Bygone eateries – part 3, plus the attack of the killer oven

First, that angry oven. All I wanted to do was bake two slices of garlic bread to accompany the spaghetti I was having that night. After a few minutes, I smelled gas and saw that the oven temperature had not risen. I proceeded to do the most stupid and dangerous thing a stupid person can do. I opened the oven door, which,  in ovenland, I now understand, is like waving a red cape at a bull. There was an instant BOOF, and a wall of orange flame leapt out at me, singing my hair and eyebrows.

With the door shut again, the temperature rose, and presently my garlic bread was nice and crispy. Fortunately, I was not. The ladies to whom I have related this episode are uniformly appalled that I let the cooking continue. The gentlemen are not. I was hungry. I guess it’s a guy thing. I did ponder whether, had I not opened the door when I did, if the oven would have exploded when it ignited. It is fifteen years old. They deliver the new one tomorrow.

The third of the cherished restaurants I would resurrect if I could is Nikos. An Indiana supper club, it was not, of course,  listed in the Chicago book Mary gave me. It was the creation of the Gardikiotes family, Nikos, Athena, and their son Hercules, a clan of such talent and charm that I wish they were neighbors.

John and I always kept an eye out for interesting local dining options, and on our very first visit, we knew we had discovered a treasure. The food was succulent down to the vegetable garnish. Things were good that almost didn’t need to be. Nothing in this kitchen was considered unimportant. And the desserts! Our desserts were exquisite. We raved about them to Hercules, who said, “Mama makes them. She’ll be pleased. I’ll bring her out.” We didn’t know what to expect, a weathered Greek crone, all in black? The woman who accompanied Herc back to our table took our breath away. It was as though Gina Lollobrigida, at her prime, had emerged from the kitchen. Athena is one of the most beautiful women I have ever met. She is also an innovative  master of pastries and sweets who likes nothing better than sharing her culinary secrets. We urged her to write a book. If she does, her picture must be on the cover.

The entrees were uniformly mouth watering, and best of all, the quality did not vary from visit to visit. I have never had, nor will there ever be, a veal chop as glorious as those I had at the hands of Nikos. Of course,  he pleaded with me not to order it rare, once coming out of the kitchen to try to reason with me. But I was obdurate, and he did as I wished. He always did as we wished. John was the same way about prime rib, telling him if it wasn’t rare, he’d dash it to the floor. John would say that to a new waitress who would scurry to the kitchen to say that a crazy man was ordering prime rib. Nikos would pop his head out, smiling and say, “Welcome, John.”

It was impossible not to become friends with such people. We became regulars, bringing along everyone we knew. Even at the last minute, and no matter how crowded they were, they would always make room for us. We were never turned away. Not even the Valentine’s Day when we showed up apologizing for not having made a reservation. “We are full,” said Athena. “No matter, some one else can wait. They will be angry with me, but you must have dinner with us.”

Nikos was a supper club with all the old fashioned, cozy ambience that implies. Athena would lovingly deck it out for seasonal occasions, and when you wanted to spend a leisurely, comfortable evening with friends, there was no better place in Northern Indiana. Nikos worked long and hard at his two restaurants (the other a splendid breakfast place) for many years. He’s entitled to retire and have a life. Athena is now an adoring grandmother to several children who will grow up having no idea what grandmothers are supposed to look like. I’m happy for them, but oh, how I miss being at Nikos.



Bygone eateries – part 2

Where was I? Yes, Oaxaca. Fred Camacho spoke so lovingly of it that on one of our trips to coastal Mexico, we chartered a small plane to the interior and explored this lovely city for ourselves. A magnificent church, a charming colonial town square, beautiful silver and pottery, and, of course, the food, will repay a visit.

Fred never returned from Selena Cruz without a musician in tow, sometimes a singer, once an entire children’s choir. I wonder if he warned them about our winters. In any case, there was always music at Azteca, sometimes courtesy of the patrons. This was pre-karaoki, and it was nothing for a diner to break into song when the musicians came by. One Rubenesque woman with a rich contralto would favor us with Noches de Ronda. Late in the evening, Fred would sit at our table with his guitar and, after a few songs in Spanish, do his heavily accented version of Yesterday. Even I sang on one occasion.

Azteca had an outdoor garden which was irresistible for dining in good weather. On one of the trees hung a small sign saying ‘jacarandas.’ I thought to please Fred by writing a song about a romantic couple sitting under the jacarandas tree. I sang it to him, very quietly. He burst out laughing (I didn’t think my song was that bad), and explained that the tree was a very ordinary mid-western shrub, and the misleading sign was there to remind him of home.

That was not the only time I was to embarrass myself at this venue. There’s an old expression, ‘liberty hall’ which implied, “make yourself at home” with a subtext of “anything goes.” And that’s how it was at Azteca. You were going, not to a restaurant, but a party, at which strangers would talk across tables, and a very good time was had by all. Friends could always find me there on the eves of New Years and Christmas. I’ve never been a heavy drinker, but somehow, Cafe Azteca was an easy place to get sloshed. I’ve been wondering how best to launder this, but here are a couple of examples, both from New Year’s Eves.

I had this white suit. I was very fond of it. One headachy January 1st, after a night at Azteca, I found myself staring at my prize suit, in a heap on the floor, covered with footprints. I turned to Al, my boyfriend in those days, for enlightenment. All he would say was, “You had a really good time.”  Then there was the night that a darkly handsome waiter had been making flirty eyes at me. The hallway outside the restrooms was rather dimly lit, and as I was making my way, unsteadily back to my seat, I feel the waiter’s hand on my shoulder. “Oh,” I thought, “he thinks I’m going to trip, and wants to steady me. That’s nice,” No, instead of that, he pushed me gently against the wall and gave me a long soulful kiss. Inappropriate? Absolutely. Outrageous? Surely. Did I report him? You’re kidding, right?

Despite such capers, Azteca was a very family friendly spot. At Christmastime, Fred would stage a poseda, a lovely ritual of pageantry and caroling. One year, we participated, singing in the snow as Fred’s young daughter, on a donkey, represented Mary. We were welcomed on several doorsteps, with cookies and hot chocolate. No figgy pudding, but still. John and Ann surprised me on my 50th birthday with a huge party at Azteca. John took his students there on ethnic dining field trips, and it was the site I chose for my student staff dinner when I was sponsor of the school newspaper at Chicago Vocational.

Fred Camacho was a charmer and a most indulgent host. John and I got to know him quite well. When I had a cabin on Sugar Creek, I invited him and his girl friend, Jane, (he called her ‘Hane”) to stay there with us. It was good to repay a bit of his hospitality. He also visited my apartment in South Shore, where he spotted an Azteca mug I had “liberated” as a souvenir. He just smiled and said, I can never keep the place in cups.”

I’m looking at that mug as I type this. Fred is gone now. So is Azteca. Their like will not be seen again.

It’s late again. I’ll have to finish up in a part 3.

Bygone eateries – part one

Mary Smith. It’s the all American name. It’s one of the few, almost the only, which one needn’t change upon entering the witness protection program. Probably safer to keep it, since bad guys would assume you wouldn’t dare. Most of us know a Mary Smith, but even if you do, mine is the best.

Mary is one of a noble band of John’s former students, forever in my heart because they visited him in the hospital and here at home at the end. John is gone, but Mary continues to seek me out, and I am always much the better for the seeking. On our latest lunch date, she regaled me with an exciting account of a Lady Gaga concert which she saw ringside in Las Vegas.

Though I tell her she shouldn’t, Mary always arrives bearing a bag of goodies. This time, a lustrous, reflective bag of metallic pink concealed the book Lost Restaurants of Chicago. It contained many of my favorites and got me to thinking, not for the first time, about which of them I’d be most anxious to resurrect. For now, I’ll confine myself to what are probably my top three.

The first closed before I met John. This was a source of much regret because Mon Petit remains, for me, the most romantic of all restaurants. It cried out to be dined at with someone for whom you were head over heels. The room was powder blue, painted here and there with casually sketched flowers and ribbons. The most intimate and desirable seats were banquettes against the wall, where you sat, not across from, not kitty corner from, but right next to your tootsie wootsie, looking out at the rest of the room, and being looked at by them. And you knew that they knew what it meant that you sat where you did.

The food was French and good. The lights were low, the setting intimate, and the music unimprovable. Norman Wallace played piano, and it was impossible to stump him with a request. I tried, but it was as though he had written the Great American Songbook. For a time, I was there so often that, when I entered, Norman would break into Jerome Kern, which he knew I loved. There’s never been anywhere like Mon Petit. How I wish I could have taken John there, just once.

The next two places were owned by people with whom John and I became friends, good friends, There is a menu in the book from Cafe Azteca, at Wells and North. It was strange looking at a clean menu with no spills from salsa or sangria. Perhaps the staff came to know me as such an inevitable spiller that it was pointless to provide me with a clean menu. My first Mexican meal was at Azteca, when it was across the street from its ultimate location. It was 1960 or ’61. I had seen an ad for the place in the WFMT guide, and took my mother to check it out. My first taste of guacamole! My first crispy beef taco! My first sample of refried beans! My first margarita, with a salted rim.

Every Mexican restaurant serves such things, but Azteca had so much more going for it. There was a killer appetizer called Camoosh, homemade chips, hot out of the oven, laden with refried beans, guacamole and melted cheese. I salivate at the memory of it. There was music, wondeful live music on the harp and the merimba, played by Chuchu, one of the many artists the owner, Federico Camacho would bring back from his trips to his hometown, Selena Cruz, near Oaxaca.

It’s late. To be continued . . .

“I had the craziest dream . . .”

That was one of the first songs I learned all the words to. It was 1942, and I was five. I sang it all through the bungalow, over and over. The song was from a Betty Grable movie, Springtime in the Rockies. My father had the sheet music, but I really learned it from the radio where Helen Forrest rendered it all through that holiday season. What hooked me was the verse:

“In a dream, the strangest and the oddest things appear,

And what insane and silly things we do . . .”

I couldn’t wait to go to bed in hopes of having a crazy dream, and I prodded all my relatives to tell me theirs. I prodded in vain. If they’d had any, they weren’t about to share them with five-year-old me. I’m about to share one with you, so forewarned is forearmed, and if that’s not your cup of Ovaltine, see you later.

In this dream, I was back living with an old boyfriend from the ’60’s. He was one of the sweetest, most gentle souls I’ve ever met, one of fifteen siblings. They were their own community, rather hippie-ish, and in those days,  Al and I wore long hair, moustaches, and striped bell bottoms with portholes. Curiously, in the dream, it was one of Al’s sisters, played by Rachel McAdams in a fetching bob, who was the object of my affection.

Al got me aside, and here’s where the dream flips into what anyone who’s ever been a teacher will recognize as a familiar, recurring nightmare. He told me there had been a phone call from Goodman Theater to remind me of the field trip to see Hamlet the next day.

Whaaat! I’m still teaching? But, aren’t I retired? There’s a field trip? Tomorrow? I haven’t ordered a bus. There’s no time to order a bus. The kids have to take permissions slips home and get them signed! I don’t have any permission slips. Can I break into school and get them? Will their teachers sign them out of class?  I’ve got to call all of my kids. Who ARE my kids? Their names and phone numbers will be in my record book. I don’t have my record book!  Now I’ve got to break in! If we don’t show up at the theater, will Goodman throw me out of the program? Did I even teach Hamlet?


Sometimes, it’s so good to wake up.

Mysterious melody

I love Elektra. It’s one of my favorite operas. I wouldn’t recommend it as your first. Or second. Or tenth. It’s short, one of the shortest of all, so it won’t task you that way. The music, however, is furious and strident from the opening note to the final chord. This is appropriate to the story, one of the most blood curdling in all opera. Picture Game of Thrones set to music.

Richard Strauss could be a composer of infinite sweetness and delicacy, but not here. Twice in his life, he wrote short, intense operas celebrating young wild women of the Bible or Greek mythology. The other one is Salome. They both go like a house afire, but Salome has at least a few quiet passages, especially in the dance of the seven veils, where you can catch your breath. Twice, I’ve seen this dance completed in the nude. Who says opera need be boring?

I won’t detail the story of Elektra here, though I’m tempted because it’s such a pip. Suffice to say, like Oedipus, she comes from one of the all time dysfunctional families. I saw the opera again on Saturday, wearing my new glasses in the hope they’d sharpen the translation which runs above the stage curtain. They did, and I was able to read each gory utterance with clarity.

I was there with my friends, Margaret, Bernie, Darlene and Jeff. All of us but Jeff were caught up in it and swept away. After the curtain calls, Jeff said, “I don’t like it.There’s no melody.” I proceeded to hum an eleven note motif that must reappear a dozen times during the evening. Jeff’s look suggested he thought either I was being a smartass or was making it up.

I wasn’t doing either of those things (well, maybe just a soupcon of smartass). I can’t blame Jeff because, while the melody is there, it’s buried under layers and layers of thick, furious orchestration. I spotted it the first time I heard a recording of Elektra. I noticed it because it was so at odds with everything else that was going on around it. It’s romantic, almost soothing, the strings give it a rocking motion like lapping waves. What is it doing there I wondered, and I’ve wondered ever since. Who, or what, in this fierce revenge fest does it represent? It’s the one almost calm element in a maelstrom of fire and blood, and it’s lovely. I seek it out each time it reappears, for comfort, and to reassure myself I haven’t imagined it. Why is it there? Can anyone tell me, other than the long deceased Strauss himself?

One more reason to hope for an afterlife.

Will and Ian

They arrived at 6:00. By 10:00, they were gone. But, for those four hours, I had the best of times I’ve experienced in many, many moons.

Will is the son of John’s nephew, Joe. John was quite fond of Will. So am I. There’s little not to like. Let me think a moment. Nope, there’s nothing. Perhaps one pet of his, but I’ll get to that in a bit. Will is bright and observant. Nothing escapes him, but he doesn’t feel the need to comment on all that he observes. He is an eagle scout, Order of the Arrow, with a sense of humor. There is not a boring bone in his body. He has charm and the singing voice of an angel. In the late summer of 2017, the angel came out.

Ian is Will’s boyfriend. John never knew any of this. I wish he had, not that he wanted Will to be gay for heaven’s sake, he just wanted him to be happy. Still, it would have meant a great deal for John to see how happy and comfortable Will is in his own, complicated skin. I wrote as much to Will when I figured out what seemed to be what from the many affectionate face book photos of him with Ian. Will texted me his thanks and said that Ian wanted to meet me. I was touched, the more so because Will calls me Uncle Lee.

Meeting boyfriends, or girl friends, is not a guaranteed pleasure. Sometimes the best people get mesmerized by the worst people. Under those circumstances, I work hard at not betraying my opinion of whomever my smitten friends drag to my door. This time was different. I knew Will was too smart to fall for a dullard or a troll. Ian is neither. Rather, he’s a dashing teddy bear in a dangerous profession, paramedic firefighter.

The heady joy they take in each other was a delight to watch. In some ways, they remind me of John and me, at the beginning, not the least of which is that they have plans. Neither of them was seeking a fling. Theirs is a committed relationship.

I stuffed them with spaghetti, sour dough garlic bread, and my Leasar salad. It was good to cook for people again. We talked, almost without pause, about matters that only someone who has been there can fully understand. When did you know? Was there anyone you dared tell? Friends? Parents? Things have changed enormously since I came out, but some things never will. The driving need to stop pretending to be what you think others need you to be. The daunting fear that, if you do, you will lose those you love. Will has the most understanding parents imaginable. But even he was apprehensive of dashing their expectations. He needn’t have been, but though acceptance of his disclosure was widespread and welcoming, it was not universal. Someone dear to him has cut him off, saying, “Can’t you see how hard you’ve made this for me?” There are so many things wrong with that remark, I wouldn’t know where to begin.

Will told me that he didn’t know he had any gay relatives until his parents brought him to our Labor Day party. He found it encouraging. Glad to help, buddy. I found it encouraging when Ian, who lost his father before coming out, didn’t refer to Joe as “your dad,” but just, “Dad.” How did they meet? In the Boy Scouts, of course. Be prepared, indeed!

We spoke of other things, of course, the need for multiple sock drawers for example. Ian disagrees (well all relationships need a bit of grit for texture). Then there was Will’s love of animals. He raises turtles, fresh and salt water fish, and, oh yes, that other pet, a five foot python. I did my best not to faint or bolt from the table.

When they left, as when they arrived, there were hugs, and then some more hugs. Ian is no slouch, but Will gives the best hugs in Christendom. They are just setting out together. They have it all before them. May it be long, fulfilling, and sweet.





A man of many hats

That’s me. Last seen as Tarzan, today I’m Nanook of the North. Come to think of it, Tarzan doesn’t wear much of anything beyond that skimpy diaper, let alone a hat. Still, if there were a Tarzan hat, I know what it should be. Not a homburg, nor a derby or a topper, though those would be fun, glimpsed fleetingly as he leaps from vine to vine. No, it needs to be a golden crown, perhaps studded with the odd gemstone or two, as befits the king of the jungle.

In any case, it’s officially Nanook time. The wind chill is now -24 below, and plunging. Every tap in the house is trickling. I don’t care what next month’s water bill is like. Friday, despite one trickling faucet, the pipes froze briefly. I managed a quick thaw with a hair dryer, but enough is enough.

My heart goes out to the mail and paper carriers. Nothing at my door justified their risk of frostbite. We civilians were warned not to set an unnecessary foot outside today. I disregarded that warning just long enough to dart to the alley in what seemed a worthy cause. Friday, some very special first time guests will be here for supper. Trash and recycle was piling up. I’m not sure how worthy John would have thought this cause, and I can just hear him saying, “Are you crazy?” Well, we know the answer to that, don’t we? And I do have a lovely, warm Nanook hat, with ear flaps.

I didn’t wear it on my first sortie. I had on my heaviest flannel shirt, a thick sweater, a scarf, a parka, snow stomping galoshes,  gloves and ear warmers. Not enough; I came back cold. I sat in the parlor for a few minutes, saying, “I know. I know,” to John’s picture. I swigged a can of root beer, simple pleasures for drastic measures. I tugged on my Nanook hat, ( if my hair got messed up, who would know?) and set out again, squeezing through the narrow opening permitted by the snow trapped gate. It was not enough; I came back cold.

After a few more minutes in the parlor, I plucked up another scarf and wound it about my face, for my final polar expedition. This time, I was warm enough, and my guests will enter an uncluttered emporium. As to hats, who knows which one the fates have in store for me tomorrow?