Among other important things February is noted for are decorative hearts, bouquets of red roses, chocolates in heart-shaped boxes, lacey Valentine’s cards, and sweet love letters (or, these days, love e-mails). This is the month to remind ourselves of all the dear ones in our lives – those who are close and those who are far – and let them know they’re in our hearts to stay.
I was reminded of this fact last week when one of the sweetest, dearest hearts in my life, my old friend Michael Marotta, published a new YouTube video (see link below) – in his terrific, ongoing series “What Would Michael Do?” – featuring the shortbread heart cookies that were one of the signatures of my Manhattan catering business, Bonnie Fare Catering, when Michael was my headwaiter and captain, thirty-some years ago.
“Everything is fresh and homemade,” my catering company’s advertising copy read then, and this was completely true. I made everything myself – including the little heart-shaped Scottish shortbread cookies that were a nod to my Scots heritage — for the joy of it, because I loved to cook. I’d changed careers at forty, going from being a well paid writer and editor in the New York corporate world to being a self-employed caterer in the New York food world, because I was hungry for what a new, culinary career had to offer.
As I wrote in my Peace Corps memoir, How to Cook a Crocodile, which chronicles my subsequent transition from New York caterer to Peace Corps volunteer in the rainforest of Gabon, Central Africa, I’d started Bonnie Fare Catering in 1986 also because “I wanted to work with my hands in the realm of the tangible and meaningful. I wanted to immerse myself in the colors, flavors, aromas, and textures of the dishes I created.” Plus, I needed to pretend that my clients, and the young people who worked for me, were my family and I was cooking for, and with, them out of love.
So for ten years, until I joined the Peace Corps in 1996 at the age of fifty-one, I had my own, small, modestly successful catering business that specialized in at-home parties and celebrations in Manhattan. And my freelance writing focused on food.
In my Crocodile memoir I share vivid memories of my catering days, and my dear Michael Marotta features in most of those memories:
“Certain scenes stick in my mind,” I wrote in an early chapter, titled “Pampano”: “The first time my headwaiter, Michael, an aspiring actor, worked for me; how I’d asked him, just to make small talk as we prepared a tray of hors d’oeuvres together, how catering compared with theater work. ‘Dahhhling,’ he said, striking a pose as he hoisted the tray above his shoulder, about to enter the client’s living room stage right, ‘this IS theater!’
“Then, later on, Michael’s reaction to serving Jane Fonda and Ted Turner at a private dinner party I catered on Central Park West. Michael returned to the kitchen swooning, ‘Oh, she’s so beautiful! She’s so dreamy! I’ve been in love with her all my life! When I was a kid, I had posters of her on my bedroom wall! Now I’m just this far away from her! I’m serving her! And she’s so thin – such a tiny tush – she makes you look FAT, Bonnie! …”
Some time later, when I was experiencing a breast-cancer scare, along with the added terror of not having adequate private health insurance, Michael accompanied me when I visited a free breast cancer clinic in Harlem. “We were the only white people in the clinic’s waiting room; he was the only man,” I wrote in Crocodile, “But no one made us feel unwelcome or out of place. Michael held my hand as though we were a couple. To me, he was family.”
In Gabon, from time to time, dear-hearted members of my Bonnie Fare family would slip some five- or ten-dollar bills into their airmail correspondence with me, to help supplement my meager Peace Corps living allowance. Once, with money that Michael sent me, I bought a large, blue, African batik and hung it on my living room wall there, a constant reminder of Michael’s love and generosity.
Today, thirty-four years after we first met, Michael and I are still family.
And I’m prouder than a mother red hen to add that Michael is no longer an “aspiring” actor.
You’ve probably seen him frequently on your own home television screen because he’s the man in a current ad for Eliquis, the family man who’s in the process of “finding his roots” in southern Europe. (Here is the link to it: https://ispot.tv/a/IqVd .)
He acted (and danced) in the award-winning show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and he’s produced and/or acted in sold-out theater productions all over the U.S., including playing multiple roles in the two-person musical drama “Tenderly,” based on the life of Rosemary Clooney.
And next month, if you’re lucky enough to be in New York, you can see him in the off-Broadway show, “Romeo & Bernadette, A Musical Tale of Verona & Brooklyn,” written by Mark Saltzman. This musical comedy played a limited engagement — to fabulous reviews – at the Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres in recent weeks, but in mid-March it’s scheduled to begin an open-ended run at its new and larger home, Theatre 3 (formerly The Acorn) on Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street). Tickets will be available through Telecharge beginning March 1st.
But whatever you do — and wherever you are — be sure to see Michael’s short YouTube video and watch him having fun making my shortbread hearts recipe for the first time. (Here is the link for that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7K0Jf40Jnw .)
And, of course, you could also befriend Michael on Facebook to follow his exciting, ever-climbing career. You’ll see he has thousands of friends. But I know he would make room for you, too, in his great, big, sweet, dear heart.