Salad Days: Jon Favreau’s “Chef,” Stanley Tucci’s “Big Night,” and the Predicament of Dinnertime

Dave took the past week off work to spend with us. We all just reveled in it! We took in the Natural History Museum, went to a pool party, and on Wednesday he even took the big kids to Disneyland (!! — I stayed with Zanny, who had a nasty little head cold all week). He’s also been taking care of all kinds of stuff on the business end, like packing, and planning things for his team, finalizing his will (standard operating procedure), practicing using Face Time with the kids from one room of the house to another. (“I don’t know how to use Face Time,” I said. He said, “Don’t worry, I showed Nora.” He’s been saying that several times a day, which should probably worry me, but if anyone will hold this place together it’s Nora. She’s eight, and she’s our techie.)

 We also hired a groundskeeper. Her habit of working without pants is unorthodox, but we appreciate her spunk.

Just kidding. Her job is actually Director of Morale.


I’ve been putting Dave through the paces with my Honey-Do list, too, asking him to hang a heavy, framed picture we’d had in the garage for a while, and to show me how he gets the baby’s car seat in so tight, and remind me where he keeps the charger for his iPod, which I get to inherit during his absence (yeah, I’ve had my eye on that thing for a while). He’s been reminding me about bank accounts, garbage day (changes on holidays — sheesh, I knew that), and on and on.

I’ve tried cooking some of Dave’s favorite meals this week (when he’s away from home, he never cooks for himself, only eats in the galley. LAZY!). I’ve been having conflicting thoughts about cooking as we lead up to this deployment. I was raised by a mom who worked full-time and then came home and made delicious Italian meals from scratch. Our family’s big on “real food,” home-cooked food.

Half the time, I’m all for this. I get all excited — I’m gonna cook great, healthy dinners, and my kids will have plates full of brightly colored vegetables, and they’ll learn to enjoy real tastes and reject the chemical-tinged temptations of junk food!

And then the other half of the time it’s the exact opposite, and I find myself in a hot, messy kitchen begging the kids to stop running through it so they won’t get burned or impaled by something, and I realize that when I set this pasta-with-pine-nuts concoction in front of them one will invariably blurt, “How much do I have to eat?,” another will be suddenly seized by the need to urinate and will spend half of dinnertime clanking around in the bathroom, and a third will work diligently for fifteen minutes picking each and every expensive little pine nut from her fettuccine with a barely-concealed scowl of disgust, as if they are ticks on a dog.

 Well, Dave thought this was good, anyway.

So the uppity little angel on my shoulder is trying to convince me that I must keep up the home-cooked meals in Dave’s absence, to show my kids that good food is love and good food matters ….. while that slippery devil on the other shoulder is whispering, If paper plates and microwaved nuggets are so bad, do you really want to be right?

It didn’t help that I saw Jon Favreau’s new movie, Chef, this past week.


It spoke, shall we say, to the better angels of my nature (at least that one on my shoulder, pestering me about food). In Chef, Favreau plays the talented Chef Carl Casper, who’s fired from a choice restaurant gig because of his creative stagnation and a hilariously hostile exchange with a snobbish restaurant critic. When life gives him lemons, he makes lemonade (or at least a really mean mojito) by going rogue in an affable and affirming way — buying a food truck and taking his best friend Martin (Jon Leguizamo) and his adorable son, Percy, on a cross-country cooking tour.


Percy, who, like my Nora, has tech savvy that far exceeds her parents’, brings their new operation success by tweeting, Facebooking, and many-other-social-media-things-I-can’t-remember-ing their exploits so that a line of devotees awaits them at every stop.


Sofia Vergara is also in this movie. Pictures like this make me think we have a lot in common — you know, being everyday moms and all.

Chef is a fun, sweet date night movie, with great shots of New Orleans and Miami, lots of good music (Favreau and Leguizamo’s rendition of “Sexual Healing” is still making me chuckle — Dave turned to me and hissed, “Do you remember, like, driving around in the car with your mom and hearing that on the radio? Can you believe we all did that??!”). The whole film was kind of like a long, happy music video. I was never too concerned about any of the characters, but I was happy to see them happy, you know?

But what Chef did best, perhaps, was remind me of my favorite food-movie of all time: Stanley Tucci’s Big Night. Oh, that film, that film!

big night

Released in 1996, Big Night’s got all that mid-nineties earnestness we’re way too cool for now, but it’s such a good, bittersweet story. It contains some of my favorite music and most beloved little vignettes of all time. The two leads are played by Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub, with Ian Holm, the gorgeous Isabella Rossellini, an appropriately pensive Minnie Driver and an adorable Allison Janney as the supporting cast. (It’s also got singer Marc Anthony in a very early role — he must be something like twenty — almost without spoken lines, but still memorable as the sweetly beleaguered line cook, Cristiano).


The opening scene of that film, with Cristiano arriving to work (set to a gorgeous Claudio Villa song,  Stornelli Amorisi) is a pure pleasure, but the closing scene is nearly hallowed ground for me, and I can’t even think about it without getting goosebumps.



In some ways Big Night is the opposite of Chef: where Chef is glitzy and full of social media, Big Night is set in the fifties, among a group of people for whom the telephone still seems like something to get excited about. Where Chef rides high on the thrill of upward mobility, Big Night wrangles with the sadness of immigrants who are watching their dream, and all that they have, slide through their fingers. But both movies share a similar value system, which is that there’s nothing more important than love and family, and that for some people, the truest way to show love is through making someone a damn fine sandwich.

So where does this leave me as I decide how to approach all my duties in the upcoming months? I can’t say for sure. Maybe I can alternate a good home-cooked meal on china one night with, say, three nights’ worth of pizza on paper plates (those really biodegradable ones they sell at Sprouts, that turn back into soil practically while you look at them!). Stanley Tucci would think pizza’s a respectable choice, right?

I can just show my love through food sometimes, and other times I can demonstrate love through playing a board game, or making sure everyone’s showered and clean, or, hell, sweeping the floor, ’cause let’s be honest, I don’t do that for my own entertainment. Thank goodness there are many ways to show you love someone, and that you don’t have to be on-the-ball with every single one all the time. Maybe that’s really the gem hidden within Big Night and Chef: that love is about all the little things. It’s about being there, it’s about showing up. It accumulates over years and years, and sometimes you might misfire, or peter out, or just biff, but as long as you keep coming back and trying again, day after day, you’re all gonna be all right.

Pre-Deployment Fun Tour 2014


The Johanson Family Pre-Deployment Fun Tour 2014 has begun! Here’s our attempt to pack half a year’s worth of family time into Dave’s one week off work.

We started by taking the big kids camping on Palomar Mountain. (My mom stayed with Susanna, who’s two. We’d already taken Nora and Soren camping by the time they were two, but we are wiser now. My memories of chasing a toddling 16-month-old Soren all over a campground in Missouri while a gang of drunk, bearded biker dudes swore and cursed about 10 feet away …. and then trying to get little Soren to fall asleep in the tent, feeling his hot breath on my eyeballs for hours and hours while he repeated, “HI. HI. HI” in my face and I pretended to be asleep …. have finally scared me straight).

We drove east from San Diego, gradually gaining altitude past wildfire-charred hillsides and through Indian reservations (the La Jolla and Luiseno bands) on our way east.


We stayed at Doane Valley Campground, named for an 1880s pioneer named George Doane who composed poetry — all of it, apparently, about the many “school marms” he had courted and been rejected by.

(One of his little ditties was posted on a placard — something like “I like apples and clams, But what really moves my soul are the school ma’ams.”)

Kids, can you feel the rejected spirit of George Doane in this here meadow? He is among us still, wooing the “school ma’ms.”


Another, more upstanding local from the days of yore was an escaped slave named Nathan Harrison, who lived as a free man in the valley, raising hay and hogs, from the 1880s onward, and was thought to have been 101 when he died. I am glad he got a good, long time as a free man.

We pitched our tent and went for a walk around the pond, where bullfrogs croaked and mama ducks settled in with their babies.

Don’t let us bother you, mama


 Hot dog time!IMG_5758



Don’t bother me. I’m serious about mallows


It was a nice, warm night, and other than a toddler who threw a mega-fit downrange around 11:30 p.m. (not our kid, so who cares!) , it was a peaceful one. Come morning, we had hot coffee over the fire


and the kids went nuts over those little boxes of cereal you can buy in 10-packs at the grocery store, which we only get when we go camping. They were perhaps more excited about the little boxes of sugary, non-organic cereal than they were about any other part of the camping trip. All evening they’d talked about which ones they’d choose, swapping and bartering (“If I get the Frosted Flakes then you can have the Corn Pops. But if you get the Froot Loops then I want the Cocoa Krispies”…) After they’d cherry-picked the selection, Dave and I were left with the handful of healthful cereals they’d passed over. “What do you think would happen,” Dave mused, “if I mixed the Corn Flakes with the Special K?”

“Knock yourself out,” I said.

He shrugged and grinned. “You only live once.”

Life is short. Enjoy your cereal.


 And if you’ve got it, flaunt it — in the case of Soren’s shorts-and-knee-socks combo. Kid’s got some serious gams.

Our morning’s adventures took us to the Palomar Fire Tower, built in the 1930s. Lookouts here spotted two of the recent San Diego wildfires first.


 Now that’s a hat


 The charming interior, with original stove and fixtures


This is where the lookouts sleep





From there we checked out the Palomar Observatory — its 200-inch Hale Telescope was the largest in the world until 1993. It’s responsible for the discovery of quasars and gave scientists the first direct evidence of stars in distant galaxies.


Here’s what it looks like at night, when it’s open. Amazing! (This was a picture on the wall —  no visitors, only scientists, after 4 p.m.)


Well, what more could you ask for in a weekend (ducklings, and telescopes, and hiking, and the cereal selection of our dreams)? It was time to head home. The closest restaurant was a crunchy-but-hip, vegetarian biker-stop, where we had fried-egg sandwiches and meatless tacos slathered with avocado and sour cream. It was very good!

Fortified, Dave was ready to come to the aid of some folks whose VW bug had fritzed out on the switchbacks.


Dave rallied another young, able-bodied bystander and they helped the driver and his son push the car, at a good clip, up the steep hill. Then the driver and his family (which, I almost forgot to mention! included a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever — one for my list!) hopped in.

“I hope they can get the car going!” the kids said. A mile or so down the road, our own kids buckled in and finally underway, the Bug zoomed by us, its family waving as they passed.

I’m thankful for this week of compressed family time. Camping was great, and I have photos to show the kids a few months down the road. And I can look back on this weekend myself, if the next few months get a little slow — I can think about the fresh smell of the pine needles around our camp site, and looking down from the top of the fire tower with the kids, and Dave and Soren playing catch in the parking lot, and the kids’ joy over their silly little boxes of cereal — and hopefully it will keep me from adopting the spirit of poor, lonely George Doane, with his limericks about “school ma’ams,” because I really don’t think a foray into that genre will help me with my own writing goals. (“I like toast and I like jam, But what I really miss is my Navy man.” No. If it comes to that, someone, please, stage an intervention.)


All posts about our family’s experience with deployment are collected in Our Deployment Journal.