An Elegy for Nora Ephron: Pancakes, Bakery Dreams + the Strawberry Ambrosia Fraud
Every writer has two or three go-to sources, people who are famous enough for readers to recognize their name, witty enough so they can hold forth on anything and everything, and kind enough to always take your call. Nora Ephron was one of those for me.
Whenever I'd phone, our conversation would always assume the following structure: I'd thank her for making time for me. She'd go, "Pfffffttttttt," like she had nothing better to do. Then I'd ask her questions regarding the subject of whatever story I was writing. Then, just when I was about to hang up and leave her to her day, she'd share a sizzling piece of gossip -- with famous names and everything -- followed by a little bit trash-talking, the glorious kind, the kind that comes out of nowhere and startles you with its blunt incisiveness and makes you laugh out loud.
In between all this -- and they were never long calls, just very action-packed -- she would talk about food: where she'd just eaten, how she preferred to prepare a dish and so on. Anyone who read any of her essay collections -- Scribble, Scribble, Crazy Salad, Wallflower at the Orgy -- knew how interested she was in cooking; Heartburn, her roman a clef about her marriage to Carl Bernstein, was filled with chatty instructions on how to make, say, Lillian Hellman's pot roast or potatoes Anna. She once said that her childhood dream was to be locked up in a bakery.
Having grown up in Beverly Hills, Ephron was just as passionate about Los Angeles restaurants as she was about her New York favorites. Once, and I don't know how this happened except to say that because she is one of my writer heroes it couldn't have been that hard to persuade me, she got me to broker a deal between her and my childhood friend Nancy Silverton, of La Brea Bakery and Mozza (but then of Campanile): If Nancy shared the secret of how to make a classic strawberry ambrosia, in return Ephron would pass along her classified recipe for coffee-crunch cake from the old Blum's restaurant in Beverly Hills. The glitch that Ephron never knew about? Because Nancy had never made strawberry ambrosia but still wanted to keep up her end of the deal, we had to do extensive research, poring over every old-timey cookbook we could get our hands on, and then pawn off the best combination of Jell-O, miniature marshmallows and fresh fruit we could approximate.
It's anyone's guess if Ephron prepared our dessert-y fruit salad or what she thought about it, but this had to be a star-crossed exchange, because when the dark-haired screenwriter-director-essayist showed up at Campanile to try out Nancy's spin on the Blum's coffee-crunch cake, Ephron's face fell. The original cake was two layers of sponge with a coffee-flavored whipped cream frosting, covered with crunchy bits of candy. "She was very polite about it," Nancy told me afterward. "But what she wanted was a massive slice of cake coated with pieces of honeycomb. Mine was more like a single-serving sandwich cake."
Ephron was legendarily emphatic about food, its preparation and how her way was the correct one, so I should have anticipated the chaos that followed an interview I did with her in 1993 about, of all things, pancakes. The article, which is mostly me taking dictation as Ephron talks about her directorial debut "This Is My Life," and the role that pancakes played in the film, started like this: "When people say they can't cook, what we always say about them is that they can't boil water. But what we really mean is that they can't make pancakes." Then Ephron threw down on those who don't know that you're supposed to prepare pancakes as she did -- with oil. "You can always spot people who don't cook because they think that pancakes are made with butter," she said. My editor at the time, Ruth Reichl, was driven so crazy by this that she composed and published a pancake-and-butter rebuttal and printed it right alongside my piece so everyone could see there were options.
It's been about 24 hours since I heard of Ephron's passing at 71. Since then I've thought a lot about the advice she reflexively offered in the midst of our fleeting gabfests -- like why it is sometimes better to order out parts of a meal and not make yourself insane trying to cook the entire thing, or about what to do when you bump into someone you've written negative things about (walk away). Another bit of advice, but one she shared only by way of example: Give freely of yourself. Talk pancakes with a (sort of) stranger. Take the call.
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