This much I remember: It was a six-hour seminar on a Saturday in 1984 at the New School in lower Manhattan. The title of the class was something like “Careers in the Culinary Arts,” a subject I was seriously exploring at the time. The teacher was Carol Durst-Wertheim, who was then the owner of her own catering business in the city, called New American Catering.
I remember, too, that there had been some mix-up with the room assignment, and Carol was called to task by someone in the administration. I watched her closely from my student-seat – the way she smiled and kept her cool and soothed the agitated administrator with kind and conciliatory words. After he left the classroom, she turned to us her seminar students and laughed it off.
“Just another day in the life of a caterer,” she said. “You learn that just about anything can go wrong!”
I wondered whether I, high-strung from years in the super-stressful corporate world, could ever be as calm and easy-going as Carol was in that moment. Nevertheless, by the end of the six hours, I’d made up my mind to change careers. I would take a giant leap of faith from well paid business-writer/editor to self-employed New York caterer. All thanks to Carol.
Now here we are, thirty-six years later, and my friend Carol – yes, we’ve remained friends over all these years – has just published a wonderful memoir about her fifteen years as a Manhattan caterer, and I couldn’t be happier for her or prouder of her.
Her book, Vignettes & Vinaigrettes: A Memoir of Catering Before Food Was Hot (Full Court Press, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 2020), is a delightful romp through an era long since past, in a place like no other. I devoted only one chapter to my ten-year catering career in my Peace Corps memoir, How to Cook a Crocodile (Peace Corps Writers, 2010), touching on several of the same themes, such as the odd stingy-wealthy clients, and our devoted (and invaluable) catering staffs. But Carol’s true stories, so full of smarts and heart and grit, to say nothing of telling details, go deeper and wider and cover a longer span of time.
Also, Carol’s catering business was larger than mine. Whereas my Bonnie Fare Catering confined itself to at-home parties in clients’ Manhattan apartments, Carol catered parties for hundreds, such as her annual “picnic in the park” for 750 people. “Year after year,” she writes, “we all [she and her staff] enjoyed working that party; it was family. … I would circulate through the crowd, passing out dozens of handi-wipes, urging people to eat some more, basking in Central Park’s sunshine, so glad to be their caterer.”
Some of Carol’s vignettes are laugh-out-loud funny – like the one about the weight-control therapist who threw a huge hissy-fit in her kitchen because her chocolate birthday cake wasn’t “rich enough.” Other stories are deeply touching. Our catering careers spanned the time of the AIDS epidemic, which hit New York especially hard; and Carol writes poignantly of losing beloved gay staff members to the disease.
When she learned, for example, that Michael, one of her regular crew, had been taken to the ER, she got there as soon as she could. “I cried so hard,” she writes, “standing in the middle of Cabrini Hospital Emergency Room, that someone came to clean him up, check his vitals, and calm me down. I think he was close to comatose. … I knew Michael would not leave the hospital. Few people came to see him in those last days. I saw him once more when he was able to speak to me, with such a fine gift of words: ‘You are the best friend I’ve ever had. You are the best friend.’”
My friend Carol is now sixty-eight. She is an eleven-year breast cancer survivor. In recent years she earned a PhD. Carol’s son Will, who weighed into the world at 8 pounds 12 ounces only three days after she catered a big New York party (and two weeks before she catered another) in June 1987, is now a strapping thirty-three-year-old man. In this delicious, must-read memoir, Carol, a Brooklynite, calls herself “street-smart and sturdy.” I’m proud to call her my longtime friend.
Excerpt from Carol Durst-Wertheim’s Vignettes & Vinaigrettes “End Notes”:
Catering was fascinating work for me for many years: It was artistic, creative teamwork, public performance art, and intimate connection all at the same time. What happened in the kitchen, and what happened on the floor, could be two simultaneous dramas, totally different but parallel scripts. What could be more intimate than eating food prepared by someone in your own kitchen? What could be more public than a fund-raising event in a national historic landmark? Catering work was smart, witty, delicious, and caring. It was so much more than the ingredients, the recipes, or the dishes lined up on a buffet for profit.
So it came time to change over to other options and reset my priorities, to teach, to write, to work in food styling, to judge baking contests and cookbook awards, to escort food authors, and then to complete my doctorate, take care of my parents and family, a house, and my own health … and the rest of my life, now that food is hot.