Fourth of July is a bit of a sad holiday for me. I’m reminded of my friend Deborah Murphy, who passed away far, far too young several years ago. It’s not that she died on the Fourth, or was born on the Fourth for that matter, but that she owned the Fourth. Entirely, consummately, possessively.
In my circle of friends, we’ve come to a hard-won détente about hosting holidays, and pity the man who tries to wrest them from us. The calendar: Thanksgiving is shared between us and our friends the Rosellis. Canadian Thanksgiving is a no-brainer; it goes to Danny, our goose-loving expat. Christmas is all Gingy. She contends not only with friends, but her entire clan of in-laws lolling about the house from sun up to sundown. The one holiday no one laid claim to was July Fourth. So about a decade ago, Deborah tucked it under her wing and nursed it from a wobbly gathering of a few nibbles by the pool to a brute of a daylong, never-ending feast that put all-you-can-eat joints to shame.
Not only could Deb cook, but she could eat—with the fierce, get-out-of-my-way gusto of a woman coming off of a 10-day cabbage fast. She was so obsessively devoted to and fanatical about food that while sitting down to breakfast—a meal that always included fresh pineapple she cut herself—she’d draw up shopping lists for lunch. If we happened to grab a bite together (usually after a Weight Watchers meeting), she’d punctuate our gossip-heavy conversations with swooping arcs of her laden fork and discuss what she had in store for her husband, John, and daughter, Lizzie, for dinner. Deb was the CNN of cooking: all food, all the time.
Deb and John’s July Fourth bashes were full-on food assaults. The concept of proportionate cooking was utterly lost on her. If 10 people were expected, she’d shop for 20. “You nev-ah know if you’ll feel like noshing lat-ah,” was the usual response, spoken in her mocked-up New York Jewish accent. And she had this frustrating habit—which we all begged her to stop, to no avail—of weighing down her red, white, and blue-covered table (kitted out with coordinating plates, napkins, and glasses) with every conceivable spread, dip, and salsa known to mankind since the discovery of fire and encouraging us to “eat to soak up the booze”—which was also always in abundance. And all of this before dinner, which was usually some sort of orgy of pork products, lobster, summer vegetables, and potato salad.
Oh my, how Deb loved potato salad.
Every year we sat side by side in the shade while John and Lizzie would splash about in the family’s 92-degree pool (the only two, along with Deb, who ever ventured into that oversize hot tub on a sizzling hot summer’s day), and she’d tell the same story—The One and I always kersnuffling with laughter. When Deb was a girl, she recounted, her mother would give her candy money, like all good Jewish mothers were wont to do. After school, she and her friends would descend upon their local New York deli—the other girls fighting over red fish and black licorice, Deb peeling off to buy a half-pint of potato salad. She’d sit on the step of the store spooning away, as if she were dipping into a jar of Beluga caviar. So in love with potato salad was she that she was the only person who could possibly wear down The One to get his old-family recipe for his famous salad, which he was reluctant to give out. And for good reason: the old family is the Hellmanns.
Two standards at Deb’s table on July Fourth, which I couldn’t stop eating, were her hot clam spread and eggplant caviar. Especially the clam spread. And nothing made Deb happier than guests—fatty-fat me, in this case—humming with satisfaction over her food. When she kicked off the day by triumphantly carrying out both dishes as if she were presenting her first grandchild to us for the first time, I’d pat the table in front of me and shout out, “Put ’em right here next to poppa, sweetheart,” which she happily did.
I miss Deb. I miss her food. I miss her rock-solid belief that there isn’t a problem too big that a good meal can’t fix. I miss how we would laugh so hard about something that her cheeks would flush bright red and tears would stream down her face. I miss the out-of-the-blue phone calls that always started with, “So…what’s up?” I miss the gossip. I miss my friend.
For Lizzie’s wedding shower Deb asked all of us to share a recipe or two that she then compiled along with her own into a cookbook. The book was to help Lizzie in the kitchen. Little did I know that just a few years later I’d be asking Lizzie for two of those same recipes. Besides a dozen or so pictures, they’re all I have of Deb. But instead of typing them below and, in the process, stripping them of all their Deborah-ness, I’m including them as she gave them to Lizzie—stains and all (click on the images to see the recipes). They’re a testament of a life lived and loved in the kitchen.