When Research Is a Pleasure, Part 5

July 22nd, 2014 by

me sampling leaf

Next up on my east coast research itinerary (see blog posts Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4) was the mother of all farm-to-table experiences: a day and night at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, NY. What was once the estate and dairy farm of the Rockefellers is now a breathtaking 80-acre compound of pastures, animals, greenhouses, fields of crops and Dan Barber’s famed Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant, along with a busy farm market, cafe, gift shop, classroom and visitor’s center, set in meticulously restored buildings from the original Rockefeller farm. Some view Stone Barns as the “Disneyland” of the all things local and sustainable, but I totally drank the Kool-Aid and found the place satisfying on every level, if a bit over the top. The mission of the non-profit Stone Barns is to “increase public awareness of healthy, seasonal and sustainable food, train farmers in resilient, restorative farming techniques and educate children about the sources of their food and prepare them to steward the land that provides it.” It does accomplish all those things from what I could see.

The photo above is of me sampling a tasty morsel (I think it was purslane or maybe an amaranth leaf?) we happened upon during our first activity of the day, which was called “Foraged: A Wild Edibles Walk and Taste.” It was a tour through the often dense woods (I was glad I wore long pants, socks and covered shoes fearing poison ivy, not to mention deer ticks) given by Laura Perkins, the gardener at Stone Barns. The point of all this foraging was to learn about the plants we often dismiss as weeds or exotics, how to spot them where we’d least expect them and how to use them in the kitchen for delicious foods. I feared we’d be eating poison mushrooms (along with the poison ivy), but instead we discovered all sorts of treasures.

Laura leads foraging w me 2

Here, for example, are wild blueberries.

blueberries closeup 2

We foraged for almost two hours, discovering a long list of wild edibles. (Lamb’s shoulders anyone? Or milkweed? Or perhaps elderberries?) At the end of the tour, Laura took us into the classroom where we were served a delicious soup made from amaranth leaves.

amaranth soup closeup

Ok, so it doesn’t look all that great from the photo, but trust me. It was like the best spinach or kale soup, flavored by chicken broth, eggs and sauteed onions.

But there were no second helpings for us because we were on to the second tour of the day: the “Insiders Tour,” during which our knowledgeable tour guide, Barbara, provided us with an up-close-and-personal, two-hour hike through the pastures, fields, barns and everything else that makes the place work.

For example, we learned about the history of the 1930s-era buildings.

buildings tight 2

Here’s another look.

fields w buildings

We met up with a group of very lively (they were pecking at us) laying hens.

hens 2

We hung out with the meat chickens.

me with red chicken

The baby chicks were so cute I didn’t even want to think about having them for dinner when they were older. *shudder*

baby chicks

The turkeys had no idea how many Thanksgivings they’d be attending.


And there were the snoozing pigs. Pork tenderloin? Bacon?

pig snoozing 2

No farm would be complete without sheep and these were happily grazing.

sheep grazing

As the skies darkened with rain threatening, we all headed inside where it was time for Michael and me to change into our fancy clothes to dine at Blue Hill. I’d been reading all the raves about Chef Dan Barber’s restaurant both at Stone Barns and at his original Greenwich Village location, along with the reviews of his new book.

Food Dan Barber

So I was primed for a unique experience at dinner. What I didn’t expect was just how unique it was. (No pics coming of the meal, because they frown on it and with good reason.)

We were seated and given little booklets by our waiter, who explained that the booklets contained a month by month journal of the seasonal foods that were being harvested and that our meal, which was to be served in multiple courses, some to be eaten without utensils, would arrive together and separately – a “tasting menu called Grazing, Rooting and Pecking,” he said and added, “It will give you a full look at the season showing you everything the chefs are working on. We’re going to bring multiple dishes together at the same time and sometimes we’ll ask you to use your hands to eat them. It’s a little unconventional in some ways but it’s fun and interesting. So use your hands to start and we’ll bring silverware in a bit.”

All righty then. We strapped ourselves in and prepared for the ride.

What came next was a parade of treats for the eyes and the palate. First was what I think of as salad ingredients on vertical skewers – single items (a cherry tomato, a white radish, a bibb lettuce leaf, etc.) each dressed with some light, citrus-y vinaigrette and served on a piece of hollowed out tree bark. Gimmicky, you say? Maybe so, but every bite was an explosion of flavor from veggies that didn’t taste like anything you’d buy in a store.

I can’t remember every course, but there was a cucumber gazpacho in a martini glass, a milkweed “soda” amuse-bouche in a shot glass, tiny pea burgers, quinoa coated Vichyssoise (our favorite by far, as unlikely as it sounds), elderberries in a tempora batter, egg “carbonara,” sous-vide prepared chicken, sliced goat tenderloin and lots of sweets for dessert. Oh, and I forgot the beyond-delicious bread that came with the beyond-delicious farmer’s cheese and butter. We were stuffed, obviously.

The best part of the meal for me was when the waiter said, mid-way through, “Would you both come with me for a few minutes.” Michael and I had no idea what was going on, but we put our napkins on the table, got up and followed him – into the kitchen, it turned out. We were guided to a small butcher block table for two in the corner of the busy hub where we sat, were served another course, and got to watch the 30+ chefs doing their thing. Fascinating! It was like being on the set of an episode of “Iron Chef” only without the competition. I don’t know if every guest of the restaurant is granted a peek inside the kitchen or if it was because I went through the PR director to make my reservation, citing research for my novel, but I was grateful for it.

The point of the dinner was to experience the creative ways to incorporate what we saw on the farm into food that can soar if in the right hands. Dan Farber’s hands are the right hands. Wow. Just wow.


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When Research Is a Pleasure, Part 4

July 21st, 2014 by

Michael, Jane, Kim

Yup, I’m the one in the middle and I’m wearing a chef’s hat and apron, as is Michael along with Kimberly Thorn, the co-owner with her husband Clint of Thorncrest Farm in Goshen, CT.

Thorncrest barn ext

Thorncrest was the next stop on my research adventure (see blog posts Parts 1, 2 and 3) to put myself into the farm-to-table “agri-tourism” world my characters will encounter. Our agenda for the bright and sunny morning was to begin in the barn with Clint and learn about his dairy cows.

Clint milking by pump smile

Unlike Arethusa Dairy with its state-of-the-art facility, Thorncrest is a two-person operation (plus Clint and Kim’s two sons) and no less engaging in its own way. Clint and Kim are all about the milk, of which they’re justifiably proud, but also about the cheese and chocolates Kim makes like a true artisan. Everything tasted pure and fresh and like nothing I’d ever experienced before. It all comes from the cows and, Clint was emphatic in noting, the fact that they’re cared for in a stress-free environment because stress affects the quality of the milk. Check out these Jerseys cows. Don’t they look relaxed?

Jerseys relaxing

After Clint gave us all a little history of the farm, we got down to business: I milked my first cow! It was fun! And I was thrilled when milk actually came out!

me milking closeup

After we all had our chance to milk, Clint took over and pumped out the necessary quota for the day. The milk was then transferred into the dairy area where Kim met us and gave us the hats and aprons to put on. Then into her kitchen we went and it was time to learn how to make cheese. She gave us step-by-step instructions in making both ricotta and mozzarella. Here she is taking the temperature of the hot milk I was stirring.

me w kim checking my milk

It was exciting when it reached the proper temperature and the curds were very much in evidence.

milk with curds and thermometer

My ricotta came out great and we took home several containers. Yum.

Next came the mozzarella, which involved stretching it to get the lumps out.

me stretching email

Once it’s shiny and smooth, it goes back into a ball and is ready to sample. Yum again. We took home several containers of it too, along with the samples of the chocolates Kim had just made.

chocolates tray

Seriously, maybe I’ll forget about writing novels and just research them. Could there be anything more fun?

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When Research Is a Pleasure, Part 3

July 18th, 2014 by

me mixing pesto zucchini

Continuing in my series of blog posts about my research (see Part 1 and Part 2), the above photo is of me mixing homemade pesto with just grilled zucchini that came right off the farm for what turned out to be a fun and informative cooking class at Jones Family Farm in Shelton, CT.

barn w logo

Jones Farm was on my “agritourism” itinerary this month because this picturesque farm, which has been in the Jones family for generations, not only provides the community with bountiful crops in the summer, pumpkins in the fall and Christmas trees in the winter but also offers weekly cooking classes and wine tastings. Check it out here.

We showed up on what promised to be a stormy Wednesday night for our cooking class but the skies stayed lightning and rain free until it was time to leave. Whew. Our first task was to get out into the pasture and see what looked dinner worthy.

me on field tour

(Yes, I’m the one who’s dressed all in black on a hot summer’s night. Crazy, but I’m always cold, what can I say.)

We came back inside the kitchen and, lead by Jean Jones, a member of the farm family and registered dietician, and Sherry Swanson, a chef in and around CT, we were split off into groups, each assigned a different preparation of the meal, which consisted of roasted herbed chicken for the main course and a blueberry and strawberry cobbler for dessert, plus a glass of Jones’ own wine. For the side dishes, we made…

…a bulgur wheat cabbage salad with blueberries

bulgar cabbage salad

…a kale salad with goat cheese, tomatoes and a strawberry vinaigrette.

kale salad

… and grilled zucchini with the pesto I mixed.

zucchini grill 2

When it was all done, the 12 of us sat down and enjoyed the fruits of our labors. It was fun getting to know the other guests who’d signed up for the class as well as the instructors and learning more about life on a working farm. Just as we were tasting our last bites of food, the thunder came and we took that as our cue to run for our car. The drive back to our rental house was precarious in the heavy rain (we got lost a couple of times), but it was worth it. A good time was had by us and I took copious notes for my novel, which was, after all, the point.


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When Research Is a Pleasure, Part 2

July 9th, 2014 by

me with cow 2

In a previous post, I wrote about how my research for a new novel took me to the wonderful markets of Santa Barbara and into the kitchen of a talented chef to learn how to cook the foods we purchased. On Monday, during what was the first in a series of visits I’ll be making to local farms and chef’s kitchens here in Connecticut where I’m spending the month of July, I got the grand tour of Arethusa Dairy Farm, the premier maker in the area of milk, yogurt, cheese and, most scrumptious of all, ice cream.

The “dairy built on stiletto heels,” as the New York Times dubbed Arethusa, it’s the brainchild of George Malkemus and Anthony Yurgaitis, who gave the world Manolo Blahnik shoes. Set in the Litchfield hills, it’s as picture perfect as its dairy products are the best you’ll ever taste.


My tour guide was Matt Senecal, the farm manager. Matt escorted me into the building’s reception area where there’s a bar, a conference table and a bazillion trophies and banners won at prestigious shows by Arethusa’s cows.

Award ribbons

Next we went into the main barn where the cows were feeding between milkings. There are Holsteins, Jerseys and Brown Swiss breeds, with the black-and-white Holsteins being the predominant breed. I tried to strike up a conversation with a few, but they were more interested in eating lunch and who could blame them?

me with cow

Get a look at this Holstein’s udder and teats.


What’s striking about these cows as well as the facility itself was how spotless it is. The cows are not only shampooed daily but conditioned with Pantene (seriously), and their tails are hosed down frequently to prevent manure from coming anywhere near the udder. Hence, the purity of the milk products. There’s even a guy who comes to give the cows a pedicure. Well, he cuts their toenails.


The show cows get their very own barn so they’re kept separately from the others; apparently, their special barn is closer to the exercise area where they’re encouraged to stay fit. (No, they don’t do Pilates.) And the pregnant ladies have their own space so they can spread out in comfort until they deliver.

Pregnant cow

After asking all my questions about the cows and the milking process – questions I should have asked our science teacher in junior high – Matt sent us on to the Arethusa creamery where the milk, yogurt, cheese and ice cream are processed with state-of-the-art machines that nonetheless produce old fashioned flavor.

Dairy processing

I interviewed Chris Casiello, the manager, about how the milk gets processed and distributed and how he accomplishes the feat of making such intensely satisfying products. The cheese and ice cream are so rich and creamy they defy description. And yes, I sampled some products. Their “crybaby” cheese, for example, was a Swiss variety with a touch of sweetness – heaven.

I loved spending part of the day at Arethusa and conjuring up ways to use what I learned in the plot of my novel. But what I’ll love the best is dining at their restaurant Al Tavolo, which is adjacent to the creamery and serves up truly great dinners.


Al Tavolo

We have a reservation for next week and I’m already fantasizing about their salmon.

Photo: Julie Bidwell/Connecticut Magazine

Photo: Julie Bidwell/Connecticut Magazine

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Behind the Scenes at Blue Tavern, My Favorite Restaurant in Santa Barbara

June 19th, 2014 by
Photo: Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk

Photo: Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk

I’m always excited when a new restaurant opens in our little town, particularly if it comes with a pedigree, and Blue Tavern had a pedigree. It’s chef/owner, three-time James Beard Award nominee Ricardo Zarate, is the brains and talent behind such LA success stories as Mo-Chica, Picca and Paiche – red hot restaurants reflecting Zarate’s Peruvian roots combined with a California fresh-ingredients-are-everything sensibility (“Cali-Peruvian cuisine,” he calls it). So it was with great anticipation that I went to the 88-seat Blue Tavern on Lower State Street in the Indigo Hotel for the first time. I was blown away, not only by the flavors of each dish but by the quality of each one. There wasn’t a dud in the bunch and we ordered a lot of dishes, since many are designed for sharing.

Now Michael and I find ourselves going back to BT, as we refer to it, again and again. Every time we have the conversation with each other or with friends and ask the eternal question, “Where should we go to eat?” we end up back there. Not only does the staff treat everybody like family, but the food is just so damn good.

So it was only natural that as I continued to research cooking classes for a novel in progress (see my recent post), I’d want to see how BT’s current executive chef, Alex Carrasco, prepared the dishes Michael and I drool over. I approached Eric Terry, BT’s general manager, who is never without his big smile and gracious demeanor even when the restaurant is packed. Originally from France, Eric came to the US as a young man and worked in many of LA’s best known establishments before hooking up with Zarate and managing his Marina Del Rey outpost, Paiche.

“Do you think I could come in and observe Chef Alex making my favorite dishes?” I asked and explained about my book.

“Of course,” he said without hesitation. “He’ll show you how to cook them so you can make them at home.”

Talk about an offer I couldn’t refuse. I was afraid they wouldn’t want some nosy customer hanging around, not to mention share their secret recipes, but that wasn’t the case.

Michael and I went there this afternoon when the place wasn’t slammed and spent well over an hour with Chef Alex in the kitchen, which he keeps absolutely spotless. You could eat off the floor, as my mother would say.


Chef Alex, who hails from Mexico and is only 28, oversees his staff but also does the cooking – i.e. he doesn’t just stand around giving orders or waiting for his own TV show on the Food Network, although he could certainly host one; he’s that chatty and personable.

Chef Alex and me

And he was serious about showing us how to cook our favorite dishes at home. “Don’t you want to take off that white jacket?” he asked me, nodding at the blazer I was wearing over my black top. “You might get splattered.” Yup, he meant business.

I took off the jacket, washed my hands as he instructed me, and saddled up next to him over the stove. First up was the entree I dream about: pan fried branzino with roasted vegetables and huacatay jalapeno sauce (I have no idea what huacatay is but it’s good, trust me). Also on the To-Do list was Michael’s favorite dish: home made papardelle, beef filet, tomato onion stew and Reggiano cheese, which is like a Peruvian version of beef bourguignon only way better.

Chef Alex took two nice-size branzino filets and sprinkled both sides with salt and pepper.

branzino salt and pepper

Into a couple of hot cast iron pans the fish went, skin sides down. They sizzled in the hot oil, a mix of canola and olive. When they were 75% cooked – Chef Alex showed me how to press on them to feel for doneness as well as to watch for the change in their color – we removed the pans from the heat and sauteed the roasted vegetables until they browned nicely. Then came the plating, where presentation matters. Chef Alex drizzled his special green sauce on the side, placed the veggies – cauliflower, zucchini, baby carrots and tomato wedges – in the middle and then rested the fish on top with a bit of salt topped with greens. The result? Behold.

branzino plated 2

What’s so delicious about the dish is that the fish is moist, tender and sweet inside while the skin is so crispy good you could eat a whole meal of it. Simple preparation using fresh ingredients equals powerful flavors.

The papardelle began with a quick browning of sirloin cubes in a very hot pan and their removal from the stove, then a saute of red onions and tomatoes.

papperadelle tomatoes and onions sautee

There’s nothing more fun than watching professional chefs shake their pans and flip the food around. I’ve tried that at home and the food inevitably ends up on the floor. LOL.

Into the hot pan went chicken stock, soy sauce, another of Chef Alex’s special sauces and Parmesan cheese until the whole thing got rich and creamy.

papparadelle tomatoes & onions in stock

Back into the pan went the sirloin just to heat, then the papardelle pasta, which was hand made and only took a few minutes to cook in nearby boiling water. Into a bowl it all went along with a dusting of cheese. Michael couldn’t wait to dig in. The melding of flavors and textures is to die for.

papperadelle plated

Did I mention that BT also has a pizza oven and turns out incredible pizzas?

pizza oven 2

We sat down with Chef Alex and General Manager Eric and talked for awhile until customers started piling into the restaurant. And yes, we ate every morsel of “our” creations. What a perfect afternoon. I’d do this kind of book research any day. If only writing the actual book were so pleasurable. Sigh.


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Movie Day: “The Signal”

June 7th, 2014 by


Today’s Cinema Society screening was….how can I put this delicately……an exercise in boredom. Admittedly, I was not the audience for it. I’m not into science fiction, nor do I have a huge connection to stories about college kids who grunt instead of talk but are really good with their computers (e.g. techies). And movies in which things explode a lot make my eyeballs bleed. I like narratives, and “The Signal” doesn’t have much of one. What it has is a young director, William Eubank, whose second feature film this is, and the “cool” factor of having premiered at Sundance in February. Herewith from the film’s publicity materials:

Three college students on a road trip across the Southwest experience a detour: the tracking of a computer genius who has already hacked into MIT and exposed security faults. The trio find themselves drawn to an eerily isolated area. Suddenly everything goes dark. When one of the students, Nic (Brenton Thwaites of “The Giver” and “Maleficent”), regains consciousness, he is in a waking nightmare.

Suffice it to say, our hero has a journey involving aliens and weird looking people and mysterious questions posed by Laurence Fishburne as the torturer in chief. I kept wondering if Fishburne has big alimony payments that forced him to take this role or if it’s just tough for actors to find work at his age.

I think the less I say about my lost afternoon in the theater the better, except that I wish I had those two hours back.

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Movie Day: “Words and Pictures”

June 1st, 2014 by

Words and Pictures poster

Today’s Cinema Society screening was a grownup movie. It’s about art – what a concept – and stars two of my favorite actors, Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen, neither of whom are capable of giving a bad performance.

A witty, wordy drama/comedy, “Words and Pictures” is set at a New England prep school where Clive Owen’s Jack Marcus is the honors English teacher and Juliette Binoche’s Dina Delsanto is the new art teacher. He used to be somebody – a published author/poet who once taught on the college level. But a bad “hobby” (his word) of guzzling too much vodka has derailed his career and his relationship with his son, not to mention alienated most of the other teachers and the school’s dean. Binoche’s Dina was a celebrated abstract painter who was brought low by rheumatoid arthritis, which has crippled her ability to move freely and have a normal life. The two characters clash, initially over his insistence that words are more meaningful than images and her assertion that a picture is worth a thousand words. Little by little, their sexual chemistry takes over and life becomes even more complicated for them.

It was a pleasure to see a film that celebrated language, and Owen’s character, a garrulous fellow, quotes some truly beautiful literature. And Binoche, it turns out, painted all the art we see in the movie; she’s been an artist since she was young and has had gallery showings in France.

The film’s writer, Gerald DiPego, does a nice job of bringing his lovers together, although the plot and its conclusion are as predictable as it gets. He came for the Q&A after the screening and I introduced myself because I worked at Dell when we published his first novel back in the ’70s. Having written screenplays for big studio movies over the years, he said he was thrilled to have gone the indie route with this new one. Nobody made me him rewrite – a rarity in Hollywood.

Overall, I recommend “Words and Pictures.” It’s charming, if predictable, as I said, and well worth a couple of hours.


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When Research Is a Pleasure

May 26th, 2014 by

Galette out of the oven

See that dessert? It’s a Peach Galette, a “galette” being similar to a French fruit tart in that it’s made with puff pastry and, in this case, filled with sliced peaches that have carmelized in the oven, but it’s less structured than a tart, more homey and rustic in a simple country way – and it’s probably one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten, especially because it was served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

The galette was the crowning menu item of my full day of researching cooking classes for a new novel I’m writing – not a bad job, right? Over the years I’ve had a lot of fun doing research for my novels. I’ve taken a Caribbean cruise (Princess Charming), had my aura cleansed in Sedona, AZ (Crystal Clear) and observed preschoolers in a classroom (Name Dropping), among other immersions, but learning about food and how to buy and cook it might be the most pleasurable yet, judging by this weekend’s outing.

I spent Saturday with a professional French cook named Laurence Hauben, whose brainchild is Market Forays, which she defines as “cooking classes and culinary adventures.” She takes groups on a full-day tour, not only of the bounty that can be found in Santa Barbara but of the food that can be prepared simply and elegantly in her home kitchen.

We began at 8am at the Santa Barbara harbor where local fishermen just off their boats sell their wares.

harbor and fish

Those are copper rockfish and we bought a whole one as well as two huge rock crabs.

harbor crab 2

Then it was on to the Farmer’s Market, an institution here in town that I only infrequently avail myself of (lazy! lazy!). Talk about a gorgeous array of straight-from-the-farm produce! Here’s a tiny sample of what we saw, smelled, touched and purchased for our meal.

Lettuces for our Salade de Mesclun aux Fraises Strawberry Merlot Vinaigrette…

farmers market lettuces

Fresh strawberries for the aforementioned salad….

farmers market strawberries

Cling peaches for the galette….

farmers market peaches

Next up was a short walk to C’est Cheese, another local institution, where the finest cheeses are sampled and sold – just a gorgeous store that now has a cafe next door.

Cest Cheese counter

We selected three cheeses for our Artisan Cheese Course with homemade preserves, a course that would come after the entree and before the galette. (I’m still full as I write this.)

And finally our group drove to Laurence’s charming home in the San Roque neighborhood of Santa Barbara – a 1940s cottage-style house decorated with antiques and family treasures (like her late husband’s Academy Award statuette for Best Screenplay for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”). The first thing we did upon arrival was put on the white aprons she gave us. Then we spread out our purchases and drew up a “mis-en-place,” as in putting everything in its place to prioritize what needed to be cooked when.

The crab was alive – and kicking! – so it had to go into the pot first. Laurence showed us how to hold it by the legs so as not to lose a finger.:)

Laurence dropping crab into pot

Once the crab was steamed, the galette needed to get into the oven, so Laurence showed us how to roll out the pastry dough, slice the peaches, line them up on the sheet pan and sprinkle them with sugar.

sugar on peaches

The dough was trimmed, its sides crimped, and the pan was popped into the oven and baked. After that, another sheet pan was used to roast the vegetables we bought (asparagus, green beans, cherry tomatoes).

The big project was the fish. It was whole, as I said, so Laurence showed us how to make slits in it, stuff it with herb butter, shallots and other goodies and roast it on another sheet pan.

stuffing fish

It came out of the oven looking like this, and the aroma was to die for.

fish oven 2

While the fish and veggies were roasting, we sat at Laurence’s table and enjoyed the crab first course with a chilled rose wine and a crusty baguette with herb butter.

Laurence dining room 2

crab on plate

The crab was snowy white and so fresh and sweet it needed no accompaniment.

Next came the salad with the beautiful greens and strawberries we’d bought, tossed in Laurence’s superb strawberry vinaigrette. The roasted fish was extraordinary; there’s such a difference between eating it in a restaurant and cooking it just off the boat. Did we need a cheese course after all that? Of course not, but it was sheer bliss with Laurence’s homemade pear and fig preserves. Did I mention that there was more wine with these courses? A white and a red?

The galette was so good I’m going to try to make one of my own – and I don’t even like peaches! It was that good.

By 4:30 we were more than satiated and said goodbye and thank you to our host.

Jane, Laurence, Michael

She was a delight – so warm and welcoming. Not only did she give everybody a first-class course in cooking and prepping (lots of hands on instruction in knife work, mincing herbs and such, making pastry dough, de-boning a fish, hacking hard crab shells), but she explained that cooking should be about hospitality above all, not ego or competition. If you’re ever in Santa Barbara, I encourage you to sign up for one of her Market Forays. It’s an experience to savor, research or not.


Mad Men Finale Part 1

May 26th, 2014 by
Photo: Frank Ockenfels/AMC

Photo: Frank Ockenfels/AMC

I still can’t believe last night’s “Mad Men” finale was all we’ll see until next year. It feels like such a tease to have the last season split into two years’ worth of episodes. But those are the vagaries of television, so we have no choice but to spend a year pondering last night’s show and what it might mean going into the last round of episodes before we say goodbye forever to Don Draper and the gang.

I, for one, think Don’s fortunes are looking up. Megan’s gone? Good riddance. Roger Sterling’s re-energized and re-focused on business? That can only work in Don’s favor. The question is what does Don really want now? Does he even lust for success in the ad business anymore? Judging by the starry look in his eye during his hallucination of Bert Cooper singing and dancing to “The best things in life are free,” it’s hard to tell.

Here’s what The Daily Beast made of last night’s show. Food for thought….

Mad Men’s Game-Changing Midseason Finale, “Waterloo”: One Door Closes, Another Opens
There was plenty of moving and shaking at SC&P during the final episode of the AMC series ’til 2015. [Warning: SPOILERS]
Before we do anything, let’s pour out a glass of Canadian Club for good ol’ Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse). The curmudgeonly co-founder of SC&P is no more.

Though he resembled a spooky plantation owner, with his Colonel Sanders facial hair and seemingly endless array of bowties, Bert was a gentle, eccentric soul whose cunning only bubbled to the surface when the future of the company was at stake. He was the man who, when Pete attempted to blackmail Don about his deserter past, brushed it away like a gnat—only to shove it back in Don’s face to close the Conrad Hilton deal. He was the man who, after Don impulsively wrote the post-Lucky Strike New York Times op-ed “Why I’m Quitting Tobacco,” told the macho ad man what everyone was thinking: “We’ve created a monster.” He was the man who, yes, had his testicles unnecessarily removed.
Bert, you’ll be missed.

Now let’s get down to business. The midseason finale of Mad Men, titled “Waterloo,” opened with Apollo 11 taking off toward the moon. Then we cut to Ted, mid-midlife crisis, who abruptly decides to cut the jets while piloting Sunkist clients over NorCal. Apparently, the marginalized SC&P partner, who’s been operating on an island in Los Angeles, still harbors resentment with the rest of the SC&P gang—Don Draper, in particular—for torpedoing his Ocean Spray deal in favor of an $8 million ad package from Sunkist. Ted wants out of the ad biz.

Things then transition to the women. One of the many fascinating things about the AMC series is the way the plights of Sally and Peggy mirror one another—two fighters who refuse to be restrained by the iniquities of the time. Here, both gals are momentarily sidetracked by a couple of hunks—Sean, an oft-shirtless meathead with a pending scholarship to Rutgers catches Sally’s eye (who begins dressing Valley of the Dolls-y to impress him), while Nick, a sweaty fill-in super, leaves Peggy fumbling for words. But both are set straight by Don. First, he calls out Sally for being “cynical” when she echoes Sean’s critique (“…it cost $25 billion!”) of the moon landing. She sees the error of her ways and plants a kiss on his nerdy, astronomy-obsessed brother, Neil (like Neil Armstrong, duh). Peggy’s intervention comes a bit later.

Don, meanwhile, has apparently hit rock bottom. He receives a letter alleging “breach of contract” over his sabotaging the Commander Cigarettes deal. Don confronts his bespectacled nemesis, Cutler, who issued the letter, and the latter makes clear what we’ve known all along: he hates Don. “You’re just a bully and a drunk,” he says to him. “A football player in a suit.” But Cutler jumped the gun, filing the breach paperwork without the other partners’ knowledge. Don convenes all the partners in the middle of the office to tell them the news, and Roger and Pete won’t have it. Neither will Bert, who was blindsided by the move. Joan, however, votes to oust Don. “I’m tired of him costing me money,” she tells Roger. Grudges don’t vanish easily in the cutthroat world of Mad Men, and Joan still has it out for Don over Jaguar, while Pete still worships him in part due to the time he “fronted” his $50,000 cut to the late Lane Pryce to keep the firm afloat.

And if things weren’t bad enough for Don, after he breaks the “breach” news to Megan, she decides to dump him by phone—while lounging in a bikini sipping white wine. “You don’t owe me anything. Goodbye, Don,” she says, teary-eyed.

Everyone gathers at their respective homes to watch Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon. It’s an interesting about-face since technology, which has long divided the firm (Cutler and the IBM), can also be a force for good, bringing people together. During the moon landing, Roger receives some sad news: Bert Cooper passed away. So, Roger, Joan, and Cutler convene at the agency—Roger to pay his respects at Bert’s office, Joan to draft an obituary, and Cutler to… bury Don once and for all.

“Well, as tragic as this is, I for one am happy that we have a chance to have a conversation with the clients about the future of this company, and to give Don Draper his send-off along with Burt,” says the callous Cutler, adding, “Roger, I know what this company should look like: computer services, media buys pinpointed with surgical accuracy… it’s the agency of the future.” Roger and Joan stare at each other in shock and disbelief, with the latter finally realizing just how heartless and Draper-obsessed Cutler is.

Realizing his days are numbered, Don pays a visit to Peggy’s hotel room the night before the gang’s Burger Chef presentation and tells her she’s going to take the lead. “You must have heard that they’re trying to get me out,” he says. “If I win this business and I go, you’ll be left with nothing… You win this business, and it will be yours.” Don has long served as Peggy’s Virgil, guiding her up the ranks of the patriarchal ad biz and here, when all is lost, the main thing on his mind is securing his mentee’s future, and assuring her that the glass ceiling doesn’t apply to her.

“Well, I can’t just say what you’ve been saying. I’m a woman. I’m the voice of ‘moms,’ remember?” says Peggy.

“I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t know you could,” replies Don.

Taking her inspiration from Don—and poor Julio, her cute 10-year-old apartment-mate who’s leaving town—Peggy exploits the men’s excitement over the moon landing and uses it to her advantage, selling them on the idea that Burger Chef offers a respite from the “chaos” of the news, and dubbing the campaign: “Family Supper at Burger Chef.” She knocks it out of the park.

For weeks, Don has been mobilizing his troops—Harry, Pete, and Peggy—for a fight with Cutler. After all that maneuvering, however, it was sneaky ol’ Roger who saved the day, convincing the McCann Erickson exec he met at the NYAC steam room to purchase the company and insert Rog as el presidente:

“I think you should buy the whole company because I have a vision: all our accounts, our cutting-edge computer, and the employees I know to be worthy as an independent subsidiary of McCann. You just lost Burger Chef, we may win it, and you’d still have it—and I’d still have my company without Jim Cutler and all that baggage from CDC.”

They’ll also have Buick, which means Ted needs to join Team Roger/Don in order for the deal to work. It’s a tough position for Don, since Roger is essentially making him choose between his future and the future of SC&P, and Peggy’s happiness. But Roger convinces Don that Cutler is hell-bent on liquidating the company until there’s nothing left but “Harry and his computer,” so Don makes his final pitch to an over-it Ted:

“I know you. I know the man I walked into Chevy with. You don’t have to work for us, but you have to work. You don’t want to see what happens when it’s really gone.”

Ted takes the leap, and the future of SC&P—and Don Draper—is secure (for now).

“Waterloo” closes with a predictable ode to Robert Morse, the 83-year-old actor who played the late Bert Cooper. Don, exiting the office, hallucinates and sees Bert doing a song-and-dance, flanked by a gaggle of secretaries, to the tune “The Best Things in Life Are Free.”

The moon belongs to everyone

The best things in life they’re free

The stars belong to everyone

They cling there for you and for me

It may seem random, but in addition to the song referencing the moon landing, Roger also called Don earlier in the episode experiencing regret over the fact that the last words he said to Bert were the lines of an old song. The outro was a tribute to Morse, who’s best known as the lead in the Broadway and film versions of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which won him the Tony in 1962, and contains the famous line: “So you are now a vice president… You have done beautifully. Unless you are vice president in charge of advertising. In that case, you are in terrible trouble.”

As for Don Draper, we’ll have to wait ’til 2015 to see if that’s the case. And as for poor Betty, well, she’ll be fine. She speaks Italian.

Posted in Popular culture, Television | 2 Comments »

The Women’s Eye Is Hosting an Event and You’re Invited!

May 21st, 2014 by


I met Pam Burke years ago during my New York publishing days. She co-executive produced NBC’s “Tomorrow” show with Tom Snyder, and as a book publicist I’d pitch her my authors for the show. Later, after I left publishing and before I started writing my own books, she and I worked together on the short-lived “USA Today: The Television Show.” She’s always been a doer and a whip-smart one at that. Her latest media venture is The Women’s Eye, a multifaceted web enterprise that includes radio, feature stories, interviews and just about every sort of news-you-can-use for women.

Now TWE has decided to launch their first-ever “tel-event” or “webinar” (choose your favorite term) on May 29th at 10am PT and I’m their guest speaker.



I’ll be interviewed by TWE’s fabulous Stacey Gualandi….


She’ll ask me questions about caregiving and my survival guide, You’d Better Not Die or I’ll Kill You, and everyone who signs up for this FREE event will be able to ask me questions too. See their invitation page below and please register, share with others, spread the word. I’m really excited about this as soooo many people I know are dealing with a parent or grandparent, sibling, spouse or friend with an illness and they’re feeling overwhelmed. We’ll cover how to be the best patient advocate while still taking care of your own health and sanity. And, as I said, it’s FREE. Not a bad deal at all! Just go to the TWE page and follow the links to register. See you there.

 TWE TelEvent: LIVE Q&A With Jane Heller-Essential Tips for Caregivers

Yes, it’s our FIRST EVENT and we wanted to invite you…
Join us via the Web, your phone, or Skype
10 AM Pacific Time Thursday, May 29th
for a FREE, LIVE Interview and Q&A session with:
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author and long-time caregiver

How to Be the Best Caregiver and Still Take Care of You

TWE Radio host, Stacey Gualandi, will be interviewing Jane, the author of her Caregiver’s Survival Guide, You’d Better Not Die or I’ll Kill You, (what she says to her husband Michael before he goes into surgery). Then we’ll open it up for your questions.

Jane’s written 13 romantic comedies, so you know she’s got a great sense of humor, but she was also catapulted into the world of caregiving when she met and married her husband, who has had more than thirty surgeries for Crohn’s Disease.

In this webinar, Jane will share her tips about:
How to Be the Best Patient Advocate for Your Loved One
How to Keep Your Sanity
How to Maintain Your Health

See Jane’s terrific book trailer on this page along with all of the details for this event including:
How to join us by the Web, your phone, or Skype
How the teleconference works (it’s simple!)
How you can ask your questions ahead of time as well as during the event
How to register for the replay in case you can’t make the live event
If you want to Register Now, just click the button!
Click to Register
Warm regards,
Pam, Cheryl and The Women’s Eye Team
P.S. Please pass this on to others you think would like to attend.

Posted in Books, News stories, Wellness | No Comments »