Bonnie Franklin In the summer of 2011, I drove myself and four companions from Rome to the Le Marche region of Italy. That trip involves some serious mountain hills with the obligatory switchbacks and the occasional tunnel. As I rolled into the first tunnel, I was startled to hear from the back seat: “Whenever I feel afraid / I hold my head erect /  and whistle a happy tune /so no one will suspect / I’m afraid.” It was Bonnie Franklin, singing in a quick-step tempo with her eyes shut tight. “I’m afraid of tunnels,” she told us afterward, “so I sing that to take my mind off of  it.” And she did. Every time.

I met Bonnie in 1970 when I stopped by a New Jersey theater where she was appearing in A Thousand Clowns. She had already made a splash on Broadway singing and dancing the title song to Applause. I was there during the break between a matinee and an evening performance to talk to Hugh O’Brian, but he had taken ill and gone to a doctor. Bonnie, who was sitting outside with her Yorkie , Jobie, thought I looked confused. “Are you looking for Hugh O’Brian?” she said. And she told me what had happened.

Bonnie 2I thanked her and was about to leave, but she patted the concrete wall she was sitting on and said, “Sit down here and talk to me!” It was irresistible. Bonnie was irresistible. I sat, we talked. I came back a few days later and we sat and talked some more. We were close friends for 42 years after that.

My family and I became great fans of hers, because she was an outstanding actress, singer, and dancer. I used to kid her that latching on to her was my way to see the country, and we did travel to Manhattan, Nyack, West Hampton, New Hope, Mount Pocono, Pittsburgh, Ventura, Washington, D.C., Overland, Kansas, and some town in New Hampshire to see her perform. I’d pay plenty right now to hear her sing “How Long Has This Been Going On?” or see her in Shirley Valentine. My wife, Pat, says, and I agree, that once you’ve seen Bonnie as Shirley Valentine, you don’t need to see anyone else.

The relationship that evolved between Bonnie and my family was characterized by two qualities of hers: unconditional love and enormous generosity. She was passionate about what she believed. I learned this the second time we met: she was very agitated about the U.S. military campaign in Cambodia. She and I were largely simpatico, but inasmuch as I am a Roman Catholic deacon and she was a progressive Jew, we could disagree about some significant issues. This had no impact on our relationship, and that was because she had such an expansive heart.

Bonnie was very generous to me and to my family, not in a showy way but in a genuine expression of love. It became a running gag between us to see which of us could be first to tell the host at a restaurant not to bring the bill to the table. I told that to a host as soon as I arrived at a restaurant in Maine, and he said, “You’re too late. She beat you to it.” But I think I won the last round — at Joe Allen’s in New York.

Bonnie 5 More important was Bonnie’s generosity for those in need. I happily supported the organizations that were important to her, and she returned the favor to a fare-thee-well. I once told her in a casual conversation that a local nonprofit group I was associated with — to provide an annual festival for people with mental handicaps — was in financial trouble. A few days later, I received a personal check from her with a very large donation. On another occasion she traveled from her California home to New York for the sole purpose of giving a gratis benefit performance for another organization I was connected to, an association that builds and operates group homes for people who are both blind and mentally challenged.

A friend of mine who was a professional fundraiser for non-profits once showed me an article in a journal reporting that a survey of people in that field had found that Bonnie Franklin was perceived by the public as among the most trustworthy spokespersons for charitable causes. I wasn’t surprised. I doubt that a false word ever crossed her lips.

And she was funny. Just naturally funny. Every year on my birthday, I anticipated the phone call — I’m sure I wasn’t the only one — in which Bonnie would sing “Happy Birthday” to me. I wasn’t to speak until she was done, and there was always a second verse (“Get plastered, you bastard.”) Once when she was doing her incomparable cabaret act at the Algonquin Hotel, she wandered among the tables during one of her songs and gave me a hug. When I asked her afterward how she had found me in the darkened room, she said, “Easy. I just followed the smell of Old Spice.” She always took a pass on dessert when we ate out with her and her wonderful husband, Marvin Minoff. That is, she didn’t order dessert. She instructed me to order something chocolate, and then she ate half of it.

She was talented, she was witty, she was sweet, she was warm, she was profane, she was passionate, she was genuine. Now she’s gone. I’m a better person for having known and loved her, and I know I’m not alone. I hope heaven is ready.

Green Brook, NJ

I haven’t read Dante Alghieri’s “Inferno” since college, so I don’t remember if he imagined a circle of hell reserved for folks who introduce their grandchildren to White Castle.  If so, I hope he was wrong, but it’s too late now. We’ve already done it.

 
I’m not sure if this factor mitigates our guilt or makes it worse, but the fact is that we took the boys to the White Castle in Green Brook at the suggestion of our daughter, their mother, who – of course – also learned about the mystique of the slider from us.
So did her three siblings, and an interesting point about that is that our three oldest children, all of whom are particular about what they eat, still love White Castle, while the youngest one — who is more casual about diet when she eats at all — describes White Castle hamburgers as “rat meat.”
I can’t put into words the attraction that White Castle has for us, and I guess the fact that its appeal is elusive makes it  all the more appealing. It certainly isn’t an attraction to fast food in general. I never eat in McDonald’s (except for an Egg McMuffin), Burger King, Arby’s, or Wendy’s. My only other inclination of that kind — if it can be called fast food — is for chili dogs.
Well, the grandsons and their parents were coming to our house for a sleepover recently, and our daughter suggested that we take the boys to White Castle — which was a thinly veiled way of saying that we should take her to White Castle — something I suspect her husband doesn’t approve of. I don’t think the boys were hooked, based on that one visit, but they’re only little guys, so there’s plenty of time. It isn’t that Pat and I spend a lot of time at White Castle, but we get the hankering now and again, and we go with no apologies. Two or three times, we have made reservations — yes, reservations are required — for the Valentine’s Day dinner at the White Castle in South Plainfield. There are red table clothes and flowers, a waiter at your table, and a menu to order from — the same food, of course, or why would we be there?
I mentioned that Pat and I don’t spend a lot of time at White Castle. No, we have salad and a green vegetable with every dinner, we eat a lot of garlic and olive oil, we don’t overdo the red meat , and we would eat fish if either one of us could swallow it. But life is full of hazards and temptations. I started a new job in January, and my drive home takes me right past the White Castle in Green Brook. “You know,” Pat said to me, ” you could stop on your way home.”
 

If I had to pick out my half dozen favorite possessions, one would be a 60-year-old, permanently blackened device known as the Toas-Tite. My mother bought it around 1950, she gave it to me when I got married and moved out, and I still use it — as recently as today.

The Toas-Tite consists of two cast-aluminum “clam shells” joined with a hinge and opened and closed with two long handles. In the most basic use of this gadget, one puts a slice of bread on one of the shells – with a little butter on the down side to prevent sticking. Lay on some cheese, maybe a slice of tomato, and then put on the second slice of bread  — again with a little butter on the outside. Close the handles and cut away the excess bread. Then grill the contents over whatever heat source is handy, turning the Toas-Tite frequently to avoid burning the bread while the cheese melts. When the Toas-Tite is opened, the result is a sealed round hot sandwich.

Of course there is no limit to the type  of bread or the nature of the filling one can use  in a Toas-Tite. I stick to the traditional melted cheese, sometimes adding ham and bacon and — just this afternoon — olive loaf. But I saw a recipe today that involved bleu cheese, figs, and prosciutto, and another that called for bananas and peanut butter. I also saw a variation in which already–prepared crepes were used instead of bread.

Recently, we introduced another generation to the Toas-Tite — namely, our ten-year-old granddaughter Alexa. She’s hooked.

The patent for the original Toas-Tite was issued in 1949. A later version, which used sheet instead of cast aluminum, was inferior because it was too easy to burn the bread before the filling was melted or thoroughly toasted. Although the Toas-Tite hasn’t been manufactured for many years, it is possible to buy the original model on the Internet.

Except for being blackened by repeated heating, the Toas-Tite I have is just as it was when Mom bought it and probably will last long enough for Alexa to spring it on her own kids. I don’t think it’s simplistic to say that it’s a testament to the manufacturing standards of the past. I like that about it, but what I like most is that it’s a tangible, useable link to my mother, and one that she would have appreciated.

You can find a lot of information about the Toas-Tite, including recipes, at THIS LINK.

HERM DOSCHER

One of the wonderful things about baseball is that it provides players with so many ways to be remembered — and many of  those  ways have little or nothing to do with success on the field.

Herm Doscher was an example. So was his son, Jack. In fact, together they constitute one example, because they were the first father and son combination to play the major leagues. Herm played third base for five different teams in the National Association and the National League from 1872 to 1882 – a spotty career for which there don’t seem to be a lot of statistics – and he was later a major league umpire. He was reputed to be hard-nosed in that role. He once ejected Rochester Broncos outfielder Sandy Griffin for arguing a call and, when Griffin wouldn’t leave the field, Doschler forfeited the game to the St. Louis Browns — who were leading 10-3 in the eighth inning anyway.

Jack Doscher (actually John Henry Doscher Jr.) was a pitcher from 1903 to 1908 with three teams including the Brooklyn Superbas, appearing in only 27 games. Doscher died in 1971 at the age of 90 and was at one point recognized as the oldest surviving player for the Brooklyn Dodgers, successors to the Superbas.

NICK SWISHER

The Doschers come to mind today because Major League Baseball announced this evening that Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher had been elected to the All Star Team. Whatever one thinks of the wacky manner in which those players are chosen these days, Swisher last season and this has made a good case for himself on the field. This is the first time Nick Swisher has been named to the All Star team,  and it puts him in an exclusive baseball group — fathers and sons who have made the team. Swisher’s dad, Steve – a National League catcher for 10 years in the ’70s and ’80s – was on the 1976 team when he was with the Cubs, although he didn’t get to play. One of Steve Swisher’s colleagues on that ’76 team was Ken Griffey Sr., whose son also became an All Star — many times.

Altogether, 195 men who have played in the majors had sons who followed. A handful had two sons make it to the bigs. Three men — Sammy Hairston, Ray Boone, and Gus Bell — sent sons and grandsons to the majors. The Hairstons hold the record for multigenerational families with five major league players, although the Delahanty family had five of the same generation.

STEVE SWISHER

The Swishers are the tenth family to have a father and at least one son on the All Star team. (There have been three such families in the World Series.)

I was introduced to baseball by my father, who had managed a semi-pro team and knew a lot about the game. I would like to have been a better baseball player for his sake, but that gene went missing. Dad never expressed any disappointment about my weak performance; he wasn’t cut out that way. We made up for it with the many hours we spent together watching the Yankees in the Bronx and on TV or listening to them on the radio in our grocery store. We did other things together, but baseball provided the strongest bond. Dad’s been gone for more than 30 years, but I still watch baseball with him in mind. Meanwhile, it’s fun to speculate about the satisfaction Steve Swisher must be deriving from Nick’s success in general and from this benchmark in particular.

Steve Swisher cuts Nick Swisher's hair in 2007 on the field at the Oakland Coliseum. Nick Swisher had let his hair grow for 10 month so that he could donate it to a program that assists cancer patients.

15180We watched the 1948 movie “I Remember Mama,” a masterpiece directed by George Stevens. I started to watch this on TMC a few weeks ago, but it would have ended at 2 a.m., so I gave up and put it in the Netflix queue. This film was based on Kathryn Forbes’ novel, a fictionalized memoir titled “Mama’s Bank Account.” The novel inspired a play that ran on Broadway for two years. The play led to this rather expensive movie, and the movie led to a successful television series – “Mama” – and an unsuccessful musical play, the last work of Richard Rodgers.

In all cases, the story concerns a Norwegian family living in San Francisco shortly after the turn of the 20th century. The central figure is Martha Hansen, the “Mama” of the title, played in this film by Irene Dunne and in the TV series by Peggy Wood. Irene Dunne was perfect in the role – as was Peggy Wood – and Dunne’s contributions were complemented by the fact that the rest of the casting was just as highly inspired. That included Barbara Bel Geddes as one of the Hansen daughters – Katherine – who narrates the film. Other choices that turned out to be strokes of genius were Rudy Vallee in the poker-faced role of a doctor who performs mastoid surgery on young Dagmar Hansen and Edgar Bergen in the comical role of a funeral director who courts one of Martha Hansen’s sisters.

ELLEN CORBY

ELLEN CORBY

That sister, Trina, was played by Ellen Corby, who later played the grandmother on the TV series “The Waltons,” and appeared in nearly 230 movies and TV shows. In this film, she is charming in her earnestness and naievete. A pivotal member of the cast was the prolific Austrian actor Oskar Homolka as Chris Halverson, the blustering uncle of Martha Hansen and her three sisters – but, it turns out, the most complex figure in the film. Dunne, Homolka, Corby, and Bel Geddes were nominated for Oscars for this film, and Nicholas Musuraca won the award for black-and-white cinematography. He certainly deserved that for the evocative images of both turn-of-the-century San Francisco and the intimacy of a work-a-day home.

Everything about this film was carefully done. It deals with the most commonplace of issues, but does it with profound insight. The story is a reflection on the resources of the human spirit, presented in a manner that is both uplifting and convincing.

olive-oilToday I am making sfiha, a meat pie of Middle Eastern origin. I don’t know what a regulation sfiha consists of. I have seen many recipes in our cookbooks and on line. No two of them are the same, and none of them are like the ones I make. I learned to make sfiha from my mother, and she learned it from her mother. If my mother and grandmother made it this way, this way must be legitimate, I figure. Even if that weren’t true, I wouldn’t change anything. I make them this way partly because we like them this way, but also because it is a means of perpetuating the palpable presence in this world of my Lebanese grandmother – whom I did not know – and my mother. Perhaps it’s part of a larger neurosis, but I am very conscious of things like that. In order to make sfiha – the way I make it and they made it – I have to cut a whole bunch of celery into thin slices. Before I do, I remove the leaves. My mother said the leaves have a taste – not unpleasant but a little bitter – that the stalks do not have, and that taste has no place in sfiha. Not the way we make it. It’s just as well, because my Italian grandmother taught me to save celery leaves and eat them with olive oil and a little salt. A simple thing, but a great delicacy. I eat celery leaves that way because I like them, but also because the taste of them makes my grandmother’s influence on me and her care for me alive again in a material way. For the same reason, I eat cold, sliced, boiled potatoes with olive oil and a little salt. Grandma taught me that. There’s nothing quite like it because, as she told me, the neutral taste of the potatoes is a perfect medium for the subtle tastes – plural – in virgin olive oil.  For a similar reason, I prepare hard-boiled eggs by mashing  them with a fork until they are the consistency of powder, and then eat them – lightly salted – with a spoon. I learned that from my Lebanese grandfather, who sits with me whenever I have hard-boiled eggs. And I learned from my Italian grandfather to baste a grilling steak with a mixture of vinegar and olive oil. He stands there a step or two behind me while the aroma of the drops hitting the flame take me back to summer afternoons long gone and a man never forgotten.

“… and unto dust …”

February 25, 2009

pizza1I always feel a little guilty right about now in the rolling year. No, not because we’re supposed to feel guilty during Lent. Not exactly, anyway. I get a little self conscious about all those Lents in my childhood, the Lents everyone in my house and people of our acquaintance couldn’t wait for. In those days, the emphasis in Lent was on the “giving up,” at least in popular culture. For me, that meant a hiatus in the constant gorging on candy and ice cream and Yoo Hoo as I worked, if you can call it that, in my family’s grocery store. Naturally, I looked forward to resuming that self-destructive behavior, but I wouldn’t have traded all the candy and Yoo Hoo in the world for what was unleashed in my grandmother’s kitchen when this day came.

Like many women of her generation and background, Grandma had a repertoire of Italian meals that she cooked only during Lent. Besides being restricted to the season, they were parsed out on certain days during the five weeks of “penance.” My favorite was the hand-made pizza with wild mushrooms Grandpa had picked up in Ramapo. I even loved the spaghetti with anchovy sauce, though I don’t think I could stomach it now. Of course, whenever she was cooking – and when wasn’t she cooking? – Grandma would call me into her kitchen and slip me whatever preliminary scraps were available – a clear violation of the fast. While some people, including me, still practice some material sacrifices during Lent, the season has a much more positive spin now than it did in the 1940s and ’50s. Presumably, those who endured the trials of those days piled up treasures in heaven, as we used to say. I piled up IOUs.