Saturday, July 02, 2011

Chez Panisse: My secret birthday survival kit
(Originally published in the Berkeley Daily Planet)

I used to REALLY dread July, that time of year when my birthday always comes around. When I was a kid, my big sister Ann used to get all huffy because I was getting all the attention because I was cuter than her and she would make my life miserable. And then when I started getting older -- well, that's the point. I got older.

Then one year my former boss Robert Treuhaft took me to dinner at Chez Panisse on my birthday and everything suddenly changed. My birthday suddenly became important and special.

Not only was the Chez Panisse dining experience magical for someone like me who could barely afford a night out at Brennan's, but Bob also kept me regaled with stories from his past life when he was an attorney for the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, worked for FDR in Washington DC during World War II, helped write his wife's pivotal book, "The American Way of Death," was knee-deep in the 1960s civil rights movement -- and had a whole bunch of other stories too. He even knew Alice Waters.

"The night that Sproul Hall was surrounded by police," Bob told me, "and Mario Savio made his famous speech against being part of the academic machine that was grinding him down, my wife [Jessica Mitford] and I were at home playing Boggle when someone called to see if I could come down and represent the students being arrested...."

I just Googled Mario's famous 1964 speech, BTW. Here it is. And what he said is still relevant today -- even much more relevant in fact. "There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!"

So, anyway, Bob got me started in the habit of not dreading my birthdays any more but, rather, beginning to look forward to them instead. So now I save up my money all year long and then when my birthday arrives every year, I am THERE.

At Chez Panisse.
My son Joe couldn't make it this year because he was still working as a sound mixer on Leah Meyerhoff's new Berkeley-based movie, "Unicorns". I think they were out filming a scene in Orinda that night. So I asked Tanya Simmons to come with us instead. Tanya used to live next door to me down on Tenth Street back in the 1970s and she was like a daughter to me so she fit right in. And then of course my daughter Ashley and her fiance Hugo also came along.

First course? A raspberry aperitif and lobster on toast. Followed by hand-rolled spinach pasta filled with ricotta cheese. Yummers. Then we had rib-eye steak and salad and some sort of fabulous cream puff all vered with blackberries for dessert.

Then our waiter asked me if I wanted a tour of the kitchen. Oh yeah! So I got to see Chez Panisse's whole back-stage operation up close and personal, a Berkeley-foodie-wannabe's dream come true.

And then the bill came. Yikes!

But was it worth it? Yes and no.
A wonderful evening spent being pampered at Chez Panisse while hanging out with one's wonderful family and making one's birthday not seem so bad? Yes Yes Yes! Spending enough money to have supported an orphan in war-torn Afghanistan or Palestine for a year or giving one dollar apiece to over 400 homeless people in Berkeley and thus working my way into Heaven instead of just wallowing in indulgence? No No No.

"Wonder what they will have on the menu next year?" I asked Ashley. Next year I will be turning the big Seven-Ohh.


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