated sheep’s cheese. More

In the Spiritual Birthplace of Buca di Beppo

Boston is the birthplace of a lot of things. Benjamin Franklin, for example. Cream pie and the American revolution.

As I discovered recently staying at a sweet Airbnb next door to the 17th-century Copp’s Burying Ground in the city’s historic North End, it is also birthplace — or at least the contemporary ground zero — to a certain style of Italian/American dining best exemplified by the chain restaurant, Buca di Beppo.

Waiting for our table in the North End

Buca di Beppo, it turns out from 45 seconds of web research, was actually born in the basement of a Minneapolis building. But it is less the actual brand I refer to than a uniquely American approach to Italian dining. Witness La Famiglia Giorgio’s, a three decade-old institution noted by Boston magazine for its “giant portion sizes” and specialties such as “eggplant parmigiana and steak pizzaoila.” Or the similar Giacomo’s, located nearby, and known for “piles of butter-saturated garlic bread and heaping portions of chicken Parm and marsala”.

In other words, not exactly authentic, regional Italian cuisine. More

Eating New York

“Wait,” said my friend Scott a couple years back when I mentioned I’d never been to New York, “YOU have never been to New York??”

It was as if I had told him that I’d never seen a sunset or walked on a beach.

He was astonished that I — being the avid traveler and food and art lover that I am — had never been to the food and art capital of America.

“I’ve never had much interest in New York,” I said, which elicited a further jaw-dropped gape of astonishment. More

Previous Older Entries