When I heard today's news that Bea Arthur had died, the first thing I thought of was roast leg of lamb.
This isn't as odd as it might seem at first. Arthur's one-woman show, Bea Arthur On Broadway: Just Between Friends began with a recipe for leg of lamb. According to her pianist Billy Goldenberg, who co-wrote the script with her, his idea for the recipe was a late addition to the script. He felt that it would be strange for someone as obsessed with dining as she was, to do a one-woman show and not talk about eating.
“When she goes off-stage in any city, the first thing she wants to do is find a good restaurant,” Goldenberg told me when the show was still in production. “I [told her], 'The only thing we don't talk about is food. I have a mad idea. You could read the Encyclopedia Britannica and it would be funny. So read the lamb recipe.' ” When they tried the show out in Minneapolis, Goldenberg told me that Bea's kitchen tips befuddled the crowd. But by the time I saw her perform the bit in Phoenix, Arizona, it just killed.
A barefoot Bea strolled out on stage, all five-feet- nine of her, and said in her deadpan, foghorn voice, “I'd like to talk to you about lamb. Specifically, leg of … ”
Then she'd basically walk the audience through the same instructions you'd find in Julia Child's Mastering The Art of French Cooking, except she'd smear the entire leg with a mixture of olive oil, Dijon mustard, ground ginger, garlic and either rosemary or basil and let it sit for two to three hours. (Child's marinade, I think, involved oil, vinegar, soy sauce, salt and pepper.)
Earlier that same afternoon, I'd interviewed the then-78-year-old comedienne in her hotel room. If my memory serves me well, she was wearing white terry-cloth sweats, a gray fleece sweater with big wooden buttons and she looked like a watery-eyed, frailer version of the Bea we remembered from Maude and The Golden Girls — softer, more vulnerable looking. She had a bad cold that day and every once in a while her hand would fly up to her forehead and she'd say with a panicky sound in her voice, “I think I'm getting hot.” Finally, I reached over and, mommy-style, put the back of my right hand on her forehead and the back of my left hand on mine and compared the heat of our skin.
“Estelle used to do it with her lips,” she said, referring to her Golden Girls co-star Estelle Getty, and I suddenly worried, “Is she asking me to do this too?” but then the moment passed.
During the hour or so that I spent with her, she'd often answer my questions by shouting in my face, a barking delivery that never failed to make me throw back my head and laugh. This, in return, delighted her so much that she'd reach over and slap me on the knee. Like THWACK. She was a big gal, and, after awhile, my knee began to sting a little. But, to me, the whole question-shout-laugh-slap routine was also oddly gratifying.
Somehow, probably because of the lamb recipe, our conversation drifted to dinner parties. She talked about what she served with the lamb (parsleyed potatoes, sometimes Japanese eggplant, other times broiled tomatoes that she'd score, then season with olive oil, salt, pepper and fresh basil), and that she wasn't too big on sweets so she'd serve cheese and fresh fruit for dessert. She told me that she loved having very small groups of people over, maybe four or so guests, of all ages and backgrounds, and preferred having everyone crowd around her small table in her kitchen. Her description was so vivid that a week or so later I asked Goldenberg if Mealtime At Bea's was as great as it sounded.
“Better,” he told me, then urged me to call her up and beseech her for an invitation. “She'll say yes!” he said. But when I tried to envision doing this — calling up the subject of a story and foisting myself upon her — I could only summon up a scenario where I'd dial her number, she'd rumble, “Hello?” and then I'd hang up immediately.
So I never got to eat at Bea Arthur's and that is my loss. Because on that day, as she talked about food, I realized that we knew her for her dry comic genius, as an advocate of liberal politics, as a vocal supporter of gay rights and a television icon. But she was also a woman who totally got the importance of a great roast leg of lamb, a filled table, a few friends and a room noisy with conversation.