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The pussycat in the restaurant
It was in Greenwich Village, on Hudson Street. It was a small, intimate restaurant, almost a square in shape, with a tiny bar in back and square tables that seated two, four and six people. It served Italian food. It wasn’t expensive, and the food was good, and this attracted a lot of the people in the neighborhood, including me. I lived on Abingdon Square, across the street. It was an affordable place to meet someone for lunch or dinner, and that was always a good find, since many of my friends were trying to be writers, painters or musicians and never had much money. I don’t remember the name of the place. This takes place in 1981 or 1982. The exact date doesn’t matter. I do know that it was a warm spring day, and I was there for lunch with a friend who lived in the same pre-war apartment building as I did.
He was sitting at the table directly in front of me, his widespread back toward me. It was one of those slow recognitions, the kind that ease into your mind over a period of minutes as the elements come together little by little in that part of your brain that isn’t occupied by your food, the person across from you, and a series of several self-centered reflections that dart before your inner eye. It was his head that brought it all into focus—massive, slightly oblong and bald, an older man. It was the head of a giant out of a fairy tale. I recognized that head, even from behind. I knew who he was.
It was James Beard.
It made sense. He lived, as I knew, because I was part of the neighborhood, on West 12th Street. He would have been nearly eighty. I knew that his brownstone was also a cooking school. After his death, it became the home of the James Beard Foundation, which has since celebrated and fostered American cooking and its chefs. The point is that I knew who he was. I confirmed his identity later when I left and could catch a glimpse of his face.
He wrote over thirty cookbooks, and I’ve had a few through the years, but the one I've had for forty years and always return to with delight is James Beard's American Cookery. The pages are mottled and grease-stained, the true signs of a cookbook that has been rigorously and lovingly consulted many times under fire. Some of it is dated—he has over thirty entries for "Candy," for example. But most of it isn't, and, more important, none of the writing is. I have yet to find a writer who knows more about American food and its history than James Beard.
Naturally I was happy to see one of my culinary and literary heroes seated at the next table, even if I couldn’t see his face. Well, I knew one thing. If James Beard was eating here, the food had to be good.
Then I noticed something. I saw, peeking out from the considerable waistband of his trousers, a white plastic edge. It was frilled. My heart sank.
I was about thirty-five then. I had no real sense of growing old. In other words, I didn’t think this might be me one day. What I did think was: why should this great man who wrote so elegantly and knowingly about food and who has given so much pleasure to so many people, be reduced to wearing a diaper?
There is so often no correlation between what a person contributes to our world and how they end up passing their final years.
Then the voice intruded. I had blocked it, and other voices in the restaurant, from my conversation with my friend up until then. The voice was soft and easy, but there was a sense of struggle in it, traces of tiredness and of age. I began to listen to the conversation. All I could catch was a snippet. Beard said,
“Tom, they say we’re tough, but we’re not, are we? We’re both pussycats, aren’t we? I’m a pussycat.”
There he was, James Beard, among us. If it meant wearing an adult undergarment, so be it. He was still in the game. If it comes to that for me, I hope I get over it. And stay in the game. James Beard was here, enjoying the day, out and about, talking with friends, eating good food, convivial and lucid, alive and well.