by Laura Golden Bellotti
1. Fire Balls
Popping a Fire Ball in your mouth was proof you were tough enough to stand the pain, to scorch your mouth without flinching. Hotter than cinnamon Red Hots, Fire Balls were dangerous candy. Bleeker bought them for me in sixth grade during lunch. He had faked a lunch pass to leave school and bought them at the candy store a few blocks away. So he not only risked getting caught for pulling off the lunch pass scheme, but for bringing the contraband candy onto the playground. And I risked sucking it. They were so huge you couldn’t just quickly suck and swallow—the suck took forever. I didn’t really like Bleeker that much—his white-blonde hair was too pale and his teeth too buck—but his nerve impressed me. And while it would be decades before I understood the layers of metaphor inherent in his gift of fiery sugar, I knew enough to appreciate the suck.
2. Spearmint Thin
Our routine was Eddie’s design, not mine: weekends we’d go to Goody-Goody’s for dinner, then drive up to Mulholland and make out until almost ten when I had to be home. Goody-Goody’s was a drive-in coffee shop where the waitresses came to your car and clipped those heavy metal trays to the car window with your order. Eddie always ordered a cheeseburger, fries, milkshake, and the special Goody-Goody “the works” dessert—a thick slice of angel food cake, two scoops of vanilla ice cream, and oozing hot fudge poured over the whole thing. I always had a grilled cheese, fries, and a shake. After we ate and Eddie paid for our food, he would take out a stick of Wrigley’s spearmint gum and fold it into his mouth. When he chewed, it made his lips look even thinner, and they were too thin already. I hated that gum. I tasted it when we made out, and it wasn’t so much the dying mint flavor as the reminder of his too thin lips and his tight anxious routine. He suffered when I went away to college, tried to talk me into a campus closer to home. But I couldn’t wait to get away from everything familiar, including those tentative spearmint lips.
3. Thousand Island
I begged him. Please let me go with you this time. Paul didn’t like to be held back by a girl when he hitchhiked. You’d cramp my style, he’d say. I’d have to worry about you all the time. Besides, hitchhiking is an art. You have to chat up your rides, make them feel comfortable so they don’t think you’re some ax murderer or something. But he finally gave in when he realized I’d be an asset. I had an innocent look that would attract rides—we’d come across as two clean-cut college kids trying to make it back home to see our folks. Which was not what we were doing at all, though the college kid part was true. Paul’s objective was to drive through every single state so he could scratch the U.S. off his to-do list. He’d already traveled through India, Nepal, Pakistan, Morocco, Brazil, and other exotic places, and the states were just a mundane continent he had to get out of the way. Our trip would be to Daytona Beach, so he could hit a bunch of southern states and we could say we’d done the spring fling thing, although we’d only be there one night and then have to turn around and come back to California.
On the road I had to abide by his rules and there was one unbreakable one when it came to food: Breakfast, lunch, or dinner, I was to order only coffee and French fries, and ask the waitress to bring Thousand Island dressing for the fries. The point was: cost-effectiveness. Fries and Thousand Island fill you up. The perfect meal, Paul said. He was so cheap. His dad was an oil exec, and I knew he could have afforded a burger now and then. But I ate the fries with Thousand Island, grateful for the chance to see the world—or at least Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida from the back seat of a car. I wondered if the Nepalese version of fries and gloppy dressing would still make me crave a more generous boyfriend.
He cut a stunning figure sauntering across campus. Smoky olive skin, sleek black hair, and a lean, fit body set off by his elegant European clothes. For weeks we exchanged “the look” whenever we walked past each other: I see into you, you tempt me. He made his move at the Telegraph Avenue coffee house I frequented every night with my sister. May I buy you beautiful ladies a coffee? My sister rolled her eyes, I looked into his and nodded yes—to the coffee and anything else he might offer. He was from Saudi Arabia, here on a student visa getting his engineering degree. I loved the sound of the words: Saudi Arabia. On our first date he took me to the city to one of San Francisco’s most posh restaurants. At nineteen, I had never had Middle Eastern food: couscous with slivered almonds and currants, succulent leg of lamb, sesame seed flat bread fresh from the oven. Dessert was the strangest: a confection of meringue, pistachio nuts, and rosewater. Is it really made from roses? I asked Malik. Instead of answering he put his arm around me and gave a slight squeeze to my shoulder. It was our first moment of touch. I loved his long dark fingers and his finesse. His look: you are sweet; naïve but sweet and lovely.
Our first and only night together was rosewater sweet. As it happened, however, the day following our night in the city the Middle East erupted in what would later be referred to as the Six-Day War. When my sister and I entered the coffee house, a group of Arab students, including Malik, were sitting together at a table in the corner. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t come over to our table, why his eyes avoided mine. Don’t you get it, my sister said, you were just his Jewish conquest.
I confess to political and culinary naiveté. But I had tasted rosewater with an open heart.
5. Artichokes & Crème de Cassis
It was my first job out of college. In that time before the full flowering of women’s opportunities, I had grabbed mine. I was doing interesting work and my boss was a man who respected my intelligence and creative bent. I had my share of self-doubt, but Stewart bolstered my confidence. You’ll be fine. You can handle it. You’re smart. He was fatherly but respectful, like a coach with his Olympic athlete.
Our ten-year age difference seemed vast to me, not to him. It was lunch—our daily lunches at the small French restaurant across the street from our office—that bridged the gap. I don’t know how we happened to choose the same menu item the first time we had lunch together, but it was what we both wanted: artichoke vinaigrette. Nothing else; the huge flowery plant was our whole meal. Growing up in California I knew artichokes. My mom served them with melted butter or mayonnaise. Dipping and eating them leaf by leaf, scraping off the delicate green flesh with your bottom teeth: it was a unique mealtime experience. Not remotely related to “eating your vegetables.” Stewart introduced me to the aperitif we always had with our artichoke lunch. You’ll like it. It’s sweet but not too sweet. Crème de Cassis, made from crushed blackcurrants and poured over ice.
A slight buzz at the end of the meal made the afternoon’s work more agreeable—and my attraction to Stewart unavoidable. I couldn’t help it. I knew he was married with two little kids, but I somehow pushed them and their mother out of sight. Stewart was handsome and suave, sharp and funny, but I don’t think I realized then what I found most attractive: he was doing with me what my father was doing with countless women. Cheating. I was outrageously angry at my father. After twenty-seven years of marriage to my mother, who adored him, he left her—probably because he hadn’t had his fill of bad girls before he married my good girl mom. I was filled with rage, and Mr. Crème de Cassis allowed me to engage in an unconscious dance: I’ll let you fall for me and cheat on your wife, and then I’ll get back at you and my father: I’ll leave you, hurt you. Which is not to say I hadn’t fallen hard for Stewart: I still can’t eat an artichoke without a glass of blackcurrants, crushed and liquefied.
6. Refried Beans
Singers, guitar players, piano players—all they had to do was play or sing passionately well, and I was in love. Looks, formal education, kindness: not necessary if the music rang true. I had this notion that the guy was his music. Soulful music equaled soulful guy. If he was socially awkward or insensitive or dismissive of me, I chalked it up to artistic temperament. Musical output was what counted and just being around an accomplished musician fulfilled a deep yearning. Of course what I didn’t get until my late twenties, when I started writing songs and performing, was that my boyfriend musicians were stand-ins for me. I wanted what they had and rather than work to get there, I hung around them hoping I’d receive creative gratification by osmosis.
Jess was a mandolin player, a messenger of the angelic strings. Bluegrass, jazz, old-timey—his fingers flew in service of the holy tones only a mandolin can deliver. I was mad for that mandolin. Jess? He had zero personality, pasty skin, and a number of unmentionable bad hygiene quirks. But, oh, that mandolin. And in addition to bringing me to the gates of mandolin heaven, Jess enlightened me on the simple beauty of a food I had only eaten occasionally in Mexican restaurants: refried beans. At that time this unpretentious staple was not as ubiquitous on gringo supermarket shelves as it is today. I had never heard of eating refried beans unless they appeared on your plate at El Cholo or on Olvera Street alongside cheesy enchiladas and Spanish rice. And I should mention that Jess was Jewish, not Mexican. They’re tasty and easy, he said, bringing our dinner to a simmer and slitting open the package of tortillas with his teeth. I had always loved beans of any kind: lima, baked, garbanzo. And refried? Who would have thought you could eat them in the privacy of your own home. I didn’t stick with Jess that long. But he played a mean mandolin on my first demo. It still rocks.
7. French Roast
Russ was more like a girlfriend than a boyfriend. We could talk about anything. He was a good listener when I had a problem and knew when not to give advice. He also loved gossiping about which local politician or professor had skeletons in his closet. He was brilliant and inspiring, joyful and socially conscious. He volunteered at a shelter on skid row. Read Roland Barthes, Gore Vidal, Germaine Greer. Introduced me to Japanese erotic art and Raymond Chandler novels. His most lasting influence: he taught me how to brew the perfect cup of coffee.
I was almost thirty before I became a coffee lover. As a kid, the few times I took sips of my parents’ Yuban I thought coffee tasted like dishwater. And on my nightly ventures to the Berkeley coffee house where I’d met the Saudi Arabian, I ordered Café Mocha with whipped cream—the chocolate and cream obliterating the taste of coffee. But now I wanted to learn to make coffee like Russ, whose brew ushered in a beloved habit I never wanted to break. You start with quality beans, he said, dark, greasy, aromatic. Use a good machine to grind them, don’t go cheap. Scoop enough coffee into the cone filter of your Melitta to create full-bodied strength. Boil a kettle of water. And then the step most people ignore: at first, pour only enough water to dampen the ground coffee. Then pour the boiling water little by little until the pot fills. Don’t overwhelm the ground beans; let it take its time. He was right. The richest things in life can take time. Russ and I gave our friendship time to percolate into something more. We kissed and fooled around a little, but we both had to finally face the fact that Russ was gay. He eventually found love with the proper gender, and I found bliss in a cup.
8. Sunflower Seeds
Che Guevara was sitting at a table near the tiny stage where I sang. A Sephardic Jewish Che in a denim shirt. I finished my set and walked to the bar where a scarlet drink awaited me. Compliments of the hunk with the mustache, Ellie said. I took a sip of cranberry juice, no vodka, then walked over to thank him. You seem like a cranberry girl—sorry, woman. Girl’s okay, I said. I like your songs, they’re enigmatic, he said. Then asked me more questions about myself than any man I’d ever met. When the conversation finally turned to him, I learned he was getting his Ph.D. in philosophy and ran six miles a day.
At thirty-one, I was juggling a so-so day job, the singing gig, and another rocky relationship. Did I need this gentle scholar to complicate my life? Turns out I did. After too many years of flitting from one angst-ridden romance to another (was I still trying to sort out the cheating father legacy?), I needed someone stable and nurturing. A year after the cranberry juice offering we were married. I felt secure and content … or did I? While Jared wrote his dissertation and held down a taxing teaching gig, I wrote songs and held down a taxing magazine job. Jared did most of the cooking: smoothie breakfasts and baked potato-with-everything-on-it dinners. Potato toppings varied from broccoli and cheddar cheese; to spinach and Feta cheese; to broccoli, spinach, parmesan cheese, and sunflower seeds. Then the cheese was eliminated and the sunflower seeds took center stage. They’re full of antioxidants, Jared said, and vitamin E, calcium, iron, zinc. I just want you to be healthy. He worried about my late nights singing at the bar, that I didn’t exercise enough or drink enough wheat grass juice. I worried that, hunk though he was, my passion level was the equivalent of sunflower seeds. After four years of marriage, it was over. We cared deeply for each other, but I needed spice.
Every Friday night I had a date with an older man of few words. What he served up was poetry in a pan: juicy tentacles and rings sautéed in garlic, olive oil and red wine. Chewy, tangy, sensual, every bite forced me to close my eyes and utter a barely audible moan of delight. You like calamari, eh? Joe would ask rhetorically. Joe was the owner and chef (he would call himself a cook) at Little Joe’s, the Columbus Street hangout for locals, students, artists, and financial district types. Friday night was calamari night, and I never missed one. I was on a boyfriend fast after the years of questionable choices and the bittersweet misstep with Jared. So I’d show up at Joe’s and sit at the counter. That way I could watch Joe cook. It was like foreplay. All night long he poured the rich olive oil and handfuls of fresh garlic into huge cast iron pans—usually at least four or five going at once—over a high flame. Every few minutes he’d heft one of the pans into the air so that the ingredients got righteously tossed. Occasionally he’d glance over and shoot me a flirtatious half-smile. But it was his food that seduced. The calamari was accompanied by a mound of the most delectable vegetables humankind has ever produced: pan-scalded cauliflower, zucchini, and Italian broccoli flowers, imbued with enough minced garlic to frighten an entire city of hostile vampires. Dinner was served with a tumbler—not a wineglass—of house red. Walking home in the fog I gave silent thanks to Joe, my Friday night ritual, and the tentacled creatures that had found their way into my body.
10. Easter Pie
Mona Lisa looks good in neon, said the stranger with the licorice eyes. His voice was almost subliminal so I couldn’t tell if it was his or mine. Allison had dragged me to the opening of the Neon Art Museum downtown insisting my boyfriend fast had lasted long enough and it was time to put myself out there. For art’s sake, I said. I turned to the dark-eyed Mona-lover. She glows like no one else, I said. What did you think of the neon cherry pie? he asked. He was still looking at Mona, but shot furtive glances at me with those dreamy eyes. I loved it, I said, especially the swirly-lit cherries. Do you like sweets? he asked.
The following Sunday he picked me up in his vintage turquoise Chevy Bel Air and we drove to east L.A. to sample Mexican pastries. Daniel isn’t Mexican—his grandparents emigrated from the knee section of the Italian boot—but he wanted to show me the bakeries on Cesar Chavez Boulevard. So he gallantly opened the door to a new sugar experience: You walk in, grab a metal tray and some tongs, then fill it up with whatever appeals to you from an array of pan dulce, Mexican sweet breads in all shapes and fillings: sugar sprinkled, sea shell-shaped conchas; sugar-topped croissant-shaped cuernos de azucar; pan de huevo—sweet egg bread rolls with sugar topping; jelly-filled empanadas. We bought some cinnamon-laced Mexican coffee to go with our sweets and stuffed our faces outside the El Gallo Bakery. You’ve got some sugary lips there, sweetheart, he said. I liked the Bogart voice in his “sweetheart.” I liked him. Maybe too much … too soon?
A few days later he invited me to his place to watch “David and Lisa,” an old film I had loved as a romantic teenager. When he’d asked about favorite films, I had mentioned this one and he had rented it for us to watch together. I wasn’t sure if I’d still feel the same about the characters or be embarrassed to feel an affinity for a film about two teens who fall in love in a mental institution. What I had loved was that the girl only spoke in rhyme. And the boy, averse to touch, finally allows her to get close. Maybe this film was too weird for a second date?
After midnight, in the middle of the film, Daniel asked me to put it on pause for a few minutes. He got up, went into the kitchen and started whisking and mixing. Was he bored with the film? With me? He slid something into the oven and came back to the couch. Kissed me, not for the first time. I could barely focus on the rest of the movie with Daniel’s kiss still on my lips, but we watched it as the oven did its thing and a buttery-cinnamon-vanilla scent wafted in from the kitchen. Look at me, look at me, what do you see, what do you see? Lisa asked. I see a girl, a pearl of a girl, David said, honoring Lisa’s rhyming obsession. She’s his neon Mona Lisa, Daniel said. Don’t move, I’ll be right back.
He brought in a spice-fragrant pie topped with pastel-colored sugar sprinkles. What kind of pie? I asked. Easter Pie. My version of an Italian tradition. He cut us each a slice. Creamy ricotta cheese, tangy pineapple bits, soft white rice, cinnamon, vanilla, and another flavor I couldn’t identify. It tastes like licorice, I said. It’s anisette, he said. I bit into the crust: buttery-sweet and peppery-hot. What’s giving it that kick? I asked. White pepper. You like it? Oh yeah.
Easter Pie: hot and sweet, inspired and provocative. What more could I want than a lifetime of fiery sugar?