I have two passions in life: babies and cooking. As a pediatrician, I got to indulge one of them during my working hours, and with a remodeled Bulthaup kitchen designed perfectly for me, I could indulge the other at home.
I was married for 30 years to a man who loved to eat and loved to support me in my culinary education. In the early days of our marriage, a number of meals went down the disposal, but eventually I became such a great cook that friends were reluctant to invite us to their homes to eat.
Jack and I had at least two dinner parties a week, some planned and elaborate, others impromptu and casual — but all usually memorable. I tried every kind of cuisine. I even did a dinner from “The French Laundry Cookbook.” Without sous chefs, the citrus powder alone, which is a garnish for a dish with skate wing, took me a whole afternoon. We also tried out most of the new, chic restaurants in L.A., as well as in Paris and other European cities. I became a foodie.
My beloved Jack died in April 2004. I lost interest in cooking for myself and was too sad to cook for others. Fortunately, I have an unusually generous circle of friends who invited me to their homes and out for dinner repeatedly.
About a year later, Nancy and Brent, dear friends from London, asked if they could stay with me for a couple of weeks while they set up to look for work in L.A. They turned out to be the most delightful, interesting, loving and easy houseguests one could have. They were considerate, independent and entertaining. I loved having them, and they ended up staying six months.
I am the sort of host who asks guests if they have any allergies or if there is anything they hate when they come to eat at my home for the first time. I prefer guests whose answer to the allergy question is: “The only thing we don’t eat is jellyfish.”
However, it wasn’t simple with Nancy and Brent, especially after I found out they could not eat wheat or dairy, got violently ill with mushrooms and soy, avoided foods that might contribute to her “yeast problem” and had a variety of other real or imagined sensitivities. When I found out about the wheat problem, for example, I proudly told them, “I have spelt bread in the fridge.”
“I can’t eat spelt,” Brent announced sheepishly.
Although they were both bright and well-traveled people, Nancy had a tendency to believe what was told to her by anyone who talked convincingly. She shunned microwave cooking, for example, because the microwaves “make the molecules rotate in the opposite direction.” They often had dinner ready when I got home from work, which was wonderful. They used rice pasta instead of wheat-based pasta, which I have to say is virtually tasteless and has a weird texture, but they mostly made soups, meat and vegetables, which were just fine. I would never look a gift dinner in the mouth after a day on my feet.
The next chapter of my life began while they were staying with me. I had been a resident physician at UCLA in the ’60s. I had a relationship with an extraordinarily tender and loving man while I was there. He was going through a divorce at the time, and ultimately had to move out of state. I often thought of him over the years. Jack and I visited him once in a while when we went to Seattle for the opera. (No, Jack did not know we had that sort of relationship.)
Out of the blue one day, over a year after Jack died, Neal called. I told him that Jack had died, and he was genuinely saddened. They had liked each other and got along well. One thing led to another, as they say, and we realized that each of us had kept the other in our thoughts. Emails became more and more romantic and, finally, we got together.
Not only is he vegetarian, a mild but not daunting challenge for a devoted cook, but he is also diabetic. He eats nothing “white,” no fish, is allergic to cucumbers, shuns mushrooms because they are fungi, dislikes eggplant — a mainstay of vegetarian cooking — as well as artichokes and, most disappointing of all, has virtually no palate. His favorite foods are mainly overpowered with garlic. He hates Chinese food and anything resembling a stir-fry, my mainstay for last-minute cooking. He also was just not “into” food. I once talked with someone about a lemon risotto that I make, which is vegetarian, and he asked me if I could leave out the rice when I made it for him.
Sometimes I just stood in the middle of the kitchen and sighed. I sent away to the American Diabetic Assn. for its vegetarian cookbook, which I found dull, unimaginative, basically boring and totally confusing in its format. I threw up my hands. Restaurants became my mainstay when it was my turn to cook. I had rice milk, soy milk and goat milk in the fridge. It looked like I was feeding a flock of finicky foster children when you opened the door.
Being a longtime foodie, I included Neal when I went out with friends when he was in L.A. Going to stylish restaurants and paying high prices for great food never fazed me, but paying those prices for a vegetable plate that he couldn’t appreciate anyway, even if it was gorgeous and subtly flavored, did rankle. I finally postponed those elegant eateries for the times when Neal went home.
When Neal cooked, he threw in anything that he could think of. Pancakes had yeast, baking soda and baking powder, whole wheat flour, flaxseed, oatmeal, soy milk, mashed bananas, vanilla and a few other things besides eggs and oil. You would think all the leavening would make it light, but the weight of the other ingredients created 4-pound pancakes, which were so thick that the inside could only cook if the outside was burnt. His oatmeal included peanut butter, canned peaches, nutmeg, vanilla, soy milk, good old flaxseed again and a few other ingredients I can’t remember.
One day, he asked if I’d like him to make his special spinach eggs for breakfast. I looked forward to lightly scrambled eggs with some baby spinach that had been lightly sautéed. Wrong. Spinach was only a small part of a concoction that had so many ingredients, including garlic, you couldn’t find the eggs. It looked and tasted like a rolled-up newspaper left out in the rain.
My guests moved out to an apartment in Hollywood after six months, so Brent could pursue his acting career. The people who were so careful about what they ate went out and bought a Harley.
My relationship with Neal ended at about the same time. It was not because of food issues, but I must admit it was a relief to be able to cook the way I always have. As soon as I returned to L.A. after our breakup and my guests were ensconced in their own apartment, I cooked ribs, paella and mushroom salad, and served great breads and sugar-loaded desserts including my favorite, Häagen-Dazs — everything I had been avoiding.
Food and feeding people is such an important part of my life that I think I will start any future relationship with a gastronomic questionnaire before giving my heart.
The author is a clinical professor emeritus in the department of pediatrics at UCLA, practicing for 47 years in the Santa Clarita Valley. She retired four years ago and misses the children who were under her care every day.
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