My career as a food professional did not begin romantically. It started with the murder of my friend and comrade James Carr. Dan Hammer, Jimmy’s brother-in-law, and I had barely finished editing the first draft of Jimmy’s autobiography, Bad, a tough tale of life in South Central and the prisons of California, when James was murdered, by what turned out to be Black Panther Party members, in his driveway in San Jose. They caught the two card-carrying killers a few miles away with expense receipts stuffed in an envelope in the trunk, documenting the for-hire portion of their charges irrefutably and assuring they would probably never get out of prison.
Our first reaction was to assume that the Panthers had gotten wind of the anarchist critique Jimmy was developing of their authoritarian bureaucracy, and wanted him out of the way to avoid having one of their former members denounce them as traitors to the cause of social justice. Of course, that had nothing to do with it. He was likely another victim of the disinformation network of COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program, a broad based FBI strategy of disruption, deceit and murder authored by J. Edgar Hoover and aimed at the Left and the civil rights movements) that spread lies and slander about Black Panther Party members (bad or rat jacketing), hoping the paranoia of the Party members would do the rest. And, in Jimmy’s case, it did.
Believing that we might be the next targets of assassination, Dan and I decided to separate and lay low. In my case, that meant moving from San Francisco to a location closer to the scene of Jimmy’s murder, Santa Cruz. My girlfriend Jeanne and I were offered a third floor room in a classic Victorian in the West Cliff district with a panoramic view across the bay to Monterey. Jeanne found a job as a waitress at a seafood restaurant on the wharf. I returned to commercial fishing with a boat and crew out of Moss Landing, a commercial harbor twenty-five miles south of Santa Cruz. I began working on the Three Sisters, owned and skippered by a second generation Sicilian, Nardo Olivieri.
Nardo, a jolly, husky fiftyish guy’s guy had hired a rag tag crew of scruffy, hard working pirates: hippies with ear rings, pony tails, tattos and beards — Rube, Billy, Ron and me — because we kept him entertained, and besides who else would endure staying up all night doing the dirty work of pulling in the bulging net by hand in a tossing sea when there was fish to be found, and getting paid nothing on the nights that there was no catch. Ron was the glue that kept the crew together, an ex-Valley dude, free love Cassanova, former high school football star and awakening Shakespearian romantic who was crazy in love with the sea. He recruited us all and vouched for us, working to overcome our weaknesses whenever necessary with his passion and strength.
On the nights when the nets were full of squid or anchovies or herring, the bait as it was known in commercial fishing terms, would attract other, larger fish and those were ours for the keeping.
A few days sleeping to the sounds of crashing surf and playing backyard volleyball with the surfers, students and hippies had calmed me down, though I still found myself looking over my shoulder every once in a while for a possible hit team. But then another more immediate problem took over. Food. Though Dorothy, the proprietress and preparer of the evening meal, was a delightful person to have a chardonnay wine spritzer with, she was an unimaginative cook who was quite willing to serve lentil soup for dinner every night. And, in fact, she did. A week of this and I was ready to mutiny. But then it occurred to me that this unbearable situation actually presented an opportunity to be both diplomatic and self-serving. I told Dorothy that if she gave me a two dollar per person grocery allowance I would do the cooking for the whole house, all fifteen of us, and keep the spending under $30 per meal. It was an offer she couldn’t refuse, in part, because she probably hated her own cooking too. What I had going was that I had a free supply of just caught seafood from the Three Sisters. I was buying vegetables, bread, rice, sauce ingredients, salad and Dorothy was providing the wine, jugs of Paul Masson and Almaden.
So every afternoon I would open up the Larousse Gastronomique, her only cookbook, with its abbreviated dictionary entries that outlined ingredients without going into much procedural detail, and come up with a menu based on whatever I had brought home the night before: rex sole, squid, flounder, smelts, salmon, shark. I created detailed shopping lists, and step-by-step procedurals for each dish. Nine years later I published a
My cooking was informed by my memories of eating in Paris, but basically I was winging it. Volunteers from among the residents would show up from time to time in the afternoon and, I was prepare with detailed written instructions.
I would make elaborate meals with hors d’ouevres, a vegetable soup, and a main course that might be poached filets in cream sauce, a tomato based fish stew or a seafood salad. Gradually I expanded my research and spent time in the local library reading and pulling recipes from Gourmet Magazine and Julia Child’s French Cooking.
The food that nourished the radical movement during the 60s and early 70s was divided along racial lines — The Blacks generally ate soul food — ribs, chicken, beans and rice, greens, grits. And the Whites ate the hippie staples of the moment — brown rice, veggies, sprouts, served communal style in bowls with a little soy sauce on the side along with. The Chicanos were lucky — they actually had a developed cuisine and we envied the historical roots of their cooking going back centuries to the Aztecs and the Mayans. When we made enchiladas it was a big deal.
That all changed for me on my second trip to France in 1970. A veteran beau barracadier of the Latin Quarter street warfare of May 1968, Alan, was our host, putting is up in his Montmartre garret while he stayed with his girlfriend on Ile St. Louis. One of his favorite restaurants for what was called propre French cooking was Le Bouillon (soup kitchen) Chartier in the 9th Arrondisement. Chartier, more than any other restaurant experience, changed the way I thought about food and eating. It has a bright, polished, mirror lined interior, high ceilings and art deco lighting that celebrates its turn of the century origins. The professional staff of waiters have worked at the restaurant for decades and they have seen it all — the fights, the drunks, the broke clients running out on the check, the entire human comedy. The dishes are simple and elegant in a classic, respectful style, respectful of the ingredients and of the ordinary people who eat there regularly. Once I had a properly prepared rare steak au poivre with perfect French fries I knew that I would never be able to go back to the movement’s dreary, obligatory pot lucks. Fortunately, the opportunity to master traditional French cooking presented itself in Santa Cruz.
It was a wonderful way to learn how to cook because my clientele, so happy to have something other than lentils, appreciated everything, even my mistakes. It helped me build confidence and I would try almost anything once, flambés and stuffed whole fish included. After the first few weeks, Dorothy and her husband Russ, a retired teacher and avid sailor, started inviting their friends over, so the fifteen often grew to twenty. They became a dining destination. A ritual developed. After the long meal concluded, I would come out of the kitchen clad in shorts, t-shirt and long apron and Dorothy, on her fourth of fifth spritzer, would toast me with some practiced platitudes, until I took a bow to applause and cheers. That was all the pay I got. The dinner party became an essential part of my life and I became addicted to its social rewards.
As the summer faded my obsession with cooking and its life affirming commitment to sustenance helped me let go of the shock and grief over Jimmy’s death. Dorothy never even came into the kitchen except to ask if I needed her to go the store to pick up something I had forgotten. She was basking in the glow of her new found innkeeper status. She even mentioned the idea of opening a restaurant.
Dan would come over for dinner occasionally. He had only moved to a new address in San Francisco, so he was a short drive up the coast. We renewed our vow to publish Jimmy’s autobiography. Like romantic radicals before us we imagined that the easiest way to accomplish this was to go Paris, where American Blacks had always found a warm reception. In those days paying for and booking a plane ticket to Europe was simple, cheap and often spontaneous. On two or three days notice after a few hasty farewells you would be at airport with a few changes of clothes and a toothbrush. Radical publishing was number one on our agenda. But right below it was exploring the affordable neighborhood restaurants of Paris.