It certainly isn’t an obvious connection. But the recent notice I read about the Flying Karamazov Brothers coming to the Seattle area soon sent me on a trip down memory lane. The year was 1985 perhaps. Tacoma, on the campus of the University of Puget Sound where I was a student. And there I was, standing in the tour bus of the Flying Karamazov Brothers, it was colorful and a little chaotic, I seem to recall the interior walls of the bus covered with carpet…. I found the small refrigerator on board, grabbed the couple packets of tofu I was sent to retrieve and headed back to the French House where I lived with a handful of others. The troupe was performing on campus that night and I was their caterer for the evening. While they had no complaints about what I’d prepared, a special request for some tofu stir-fry had sent me on that errand to their bus. They were grateful and friendly and so happy to just be well fed…..
Cooking was a well-established passion of mine by the time I started my freshman year at UPS. It was a bit of serendipity that the dorm room assigned to me for that first year was the one-time “dorm mother’s” room of Tenzler Hall, complete with a kitchenette. Tiny as can be, but to have any chance to cook in my room was a godsend. The most memorable meal I made that year was one of my specialties, Chicken Cordon Bleu, a recipe I’d plucked from a copy of Seventeen magazine a few years earlier and stuffed into my recipe files. The ingredients weren’t so much an issue. But a couple of the cooking implements were. Lacking a meat pounder or other suitable kitchen tool for flattening the chicken breasts, I made do–carefully–with an empty beer bottle. For those toothpicks needed to enclose the breast around the ham and cheese filling, I slipped over to the Student Union Building to grab a handful from one of the dining tables. It wasn’t until dinner was served that I realized those toothpicks had been mint flavored. I think they might have been tinted green as well.
Such are the sacrifices of trying to achieve haute cuisine on a college campus.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all Chicken Cordon Bleu and healthy tofu stir-fries. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I was a fan of all the trappings of college life, down to pizzas in The Cellar and evening meals of little more than popcorn and beer. But I admit that having that little kitchenette my first year on campus, then the continual array of kitchens at the French House, various apartments, wherever I called home the following three years, it added to the pleasures of college life immeasurably.
In 1983 or ’84 I joined the committee of students overseeing “Cultural Events” on campus. Looking back from where I sit today, that experience seems even richer and more inspiring than it did at the time. In the couple years I was involved, we hosted an array of talents, from the Kronos Quartet to Queen Ida and the Bon Temps Zydeco Band. From the Flying Karamazov Brothers to Ramsey Lewis. Though the ever-amazing Serni Solidarios, our staff advisor, did the heavy lifting of bookings, contracts, other pesky large-scale details, the committee was fully engaged in the performers’ experience on campus, from airport pick-up to ticket sales to — yes — what they ate in the green room. I didn’t hesitate to sign on for the task, loved cooking up a storm those afternoons, making big trays of vegetables with tzatziki and hummus, interesting cheeses. I was enamored with phyllo triangles, surely did some stuffed with feta and spinach. Wish I had a better memory of all those details…..
I had so much fun cooking for all those folks. So much positive feedback and that undeniable joy that simply comes from sharing food you’ve prepared with others who appreciate it. Aside from one fellow. Paul Winter. Told me the food was terrible, he hated it. Well, I never was a big fan of his super-soft jazz-pop saxophone stylings either…..
I’ll take jazz pianist/composer Claude Bolling any day. We hosted him, too, was by far the biggest thrill for me. I’d been playing the piano about as long as I’d been playing around in the kitchen, even accompanied the jazz choir in high school (we took the state championship one year, I think the win came from Satin Doll). I was enchanted by his Suite for Flute & Jazz Piano Trio, wishing my fingers didn’t take such literal interpretation of notes on the page. I’ve never been able to stray from those black dots and interpret the melody in my own fashion. But Bolling never failed to make me dream of doing so.
Monsieur Bolling must have come to campus in 1984. It was autumn, I know. He’d performed on the Saturday night before we were due to “fall back” with the clocks. My sister came down to attend the concert with me, a handful of us went out that night after the show. We were at a since-closed restaurant downtown Tacoma, I recall half-shell oysters by the dozens among other late-night nibbles. But this I’ll never forget: come 2:00 a.m., the server lets us know the restaurant was closing and we needed to be on our way. “Mais non!,” Claude Bolling argues, pointing at the wristwatch he’s already turned back to 1:00 a.m. “We have one more hour!” The argument didn’t stick, but we’d had quite a night already. About six months later, I was on my semester abroad program in Dijon, France, and my sister came to visit for the delightfully-long spring break. It included a welcoming visit to sit in on a practice session of Claude Bolling and his band, a most happy surprise to come from his campus visit.
Food brings us together with people in the most delightful, inspiring and sometimes unexpected ways. College cooking, for me, definitely went well beyond catering to the visiting talent. Nothing like being surrounded by poor and grateful college pals to make a cook’s heart sing, I never tired of cooking for my friends. After our amazing 1984 trip to Paris for a month of study, when we’d trolled the side streets of the La Huchette neighborhood on the Left Bank — eating our fill of steaming platters of couscous at a price we could afford — couscous became a new specialty of mine. A big pot of richly flavored vegetable stew, mounds of steamed couscous, whatever baked or grilled meat we could afford (mostly chicken back then….). We tossed a couple colorful scarves over the lamps, laid place mats on the floor, opened bottles of Sidi Brahim wine from Algeria and plopped ourselves down for what became some of the most pleasurable evenings I can recall.
What surprises me most thinking back on those college years is how unaware I still was that food and cooking were not going to remain just the pastime I thought sure they’d be. I was in college to learn, to set the path for my career. I’d been an ace math student in high school, had great expectations of a fulfilling, well-paid engineering career. And figured I’d throw some pretty awesome dinner parties on weekends.
But college is about so much more than class time, more than just book learning. I stuck with my mathematics major, and added a French literature major to my sights as well. The French studies gave me two opportunities to study in France. Times during which I had a mind-blowing ham and cheese sandwich (the first meal I consumed on French territory, from a street vendor), made a pilgrimage to Le Cordon Bleu, sat around countless family tables to eat everyday French food. Back in Tacoma, for an assignment in a class about business French, we needed to correspond with a French business entity of some kind. I chose to write a letter to Guy Savoy about his recent review in Gourmet magazine and my upcoming trip to France. I even wrote a fan letter to Patricia Wells at the behest of my journalism teacher, Mr. Ragsdale, who’d been one of Patricia’s teachers as well.
All this while, the depth of my passion for the culinary world still eluded me.
It may have taken a while, but when the light bulb went off, it was like a grand burst of lightening. And maybe the delayed realization made my eventual conviction that much stronger. A few years out of college, with Math and French Literature majors I didn’t know exactly what to do with, I was tiring of my role as a highly education receptionist. With the support of many, I pretty much dropped everything and went back to France to be a stagiaireat La Varenne. My life in boxes in storage, I was open to whatever path that was going to lead me down, taking one step at a time. It might have been as simple as a refreshing “time out” until I returned home to figure out what my “real career” was going to be. Instead, that couple of years took everything I’d learned, experienced and cooked up to that point and channeled it through the adventure of living abroad and learning to cook, creating a career path that I’d simply failed to notice before.
It was a major leap that changed my life. But a leap that couldn’t have happened without hundreds of small steps that had lead me to that moment. And one of those steps just might have been that trip out to the tour bus for the Flying Karamazov Brothers. Nice to be reminded to not take any of life’s experiences for granted. I hope to do better about cherishing them all.