If It’s July Fourth, It Must Be Deborah’s

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.

Deborah in a white shirt, in her kitchen with box grater on counter in front of her.
Cooking up a storm in preparation for July Fourth.

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.

Deborah wearing her daughter's wedding dress and flip flops one 4th of July.
How do you solve a problem like Deborah? Goofing around in her daughter’s wedding dress one July Fourth.

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. 

Hot clam spread recipe handwritten on paper.
Eggplant caviar recipe handwritten on a sheet of paper.


About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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  1. Oh, David, so nice. I know Deborah is smiling in the Eternal Kitchen in the Sky. I’ll bet she knew how much you loved your times together.

    1. Donna Rose, I hope she did. She was a special lady. I remember one time at the Rose Garden Tea Room at The Huntington in California, we were all set to get up and pick out our noshes at the very moment a whole bus group descended upon the buffet. Deb and I looked on in horror at the prospect of having to wait to eat. Well, we took one look at each other, saw the expressions on our faces, and laughed so hard (her crying and all), that The One had to separate us. We were like kids together.

      1. David,

        I’m pretty sure I can conjure up those same feelings having grown up in a small town with my friend Cynthi. Once someone asked how long we had known each other and neither of us could answer. She remembered coming to the lumberyard, where my dad worked, with her father at about age 3. I clearly remember a slumber party when we were maybe 8 or 9. After walking home through the cemetary, she jumped out at me in the dark and I passed out cold.

        We have gone to weddings, funerals, 50th anniversary bashes, Festa Italianos,baby showers; always together. When she lived in Italy for a year, we went to visit on our first ever trip to Europe. When my mother died, her mom stepped in and adopted me on the spot, even though she was terminally ill herself. At the end of her life, Cynth told her that it was all right to let go. Her response was “Not yet. I have to take care of Donna.” The last time I saw her she hadn’t eaten for a month. There was no scientific reason that she should still be alive, but we both knew she was living off something intangible.

        Judy, I smiled as I read your sentence about dishes you make that evoke memories of your mom and grandma. I wonder if you know the extent to which your cooking has touched the lives of others? I’ll bet you are a torch bearer for them just as the women in your family are for you.
        I am sure in my heart that we humans crave desperately for that connection; especially in today’s crazy, distant, anonymous world. Atavistic was the word writer, MFK Fisher, used to try to capture thoughts on the deep and driving need to connect our hearts together through nourishment.

        David, thank you for starting this whole topic. It’s beginning to feel like it may take on a life of its own. I hope so. As I read the time stamps on all the comments, I am struck that all of us have spent at least a part of the morning in the same frame of mind. May everyone go out and have a fabulous 4th and be sure to tuck the memories away in a safe place.

        1. Donna Rose,
          Your message was inspiring and lovely. I appreciate your comments about the possibility that my cooking has touched the lives of others. At the risk of seeming “proud”…my daughters and granddaughters who are now married have all at one time or another requested recipes and/or asked that I compile them; plus many compliments and appreciative remarks make many hours in the kitchen more than worthwhile. The cycle goes on.

          Also, I was feeling a little overeager to comment so much and then when you thanked David for starting the topic & expressed the thought that maybe the topic had taken on a life of it’s own…I felt that maybe the “therapy session” was okay !!! 🙂

          1. Judy,

            Hey…be proud. There’s nothing wrong with being big time proud. Those things we share make our family unique, you know. Maybe your uncle always put hot sauce in the cranberry relish. It’s not the food you remember, it’s the inside joke or story that makes you a part of that moment, that crazy, wonderful family.

            I do hope you are compiling the recipes and tips for your girls. That means so very much. And during the years after we’re gone, those little notebooks will make it possible for us to be with them for a little while now and then. They will never find a cookbook that will rival it.

            In terms of writing a lot, I tend to do that too at times. David hasn’t slapped my hand yet. And if he does slap yours, you can always say, “well Donna did it first!” 🙂

            BTW Martha!! I have a wishbone to pick with you (groan, groan, groan). I have been craving a turkey sandwich with Best Foods (out West here) all day long because of your post. Went out and bought a breast and I’m cookin it right now.

            I swear I had NO coffee today.

  2. Only one who loves food as much as life itself can appreciate this story and the friendship. I struggle and struggle to understand WHY our special dear friends and relatives have to leave us when there are those among us who would cheerfully do us all harm and they are healthy and thriving. I am brazen enough to want to know WHY? But aside from that you have your memories of special dear friend. Keep her in your heart forever !
    Happy Independence Day !

    1. Judy, thanks for your lovely thoughts. I know the family of Deb is reading these comments, and I know they appreciate your sentiments, too. Happy Fourth.

      1. A further thought…I was thinking after reading all the comments that many foods that I prepare & love envoke vivid memories of those who made them first, as in the cases of my grandmother and mother, also friends. One reason it’s so darned hard to diet is that for some of us, eating is a form of socialization and/or comfort. Not just the physical part of eating but the memories of happy times and love, etc.