By Susan Nelson ~ Susan’s Food and Art

I spent four days recently with my children and their families celebrating the graduation of my second oldest grandchild.  It was fun, exhausting, but fun.  My daughter loves to entertain, and does it well. The food, the decorations, and the presentation were great and the guests, if the noise level was any indication, thoroughly enjoyed themselves.  I found faces in the crowd I hadn’t seen since my children were little.  That’s always interesting.  You look at one another and offer the appropriate, “God, you haven’t changed a bit”, and then check yourself in the bathroom mirror for wrinkles, gray hairs, and any visible donut rolls over the top of your jeans.  Ach.

After we’d circled the wagons, and had a glass of sangria, a group of us settled into the inevitable sharing of memories of the times back in the day that we’d occupied the same space in the universe.  Stories began to unfold about mutual friends, life in general, how the world has gone to hell in a handbasket since we’d loosened our fingers on the controls, our children and grandchildren.  Later in the evening I was particularly delighted to see a familiar face from the past come through the front door, my old pal, Dana.  Dana and I had first met in the early seventies through mutual friends.  Finding we had a great deal in common we spent a lot of time together. Both of us came from middle class households imbued with their fair share of dysfunctionality, were raising two young children, and shared a similar view of the world. Over the years, as things have a way of evolving, we’d lost touch and only kept up with one another’s activities through our daughters, who’d maintained contact from time to time as adults.

With enough water under the bridge to launch a flotilla, we had much to catch up on.  After partaking of the seemingly endless variety of food available, we found a quiet spot, well at least a spot where we could at the very least hear each other speak, and spent some time getting to know each other once again.  At our first meeting many years ago we were both ensconced in our first marriages. Dana’s family had been in a total state of disrepair at the time she’d met her husband to be, Tommy.  As she tells it he was the first good-looking man who spun a plausible story that worked for her and she hitched her wagon to his star and ran off to Las Vegas to get out of the situation at home.  As I remember, Tommy had the most beautiful set of white, perfectly straight teeth I’d ever laid eyes on, and eyes the color of the sea kissing the white sands of Hawaii.  Fully aware of the gifts that the gods had bestowed on him he spread his gifts liberally amongst our lady friends and those of the female persuasion outside our group. Knowing him for any length of time it was easy to gather that he was a “player”, if you will, and that did not mean that he was an excellent choice for a fourth for bridge.

Dana came from a rather unique family.  Her dad was a large, barrel chested man, prone to wearing wife beater undershirts and rarely seen in public, and most likely never in private, without a weeping Budweiser in left right had and a Camel unfiltered in his right.  Being the only male in a household boasting six females, I always felt this was more a case of self-defense than self-destruction.  The matriarch of the family, as she explained they’d since discovered, suffered from some sort of chemical imbalance and was prone to being unpredictable at best and at worst downright dangerous.  Dana told me once that just before school started each year her mother would load up her girls and take them to the mall where they would shoplift their new clothes for the upcoming school year. Dana spent a good deal of time in confession or on the therapist’s coach about this as an adult.  I always find it fascinating that we rise up out of these childhood situations and still manage to at least present a facade of being normal as adults.  Smile.

Tommy, of the amazing teeth, turned out to have a gift for selling cars and soon had launched three “tote-the-note” car lots in the Southern California area and was doing very well.  Stories being told the cars on these lots looked better than they ever performed, but his azure eyes were moving them out onto the street as quickly as fleas off the back of a newly sprayed hound.

We had a shared group of friends, most with children, that rallied together on the weekends to throw some meat on the barbecue and just hang out.  On one particular weekend I’d mentioned that my car was in the shop and I was going to have to rent a replacement to get me to and from work.  My husband was in the hospital at the time, so I saw no other option. Tommy, putting up one perfectly manicured hand, said that he had a VW van on his lot that I could use for a week or so to get me through until my car was repaired. My hero.  At the end of the evening we agreed that he and Dana would pick me up that following morning and drive me to the lot where Dana and I would pick up the van and leave him there with their car.  All good.

At the lot he explained the little “tics” that the rather dilapidated van had.   In truth, it looked like something that should have been headed to Woodstock.  Flowers decorated both the exterior and interior walls.  The back of the van contained only one item, an old stove that traveled on cue when you stepped on or off the accelerator.  Beads hung between the front seats and the back area and a picture of Jimmy Hendrix swung from the rearview mirror.  Kumbaya.

It was decided that Dana would drive until we got the hang of the vehicle’s nuances and then I would take over.  There were two bucket seats in the front with stuffing flowing out of jagged tears in the faded leather.  A gear shift with a glass ball on the end separated the two seats.  Miraculously, the radio worked so we turned on some music and headed for home. Merging onto the freeway we picked up speed and moved into the center lane.  Traffic was moving smoothly when brakelights suddenly began blinking ahead.  Dana slammed on the brakes triggering the seat, which it seemed was not actually permanently attached to the floor, to tip backwards disappearing behind the wall of beads leaving only her knees and lower legs visible and no feet on the pedals. Now moving forward with no one manning the controls I jumped up, perched on her knees, located the pedals, and looking for all the world like a Chinese acrobatic team managed to slow us down and pull over just before we shoved the bumper in the car in front of us into the trunk in the car in front of them.  I have always known I’ve had angels sitting on my shoulder but really sometimes it’s just ridiculous.  Tommy, when confronted, was relieved that we’d discovered this flaw in the van before he’d actually sold it to a customer with a good lawyer on retainer.  Dana last saw Tommy in her rearview mirror many years ago, but it did provide us with some much-needed silliness.

We used to grill romaine in our restaurant.  People were a little put off by it at first but it became a best seller.  Enjoy.

<strong>Grilled Romaine Hearts</strong>

<strong>Grilled Romaine</strong>

4 romaine hearts
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper


1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
4 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese
3 basil leaves, chopped


1/4 cup olive oil
12 small Roma tomatoes, halved
1 tsp. dried thyme
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 red onions, thinly sliced
1 tsp. dried crushed rosemary

15 Caesar croutons, crushed

In large bowl combine all topping ingredients. Toss to coat well. Place in grill basket and grill, covered, on medium heat for 10-12 mins. until vegetables are tender. Set aside.

Cut romaine hearts in half lengthwise leaving the ends together. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place cut sides down on grill and grill, covered, for 3-4 mins. on each side until slightly charred and wilted.

For the dressing, place all ingredients except cheese in food processor and process until smooth.

Plate romaine hearts. Top with tomato mixture and drizzle with dressing. Top with cheese and crushed croutons.  Serve with crusty Artisan bread and dipping sauce.  Yum.