It’s eleven at night; I’m full of ultra-high-grade beef and slipping to darkness at the front end of a food-induced coma.
Kathy and I are at the end of a very long day, a day of contrasts and satiety.
We’re embedded in LA. (I had to use that word: “embedded.” It’s in the news so often now, it hangs there like ripe fruit, begging to be picked.)
Unfortunately, we are not embedded for long.
A car pulls up on the street below our hotel veranda, a vintage Linkin Park CD blasting at 112 decibels on the vehicle’s sound system.
Someone in the suite next to us opens a balcony door, slamming it against the jam. He bellows at the occupants of the car, screaming out his room number and something about beer and a bong.
In the room on the other side of us, a guy begins singing at the top of his voice in a strained falsetto. He sounds like a pig, suddenly aware the guy with the knife is not going to feed him.
Across the hall, the door crashes open and a woman shouts: “Lenny, you never listen. I have a life, too, and I am going to be a model whether you like it or not. I can lose the weight, really I can.”
Kathy moans, a distressed fawn in the sights of a determined hunter.
I crawl from the bed, put on my shirt and pants and stumble to the hall. My intestinal tract feels like a ball return at a bowling alley with a Brunswick as big as a planetoid making it’s way to the light.
From the suite next door emerges a large lout, shaved head graced by a small square of brilliant red hair just above the forehead. There are metal things dangling from every flap of skin in sight, clanking like wind chimes as he waggles his swollen noggin. The tattoos start at the neckline and, for all I know, continue to the ankle. Hitler stares at me from just below the clavicle. The goof smiles, revealing two gold front teeth.
“Hey, how’s it goin’ dude?”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s time to get the party started, ain’t it?”
“You can say that again. Hey, you got a bottle opener on you? Course, heh heh, if you don’t…” he points to his mouth, “I can always use these beauties. I once cracked a coconut with my teeth.”
I stagger back to our suite, now become a prison cell. People on the balconies next to our room and, from what I can tell, above and below our room, simultaneously torch up and start smoking enormous amounts of weed. The geek in the car boosts the volume on the CD player to F-15-with-the-afterburner-on level. The crooner next door warbles a medley of Marvin Gaye’s greatest hits.
Kathy begins to quiver, her eyes rolling back in their sockets.
It is a meaningful end to a day in LA.
In recent years, we’ve made an annual trip to the City of the Angels to see one or both of our daughters. This year, only Ivy is left in LA, newly moved to the Mac Daddy Suite in an artsy apartment building on Cherokee Street, just above Hollywood Boulevard.
Smack dab in the smoggy, dense core of the city.
Every year, this urban mutation, this tumor of human habitation, draws us like bugs to a bright light and reveals itself in new and unsettling ways. Like all great cities, it is a place of stunning contrasts, a ramified setting balancing the bucolic environment we enjoy in our alpine home in Siberia With a View.
There is Linkin Park and La Traviata.
Pink’s hot dog stand and The Little Door.
Venice and Malibu.
Compton and Beverly Hills.
The flaming flamboyance of West Hollywood and the murky repression of Orange County.
The day begins with a trip to LA from La Jolla, hitting 80 in the carpool lane, hurtling headlong into the belly of the beast. We’re in a hurry: I’m determined to get to the Museum of Contemporary Art, downtown and I need to make it by mid-afternoon. I am frenzied, on the trail of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, something only a metropolis this diverse can offer: perhaps the only major exhibition of the paintings of Lucian Freud that will hit the U.S. for a long time. A memorable trip to LA three years ago gave me the chance to see a major exhibition of the work of Chaim Soutine; now the city is serving up Lucian Freud.
Recognize the last name, do you?
I hear the name “Freud”, I think of two people. The first: a cigar smoking (is it really just a cigar?), cocaine snorting, train-and-tunnel, post-Victorian, post-romantic fiction writer from Vienna. The second: one of the most remarkable figurative painters of the last 100 years. Maybe ever.
The first, of course, is Sigmund Freud; the second is his grandson, Lucian —born in Germany, raised in Britain. He’s been at the painting game since the ’30s, for some a tonic fending off the virus of intellectually bankrupt abstraction, the bane of every effete critic and vapid academic tout who has sung the praises of abstract expressionism and its numerous, boring spawn for the last 60 years. Pop art antimatter. Aesthetic Kaopectate to stem the watery flow of video, installation and performance art.
And a good friend of Francis Bacon, to boot.
We speed into LA on the 405, hang a quick right on the 10, veer left on the 110 and exit downtown. We make it in time.
The show is spectacular, more than a hundred of the master’s greatest works, from sixty years of a career. It moves from early, crude, folk-artish paintings more than half a century old, to recent huge works— the impasti like thick honey frozen in mid-flow, the painted flesh like meat, plastic, palpable, graveled and poignant — to the haunting self-portrait of an aged roué stripped of all but his worn work boots and his palette. The exhibition provides a remarkable perspective on a great painter, a guy who, somehow, managed to escape grandpa’s ominous shadow and, once all is said and done, to eclipse the old man.
I’m ecstatic. Ah, but this is a place of contrasts and it’s not going to let me go easily.
I leave the museum and a guy dressed in seven layers of soiled clothing, with arms and legs wrapped in newspapers, blows his nose on the sidewalk in front of me and asks for five dollars.
It’s been a fractured day and we are in need of balm.
Freud hangs heavy on the mind: the flesh of the figures in the paintings —substantial, deep, “embedded” with globs and grains.
No question what’s needed: beef, and plenty of it. A trip to the carnivore carnival.
Ivy recommends Mastro’s, in Beverly Hills. It’s extraordinarily expensive, so she likes it. A lot.
We have a classic experience at the steakhouse, housed in the former Chasen’s, dark, elegant, wait staff outnumbering patrons 2-1, the joint stuffed with mid-50s Hollywood types plying their mid-20s mistresses with seared animal flesh and martinis. Everything is a la carte, huge portions. Manly, marbled, muscled stuff.
The beef is dry-aged prime and Kathy and I each order a filet on the bone, the proximity of meat to bone promising extra flavor in the tenderloin. Ivy goes for the New York strip, a cut the size of a small house pet, with a huge price tag.
What to put on the side, next to the basket full of cheese crisps and breads? Starters of crab-stuffed mushrooms, chopped salad. We work our way down the menu and maintain the classic theme: a twice-baked potato, baconey and cheesy good, sturdy as a tugboat. And the traditional steakhouse side: creamed spinach, presented green gorgeous in a barge of a shallow bowl. To round things out, an immense serving of fungus: sautéed wild mushrooms. Oh, and let’s not forget a silver boat brimming with the butteriest bernaise in the known universe.
The portions are enormous, in keeping with the archetypal setting and the plans of the paramours seated nearby. The platters bearing the meat are so hot the spinach and mushrooms sputter as they hit the surface next to the beef.
Freud overwhelmed me; I am overwhelmed by Mastro’s. Flesh everywhere I turn.
I ask the waitress to call 911 as I make the noble effort, trying to polish off the goodies in front of me, eating the béarnaise with a spoon. A couple glasses of syrah, a touch of pear and apple-riddled Muscat, a bite or four of shared flourless chocolate heaven and I’m nearly dead.
Kathy is whimpering; Ivy stares ahead with the foggy gaze of a shell-shocked combat veteran. We waddle upstairs to the clubby bar to listen to a guy who plays keyboards, saxophone, trumpet, clarinet. The guy’s incredible, and he’s working a bar. An ancient lawyer, his suspenders barely able to keep his pants mid-belly on a ballooning gut, gallantly offers Ivy his seat at the bar, then attempts to buy her.
Ah … LA.
Quickly losing consciousness, we make it back to the hotel and, despite the upset on all sides of us, the meal pushes Kathy and I into a simulation of sleep —hibernating pythons digesting ponies.
I have one clear thought before I pass out: the day is not coming any time soon when I will prepare massive cuts of prime beef and army-size sides to accompany them. There will be a time soon, however, when creamed spinach might come in handy.
I had forgotten how good this dish can be, and how easy it is to prepare.
You need a major wad of fresh spinach, the more the better. It must be washed carefully, leaf by leaf, with the tough parts of the stems and any nasty spots discarded. The process takes some time, but it is absolutely necessary. Perform the operation in a huge bowl full of cold water, the liquid replaced after each of three baths,
Into a pot of boiling salted water go the greens and they stay there but a minute, at most. The wilted spinach should be cooled in an ice bath before the moisture is squeezed from it. Then, the spinach is chopped.
Heavy cream goes into a heavy saucepan and is reduced by at least a third. The spinach goes into the cream, as does a bunch of butter, some salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg. The mess is then cooked over low heat and the cream will reduce even more. It’s done when it’s done.
I’m convinced this dish can be served with just about anything that is sautéed or grilled. Or roasted, for that matter. I’m sure the addition of a bit of grated hard cheese can’t hurt and I’m convinced it makes a meal by itself.
Another thing of which I am convinced: If I need meat, I’ll pull my monograph of Lucian Freud from the shelf and gaze at the reproductions.