“Jazz Composer, Arranger and Provocateur” read the headline atop the obituary of Carla Bley, 87, in The New York Times this past week.
I knew her as a musician—a pianist and band leader whose influential effect on jazz was fully demonstrated in such works as A Genuine Tong Funeral and Escalator Over the Hill. Nate Chinen wrote of her compositions in the Times: ‘[W]ith delicate chamber miniatures and rugged, blaring fanfares, with a lot of varied terrain in between. She was branded an avant-gardist early in her career, but that term applied more to her slyly subversive attitude than to the formal character of her music, which always maintained a place for tonal harmony and standard rhythm.”
It was that “slyly subversive attitude,” as well as the provocateur that led me to wanting to meet her for an interview.
We met on a sunny Spring morning in 1981 at Duke’s, a diner popular with Hollywood’s creative underworld. The restaurant—crowded, smoke-filled and noisy—was an integral part of the Tropicana Motel, a flea-bag institution with 74 rooms on Santa Monica Boulevard. It was to Los Angeles what the 250-unit Chelsea Hotel was to New York.
The Chelsea had Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistols; the Trop, Lee Ving and Fear.
I sat alone at a table for four, my elbows absorbing some of the grease that had accumulated over the years. Ms. Bley’s entrance was widely noticed. Tall, with a shock of reddish-blonde hair coiffed into a boxy Page Boy, her very presence commanded attention.
Seated across from me, we exchanged pleasantries. Suddenly, she lurched forward in her chair and spoke in a decidedly commanding voice: “Revenge!”
I hadn’t a clue what she meant, although I briefly entertained the rather romantic notion that, as a journalist, I could be counted on to somehow avenge the wrongs so evident in our society. I was eager to join the underground’s rank-and-file.
“Revenge,” she extolled. “Revenge, Jim, revenge.”
She picked up her menu, stabbing at it with her index finger.
Little did I know that “revenge” was the name of one of several omelet options.
I ordered it, ate it over the course of a couple of hours, and lived with its daunting effects for at least three days.
The few times we met after our initial interview, she never failed to speak “Revenge” in a seditious tone. I liked how her utterance might confuse any who’d overheard her.
Although the memory might not have been as great, my digestive tract would have fared better had I had the egg salad.
I love a good egg salad sandwich and as a child I would devour those made by relatives on my father’s side of the family. Those were the only egg salads I was allowed to eat. It was based on some farkakte idea that anybody else’s egg salad was bound to bring on a case of food poisoning that would lead to certain death. That was the reason that I wasn’t allowed to order egg salad at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Oak Park, Illinois, where we frequently had Saturday lunch.
My mother had similar bans in place for tuna fish and chicken salad.
The best I can figure is that Mom was perhaps traumatized by an open jar of mayonnaise when she went off to college in the big city. (As much as we can tell, there was no mayonnaise in the Nebraska of her youth.)
I remember longing after the egg salad contained in the metal bowls as I chewed with little conviction on the turkey club which, by the way and for the record, had mayonnaise.
There is something inherently funny about egg salad—not the food, but the name. Imagine Mel Brooks saying it: his gravelly Brooklyn lilt would forever change the way you heard it. Robert Young (“Father Knows Best”) would never have had that effect.
Woody Allen appreciated egg salad, as both a food and a subject matter. That’s what led to his making his first movie, What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, in 1966. Allen took footage from a Japanese spy film, International Secret Police: Key of Keys (1965), and overdubbed it with completely original dialogue. He changed the tone of the film away from a James Bond spy clone to a comedy about the search for the world’s best egg salad recipe.
Henry Winkler, the actor best known for his playing of Fonz on television’s “Happy Days,” wandered into my restaurant one day. He was starring in a kids’ movie that was filming in our little town and he was hungry for lunch. As luck would have it, he ordered the egg salad sandwich. He returned the next day and had the chicken salad. On the third day, he ordered both—eating half of each, we learned, while saving the rest for dinner in his hotel room.
He told me that my chicken salad was the best he’d ever had, adding that “And I’ve eaten a lot of chicken salad.” He didn’t comment on the egg salad, but since he ordered it every day for two weeks it must have been at least up to par.
At least he wasn’t afraid of it.
Photo illustration by Courtney A. Liska
8 hard-cooked eggs
½ cup mayonnaise
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
2 Tbs. finely diced celery
2 Tbs. finely diced green onion
1 Tbs. sweet pickle relish
¼ teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
Peel and chop the eggs and transfer them to a medium mixing bowl. Add the mayonnaise, mustard, celery, onion, dill, onion powder, paprika, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine the mixture.