The life, pleasures and now the passing of Nora Ephron, Hollywood screenwriter extraordinaire, gets J BROOKS SPECTOR thinking about memorable meals that must never be missed – or experienced – again.
A few days ago, I hit a major health bump in life’s road. Actually, more like two of them in a row. Those moments, together with the passing of one of Hollywood’s great contemporary screen writers, Nora Ephron, got me thinking about “last suppers” – not the religious version, however, although some meals might indeed be regarded as revelatory, transcendental or even transubstantial experiences.
Soon after news of Ephron’s death was made public, the Charlie Rose Show – that in-depth interview/talk show that originates from the US, re-ran its now-fabled interview with Ephron from a couple of years earlier. This was the show where she listed all the things she would not miss once she died – as well as those things she definitely would regret being unable to experience again, once she finally moved on permanently.
Ephron was renowned as a scriptwriter, memoirist, director and novelist, as well as an A-list party-giver, food lover and the one-time spouse of Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein. In a famous bit of repartee, after Ephron had turned their marriage breakup into the script for the Mike Nichols-directed film Heartburn, in which Meryl Streep had starred as Ephron's alter ego, Ephron noted dryly: “I highly recommend having Meryl Streep play you. If your husband is cheating on you with a carhop, get Meryl to play you. You will feel much better.”
On that recently re-broadcast Charlie Rose show, Ephron also said: “When you are actually going to have your last meal, you'll either be too sick to have it or you aren't gonna know it's your last meal and you could squander it on something like a tuna melt and that would be ironic. So it's important ... I feel it's important to have that last meal today, tomorrow, soon.”
And what would she choose? Surprisingly, not something from a Michelin five star restaurant. Ephron chose a hot dog from Beverly Hills’ famous Nate 'n Al deli ... with some Gulden's mustard and a bit of sauerkraut or relish. Nate 'n Al's? A hot dog? “It's the greatest hot dog,” she said simply.
Together with my recent brush with some medical emergencies, Ephron’s words got me thinking about gustatory experiences that would be wonderful to have just one last time. And so evolved a menu planner for a final week food marathon in which cholesterol, sugar, salt, spices and even a chancy food dye or additive would no longer matter. Imagine the freedom when there are no consequences. Surely, too, this helps explain the mystique of a condemned prisoner’s final meal, where, in the US at least, the prisoner’s choice of that meal is accommodated whatever the condemned prisoner wants to have – be it a bowl of frozen Eskimo Pies and peanut brittle ice cream or Chateaubriand and Crème Brule.
So here it is, in homage to the memory of Ephron, the woman who helped bring us such films as When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle and Julie and Julia. It is also in honour of one of the greatest restaurant scenes in cinema history, that Rabelaisian moment in Katz’s Deli in When Harry Met Sally just after Meg Ryan’s character fakes an orgasm at the table. When asked what she wishes to order, an older woman seated at the next table nods in the direction of Ryan’s character and says: “I’ll have what she’s having.”
And so, on to the final week of dining. This time around, I no longer have to enjoy a heaping platter of steaming roast dog in blood sauce or goat curry flavoured generously with ganja. I no longer have to enjoy such delicacies on behalf of my government. As a free man, I can eat what I like.
Today’s breakfast begins with a great, steaming mug of coffee made from the Chop Dasi Kupu Kupu brand of Balinese coffee beans. Then, freshly squeezed Indian River grapefruit or Valencia orange juice, followed by Eggs Florentine, a grilled, organically grown tomato, Parma ham and all the rest, plus baked brioches, croissants and a platter of assorted cheeses. Then more coffee. Heaven.
Lunch takes us to Manhattan’s Carnegie Deli for a signature overstuffed corned beef or pastrami sandwich on freshly baked, hand-cut rye bread, garnished with some of that obligatory creamy coleslaw, a bowl of full sour kosher dill pickles and tomatoes, a side of spicy potato salad and a good microbrew beer or two to wash it all down. Remember, this is a no-penalties week of eating.
Dinner forces us back off the sofa for an outdoor Maryland steamed crab, clams and oysters feast, as well as a fresh tomato-cucumber salad, roast corn on the cob, slabs of sourdough bread, and big pitchers of iced tea or Sam Adams beer to wash it all down. All this is followed by a healthy slice of Key Lime pie or pumpkin cheesecake and more coffee again – maybe a cappuccino or two this time around – make it with full cream tonight, please. Just this once.
It’s already becoming just a bit harder than it was before to get up in the morning, but a couple or three of those famous New Orleans-style beignet doughnuts, washed down with several double espressos, may help.
Then it is on to lunch at one of those great outdoor food stall parks in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur for steaming plates of laksa (a curried, soup-like dish), a martabak (a kind of spicy, filled pancake) fresh off the griddle, a plate of bakmi goreng (fried noodles) or a bowl of bakmi kuah (boiled noodles), lamb, beef and chicken satay sticks - all washed down with Tiger or San Miguel Beer, or perhaps some Bir Bintang for old times’ sake.
By dinner time it has become clear not enough time has been spent at the food stalls so back we go at supper for another try at the nyonya-style (the eclectic mix of Malay, Chinese and Javanese cooking) cuisine choices – Chinese-style. Steamed sea bass, chicken curries and all the wonderful sambals served on the side. Bring more Tiger to wash it all down.
By this time we’re already starting to avoid the bathroom scale and we’re starting to check out the expandable waistband trousers hidden in the back of the clothes closet, but it is time to rise and confront breakfast again.
This time around we elect to have a traditional Japanese breakfast. It is supposed to be very healthy and not quite so filling as the more usual ham and eggs. Maybe it’s not to everyone’s taste, but a bowl of steaming rice topped with a smidgen of soy sauce, some crumpled nori (dried seaweed) and a whipped raw egg mixed into the rice is a great start. That is served with some soy-flavoured, crunchy, grilled salmon garnished with a piece of pickled ginger stem, all accompanied by a morning salad of mixed greens and freshly grated daikon white radish, seasoned with some wa-fuu salad dressing (a blend of soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine vinegar), together with some crunchy, peppery radish pickles. The gen mai green tea (tea embellished with popped-rice) is really nice and fresh, but we need help in waking up and so there is that silent prayer: Send over some freshly made coffee. Please? Thanks.
Lunch is also all-Japanese - a choice between a rich, savoury bowl of Hokkien-style ramen (noodles) with a slice of braised pork loin in it, a lunch box of grilled eel and steamed rice, or udon with shrimp, kamoboku (a jellied fish paste, something like a very firm terrine), following a plateful or two of shu mai or gyoza dumplings and maybe a side order of uni (sea urchin) and fish egg sushi pieces. With this, Japanese hot tea, yes, but also a big glass of Yebisu Beer to make it easier to relax after all this effort.
There’s still dinner left to cope with, so we’re going to elect to consume a beautifully arrayed tray of kai-seki ryori, the elegant banquet-style Japanese cuisine that is a feast for the eye and in which all kinds of unidentifiable (do you really want to ask?) morsels are in little dishes served together – some sweet, some sour, some baked, boiled, fried or even raw. No beer tonight, though. Rather, we’ll quaff one of those magnificent sakes that should be served crisply chilled, even iced, before pouring - definitely not warmed. Heated is for those cheaper varieties because it makes the volatile flavourants easier to notice. By contrast, chilled means the flavours are savoured slowly.
Breakfast is the tough one today, so it is a simple meal of slowly simmered rolled oats, flavoured with brown sugar, mixed berries and a bit of butter and cream, lots of strong coffee, a modest plate of Danish pastries (cherry, blueberry, poppy seed, prune, cheese) and much more coffee.
Lunch will have to be a traditional Italian-style submarine/hoagie/grinder sandwich. It’s a fresh, long Italian roll, filled with thinly sliced provolone and mozzarella cheese, Italian cooked ham, prosciutto, salami, shredded lettuce, thin-sliced tomatoes, and seasoned with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, oregano, onions and hot peppers. Or, just maybe, it must be one of those original Philadelphia cheese steak sandwiches (the one made famous in Rocky) from Pat’s Steak House – no other place on earth makes them like that. If there is any space left, maybe during a walk along city sidewalks we’ll have a couple of those large soft pretzels with mustard that must be purchased from a street vendor.
Supper has to be home cooking for a change – a full groaning board of spaghetti and meatballs, meat and vegetarian lasagnas, various ravioli dishes stuffed with all the different fillings available, some soft but chewy gnocchi, a rich, redolent veal marsala, linguini in clam sauce - all following a tray of antipasto favourites to get things started. To help wash all this down, pick your favourite Italian wine – say a nice Sangiovese or Nebbiolo – or maybe both - just to be sure.
We are about to head into the weekend, so we need to be fortified with a hearty mixed South African and American-style breakfast – scrambled or poached eggs on wholewheat toast, beef, pork and seasoned lamb sausages, bacon, grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, beans, stewed fruit compotes, cold and hot cereals, a choice of pancakes or waffles with syrup and butter and, of course, some seriously strong coffee. By now we really need it – this is becoming hard work!
Lunch just has to be traditional deep-dish Chicago-style pizza with some or all of the standard toppings – bacon, ham, sausage, peppers, onions, extra cheese, anchovies, shrimp and mushrooms. The beer has to come in pitchers from another one of those microbreweries springing up across America. Of course, it could also be a homemade biryani, the South African way, from one of the old Indian restaurants in downtown Johannesburg.
Dinner is the tough one. Is it to be a tapas supper at a modest Spanish eatery or a couple or three hot dogs, some nachos ‘n cheese and cold beer while watching a twi-night doubleheader baseball game in Baltimore, Washington, New York, Chicago or Boston? Do the baseball game first and then the tapas - the Spanish eat dinner late anyway.
Give yourself a little slack today and start late with brunch at a boutique hotel, including everything from traditional breakfast foods to smoked meats and pickled herrings to baguettes, brioches and Italian olive breads.
Okay, we’ve skipped one meal, but we have been saving space for our traditional roast turkey. The turkey is beer-steamed from the inside while it cooks, the stuffing is made with bread crumbs, sausage, chopped celery and onion, lots of sage, whipped eggs and milk – a touch of brandy. The cranberry condiment needs a diced orange and some Cointreau, and the gravy needs a bit of brandy, together with the turkey’s juices and simmered giblets. The usual accompaniments are sweet potatoes, roast potatoes, succotash (shelled corn and lima beans), and various salads, followed by pumpkin, apple and sweet mince pie. The whole thing calls for a good Shiraz, even though turkey is not a red meat. Trust me on this.
The last roundup. Breakfast is the best meal. Real New York-style chewy bagels filled with layers of smoked salmon, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and rich cream cheese. Toast those bagels first. Some people add a bit of white sliced cheese just to make the whole thing a bit richer and smoother tasting. As an alternative, have a smoked white fish like sturgeon instead of the salmon. Add carafes of fresh juice, coffee and strong tea to wash it all down.
Lunch is a recreation of Kapitan’s famous prawn curry from Johannesburg’s history – but save some space for supper.
Supper, finally, is the Indonesian Soto Ayam meal. One starts with a clear spicy ginger chicken soup poured over a mound of steamed rice, festooned with slices of boiled chicken meat, sliced hard-boiled egg, thinly sliced potato chips, grilled garlic bits, cilantro, hot chilies and other savoury titbits. Dessert? Fresh litchis or mango slices over vanilla ice cream, then that special Balinese coffee we began with a week ago. We can relax. We are at rest.
Oh no! We’ve left out a breakfast of fried matzoh with scrambled eggs; a Peking Duck evening feast; the Chrisfield (near Washington) Seafood Restaurant’s flounder stuffed with crabmeat or their soft-shell crabs; a perfect Caesar salad; the freshest possible tuna sashimi from a little hole in the wall eatery around the corner from Tokyo’s wholesale seafood market; or a Matsuzaka beef steak, cooked to perfection for the clients of a nearly invisible, six-seater restaurant in the middle of the ancient geisha district of Kyoto, where the service is so discreet, customers never receive a bill inside the establishment. With all this to try again, maybe it’s not quite time to go, after all. DM
Besides hundreds of restaurant guides, cookbooks and guides to regional cuisines, for more information on Nora Ephron’s influence, read: