Up in the Air Again

I flew to San Francisco again on Saturday and write this as I fly back after a two-day stay. I didn’t see much of that wonderful city I love so much as I spent much of my time in the kitchen of my hosts.

Dave McElroy and Kathryn Morrison are people of enormous enthusiasm and great generosity.

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They express those two attributes publically about 15 times each year by giving fund-raising dinners in their home.

When I say they give the dinners, I don’t mean that they merely lend their home for dinners others put on. I mean that they turn their house upside down and buy the food and generally cook the food and host the dinners – all for the benefit of organizations whose causes they care about or causes their friends care about – like tsunami relief, Obama reelection, a women’s clinic in Africa, AIDS awareness, a Philippine mission, a community music center, and so on.

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The McElroy/Morrison home is not a Pacific Heights mansion.

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It is a modest house in the Glen Park neighborhood that once was a working class section of the city. Nothing in San Francisco is working class any longer but the homes in this section aren’t quite as chichi perhaps as those in other parts of the city.

The fund-raising dinner for which I flew out is one I have worked on in previous years. It benefits Creativity Explored on whose board Kathryn serves.

This is an enormous amount of work. McElroy and Morrison converted their living room into a dining room and their hall became an exhibition of art to be auctioned. They held two dinners the first of which was attended 24 people who spent a minimum of $125 and the second of which, attended by 22 people, cost a minimum of $250.

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Creativity Explored is a visual arts center that for more than 30 years has provided a work and exhibition space for 160 artists with adult developmental issues like Down’s syndrome and other conditions. One of the dinners – the one on which I worked – sold out 16 hours after it was announced by Internet and the other within two days

The contribution of these fund-raising efforts is a pittance in the budgets of Creativity Explored but they are community events attended by friends, people in the food business, people active in charities and who care about this organization, people who attend such events.  They came for the food. They came for the cause. They came for the art displayed on the walls of the McElroy/Morrison home and available for purchase. And they bought it.

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All this is in a great tradition. Nothing is more American than voluntary action, the giving impulse.

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing associations, in which all partake, but associations of a thousand other kinds – religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government of France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”                                          — Alexis de Tocqueville

Our “chef’s dinner” was a comparatively modest affair.   Dinners like these, fund-raisers based on food, can be twelve-course extravaganzas painful to endure. Ours on the other hand consisted of five courses – certainly enough – each one prepared by a different chef. I, because it is late spring and greens are at their peak with vegetables coming on, chose to do a seasonal bread salad.

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I arrived in San Francisco on Saturday at mid-day in time to go grocery shopping at the Ferry Plaza Market. Although now profoundly yuppy-ized and really expensive, this outdoor market on the Embarcadero attracts farmers who offer spectacular produce.   I couldn’t help as I shopped for greens of exotic varieties and summer squash and perfect peas also buying a few peaches and apricots for myself. (When do we deprived Washingtonians get ripe, firm apricots?)

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Early on Saturday morning I began my work taking a break to visit B Bakery in Pacific Heights where Michel Suas (see Up in the Air, September 17, 2013) had set aside some beautiful loaves, his donation to the dinner.

By the time the other chefs arrived, I had prepared vegetables to be grilled for my salad and the cumin-marash pepper dressing, and had baked ginger-black pepper cookies to accompany a peach ice cream made by Anne Walker, co-owner of Bi-Rite Market, another great institution in food-crazed San Francisco.

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Guests arrived promptly and with great enthusiasm drank a bubbly Loire rose´, one of the six wines donated by guests and by Bi-Rite.

In dinners like these multi-course affairs no portion is huge in size (although the veal chop, our main course, was hardly modest). But as the guests ate happily through shellfish, vegetables, pasta, and red meat, they appeared to feel deprived of nothing.

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I have been a food professional for 25 years and have participated in several fund-raisers each year. My first great fund-raising love was the Zoofari, a walk-around on the grounds of the National Zoo. Now, however, I avoid this most common style of food-based fund-raiser, the bazaar, a large space given over to booths at which restaurants serve foods to guests who walk from one booth to another.

The virtue of this style is that it can accommodate hundreds of guests and can raise huge amounts of money.

But after many years of watching people wander apparently joylessly from booth to booth, tasting a beef filet, followed by a molten chocolate cake, followed by a barbecued pork rib, followed by a poached scallop and then a strawberry granita, I decided I could no longer bear to watch people eat that way. I prefer what we did at Dave and Kate’s home, a comparatively modest menu of foods that complement each other.

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Our guests on Sunday were animated and enthusiastic and, sitting at two tables of eleven people, had a real dinner party.

The chefs donated the food. We cooked it generally in our kitchens (except of course for me because my kitchen was 3,000 miles away). We stood during the service shoulder to shoulder in the modest galley kitchen, Staffan Terje kneeling at the oven to poke his veal roasts, Joyce Goldstein, the great chef-owner of Square One, America’s first Mediterranean restaurant, meticulously slicing her lasagna.

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We helped each other plate the courses, drinking the wines the guests were drinking as well as the aquavit brought by Staffan, the Swedish chef of Perbacco, the Piemontese restaurant in San Francisco.   Off to the side two other volunteers washed dishes all evening long.

I like these events, especially, of course, the ones in San Francisco. It may seem peculiar, spending Bread Furst’s money to help raise money in a city 3,000 miles away particularly as there are so many needs in Washington.  It may even seem excessive.

But this is part of the food business: A cause important to a colleague becomes my cause. Something I haven’t thought about before becomes part of my life. And then I get the pleasures of mixing hard work with the pleasures of that work, enjoying the colleagueship of others who escape their kitchens for a little cooking, eating and drinking.

It occurs to me from time to time that I am in one of the few professions in which we who practice can enjoy the fruits of what we do, enjoy the pleasures we give to others.

Doctors don’t get the opportunity to treat each other for fun. Certainly they don’t give themselves injections while they work. Teachers have to practice in classrooms and don’t teach each other just for fun. Firemen don’t put out fires for fun.

But we who cook are like musicians who play with and for each other just for pleasure. We can share the enjoyment of cooking and eating and drinking with our colleagues. What makes it really special is that we are treating each other to such pleasures for a good cause.

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5 thoughts on “Up in the Air Again

  1. I loved learning about the music and the musicians of the Chef worlds and in a city I love as so many of us do.

    I come away with these thoughts:

    1. Contribute to Creativity Explored:
    3245 16th St, San Francisco, CA 94103

    2. I always lap up Alexis de Tocqueville quotes. Every liberal ( I do) has a favorite conservative or two. Mine are Edmund Burke and de Tocqueville.

    3. Is the McElroy/Morrison idea replicated anywhere in the Washington metropolitan area. If not, can it be?

    • This fund-raising method is used by Joan Nathan, impresario of Sips and Sups, the series of dinners she organizes each January as a fund-raiser for D.C. Kitchen and Martha’s Table. It is quite an event that includes dinners in the homes of 20 or so Washingtonians who host those dinners.

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