Creating a Menu: Sinatra’s Way, or “It Was a Very Good Meal”

While teaching English at The Classical Academy in Colorado, the students in my class were required to write a research paper.  The topic: a historical figure of the 20th Century. Now, somewhere along the way I discovered the best way to teach was to model: do it right there in front of them, have them practice, and then turn them loose. And so I decided to write a research paper right there along with them. Now, I knew that whatever topic I chose had better grab me right in gut and be a subject that I couldn’t learn enough about. For me, that topic was Frank Sinatra.

During the week given over to the project, every book from the Pikes Peak Library District on the Chairman of the Board filled the town home in Kissing Camel Estates where I was staying. It was in the course of this research that this obscure but fascinating fact emerged: Sinatra was the first artist to begin recording entire albums around a central theme, with each of the individual tracks exploring some aspect or permutation of that theme. At the time my CD collection contained two or three Sinatra albums, but they were albums of his greatest hits. So–to test the theory–I joined a music club, ordering several of his albums (and at a penny each! Thank you BMG). And you know what? The theory proved true. Looking over the titles in my newly expanded Sinatra library, one gets the idea. September of my Years: a reflection on the “Golden Years” of one’s life. Come Fly with Me: songs of travel (both exotic and quaint), songs of coming home. Only the Lonely: ballads of unrequited love. In the Wee Small Hours: saloon ballads. Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!: well, folks, let’s just say this didn’t carry the same meaning then as it does now. Of all those albums, the one that cast the strongest spell on me was September of my Years, a hauntingly rich album whose mood is all nostalgia and pensive. Perhaps it was providential that I chose this album to listen to in September of 2005 on my flight from Colorado to Grand Rapids to attend the closing of Duba’s Restaurant. It proved to be the album that put images and feelings to the event. Of all the songs that capture the memory of the place (and all that it symbolized) for me it’s got to be “It Was a Very Good Year” from that album, a song that remains near the top of the list of my five favorite songs of all time (along with U2’s “With or Without You”, Dave Matthew’s “Satellite”, and–to be honest–I forget the rest). And if you’ve never heard it, it’s really worth a listen:

Even now, as I listen to the Frank Sinatra Station on Pandora, I find myself thinking about how a Sinatra soundtrack often plays in the background of the dinner parties we host. And I think of one dinner in particular, hosted on an unseasonably cool evening in the Summer of 2004. The setting: Apartment 403 of what were then the Boardwalk Apartments. Build in 1892 and formerly the largest furniture factory in the world, it was turned into living spaces replete with brick walls and exposed wooden beams, fostering a living connection with the building’s past. The dinner hosted there was significant in that it was the first time that I remember doing with a three-course meal what Sinatra did with his albums, that of building a meal around a theme. I don’t know how the idea ever came to me, but there I was, leafing through the collections of Bon Appetite recipes that summer, looking for a series of dishes that all worked together, that flowed from one to the other by sharing a common ingredient, a common theme. And so a three-course meal emerged for this dinner party. My memory’s a little hazy, but it went something like this: (First Course) a Pear, Walnut, and Bleu Cheese Salad; (Second Course) a Caramelized Pear and Onion Pizza with Bleu Cheese crumbles; and (for Desert) Fig & Pear Pie a la mode. I’m not sure if anybody even noticed what I was up to. But I’m just that way, I guess. It’s probably why I don’t like allegories: too up front, too in your face, nothing is subtle or indirect. I’ll even tell jokes–dryly–that maybe only I get. It would be cool, of course, if someone “got it” without my having to say anything: it would be a shared secret, a moment of bonding.

Now, I don’t develop a menu around a controlling theme every time, but but the most recent attempt was this past Father’s Day when my father-in-law came over to celebrate with us. Knowing that he likes cherries, this fruit that is the boast of Michigan became the constant ingredient in each course. The first course was a family recipe: a Cherry, Candied Almond, and Feta Tossed Salad. Alright, for those of you who live in Michigan you’ll know that the state’s cherry crop was wiped out by frost this year because of an unseasonably warm March followed by cooler temperatures. That being the case, the dried cherries that the recipe calls for were temporarily replaced by dried cranberries. The main course was a recipe that I found for root beer marinaded flank steak, a recipe I adjusted by substituting Sprecher’s Cherry Root Beer and by adding some cumin for a Cherry Root Beer Marinated Flank Steak. For desert, as it was a warm summer evening, we enjoyed Cherry Root Beer Floats. A nice Michigan cherry wine would be the perfect complement to this three course meal, such as you would find at The Cherry Republic, one of my favorite companies (along with Disney World and the New Belgium Brewing Company). I’d like to think it was a meal that, had Sinatra been there, he would have knowingly approved of. He would have understood. And for those familiar with Sinatra lore, you can bet he would have enjoyed my father-in-law’s many stories of encounters with the Chicago Mafia (for the record, I said “encounters with” and not “involvement with”). And, oh, how I’d love to share those yarns with you, but if I did, of course, I’d have to…(no, I won’t say it–not subtle enough).

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