Joy: NEW YEAR’S EVE or Any Eve Meze
New Year’s Eve and I’m in the center of the kitchen at Park Plates in Elkins Park, PA, just across
the border from the sprawling city of Philadelphia, owned by my friend of more than 30 years,
chef Owen Lee. My niece, Ava, stands at the salad station, her fine blond hair, the same texture
as my own, pulled back in a ponytail, a white apron tied over her black jeans and black blouse.
She will assemble the meze platter, the first course for all orders that will come in tonight; and
she looks as though she was made to work in a professional kitchen: organized, focused, intent
on re-creating a beautiful and exacting plate (per Owen) at least 65 times during the course of
Our ingredients are in order; the first guests have arrived and it’s ready, set, go!
I leave the kitchen for a moment and step into a warm and inviting dining room that seats 42
people at white-clothed tables, each set with a small spray of pale lavender-pink Alstromeria
and a flickering candle. To my left, is a small stage where Owen, who is also a drummer and
guitarist, will play with friends beginning at 11 p.m. to usher in the new year.
I had proposed to Owen that we cook together tonight; and we have created a dinner menu
called Tree of Life in honor of the roots and branches that connect all of us through our recipes
and stories and most profoundly at table, but also as a celebration of my cookbook, co-
authored with Angie Brenner, Tree of Life: Turkish Home Cooking.
The reason I’m standing in the dining room for a moment has a deeper origin. There is a round
table in the far corner, the perfect location for two couples to have an intimate evening and still
be part of the festivities. My husband Fred and I sat at the very table last year with beloved
friends, Merrie and Kundan, ready to embrace what the new year would bring.
Well, actually, two things loomed on the horizon. We were dreading the inauguration of
Donald Trump and preparing for a planned march in Philadelphia on January 20; and before
that, we would start a Phase One drug trial to target a genetic mutation in Fred’s colorectal
cancer that had sent cells to his lung and liver. We were on the cusp of Year 5 treating Fred’s
cancer. We’d had success and failure, but Fred was proving to be tough; and while nervous, we
were hopeful. Fred was being treated by a stellar team of doctors at Massachusetts General
Hospital in Boston, and we trusted them utterly and completely to lead us, if not to a cure, to a
path to manage the disease for many years to come.
Back in the kitchen, Owen is dusting pork belly with herbs and spices, one of the appetizer
choices on the menu. His guest chef, Philadelphia legend, food pioneer and restauranteur Paul
Roller, is roasting butternut squash to create a puree on which to settle sautéed duck breast,
one of the entrée choices.
Erin Riley, hostess at the front desk, walks in to retrieve glasses for our signature cocktail,
Persephone’s Revenge, Page XX, Tree of Life, a subtle combination of Turkish Raki and fresh pomegranate juice, offered to each guest who walks through the door. Erin, whom I met years
ago when I first knew Owen. She was music director at the Philly rock station WMMR and gave
the band, Memo Lender, in which Owen was drummer, a shot on the radio. The band broke up,
but Erin and I didn’t. Tonight, she is radiant, her long, dark hair pulled back in a scarf. A
necklace of antique glass beads glistens around her neck. She and I have been besties through
thick and thin: Marriages, careers, children, divorces, remarriage, job changes; and last
summer, the death of Fred.
The physical plate is oblong - white porcelain - Ava starts assembling an edible work of art. Just
the left of center (a melty-warm piece of feta will be its companion) on a diagonal she arranges
5, 2 ½-inch carrot spears, which I had prepped the day before, pickled in a sweet-sour brine
redolent of cumin and allspice and left to mellow for 24 hours; and she tops it with a tangle of
saffron-yellow onions brined as well, but with the addition of turmeric. On the lower left, she
places six unctuous, complex and sweet black grapes that have been tossed with olive oil and
roasted with salt and fresh rosemary. I must confess that I’ve never consciously tasted a
roasted grape; and for me, they are one of those surprise gifts that happen in life, a gift I’d
missed until now in my food journeys.
With more guests arriving, I’m now by Ava’s side. The counter is lined with oblong plates. Chef
Roller sautees the feta cheese in olive oil; and in a deep fat fryer pearl onions encased in batter
become sweet, salty and crisp. In the upper right-hand corner of each plate, Ava and I pile five
olives marinated in orange and lemon rind and rosemary. They are black and deep purple and
vibrant green, and every now and then, we sneak one and pop a rich, salty treasure into our
“Four meze plates. Table Six,” calls the waitress.
In the upper left hand corner we make a swoosh of aolii seasoned with the North African red
pepper paste, harissa. Blush pink in color. Atop that we place two golden, deep-fried pearl
onions. And then the piece de resistance, tender at the center, warm and crisp on the surface,
perfectly fried feta. A dusting of pepper and our appetizer, which in my mind has become a
tribute in its beauty to the Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian, one of the pioneers of 20 th century
abstract art, is out the door.
Ava turns to me, blue and sparkling eyes eager for the next order and I can’t help but pull her
close and hug her.
Ava’s boyfriend will fly in from California in the new year. Tonight, she didn’t want go out and
party just for the sake of partying. She has been interested in cooking and food since she was a
child; and has cooked with me on several occasions. So, she has driven down from Westchester
New York to get in on the fun. I can’t help thinking that something deeper might be going on.
Ava is my goddaughter. We are all grieving Fred in our own way. And maybe she sensed how
comforting it is for me to stand next to her and watch her soon-to- be adult life unfold. I am here to guard her, keep her from any kind of hurt. Fred, who loved all his nieces, would be proud of her.
The orders come fast and furious. Owen, in his chef whites is in full command of his kitchen,
focused on his orders, duck, sea bass with pistachios, pork belly; while Paul works his own
magic with the fryer, vegetables, feta cheese. They are dancing a pas de deux. Time flies and I
forget everything: the New Years Eves where I’ve cooked dinner for friends and Fred played DJ,
the boring run-of- the-mill New Year’s Eves where we forced ourselves to stay awake to see the
ball drop. The New Year’s Eve in Vermont with friends, In the village of Devi Garh in India, in
London, with our daughter, Sarah and cousin Kate, my brother’s daughter. I forget everything
and concentrate on a second salad station where I assembl, grilled Romaine Salad with String
Cheese and Anchovy Dressing, yes, from the cookbook.
Service is slowing. Thanks to an announcement I put on Facebook, a number of Fred’s and my
friends have helped sell out the dining room. Friends with whom we spent New Year’s Eves
past. They drift out with accolades and hugs, bittersweet notes in their gestures. I pour a glass
of wine for Ava and me, watch Owen take off his apron and head to the stage to tune his guitar.
Guests have gathered at the nearly cleared table and Owen and two friends begin to play –
(Name some of the songs) Erin and I sing-along. Ava takes a selfie and sends it to her
And, 10, 9, 8… Come back, Freddy, I think… 7, 6, 5, thank you Freddy, I think…4,3,2… thank you,
Owen, for this gift of transmuting pain, I think... 1...
Ready, set go… “Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?
I’m now sipping champagne. I’m now hugging Erin, Ava, and our friend, elegant Arlen who has
acted as runner tonight.
I did, it, Fred, I think. I walked into a new year.