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Posts Tagged ‘David Life’

Full Moon Life Café Poetry Readings and Zombies in Tompkins Square Park in the 1980s

This is an excerpt from the up-coming memoir by Kathy Life, “How Life Began: A Story of Hope, Love and Huevos Rancheros at Life Café in the East Village of New York City”

David Life used the Café as a stage to present his ideas, which were taking on a bizarre ilk. On to the walls in eccentric and fantastical combinations, he installed discarded objects from the streets: toys, wooden masks and broken trophies. It was like the street was coming inside. One item was a WWII bomb to which he screwed a wooden laughing Buddha on the end. He began showing art by the locals, good and be locals, and created his own art, oftentimes painting right onto the building. His mythic cartoon-like animals stared down at you with lashing tongues and bulging eyes daring you to come in.

Founds Objects turned to Art Installation on Walls of Life Cafe East Village NYC

Founds Objects turned to Art Installation on Walls of Life Cafe East Village NYC

In 1982, the SSI guys living off of disability were the first to hang out like semi-permanent human fixtures. Ira Bruckner, a poet who lived a couple of doors down, occasionally came in for coffee.

He was an argumentative bugger, a rude hot wire, and a loose nut. One quiet afternoon when the usual guys were inside with their coffees and chess boards he walked in front of the Café, peered through the open arched window from where we sold ice cream, yelled some obscenities, then hurled the table fan sitting on the windowsill into the middle of the Café, supposedly at someone, who, no one knew. As tolerant as David was, that was the last straw. David banned Ira from Life for life.Life Cafe circa 1985

I thought Ira wasn’t really crazy, because he had these long moods of intelligence and empathy. For instance, before the fan incident, he did something constructive. In a challenging tone he said, “David, why don’t you have poetry readings here?” “Okay, Ira. Why don’t you organize them?” He set up the Life Cafe Tuesday Night Poetry Readings.

Writers came to read and vent their considerable angst. But Ira was too unpredictable and then there was the fan-throwing incident. So Dave took a chance and invited John Farris to take over, a good friend but another loose canon. Fortunately, he very ably steered his anger and intolerances toward society organizing the readings and reading his own work. He was good for Life. He knew everyone who was anyone in the literary world in and around the neighborhood.

The readings were free and open. All you had to do was sign up (this was before “open mike” got the name) and, unfortunately, anyone did. Before each reading, people gathered around the tables decorated with collages from our vintage Life Magazine collection and ordered coffees and something cheap to nibble on, much to my chagrin. I was always trying to figure out how to get them to spend more money so I could pay the rent and utility bills. To those we knew we sold shots of Puerto Rica rum in their coffee for an extra buck. 2539

Thick cigarette smoke accented with marijuana hung in the room like smoke before the fire. Life Cafe readings were wild. There was often a heckler in the audience, and one, a woman with wild hair, was potentially dangerous. When she yelled, everyone in the house shifted nervously. Occasionally a brave poet would rant back if that night’s heckler wasn’t too threatening; it was a cacophony of verbal anarchy, a word dart competition and the poet was the dartboard.

During full moons the streets tended to be more rowdy than usual and the lunacy spilled off the street and into the Café.

Those were the toughest nights. I had to work the floor during those readings because the Café was packed and we needed to keep a closer watch over the crowd, which couldn’t be done from behind the counter where Dave was. He was too busy making espressos and small change.

Tune in for more Zombies and Poets of the 1980s Lower East Side, coming soon.


TOMATO LOVE

DIGGING DEEP IN MY PANTRY FOR THE FOOD OF LIFE CAFÉ by Kathy Life

“Life Salad” Menu Picture Riddle for Life Cafe by John G. Sunderland

This is an adaptation from my forthcoming book: How Life Began: Finding Hope, Love and Huevos Rancheros at Life Café in New York City.

This series is about the heritage of the Life Café menu and the food that was on that menu. Many of the recipes originated years ago in the old pantry of my youth, way before I came to New York City and are intricately connected to the history of Life Café and its humble beginnings.

I’m going back, pulling out jars of the preserved tomatoes I made that were inspired by those my mom use to make each summer. And I’m digging into the bags of brown rice and dried beans that I took along on my two-year American road trip with my young husband at the time, David Kirkpatrick (now known as David Life) cooking up wild berry pies and bean and veggie stews over log and mud campfires.

I hope this project nourishes you as it has me over the decades. And I hope you take pleasure in the read and the recipes. There’s more coming!

We were only married a few years. The unrealized hope of a loving marital relationship caused conflict inside me that I couldn’t shake. I looked okay on the outside when I wasn’t throwing myself on the ground in tears; but really I was a total mess.

As David went about with his pals busy with their art and antiquing, I tried to shake off my loneliness. It was probably more than that; it may have been depression. I compensated by expanding my universe from inside the house to the outside and the patch of land around us. There I told myself I would plant my heart in the garden that I would make under the sun and the trees and not in my husband’s shadow.

I planted a vegetable garden and taught myself how to preserve the harvest. I became obsessive. Once I started working the land I couldn’t stop until I was totally wiped or the sun went down and I couldn’t’ see anymore.

The physical work of the garden absorbed me completely, both mentally and physically. Ladies, if inside both you and the home is an emotional desert, go outside and create a garden. I did. With every turn of the sod, I buried my crushing depression. It wasn’t the garden I was planting, it was me. I needed to grow, blossom and bear fruit.

As a child canning was something I’d watched my mother do for years, and a lot of what she did was a mystery. Now married, I taught myself the specifics. Dave and I never had enough money so I quickly learned the fiscal sense of growing, harvesting and preserving.

I remember one hot afternoon when I was eleven when I helped my folks harvest tomatoes in our back yard.

I was a picky eater, but the tomato in my hand called to me. It was still warm from the sun; I took a bite. When my teeth pierced the skin the delicious flavor burst in my mouth and the juice ran down my chin – pure, and fresh. It was the mother’s milk of the earth. That single tomato planted in me seeds of the essence of real fresh food.

Back in our little kitchen Mom’s tomato canning process took over for days. First she blanched whole tomatoes in boiling water in deep white enamel pots to remove the skins making the kitchen a sweet tomato-scented steam bath.

Next she dipped the tomatoes in cool water, slipped off the skins then crushed the pulp of each tomato with her hands over a large pot, added salt and pepper and brought it to a boil. While that was heating up she filled an even larger blue and white-speckled enameled pot with water and put that on to boil too; into it went her Ball canning jars. The jars went in and came out on a wire rack. Boiled and baptized they were now ready to receive.

Now timing was critical. Once the jars were sterilized, she quickly poured the steaming hot stew into them, set the rubber-lined lids on top of the rims and lightly screwed on the collars, carefully placing each jar onto a rack on the kitchen table to cool overnight. As I passed through the kitchen I’d hear the jars “pop” on their own as they formed a vacuum seal. That “pop” meant they were ready and our future as a family was secure.

Months later while getting dinner ready she’d call down to Dad, “Bring up a quart of tomatoes, would you Tony?” He’d built a pantry in the basement to store all her canned tomatoes and the pickles she made from the cucumbers he grew. There were also canned green beans and homemade applesauce down there. Like secrets, at the back of the highest shelf were the jars of the wild mushrooms he hunted during the fall in the woods. I wouldn’t touch them; they looked slimy, evil and dangerous, like witches’ spells he didn’t understand. Of course they weren’t, at least to him. I sat head in hands at the table as Dad heartily sucked them up. I watched and waited while he wiped his lips and burped. But that was the worst of it; he didn’t up and die. Mom and Dad weren’t that happy together, but the kitchen is where they came together.

My mother served her stewed canned tomatoes in little side bowls chummed up to plates of steaming hot boiled ring bologna, boiled peeled potatoes and her homemade applesauce. We’d smother the potatoes with margarine (butter was too expensive for her budget), salt and pepper. The flavors melded simply and wonderfully. This was one of our Lithuanian family’s favorite meals and it was heartily delicious.

For my second garden season I was buried in even more tomatoes. I’d already canned enough of them to get us through the winter. What to do? I had to act quickly. I got a “eureka” moment – homemade tomato juice! I followed my stewed tomato recipe but strained the seeds, added oregano, basil and thyme and reduced the liquid. I was so proud of myself; I’d produced the deep red elixir of tomatoes picked fresh off the vine in glistening glass jars bursting with life-giving enzymes, vitamins and minerals. I can taste it now.

But there were still tomatoes left and I was beginning to run out of steam. I decided to make tomato sauce. Fran, my lovely mother-in-law, told me it was a good idea and that instead of going through all the canning, I could store the sauce in the new Ziploc freezer bags that just came on the market. And, she said, lay them flat in the freezer so they took up less room.

She was right, as always. It was easy to pull a bag of homemade spaghetti sauce for two, four, or ten people, however many showed up at any given time.

The recipe below was used many times at Life Café, but for economy of time and space, we used canned instead of fresh tomatoes at the Cafe. Use the sauce straight on the pasta of your choice topped with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Or, use it as a base, adding seafood, mushrooms. You can also add carrots, honey or  dash of sugar to add sweetness to it.

Don’t worry if you don’t use the sauce the same day you prepare it. In fact, it’ll taste even better the next day.  Once cooked, you can store it up to 5 days in the refrigerator. Otherwise, freeze it until needed.  Yes, spoon it in those new-fangled zip-lock freezer bags in the portion sizes that suit you. Just remember to store them flat to save room!

Life Cafe circa 1997

ELEMENTAL MARINARA SAUCE from Life Café, New York City

Enough sauce for a pound of pasta

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 garlic cloves, sliced

½ white onion, diced

35 oz can whole peeled tomatoes (no not crush)

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Salt and pepper to taste

½ cup fresh chopped basil or 3 tablespoons dried

Sauté the onions in about 1-2 tablespoons olive oil for about 10 minutes until they’re transparent. Add the garlic and sauté 3 more minutes (don’t let the garlic turn brown or they turn bitter). Add the whole tomatoes with liquid and dried spices. (Hector, head cook of Life Café, said leaving the tomatoes whole helps neutralize the acid.) Bring to a simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from heat. If using fresh basil, add it at this time. Mash the tomatoes with a potato masher to the consistency you desire.

 


LIFE IS JUST A BOWL OF CHILI at Life Cafe

Veggie Chili was the first hot item I served at Life Café in 1981. Warming, filling, loved by everyone, chili epitomized what people were looking for. Oh, and it was cheap.

To get the Cafe opened quickly I scrounged the neighborhood for snacks, the kinds of munchies loose change would buy. Dennis, a college buddy of David Life’s, arrived from Michigan about that time for a visit, curious and excited over our latest adventure, a real café in New York City.

One day Dennis and I talked about a menu. He jumped up exclaiming, “You must serve CHILI!” I was swept up by his enthusiasm and followed him into my kitchen.

“Start with cans of beans. You got fresh tomatoes? Onions? First sauté up some onions. And lots of garlic. Green pepper is good. You got celery? We can put some of that in. Where are your spices?

“Oh, Dennis, that’s too much cayenne!

“Oh, yeah. Ha, ha! I love it. Let’s throw in some black pepper too. Hot. It’s gotta be hot, hot, hot!

I didn’t serve his recipe but he convinced me about chili! I came up with my own recipe after researching the trusty old vegetarian cookbooks that had traveled with me cross-country. Dave and I were vegetarians since living in Michigan. I enjoyed discovering non-meat alternatives and experimenting with unusual ingredients. At Life Cafe, it was natural for me to serve food Dave and I liked and believed in eating. It was a challenge though to come up with menu ideas to appeal to a wider palate and to find ingredients that weren’t as readily available then as they are today.

But I had a mission. The health and fiscal advantages of vegetarianism were apparent. And I believed that by offering it on our menu showed we cared.

I charged fifty cents for Life’s Three-Bean Vegetarian Chili so our cash strapped artist and non-artist neighbors could enjoy a hot meal. I made sure that my chili was nutritious in case it happened to be the only meal someone ate that day. If a customer had an extra buck and wanted to splurge, the chili was available with brown rice and freshly grated sharp cheddar cheese for a bigger protein boost. This simple dish replenished one’s spirit with a near-to-complete protein meal.

Because it was the first item on Life Cafe’s menu and quickly became its backbone, Life’s Vegetarian Chili holds a special place on the menu for me. It’s a symbol of the ideals that Life Cafe was built upon, and serves as a reminder of where I started. It’s a symbol of what Life Cafe is about.