Bio

Snug Harbor, Maryland 1944

Snug Harbor, Maryland 1944

 

My Cooking Life

The first meal I made was for a beautiful Collie who was my constant companion in a remote Chesapeake Bay town called Snug Harbor where my family spent the summer. One day, I was fishing for minnows in a creek that ran close to our cabin. When I caught a fish and it flopped about on the dock I noticed that the dog was fascinated by the fish. For some reason, I thought the dog might be hungry, so I found a long stick and got some matches from the house. I built a fire from twigs and sea grass, and with the dog by my side I roasted the minnow on the stick much like I roasted marshmallows with my family. I was four years old and I wish I remembered if the dog ate my roasted minnow. What I do remember is the pleasure I got from cooking a meal for a dear friend — the same pleasure I get today.

My parents loved food and the joy of the whole family gathered around the dining room table every night for dinner.

My mother, a former Southern belle turned middle class New Yorker, learned to cook from Adrie Jefferson, the daughter of a slave. Adrie who had been my mother’s nurse maid, was lent by my socialite Grandmother to her daughter who had to learn to cook because my father couldn’t afford help. All Adrie knew were the simple meals her mother taught her, so my mother became a master of what would come to be known as Soul Food.

My father, whose grandmother owned a farm and boarding house on 48th Street in New York City, grew up street savvy. As a boy he sold show programs to patrons of the theaters that were moving up town and becoming “legitimate”. He eventually became an assistant to Charles Dillingham, a theatre critic who became a major Broadway producer. This street savvy boy who mingled with uptown swells and theatre people learned an appreciation for fine food that was served restaurants like Luchows on 14th Street and Delmonicos down in the Wall Street area.

When we sat around the table eating a delicious new dish my mother had learned from our Italian neighbors, she would often remind us that first meal she cooked my father was on their honeymoon when she cracked eggs into a red hot fry pan without any shortening.  My mother would praise her mentors, Adrie Jefferson, who taught her that a good cook learned from watching other cooks create and my father who had brought her to the fine restaurants in Manhattan where she experienced the pleasures of fine dining.

Almost every Saturday morning my father would make breakfast. He would serve such things as Spanish omelettes, baby lamb chops, minute steaks and poached eggs and his specialty, S.O.S, chipped beef on toast with peas. I learned years later that SOS meant “shit on a shingle“ because it was the standard fare when my father served in the Calvary.  I loved Shit on a Shingle and still do today.

When I was about eight my parents introduced me to restaurant eating.  Some Saturdays we would go to a Broadway show preceded by a meal in a variety of restaurants from holes in the wall to the city’s top restaurants.  In these restaurants, my father always encouraged me to try new things like raw oysters, frog legs, shad roe and Russian caviar – which I loved and still love today without a budget to afford it.

During this period I often made the rounds of our neighbors who always fed me. Mrs. Martucci introduced me to piselli as an after school treat — often with espresso.  Mrs. Marra showed me how to roast peppers on the gas burners and invited to incredible dinners including my first Christmas Eve seven fishes feast.  The Marras also had a box at the Metropolitan Opera every Thursday night.  So I often found myself with their daughter, my best friend Judy, wandering the halls of the Met looking at the rich ladies diamonds and fabulous gowns.  A performance at the Met was always followed by supper and it was always Italian food.  In those days, I developed a preference for Italian cooking which I still have today.

When I entered high school at the early age of 12, I quickly found a small circle of friends who enjoyed theatre and eating. We roamed the city,  saw shows and ate evey kind of food imaginable. For my sixteenth birthday, my father bought us and our dates tickets to a Broadway  show, and reserved a private room in Mamma Leone’s restaurant, where the owner was a friend. We were all dressed up and behaving like adults as we ate great Italian food with wine (hush hush!)  that Gene Leone provided for this special occasion.

At 17,  I went away to  college where I found a similar group of friends, many of whom were older guys who had served in the military. These vetreans welcomed me as the wiseass kid from New York City who knew more about life, booze, food and the underbelly of a city than they did.

Truth to tell, these guys were more interested in partying than fine food or Broadway theatre. So I had to find that elsewhere with my guide, John Louis Bonn, a Jesuit priest who was my English teacher, a poet, a bon vivant and dear friend of actors like Bette Davis who praised John one night at dinner for teaching me to drink martinis.

I think it was John Bonn, who was wildly theatrical (very gay) and a good friend of my parents, who convinced them that I was meant to be a Jesuit.

So after college, I took off to a Jesuit  monastery in the Berkshires, where I began the rigorous 15 year course of studies that was required of men seeking membership in that esteemed religious order. As I was beginning my studies, Pope John 23 was starting a revolution in the Catholic Church.  And, because Jesuits had always played the role as the Pope’s vanguard, we were expected to lead the fight for change.

And change we did with the exhilaration of prisioners of darkness suddlenly released to live in the world of light.  Eveything that had been secular was holy, so we Jesuits were encouraged to get advanced degrees such worldly thing as Theatre and the Arts. I tossed aside my religious black garb, began a Ph.D in Humanties at Syracuse University and  travelled to London in search of the Beatles.  Failing to become friends with the Fab 4, I  moved on to the Continent where I explored cultural centers from France to Greece using “Europe on Five Dollars a Day” as my bible.  With only five dollars to cover room and board, I found myself eating what the common people did and loving it!   My food insight during this journey was that people in Europe create great food from what is given them in the fields, forests and sea.

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I returned to States 1n 1969  when the anti war movement was in full swing.  With Europe under my belt, it was time to complete my studies and explore the excitement of a country divided.  And what better place than a commune in Cambridge, MA?  There, I assumed the role of main cook  for a group who encoured my experimentation and welcomed guest cooks from every corner of the globe.  Our big thrill was to greet  Julia Child our neighbor as she took off for one of her regular shopping forays. “Hello Julia,” we’d call out to the woman in the emerald green great coat. And she would call back, “Hello boys! ” with a crescendo of laughter.

After  Cambridge and ordination to the priesthood, I moved to New York City where I worked with a group of men and women determined to create a marriage between the arts and the Catholic Church.  There,  I rediscovered the city of my childhood and the food revolution that was taking place.  Zabars had just opened down the street, Schezhuan food was being introduced on upper Broadway, Latin food was being appreciated and the SOUL food my mother learned to cook was everywhere.  During this period I travelled to Europe and the Middle East where my tastebuds were constantly challenged.

My penultimate move was back to  the Boston area in 1975.  There  I taught college and decided it was time to come out of the closet and join the GAY revolution.  It was during this period of time that I met my partner and the group of men who inspired me to tech them how to KookKweer. I left the Jesuit order and Catholic church in 1978 because the “old ways ” of isolation, exclusivity and intolerance were beginning to take hold in the church and the Jesuits were being marginalized.  Today I smile when I see Pope Francis, a Jesuit, shaking things up by being faithful to the vows and spirituality I learned as a young man.  Rome had no idea what they were getting. Yay!

So now that I have reached my ultimate (perhaps not) desitiation, Philadelphia,  I am celebrating my parents who instilled experimentation and the love of food in me, my dear partner who has eaten my experiments for 40+ years and the loving friends who encouraged me to create  KOOKING KWEER.

For those craving a proper biography, it can be found in my website: www.pauldavisjones.com.