Hey, Kid! Let’s Do Lunch.

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By Elizabeth Speth

I am not a good parent.

This is not false modesty.  Do not rush to comfort or reassure me when I say this.  It’s the truth, and my children will likely confirm the fact.

I’m not petitioning to be arrested here.  I more or less understand the basics of childkeeping.  Minimally, you must feed them, keep them clean and teach them to be kind.  You get bonus points if you mostly refrain from embarrassing them, and help pay for college.

You don’t leave them unattended.  Bad things happen to unattended children.

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But the rest of it has really eluded me, though I have read countless parenting books and compared notes and rubbed elbows with my betters.  I have struggled and chafed mightily against my failings.  In the nearly thirty years I have wrestled and warred with parenting, the only philosophy I have managed to pull from the smoking wreckage is this:

Take your child to lunch.

I mean it.  Every chance you get.  In a proper restaurant, with napkins that must go in your laps, with a menu that demands deliberations and choices.  Sit across the table from each other, and relinquish your leadership role.  Be equals.  Be people out to lunch.

That’s right.  My only parenting tip involves parenting time off.  All  fun, and no work.

You don’t cook, clean, or assume responsibility for the enjoyment of the food.

You take a break from the heavy slog of molding, teaching, shaping, guiding, refusing.

Go ahead and place the pressure of parenting on your server.  Let her make conversation for a while.  Let him engage your child, find things on the menu to entice the kid’s mercurial tastes, figure out what is going on in that tiny, inscrutable head.

Let your child’s critical attention and fragile expectations fall upon that tray-carrying, apron-shielded angel of mercy.  Order yourself a cocktail, sit back, and sigh.

If the meal disappoints, if the experience is a bust, if the carrots are cut in the wrong shape and the fish arrives with an eye still in its head, the server is the jerk.  Not you.  See?  Win-win.  And still no dishes.

You? Are the good guy.  There’s a gratitude factor, however reluctant, that comes to you when you say:  ‘Order whatever you’d like!’  And you must do that. And you must mean it. Lunch is a no-holes-barred experience, a rarified world of exemptions and permissions.

And, really, how many other times in your life can you really say that to your child?  ‘Have whatever you want.’  Doesn’t that feel marvelous, rolling off your tongue?  How bad can the damage be?  It’s the lunch menu.

Go ahead, Kid! Have a virgin margarita with whipped cream that’s mostly sugar and comes to the table looking for all the world like dessert even before your cheese enchilada arrives.  I want you to!  Do I suspect you won’t like calamari at all, with its little squid legs still attached under that crispy coating and silky orange aioli?  Yes!  But that’s what takeout boxes are for, and, here, fill up on these fabulous chips with salsa!  Shall we order guacamole?

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The rules are simple.  Everyone eats as much or as little as they like.  The kids get to talk about anything.  Anything.  If they tell you they have taken to peeing in their closets, shoplifting, or skating off the steeply sloped roof of the high school cafeteria at night, all you are allowed to say is:  ‘Oh really?’

Pregnancy scare? Second thoughts about college?  Flag down that busboy for more butter.  If you are tempted to parent, take a sip of wine.  Blink, nod, order the cheese plate. Or a second sushi boat.  Or spicier curry so you can justify your watery eyes.  Later, when you have dementia and wear diapers and have terrible confessions of your own, they may return the favor.

Of course, there will be some inadvertent parenting that goes on.  Obviously, your child has to behave — you are out in public.  Insist upon politeness to all who care for you during your meal.  Please, and thank you, and eye contact are non-negotiable.  Teach them how to tip well — very well — so that it will be that much better when you come back.  Explain to them how hard the work is, this making happiness for strangers out of chilled plates and lettuce and baskets of bread.

You will of course tweak these rules and guidelines for yourself, but, I beg you, take your children to lunch.  Do it because they are here now (that won’t always be the case), and you are here now(the clock is definitely ticking on this fact), and don’t you have to eat lunch anyway?

Do it because of the lies they will tell you for the rest of your life.

I’m not talking about naughty lies.  I’m talking about all the times they will say things are fine when they are not.

Do it because they will go through terribly difficult things you will never have even an inkling about.

Do it because when they were first handed to you in the hospital, though you had carried them for months and months, you were shocked at how heavy and self-contained they were, and that’s when you understood you were truly separated, going forward.

Do it because you did and will make mistakes, and you were and will be impatient and short-sighted.

Do it even though they are hard on you.  And because only they know what the rhythm of your breath and the beat of  your heart sound like from inside your body.

Do it because you break their hearts sometimes, as much as they break yours.

You do.  You break their hearts too.

Case in point:  my mother was not the sort to take her children to lunch, or even the sort to provide lunch on any given day.  A mentally fragile and self-absorbed woman, her thoughts rarely entertained things like food, shelter and clothing.  She was consumed by her own disastrous love life, her endless quest for the perfect fad religion, and her conviction that she was a true ‘artiste’ in terms of temperament, if not exactly in terms of production.

It took me a lifetime to figure out that it wasn’t personal.  She was a bad parent, just like me.  But she did not want to be a mother, and I did. That was pretty much the only difference between us.

As a child, I was chronically lost track of, and as a result occasionally unfortunate things happened.  I did not bear up well, I admit it. An inevitable general haze of terror hung over the first twelve or so years of my life.  I was afraid of everything, although I mostly kept it a secret.

Our lives were transient, and chaotic.  Always there was a new place to live, a new classroom, a new man suddenly in a position of authority, new dangers to suss out.  This did nothing for my catatonic outlook.

One snowy morning in rural New Mexico, in the dark lull between Christmas and spring, my mother walked me to a new bus stop in a new neighborhood on a new first day of school, holding my mittened hand while I trudged beside her in wet shoes, my attention riveted on my constantly roiling insides.

The cold was ruthless.  It was wicked.  If I could remember the date, and researched it, I know it would have been some sort of New Mexico winter record low temperature.  Cows died that day.  Fingers and toes were lost.  Pipes burst, and I’m sure ballads and folk songs were written.

The bus stop was in front of someone’s house, and all sorts of children were running and shouting and doing unspeakable things to each other.  The woman who lived inside the house came out to her front steps, and called everyone inside until the bus arrived.  It was too cold, she said, for man or beast.

My mother was not a sociable sort of person, and so she indicated that I should go in, and she, presumably, would go home to thaw out.  I clung to her. “Please,” I said, terrified.  “Please don’t go.”

Go inside, she said firmly to me.

“Please come in with me,” I urged her, knowing she would leave me alone with all of the boisterous young strangers destined to be my future classroom tormentors.  “Please don’t leave me here.”

My mother got quite stern, told me to stop fussing.  But I wouldn’t let go of her until she finally, reluctantly, promised she would stay.  Outside. I was to go in.  She would not.  I knew it was her final, rock-bottom offer.  Heavy of heart and foot, I followed the others inside, and spent the next ten minutes watching her nervously through the window.  To my utter surprise, she stood sentinel there, alone, her back to the house, blowing out gusts of steam and occasionally stomping her feet.

The sight of her nearly broke my six-year-old heart with gratitude.  It just about brought me to my soggy knees.  When I could stand it no longer,  I scurried back outside to wait with her for the bus.  We didn’t say anything else about my being out there.  We didn’t speak at all.

I will never forget the incredible tide of sadness I felt that morning. I don’t think I’ve ever been as emptied out by grief.  Her parenting sacrifice was bigger that day than any of mine.  Even then, I understood that she did not want to be there.  She would rather have been anywhere else.

It wasn’t personal. I do understand that now. 

I take my children to lunch because they see my flaws, which are weighty things for them.  I take them out to lunch because sometimes parents are a terrible burden.

I take them to lunch because of my mother’s unexpected steadfastness in a sea of swirling snow, and her vulnerability, standing out there alone, waiting.

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It’s important to remember that people are vulnerable, and that’s most obvious when we eat.  Even mean people look vulnerable when they eat.

Look at the poor horse, a flight animal, whose only defense against predators is vigilance. Yet he must put his head down to eat.

Take your children to lunch because, if you must be vulnerable, you can at least be so together.

Pick your reason.  But do it.  Be people out to lunch.  Together.



Baked Flowers, Poofed Yeast, and Bee Worries

By Elizabeth Speth 

The bees should be here.

I know this because my rosemary plants are blooming in wild profusion, a dusky mass of purple only a few shades lighter than a ripe plum.   They smell heavenly, and usually I cannot get near them because they are swarmed with bees, buzzing around, rifling through the tiny blossoms, swilling pollen, busy as — well, you know.

This, multiplied by one billion bees, is what the rosemary looked like last year on January 26:

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This is what it looks like this morning, February 26, one year and one month later:

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Naked and bee-less.  I am very worried.  The bees are missing the purple party, and I’m not sure what this means for the future of my vegetable and flower gardens, but I’ve got a pretty big uh-oh feeling about the whole thing.

I brought up the subject on my community’s Facebook page, looking to stir up some outrage over the situation, maybe galvanize a grass-roots ‘Bring Back the Bees’ campaign. Barring that, I hoped for reassurance.  Maybe all the rain we’ve had has delayed things.  Maybe last year’s drought is the culprit.  Maybe my neighbors will see my post and fess up to crop dusting with bee-killing poisons during the night.  Someone must know something.  The answer is out there, and maybe it’s not scary.

“It’s too early for bees,” someone finally wrote.

“Too cold,” said someone else.  I felt marginally better.

Then this popped up.

“I’ve got yer bees,” (I’m paraphrasing, but, trust me, the words seemed menacing.) “My plants and flowers are filthy with ’em.”  Or something to that effect.  So what was I doing wrong?

Maybe my rosemary flowers aren’t as attractive as everyone else’s.  Maybe it’s because I wear unflattering clothing in the garden.  Sometimes I think uncharitable thoughts when I am weeding and, I admit it, I swear and yell at the dog sometimes for digging.  Once I thinned a whole row of carrots while slightly tipsy.

How do I clean up my act, become a Bee-Pleasing Zone?  How do I call them home?

Maybe put up some ‘Free Pollen’ signs?

Think, Elizabeth, think.  Calm down and ask yourself:  if you were a bee, what would attract you?

Other bees.

Stop it.  That’s not helpful.  What would lure you in, if you just happened to be buzzing by, looking for a place to land and tickle flower petals with your delightful bee feet.

Well, the smell of something baking.

What?  Now you’re being ridiculous.

No.  I mean it.  If the flowers alone aren’t enough to attract these darned hoity-toity, highfalutin bees, then what if we upped the ante, and baked them?  I know!  Put them in cookies!

No, wait.  Bees are dealing with sweet stuff all day.  Something savory.  Bread.  Bingo.   Who can resist the waft of homemade bread?

And I love rosemary bread, with a nice crust of salt on top.

Just to make sure I don’t kill anyone, I did Google it, and according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, rosemary blooms are perfectly edible, not poisonous, but they do have a very strong flavor.

Now, because you have stuck with me so far through this laborious narrative, here is your reward.  My favorite and easy-enough-to-use-every-day bread recipe.

Mark Bittman’s No-Knead Bread, Courtesy of Your Food Processor

3 1/2 cup flour

2 teaspoons salt

1 1/2 teaspoons instant or bread machine yeast

1 cup of water, or more as needed.

Bittman advocates throwing all of this together in your food processor, whirling it around for thirty seconds and calling it rising time.  I’m not kidding.  And it works.

But.  I like to proof the yeast, or, as my daughter used to say, ‘poof’ it, which is not actually a bad description.  I can’t bring myself to skip this step, this puffy, bubbling, frothing grand gesture.  Maybe I just don’t have enough drama in my life.  Well, I didn’t have enough drama in my life.  Now, with the bees and all…

Still, I poof it, mixing the yeast with a little warm water, a tiny bit of honey in honor of all the missing honey-makers all over the world (honey gets yeast very excited), and I let it come to life before adding it to the other ingredients and whirling it around electronically.

The dough is very sticky and ragged.  It doesn’t look bee-worthy at all at this stage, but just wait.  Every great undertaking, every world-saving crusade, has an awkward phase.

It gets plopped into a bowl, covered with plastic wrap or a towel, and it doubles in size in an hour or so.

I go outside and harvest the rosemary and some flowers, and chop them up finely.  I taste a flower, and they are indeed very strong.  They are like, well, like a bee sting in your mouth.  I decide to use them sparingly.

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By this time, my dough has plastered its face against the window of my plastic wrap.

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It’s time to knead the dough a second time, incorporating the rosemary and flowers.   It rises quickly a second time while I pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees.

I sprinkle the top with sea salt.

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And in it goes, until the loaf is brown and lovely and sounds hollow when tapped.

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I let it cool and slice it.  It smells heavenly.  I open all the windows, so the bees can smell it.

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I put out ‘Free Butter’ signs.

And I wait.

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Irish History, Warm, with Butter


By Elizabeth Speth

I am an early riser.

I have been all my life, and 4 am is my preferred wake-up time.  Mostly because I want breakfast.  Well, always and only because I want breakfast.

I am also Irish.  Somewhat. My great-grandmother Margaret Mary was a blue-eyed Mundy, and I took custody, after her passing, of her Irish drinking habits.

Therefore I must have Irish soda bread for breakfast every day.  Sliced thinly, toasted thoroughly, slathered with butter and orange marmalade.  This is non-negotiable for my peace of mind.  Just Google: ‘Irish, negotiation, peace’.  You will see how serious I am on the subject.

The history of Irish Soda Bread is humble and excruciatingly violent.

It originated around the middle of the 15th Century when the Boers, during a brief and fragile alliance with the voracious and pillaging Mongol hordes, invaded Ireland.  The poor, beleaguered Irish peasants needed something hearty, portable and delicious to sustain them as they fled, but they did not have time to wait for bread to leaven.  They only had time to run to the grocery store and grab a box of baking soda, and so was born this glorious loaf.

Tragically, there are no existing photographs from this time period due to the Great Irish Fire of ’23, but please enjoy this illustration, which is loosely related to Chaucer’s Canturbury Tales.


I think these fellows look vaguely as though they might be fleeing with soda bread in their bellies.

You can verify all of this history for yourself, if you like doing that sort of thing.  But I hope you don’t.  We have baking to do, and research can be tedious.  Let’s just move on, shall we?

Before I share my great grandmother’s recipe, I will ask your forgiveness in advance for two untraditional elements.  The first is the spice Cardamom.  If you don’t know what it is, get a bottle immediately.  Get a bottle just to smell, and you will realize that you never really understood the smell of Christmas.  Cardamom is the smell of Christmas.  And childhood, and fairy tales.


The second deviation from the classic recipe, which dominated Pinterest for all of the 1450s, is grated orange peel.  Neither cardamom nor orange peel made an appearance in any recipe from that period, according to historians, but let’s not blame the fleeing Irish (bless them), for they were highly distracted.

Are you ready?  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Please assemble:

4 cups flour

1/2 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 cup very cold butter, cut into small pieces

1 3/4 cup buttermilk

1 egg

Grated zest of one orange

1/2 cup currants, which you can plump up by soaking in a bit of rum if you are that sort of person

You must proceed in the traditional, centuries-old way, with an electric mixer.  Put the first five dry ingredients into a bowl and set on low speed, and then add the cold sliced butter and wait until the blade turns the mixture into fine crumbs, three or four minutes.  Add the buttermilk, egg, orange zest and drunken currants.

Don’t overmix this.  The dough will be wet.  It should look like the beautiful Irish countryside after a devastating flood.  Like this:


Turn it out onto a floured board, and try to coax it into some sort of a roundish shape, which you will then plunk onto a greased cookie sheet, or one covered with parchment paper.  Sprinkle with granulated sugar.

Traditionally, you are meant to cut two intersecting slashes across the top of the bread before baking, but don’t ask me why.  Just do it.  Make the sign of the cross and drink a prayer that your bread comes out.

Yes.  I said drink a prayer.  Jameson is widely considered a good Catholic whiskey and Bushmills is the Protestant invocation.  You are going to have to decide where you stand on this one, for it is not my place to tell you.  Just give me whichever one you don’t want.

Bake the bread for 50 or so minutes.  Until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped, and your house smells heavenly, so good you would never want to flee it, even to escape an invading army.


Here is our merry little loaf in the oven on parchment paper.  I added very finely ground earl gray tea to this one.  It was delicious.

Enjoy it toasted with butter and jelly in the morning, perhaps a little fruit, and coffee or tea.  You will go into the world better for it.

In the late afternoon, slice it thinly and eat it as you would a cracker, with a glass of wine.

If you are not drinking wine and eating crackers in the late afternoon, then please do take this as an earnest suggestion to start.  Leave work early to do it.  Add some cheese, figs, savory spreads.  Whatever you like.

Jumping briefly back into my role as tradition-spoiler, here are a few suggested add-ins, if you feel like mixing it up:

Golden raisins

Rum-soaked golden raisins


Rum-soaked walnuts

Crystallized ginger

Rum-soaked crystallized ginger

Fennel seeds

Rum-soaked fennel seeds

Rosemary, chopped finely

Rosemary, chopped finely, soaked in rum.

I think you understand what I am trying to say here.

In summation, my friends, and in the lilting and whiskey-soaked words of my bonny great grandmother, may the roads rise with you, may the wind be at your back, and may you be in heaven a half hour before the devil knows you’re dead, with warm bread in your belly.


Eggplant Puttanesca — How Much Love in a Teaspoon?


By Elizabeth Speth

As a child, I was not sophisticated.  I loved snack time and Big Bird, glittery snow on Christmas cards and other obvious things.

I never wept about opera, or paintings, or written words.  That would or would not come later.  I didn’t care one way or the other.

But my grandmother’s Eggplant Parmesan?  That.  Made me weep.  Hysterically.  When she said I could not have thirds.

Fast forward to today, as I huff and puff and lug tomatoes, eggplant and basil in from the garden on a 102 degree Northern California day.  My grandmother would recognize my plump, over-heated, eager face.

Because I’m cooking today.  I have a mission in the kitchen.  That is my favorite.

Looking back, remembering as I watched her cook, I realize she made a Puttanesca sauce for that dish, which was different, and good.  I have had to recreate many of her recipes from memory this way, because she did not share.  I understand, now, that she withheld many things and kept many secrets.  Certain women reserve the right to remain complicated.

But the sensuousness of her hands masterfully preparing food is seared upon my memories, and I trust them as I jot down my own formulas and techniques for cooking, in case my children are interested. I will share all of this, although my notes are short on cooking time and measurements.  It is hard to fit a wave of love into a teaspoon.

So.  Back to the recipe.

I pour all my yellow and red tomatoes, so many soft plops, into a pan of hot olive oil, add sea salt and pepper to the hiss, and watch them bubble and burst.  I add honey here, to amplify the summer sweetness of what’s in my pot.

Then comes a sudden turning point in the plot as I scrape finely-diced anchovies off my knife into the sauce.  I add chili flakes.  Lots of them.  Cognac.  Garlic.  Diced olives and vinegary capers.  Fresh chopped basil.  It’s a briny, spicy, sweet, rich, fresh-tasting concoction.  Like no other.  Like my grandmother’s.

I slice the eggplants and let them sit, salted, so the moisture will leach out.  So they will not be slimy or bitter.  I rinse them, dip them in beaten eggs, and panko bread crumbs.  I fry them until they are crisp.

I layer the eggplant disks in a buttered pan with the Puttanesca sauce, and buffalo mozzarella and aged Parmesan.  Top the thing off with bread crumbs and more Parmesan.  Bake until brown and bubbly.

On my plate is another chapter in the history of my grandmother’s kitchen, and also in the history of my garden.  As I walk through all the rooms of flavor on my fork, all the layers of the past and present in my mouth, I understand it is more than the sum of its parts.

I don’t weep as easily these days, now that I am no longer a child.  But I acknowledge the urge.  So I have a third helping.

Dinner, Because Why Not?


By Elizabeth Speth

Once upon a time, there was a woman.  She toiled a little bit at an office every day.  She was also in the manure management business.  Dogs, cats, horses… lots of manure to manage every day.  She watered a garden, and washed dishes.  She drove a car, and selected things at the grocery store.  She fed the animals, and the people, swept the occasional floor.  She listened some, talked a lot, gave advice and sought it.

She was busy.  Sometimes she was tired.  And there was always the problem of dinner.

Dinner clamored to be made.  Every day.  And it always wanted to be delicious, or why bother?  And it always had to be accompanied by wine, or a cocktail, because why not?  What was the point otherwise, if dinner was not marvelous?

One day the woman brought home pizza dough from the deli.  She stretched and pushed and pulled it flat, brushed it with olive oil and sprinkled it with salt and pepper.  She baked it in a high-heat oven until it bubbled and browned.  She spread it with creme fraiche and mascarpone cheese when it came out of the oven (although one or the other would have been just fine, but she was prone to excess), and then she grated lemon zest over that.

She arranged salty prosciutto and smoked salmon in beautiful, mounded shapes over the creamy sauce.  And then thinly-sliced (paper thin) shallots, although red onion would have been good too.  Then herbs.  Chopped.  Chives.  Tarragon.   Dill.  Those seemed to be the herbs that would play nicely with the salty ham and the smoky fish.  And then dinner was done.

Cocktails, she thought.  Cocktails… cocktails…  Her mind and her eyes wandered and came to rest on the fruit bowl.  Which was empty but for some lemons and oranges.  So she went to the freezer, and withdrew frozen cherries, and a bag of mixed frozen fruit — peaches and strawberries and berries.  She listened to the icy plop of them as she piled them into a pitcher.  In went a bottle of fruit juice.  In went a bottle of sparkling wine.  In went most of a bottle of tequila.  She stirred it with the handle of a wooden spoon, mashing the fruit a bit.  She threw in sliced oranges and lemons for good measure, and poured some over ice.

Then she served others in her family glasses of sangria.  And crisp slices of pizza with lemony, creamy, herb-y, onion-y, smokey goodness on top.

And dinner was done.  And she announced that someone else would do the dishes.

And she lived happily ever after.

Shopping List:

Deli — Pizza dough or pizza crust, prosciutto or other smoked meat, smoked salmon, mascarpone or creme fraiche or both.  (If you can’t find those cheeses, mix sour cream with a bit of ricotta or cream cheese.)

Produce — Lemons, herbs (tarragon, parsley, basil, dill, chives — whatever you like, many or few).  Fresh fruit if you don’t want to use frozen in sangria.  Although frozen fruit makes nice ice cubes.

Liquor aisle —  Tequila.  Or gin.  Or vodka.  What’s your favorite hard liquor?  Sparkling wine.  Or rose.  Or white.  (Sangria is one hard alcohol, one soft alcohol, fruit juice and fruit.  That’s it.)

Other:  Frozen Fruit.  Fruit Juice

Do Yourself A Favor — Read This Before Cocktail Hour


By Elizabeth Speth

This won’t take long.

I was at the grocery store today, wandering listlessly through the produce aisle.  I saw masses of dusky purple winter grapes.  On sale.


My first thought:  Make jewelry out of them.  They are that beautiful.

My second, more practical thought:  Cocktails.

I adopted a bunch — the sweetest, darkest, most mysterious and sexy cluster in the whole store — and brought it home. I chilled it within an inch of its life, and I coaxed every gorgeous, ripe, ruby orb off the stem (they did not require much convincing) and plopped them into the blender.

I added a thick, amber rope of local honey.  Made by rosemary- and lavender-obsessed bees in my neighborhood.  Pouring, it flirted shamelessly with the afternoon sun coming through the French doors in the kitchen.  Fair enough, I thought, dazzled by the slow-flowing chemistry between sweet and light.  It’s cocktail hour.  There can be some flirting.

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I poured in enough vodka to cover the grapes and the honey.  I am protective that way.


I flicked on the blender and whirled it around.  It made a joyous pink froth with purple flecks of tannic confetti.

At this point, I was confronted with a choice.  I could strain the vodka grape juice and remove the pulverized skins.  It would have made my cocktail clear, pristine — prettier.

I didn’t.  I think those little bits of skin are the cocktail equivalent of caviar.  I poured it into a champagne glass until the glass was half full.   (I’m an optimist!)

I filled the glass the rest of the way with (very) cold champagne.

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And then I shared it with you.  Immediately.  This is me, virtually pouring you a drink.  A lovely one.  You’ve likely had a tedious week.  You deserve it.

Happy Friday.


Warning — Or: The Trials and Tribulations of a Vegan With a Long-Range Plan

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By Elizabeth Speth

(With deep and profound apologies to Jenny Joseph)


When I am an old woman I shall wear cheese
Sprinkled on my shirt where it doesn’t go, and on my widening hips
And I shall spend my pension on prosciutto and mortadella
And raw oysters, and say we’ve no money for kale.
I shall sit down right at the bar when I’m tired
And gobble up steamed clams and mussels and drink dry martinis.
And run my mouth in public railings
Against sobriety and restraint in one’s youth.
I shall go out and barbecue lobster in the rain
And steal the herbs in other people’s gardens
And learn to confit.

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I will wear terrible, elastic clothing and grow more jolly
And eat three pounds of charcuterie at a go
Or only butter and brie for a week
And hoard tuna and sardines and jars of caviar and things in boxes.

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But now we must be vegans that keep
Sustainable farming practices, and avoid taco trucks in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have quinoa for dinner and read the health studies.

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But maybe I ought to practice a little now?

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So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear cheese?

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Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

By Elizabeth Speth


How I love a good dinner party.

It is one of life’s best joys.  I haven’t thrown nearly enough of them in my life, but I do understand the essential elements. You must have food.  You must have drink.  You must have conversation, which necessitates people.  For the conversation to be enjoyable, I suggest people you find pleasant and/or interesting.

A few other things that are nice to have but not necessary:

— Flowers, fragrant if possible, low to the table so people can see each other over them.

— Candlelight, because it makes us look younger, and also hides the cooking splotches on your clothing.  The warm, flickering glow casts merciful doubt upon the arugula stuck in your teeth, that large splash of wine on your lapel from your too-vigorous toast, the dents in your ancient cutlery, and the stains on your faded linens, which occasionally double as dish towels.

— Live music, as from a moody, long-haired Spanish guitar player cuddling his instrument on a stool in front of the moonlit window, or a gypsy violinist, or a tuxedoed string quartet.  I’ve never experienced any of these scenarios, but I think they would be great.

A dinner party can be an impromptu affair.  Recently a few family members and I emptied out my sister’s refrigerator, and trooped out to her  deck juggling containers of humus, cheese, olives, crackers and the like, and a jug of wine.  We laughed and talked for hours while a huge bank of summer thunderclouds darkened over our heads, and only scurried inside when the first clap of thunder coincided with drops the size of salad plates landing on our heads.  That was a very fine dinner party.

Swap out the wine for water, the lamb shanks for French fries, the finger bowls for pre-moistened, packaged towelettes from the take-out barbecue place, and you’ve still got a dinner party as long as you’ve got at least one other person to sip and sup with you.


Because eating and drinking and talking together is a wonderful, intimate, convivial, bonding, dare I say loving thing to do amongst humans.  It elevates sustenance of the body to nourishment of the soul.

It’s the closest you can get to people without taking off your clothing, or violating your marriage vows or sterling reputation.  For the space of that meal, until the chewing and swallowing are done, you must look each other in the eye, listen and speak, give and take.  You must let down your defenses as you replenish yourselves.  It’s a glorious exercise in mutual vulnerability.

So, working from that premise, I posed this question to scores of friends and acquaintances:

What person, living or dead, would you like to have at your dinner table?

I’ll start.  I think about this a lot, usually while I cook.  There are so many people with whom I long to break bread, and the social barriers of polite restraint.

teddy eating

Teddy Roosevelt, for instance.  I want to talk to him about parenting.  I want to see him raise his bushy eyebrows at us leaning in,  wondering if we can ‘have it all’, be good parents and big career builders too.  I want to hear how he informed visiting heads of state from countries like Japan and Germany that their work was done for the day, because he had a standing date at 4:30 pm to play touch football with his children on the lawns at Sagamore Hill.  The heads of state were always invited to join in, but the appointment non-negotiable.  I want to ask him how he overcame physical limitations to embrace a life of such adventure.  I’d like to know how in the world he endured the loss of his wife and his mother in the same day.

I’d love to eat dinner with the first fellow who ever thought to eat an oyster.  He probably had a lot of other really marvelous ideas.

I’d have Dorothy Parker for dinner in a New York second, but I’d water down her drinks and keep an eagle eye on my husband.  Parker is of course famous for saying that she likes to have a martini, maybe two at the most.  At three she’s under the table.  At four she’s under the host.

Jane Goodall would be a wonderful dinner companion.  She would not be a conversation-hog.  In fact, you’d likely never know she was there but for a pair of watchful, intelligent eyes peering out of the floral arrangement. Occasionally you’d hear the ‘scritch-scritch’ of a pen as she observed the dinnertime behavior, especially when the more bombastic guests started chest-pounding.


Jane quietlly monitoring the dinner conversation from behind the floral arrangement.

I’d love to eat dinner with Robert Duvall.  With Anthony Bourdain and Erik Ripert.  The guy who thought up the show Deadwood, David Milch.  I wouldn’t even ask him to clean up his language.  He could lay waste to the dining room with F-bombs if he wanted.

But enough about me.  Here’s what you all said.  In some cases, I have condensed and paraphrased, so please forgive me.  Curse me for it, if you like.  Call me names, but never call me late for dinner.

There was, amongst you, some duplication of dinner invitees, so I’ll cover that first.  Jesus Christ was the most popular answer, perhaps not surprisingly, and the reasoning varied.  (We all know what Jesus looks like at supper, so I have skipped the photograph.)

My lovely friend Bridget, a missionary who devotes her life to rescuing children from the sex trade in a very poor country, explained her choice:

I would have answers to hundreds of questions, like are there aliens, who first thought lobsters looked delicious.  Since His first miracle was water to wine, we’d be having the best, and Italian food, lots and lots of Italian. There would be great conversation, joy , peace and laughs because God does have a sense of humor.  I want to ask him: ‘Hitler. Why?’

My sister Anna is at the very least agnostic, if not atheistic about her beliefs, although we have certainly discussed at length the historical proof of Christ’s existence.  She said she wanted to ask Jesus:

Are you sorry you didn’t just lay low?  I mean, wouldn’t you rather have led a quiet carpenter’s life? Did you really maybe mean to be a Buddhist?

Another popular dining guest choice was Abraham Lincoln, and I agree that his eloquence at the dinner table, his sensibilities, intelligence and kindness, would be a thing to behold.

My husband Neil’s rationale for inviting him:

He was a good storyteller. He had a sense of history, and such a great sense of humor. I want to know what he’d have done about Reconstruction, and what he thought of America today.

My friend Lucinda on Abe:

How do you make decisions that result in death and suffering for so many no matter what you choose to do?

A few chose Thomas Jefferson.  He’d be on my list too.  He was a great locavore, and I think he’d have loved our California foothill wines.

My friend Mark on Jeffersonian company:

Tommy Jefferson would be on the top of my list. He invented our method of surveying, sent out Lewis & Clark, had a vision for this country before most,  He was into bi-racial (er… let’s just say  Mark said ‘relations’), and I’m pretty sure he brought an end to the Alien and Sedition Acts. He was a little clingy to the French, though…


Jefferson’s dining room at Monticello. Perhaps we should eat at his place…

My thoughtful friend Christian opined that Jefferson, and some other historic leaders,  would have words of wisdom for a country that frequently finds itself torn in two, politically:

I’d love to have Thomas Jefferson and James Madison over for a long meal, multiple courses, dinner, coffee, and brandy, to discuss how they compromised their personal beliefs to write a Constitution that the States would ratify. Also, I would have the prophet Mohammed over for a simple halal meal, to discuss how his followers have perverted his words (or maybe he would feel they haven’t) to justify some terrible positions regarding women in the 21st century, and dealing with the rest of the world’s non-believers. I feel like we need more leaders who can build consensus, rather than stake out a position because it’s popular with their followers. I would think a couple of dinners like this might just be the ticket towards some ideas to heal our society / world.

A lot of you would like to have dinner again with family members who have died.  My Uncle John comes from a long line of artists, and he very much embraces modern technology in his work.  He opted to send out an invitation to dine to his deceased father, Merle, also a man of considerable talent.

I’d love to turn his designs into laser art,  John said.

My friend Ken suffered through the agony of his father’s dementia, watching the man fade away mentally long before he did physically.

With all the conversations we had, I would love one more, he said, and there is a lot of heartbreak behind that simple statement.

A lot of my female friends wanted another meal with their grandmothers, myself included.  We want to talk to them about their wonderful contributions to history, about those old recipes that were such a big part of our childhood.  It is our consolation for growing old, I guess, for the slow murdering of our vanity by  time, that our daughters’ daughters will not cease loving us.

But historical figures definitely carried the day, in terms of desirable diners.

Take my friend Crockett, a modern-day man of the frontier if ever there was one (his address contains the words ‘outlaw’ and ‘trail’), who chose:

Etta Place…  I’ve got not a clue to where/ how she disappeared so successfully. Also Robert Leroy Parker (alias Butch Cassidy).  These are the things I would ask him:  Where is the Rhodes Gold Mine, where is the Lost Dutchman and where is Butch Cassidy Buried?

Laurie said:  I’d go with Anne Frank, because she left so much of her life’s story unsaid. I would love to sit next to her and let her be a child again at a table where she could eat to her heart’s content and talk as loud as she wanted.

Spencer’s selection:  Alexander the Great. Questions… What makes you so confident? How were you able to conquer so much territory? HOW DID YOU DIE?  (Illness?  Poison?)

My friend Jacqueline, a woman with a colorful artistic personality, would gravitate to the table with Pablo Picasso and  Frida Kahlo, and they would eat paella.  A table always needs an artist, she explains.


I imagine Frida would want to light up an e-cigarette after her dinner at my friend Jacqueline’s house, and damn the health risks.

Laura, my literary and nature-loving friend: 

It would have to be Henry David Thoreau, though he wouldn’t care for me, nor would he drink with me. He was not, in general, a fan of women, nor did he drink. He was a rather stiff and solitary fellow, as Emerson said of him, “One might as well put one’s arm around a young pine tree.” But he did like conversation, and I don’t believe he hated women, just didn’t have much use for the overall frivolity factor, in either men or women. So perhaps we would find something in common.  Hard to say. Many people found Thoreau off-putting and difficult. But then, this could also be said of me.

(For the record, Laura is neither.)

My son Leland:

I’d like to get ridiculously drunk with Ulysses S. Grant. I’d want to figure out how to be a strategist like he was.

Uh, Leland?  Not until you are 21 (you’ve got three more years, young man!), and I respectfully submit that the first step to being a great strategist is sobriety.

Finally, a last few invites to share with you.

My nephew Andres:

Bob Marley. Just to listen to this man who was so at peace with his life. I’d ask him questions about his  history, what he thinks about modern medicine, what he thinks the purpose of life is.

Andres did say what would be on the menu for his dinner with Bob, and I’ll just say that they’re both going to be mighty hungry when they’ve finished that particular form of…er…refreshment.

Tracey, my adventurous hiking friend:

Amelia Earhart is THE woman.  She said:  “Adventure is worthwhile in itself.  Decide if the goal is worth the risks involved. If it is — stop worrying.”  I would love to ask her if indeed it was worth it. 

My niece Olivia:

Esther Earl.  She was Sixteen when she died of thyroid cancer.  Through the Harry Potter Alliance she got books to kids who didn’t have access to them.  She was just a normal girl who made such a difference in a short time.  I’d  want to cook fancy food for her.  We’d have a proper English tea time.

From my niece Mari:

Carl Sagan.   I’d ask him if he’d finally made contact with other life forms. I’d make him seared ahi, sautéed spinach and mashed garlic taters.


Make sure you seat Carl next to a bowl of fruit, which he often finds helpful in demonstrating the concepts of dimensionality.

And Erin, my wonderful horse-loving, Wild West-embracing, very literate riding buddy:

Virginia Woolf, Queen Noor, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and also my great grandfather who rode with Wild Bill Cody and broke horses as one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

My son Lyle:

Bill Murray. He is an anomaly. Humor and personality.


Ok, Lyle, but I hope you don’t mind crumbs in the sheets.

Ideally, of course, the dinner party ends here — with you ringing a little bell (which summons people to clear our dishes, put food away, render the kitchen spotless), and me fetching the cigars and brandy.

It’s been lovely.  Let’s do it again.  And soon.

messy after