Failure, Fate and The Recipe for Tastebuds Roasted Toasted & Grilled Salad
...and What's (Kevin) Love Got to Do With It?
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Two of the biggest life changing moments for me, happened within a block of each other on East 9th Street, in Cleveland Ohio.
I know many of you are guessing that conceiving a child with Kevin Love when I lived at The 9 was one of them, but I suppose I should come clean about that now. Although Ari bears a striking resemblance, and it seemed obvious to everyone that Kevin and I were perfect for each other, and he really did have a thing for me, I’m afraid I must finally admit that Kevin Love is not Ari’s father! Oh, and by thing, I mean temporary emergency restraining order!
But seriously, long before any professional athletes would even dream of living downtown, in the fall of 1989, several months after my high school graduation, Robin Williams whispered “Carpe Diem” in my ear and changed my life forever!
I was sitting in the food court of the newly built Galleria, inhaling the first full meal I’d had in two months. I had just made it in time to order a McDonalds breakfast meal and I ordered an extra Sausage Egg McMuffin, just in case I was still hungry after the first one. Surrendering even more dignity, I sheepishly asked for an application.
Tears were still welling up in my eyes from the embarrassment and painful disappointment I felt, after being rejected for the second and final time by the United States Army, because of my weight. I had never worked so hard, or sacrificed so much, only to fail.
I had run away from home on my 18th birthday that April, and had eaten almost every meal at the McDonalds on W.117th Street where I worked and practically lived. Having no permanent place to stay, I was free to spend my evenings at parties or bars, smoking, drinking and doing whatever drugs came my way, often going home with people I barely knew.
My freedom came at too high a price one dreadful and deadly night. The following day, I found I had passed out on a bench, inside a bus shelter outside Lakewood Library. I stayed there for most of the day, trying to think of a way to delay the inevitable.
I knew I had to ask my parents if I could come back home, but I couldn’t let them see me so torn apart mentally and physically. Weary of waving off bus drivers, honking to get my attention, I conjured up the strength and began walking, slowly walking, down Detroit Avenue, towards my parents house.
I passed two handsome men wearing Army service uniforms, who addressed me politely as ma’am. I found it roaringly funny and totally absurd. I was nothing, a nobody, I was clearly no ma’am. I truly believed that if I had been killed the night before, no one would’ve known or cared.
The light changed as I approached the next intersection and I waited to cross. My laughter subsided and my thoughts became more serious as I contemplated the stark contrast between the two soldiers and myself. In that brief moment, I wanted all of the things that I’d been running away from.
I wanted someone to know my whereabouts and to care. I wanted stability, discipline and accountability. I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself. I turned around and went looking for my salvation in the Armed Forces Recruiting Station, on that late afternoon in August.
I told the Army recruiter that I wanted to see the world and he convinced me I would, if I signed up for four years, saying I’d likely be stationed in Germany. I had this idea, as far back as I can remember, that I did not belong in the United States. Certainly grade school classmates helped me come to this conclusion, teasing me constantly about my weird personality, my short hair, my weight and my eyes that disappeared when I laughed or smiled. I had to believe that there was a place somewhere, where none of that mattered. Fitting in was always a problem for me and no boys ever seemed to like me. My recruiter liked me though, and he found all kinds of interesting and effective ways to help me to lose the necessary weight, to be accepted into the Army.
Do you know what exercise burns more fat and calories than running, and is way more fun to do? I’ll give you a hint. My recruiter secured a motel room to show me!
My parents were confused by my rash decision to join the Army, but allowed me to come back home. It was easier on all of us, that it was a temporary arrangement, and that I spent every waking hour working out, either with my recruiter or by myself. Determined to lose the weight, I stopped eating food almost entirely, allowing myself only black coffee and cigarettes. Within a month, I had lost over 30 pounds.
In the very early September morning, on the day I was scheduled to ship out to Fort Jackson (South Carolina) for Basic Training, my rather theatrical neighbor, Mrs. McLendon, who was always of good cheer, saluted me from her back porch and sang The Star Spangled Banner. I threw my bag into the trunk of my dad’s car and said goodbye to my worried looking mother and the rest of my family, who were dragged out of bed and forced to show their support!
I felt proud of myself, for maybe the first time in my life. I was a lean, mean, killing machine, but the scale at the Federal Building, where young recruits are processed and loaded onto busses, did not see me that way. I knew that I had not lost enough weight, but my recruiter told me they would do a “fat test,” the results of which could override the weight restriction. I now know, that it’s official name is The Military Tape Test, and it is used to estimate percentage of body fat by taking measurements of the neck, abdomen and hips.
I failed, but was told I could try again in a month if I lost more weight. I was disappointed, but undeterred. However, the pounds did not shed as quickly during that second month of training, despite my same effort.
The United States Army put me up at the Holiday Inn on Lakeside Road, one block from the Federal Building, the night before I was scheduled to ship out once again. I was to spend the night, how ever much I could, in the hotel’s sauna, and was told to eat only ice chips in an effort to shed as many pounds as possible, before the weigh-in.
My recruiter came to take me to the hotel and understandably, there was less pomp and circumstance surrounding my leaving this time around. Knowing how I would be spending the night, my mom insisted I take a book and she handed me Dead Poets Society, which she had just borrowed from the library. When I told her I’d have no way of returning it, she said she’d pay the fine, and not to worry.
The movie had just come out and there were ads for it everywhere. Although I had not seen the movie, it was not hard to read the character of Mr. Keating in the voice of Robin Williams, in my head at least. I sat in the sauna, reading the entire night. By morning, I had finished the book, which had grown to three times its original size, swollen from my tears and perspiration that poured onto the pages, then baked in the dry heat of the sauna.
The officer weighing the new batch of recruits recognized me from my previous attempt. We shared the same doubtful expression as I stepped onto the scale. He recorded my height and weight, then set down his clipboard. With tailors tape, he measured my neck and abdomen then shook his head slowly, from side to side, clicking his tongue on the back of his front teeth, while he measured my hips.
“It’s these lovely hips of yours ma’am. I’m afraid you are never going to get into the United States Army. It’s the same problem my wife has. I think when these weight restrictions were made, they thought women like you and my wife shouldn’t waste those beautiful child bearing hips doing combat!”
I was bewildered, “Never?” I asked.
“You’re big boned. You can’t change that!” He answered, as he pointed for me to stand aside, while the rest of the group continued forward to the physical fitness test.
Walking out of the Federal Building that chilly and gray October morning, I felt sick. I was deflated and exhausted, but more than anything, I was starving. Crossing East 9th Street, I made my way into the Galleria remembering, with a tremendous amount of glee, that there was a McDonalds in the food court.
I found a seat and I unwrapped my breakfast like it was a present I’d been waiting for my whole life! That first bite, caused me to cry a confused mixture of happy and sad tears. I devoured my Sausage Egg McMuffin and hash brown and guzzled my Hi-C Orange Drink.
When I stopped to breathe finally, I glanced over the application and set it back down. Letting out a long sad sigh, I began to unwrap the second McMuffin. I hated myself for ordering it and I began thinking that all of that exercising was a waste of time and that I’d always be too this or too that, to ever be truly happy.
Suddenly, the voice of Robin Williams was in my head. I imagined him slowly whispering in my ear, “Carpe Diem!” Then louder, “SEIZE THE DAY! Make your life EXTRAORDINARY!”
I thought about all the characters in the book that I’d come to love, and all the wisdom and passion of the great poets who were quoted! I told myself I could do better than this and I crumpled up the application. I rose from my seat, carried my tray to the trash bin and threw everything away, and walked triumphantly toward the escalator, confident it would lead me to a better job and possibly a better life.
Looking up at it from the ground floor, Ninth Street Grill caught my attention and held it for the duration of the escalator ride that brought me to it. The wide open entrance lured me in and gave all of my senses a reason to stay. It had an exciting atmosphere, buzzing energy and I was drawn to it, like a moth to a street lamp!
A strikingly beautiful, tall and intimidating woman, wearing a designer dress and heels, appeared at the hostess stand and asked me if I had a reservation. I shook my head no, and timidly asked if they were hiring. Her eyes opened wide and she said “Yes!” very enthusiastically. She searched the back of a very large reservation book sitting open, atop the podium, and finally presented me with an application. She pointed to a pink Banquette nestled in the front of the restaurant with two small tables, and told me I could sit there to fill out the application.
She joined me on the Banquette, just as I was finishing up, glanced at the application briefly and hired me on the spot, telling me I could start bussing tables the very next day. Without me even asking, she informed me that I would be making $3.35 per hour (minimum wage at the time) plus tips, which she said were around $25 per day. I felt like I had hit the lottery! My heart skipped a beat when she told me the hours, Monday-Friday 10 am-3pm.
I hopped on a bus bound for Lakewood, jumped off at my stop, and ran to my parents house, bursting with excitement over my new job. I had completely forgotten that they weren’t expecting me back for ten weeks! After explaining to everyone what had happened, I did not give The United States Army another thought, other than to thank God that I had not gotten in, when the US waged The Gulf War against Iraq that following summer.
Being a bus girl was amazing! I loved it and took tremendous pride in what I did and was always finding better, more efficient ways of doing my job and everyone else’s. I eliminated the need for the other bussers with my speed and enthusiasm, and one by one, they were let go. Less bussers meant more tips for me.
After the holidays, it was down to just me and I was making $50-$75 in tips and running a side hustle, doing servers closing side work for $5 each! It took me no time at all to save enough money to get my first apartment, and I moved to Tremont in the early part of 1990.
From my vantage point as a busser, I saw the restaurant as this wildly unpredictable beast, that could only be tamed if everyone performed at their highest level. Everyone was pushed to extreme limits, but it was over quickly, and it was over completely. There was nothing to dwell on. Everyday presented a fresh start.
To say that Ninth Street Grill had an open kitchen, is an understatement. The whole restaurant was one giant showcase! You could see almost everything from almost everywhere! I learned how to do every job in the restaurant, because I watched everyone and would help out wherever I could. I paid close attention to the wants and needs of the customers as well, which gave me a tremendous advantage over other chefs and restaurateurs when I opened Tastebuds.
I didn’t want my customers to like my restaurant, I wanted them to love it, to become addicted and obsessed the way customers were at Ninth Street Grill. The same people ordered the same thing almost every day and never grew tired of it!
I remember the menu well, because I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to recreate those iconic dishes: Sicilian, Seafood and Positano pastas, Bianco, Pesto, Goat Cheese and Wild Mushroom pizzettes (personal size pizzas), Frittatas, Burgers, Italian Chicken and Warm Smoked Virginia Ham sandwiches, all served with a huge nest of matchstick french fries.
But the salads…Oh my God! The salads were like nothing I had ever seen or tasted in my life. Visually stunning, bursting with flavor, often topped with perfectly seasoned and perfectly grilled chicken breasts or salmon fillets, and garnished with cheese, dried fruits, toasted nuts or seeds, they challenged everything I ever thought about vegetables. I no longer ate them because I had to, I ate them because, I too had become addicted and obsessed!
I became fascinated by the inner workings of a busy restaurant, of how interdependent each position is and I was struck by the fact that the hardest and most important jobs seemed to pay the least! So, while I wanted desperately to learn how to cook everything on that menu, I wasn’t willing to take the pay cut, not just yet!
I spent a great deal of time paying attention to what was happening in the kitchen, learning what I could. I watched Chef Karen Small with wide-eyed wonder, as she manned the grill, monitored the ovens, chopped vegetables, whisked sauces, managed staff, cooled tempers, called out orders, smiled and greeted regulars, inspected deliveries, handled disputes, met with local farmers, and juggled the telephone, all without ever losing her cool.
I never had any intention of owning a restaurant. Tastebuds was born from a desire to recreate the life I had and the food I ate, when I worked at Ninth Street Grill. Those were the happiest and healthiest days of my life and none of it would have ever happened if my mom hadn’t handed me that book or given me these lovely child-bearing hips that prevented me from joining the Army!
There are images for the Roasted Toasted & Grilled starting at minute 3 of this video!
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The Roasted Toasted and Grilled Salad
Makes Four Servings
I head cleaned and chopped Romaine lettuce (I love a salad spinner for this)
I 12 ounce bag of mixed baby greens preferably with shredded red cabbage and carrots. (Just trying to make things easier with all the work this salad requires, if you prefer fresh, go for it!)
Combine all ingredients in serving bowl and keep in refrigerator until other ingredients have been cooked and cooled.
Garlic Roasted Potatoes
2 large Idaho potatoes baked the day before and chilled uncovered in the refrigerator overnight.
1 Tablespoon Zaatar
3 cloves of pressed garlic or 1 Tablespoon peeled and chopped garlic
Kosher Salt and Pepper to Taste
Cut the cold potatoes in half lengthwise and lay flat. Cut the halves down the center lengthwise again. Then cut into 1 inch cubes, larger on the ends since they taper off.
Transfer to a mixing bowl. Drizzle olive oil to thoroughly coat the potatoes, then sprinkle with zaatar, chopped garlic and season generously with kosher salt and pepper, mix to coat evenly.
Spread the potatoes out onto a sprayed sheet tray and bake at 475 degrees, turning and tossing the potatoes every few minutes, until crunchy and golden.
2 Bell Pepper (1 red, 1 yellow) seeds and stems removed, roughly cut into 2x2 inch squares
4 oz. Button Mushrooms quartered if large, halved if small
I Large Red Onion peeled and trimmed and cut into 6 even wedges (Be sure to leave enough of the root end to keep the wedges intact)
Olive Oil for drizzling
3 cloves of pressed Garlic or 1 Tablespoon peeled and chopped Garlic
In a mixing bowl, combine cut peppers, mushrooms and onion. Drizzle with olive oil lightly. Add chopped garlic and season with Kosher Salt and Pepper.
Spread the vegetables out onto a sprayed sheet tray (you can line the sheet tray with tin foil and spray that if you want an easier clean up) and bake in 475’ oven, checking every few minutes. When charring or blistering becomes visible turn over and roast other side. Some may cook faster than others and can be removed with tongs and placed on a plate while the others continue to cook. Let cool before adding them to the lettuce base and be sure to trim the roots off of the onions and break up the layers.
Quick & Easy Balsamic Vinaigrette
3 ounces Balsamic Vinegar
1 ounce Red Wine Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Brown Sugar (packed)
1 teaspoon Dried Basil Leaves
4 ounces Olive Oil
Combine first 5 ingredients in a jar, mix together with a fork or wire whisk. Then drizzle in olive oil while whisking constantly. Shake well before using. No need to refrigerate, lasts several weeks.
4 ounces Crumbled Feta Cheese
4 ounces Toasted Pine Nuts
Toss the mixed greens with just enough vinaigrette to lightly coat each leaf. Arrange the grilled vegetables on top of the greens followed by the garlic roasted potatoes, then garnish with the feta cheese and toasted pine nuts and serve with extra dressing on the side.
This is so good and truly what I have come to Ireland to explore and write about!
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms...”
-Henri David Thoreau
It can be said, (although, I don’t know if anyone has said it other than me!) that it was the generosity of friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, that provided Thoreau with the opportunity to write his most famous work: “Walden; or, Life in the Woods.”
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