By Leah S. Abrams

“Wow. Most people don’t register on their birthday.”

That was the remark by the pleased city clerk who handled my voter registration when I turned eighteen. The primary had passed, but I’d be eligible to vote that fall in the Presidential election, for a candidate I’d early on written off as a yahoo who sounded like a TV evangelist. In my freshman dorm room, six months later, I wept joyously as that candidate – one Bill Clinton – claimed victory to a favorite Fleetwood Mac tune, replacing the first President Bush, whose election had inspired in me other kinds of tears and an all-black outfit (and I was not the cool Goth chick).

My university campus, back in 1992, set up voter registration tables throughout the early fall, though I can’t say they were pushy in the way I’m reassured they’re being this time out. Maybe, back then, it was already clear that I’m part of “Generation Apathetic” and so no one dared count on us for anything.

I remember the shock of learning that my roommate / oldest friend / best college bud had not registered prior to school starting, having quite forgotten that she’d have been in the midst of moving into our cramped dorm room right around her birthday and was thus away from our hometown’s city hall and just a wee bit preoccupied. Wanna-be-lawyer that I was back then, I suspect I made an unnecessary argument to her about the importance of playing our role in Democracy, about the fact that our gender had been “given” the vote after my grandfather and her grandmother were already born, about how it took until just a decade before we were born to get a voting rights act passed. We visited one of the tables, if only to shut me up.

Funny. That memory of my own and my dear friend’s registrations are so much more vivid somehow than of casting our first vote. I’ve not thought much about those early days in some time, especially because I’d eventually go on to fourteen years of San Francisco Bay Area voting where you need a college credit course at every cycle to make sense of the countless ballot initiatives, blotting out all other voting memories. I’ve been thinking back on those early days lately as a result of making various get-out-the-vote calls.

I recently spoke with a man, older than I am, who confessed to me that he had never voted, had never even registered. Until now. He didn’t require prompting to tell me that he felt it was pointless, that all politicians are alike – out for themselves and not about doing anything at all for the people they represent, that his vote doesn’t even seem to count. We talked about my own similar discouragement. So, why, he wondered, do I bother? And he wanted genuinely to hear this response because, after all, something had already inspired him to be a first-time registrant.

To his point that all politicians are the same, I was in a prime spot as I was calling on behalf of a senatorial candidate who spent over twenty years in the military and, later in life, became a minister. Here, I easily argued, was someone who represented everything he – the caller – and I are all about: community service. And, I noted, there are others, including so-called career politicians, who are of the same ilk, and that we just have to be willing to find and focus on them.

As to why, in my frustration with a system so unbearably broken, I bother at all? That’s an easy one as it has always been – it’s my voice. Countless people who came before me fought and died so that those of us who are not land-owning white men have that voice forced into being heard. If I don’t cast that vote, I am complacent.

The man on the phone was interested. He registered as a Republican because it’s what he’s always assumed he is, but he is fed up and can’t believe Trump is the President. Here, I saw an opening: “The Republican party is one I no longer recognize,” I offered.

And that is true. When, in 2018, Carl Bernstein spoke at Symphony Space, he dashed any of my remaining hope that the rest of the Republican party would come to their senses, explaining to us that things had been very different with Watergate because it was Nixon’s own party members who helped bring things down and that it is now too polarized, too much of a cult – my word, not his.

When, after a long chat about retiring to rural living, neighbors taking care of each other, mandatory civil service work for all citizens, and the like, it was time for me to end our call, the man on the other end thanked me and told me that he was going to visit the senatorial candidate’s web site to read more about his policies and background. Finally, and this made every hang-up and agitator worth the call-making, he said that, while he’d registered Republican, if he does end up voting – which was now more likely – he may well end up voting the Democratic ticket.

I did not actually tell the man to vote for a particular party. In fact, I’ve sincerely told people who shout at me that they’re not voting for my candidate that I’m just glad they’re voting at all. And that is the truth. If you want to voice your complaints with our mess of a government, go right on and do it, but only if you go to the polls, only if you take that simplest action of weighing in, no matter which way you lean politically.

Do I wonder where your head is at if you support the current administration? Absolutely. But this isn’t a blog about whether Americans or the human species at large deserve to continue existing if this is the behavior they endorse; it’s a single message blog to tell you to, please, get out and vote!

Small Is the New Big (How a Wedding Caterer Survives Corona)

By Rossi, AKA Chef Rossi

All my life, I’ve yearned for the big things. When I was a kid, adults were always asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Especially teachers. That seemed to be the chosen greeting for grammar school teachers, “and what do you want to be when you grow up?” My answer for many years was the same, “I want to be president of the United States!” Back then, I believed, as many of us did, that president of the United States was a job for which you needed qualifications and experience. I figured I’d start with local politics and work my way up. I’d go for mayor of our little New Jersey town first.  

When I was a tween, I’d watch the Academy Awards with my family and dream that it was me winning the Oscar for my brilliant acting. I’d acted a teeny bit in community theater. I was anything but brilliant, but that didn’t keep me from dreaming big. A few years later, after the writing bug bit, I dreamed of winning an Oscar as a writer for best original screen play. When I started writing my memoir, I dreamed it would be a New York Times bestseller, adapted for the screen and then win the Oscar for best picture. 

When I decided to cook for a living, I did time for a year in culinary jail, working low-paying, supremely crappy internship jobs while I learned. As the lowest on the rung in a big commercial kitchen, I got to do delightful things like skewering 3,000 shish-kabobs and forming 3,000 crab cakes. I dreamed of snagging the job of the head chef, who mostly seemed to sit with his feet on his desk, drinking whiskey and looking over order forms. I managed to skip over many years of low-paying servitude and lied my way into a chef job at a small catering company. I spent three years as head chef hiring sous chefs to work under me who actually knew how to cook and then learning from them. I would look at the petite, bouncy woman who owned the company and seemed to be perpetually out having cocktails with friends. Yes. I could be the owner, not the employee, of a catering company. 

When I opened my own very small catering company, I shared commercial kitchens with other companies. I cooked this way for well over than a decade while my small business grew. I dreamed of having my own super swank kitchen with all the perks the shared kitchens did not have. Air conditioning was on the top of the list. 

Sixteen years ago, when I came upon a supremely dilapidated out-of-business pizza joint that had been vacant for years, I heard the Oscar Goldman voiceover from The Six Million Dollar Man in my head. “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him.” It took a year of my life and hundreds of thousands of dollars, but at long last, my beautiful Shangri-La kitchen was ready to fly. 

From the moment I signed that lease, the first 25 weddings I catered a year were just to pay the overhead. Luckily, business was booming. We struggled to get through the 2008 economic dive and Hurricane Sandy. Unlike corporate caterers whose budgets can rely on the stock market, weddings continue in down economies. The budgets were lower, but the weddings marched on. 

Over the years, as I’ve adjusted to how expensive it was to bring in kitchen staff and pay for food and fuel, I realized that just to open my gate, I had to establish a food minimum. Gone were the days I’d travel to Jersey to cater dinner parties for four people. We were catering elaborate affairs for 200. When it came to catering, my mantra was “Bigger is better.” 

In March 2020, after Corona swept over life as we knew it, the CDC made the announcement barring gatherings larger than 50. I knew we were sunk. Our 2020 wedding season evaporated overnight. We didn’t have a single event booked that was smaller than 100 guests. That’s when the unsolicited advice started pouring in. “Why don’t you do deliveries like the restaurants are doing?” Factoring in my food and labor cost, I’d have to charge about $50 for an order of pasta. Taking on an entire new profession as a take-out joint was not an option. There was no way for us to compete with the thousands of eateries willing to make pasta for a whole lot less than the 50 bucks it would cost me. 

The only way forward was to keep with who I am, and simply think small. Thinking small goes against my DNA. I’m an Oscar-winning, former president of the United States, for crying out loud! But to push through and keep my company alive, I’d have to see small as the new big. I’d have to come up with a name for my mini catering venture. My company is called The Raging Skillet. I decided to call our new tiny dining experience “Mini Skillet.”

First step was a gorgeous e-blast to all my favorite friends, clients and followers. Almost immediately, two gay male couples whose weddings I catered years ago wrote back. One of my grooms asked if I could cater their anniversary dinner for just the two of them.” Another of my grooms asked, “Could I cater a special birthday dinner with 8 guests?” Lordy. I love my gay boys. When the going gets tough, they are still up for a fabulous dinner. Then came an email from a fantastic party planner who I’ve worked with for years. Could I cater her birthday party in her Brooklyn apartment? Hell yes! Tiny dinners mean tiny budgets. There would be no waiter, no dishwasher and no prep cooks. I couldn’t bring anyone to help me except my sous chef Glory. Trust me, Glory lives up to her name. 

We prepared a beautiful six-course tasting supper of mini plates: Moroccan tomato soup with zaatar croutons, heirloom tomato, burrata and basil salad, black cod ceviche in blood orange, jalapeno and lime with pearl onions, “Pasta Rustico” with oven dried grape tomatoes, Korean barbecue beef with cucumber mint salad, a palate cleanser of grilled peaches with balsamic glaze and the finale, sea salt and caramel ice cream with pretzel garnish. I don’t think I ever put so much love into a meal. Just beautiful. My birthday boys wanted to have an amazing meal outside in a park, so I prepared a picnic menu. Grilled Santa Fe chicken, black bean and barbecued corn salad, rustic pasta with oven dried tomato and fresh basil, churrasco Portobello steak with chimichurri rojo, Rice Krispy tahini treats and yummy chocolate chip cookies, plus a large gourmet cheese display of triple-cream, savory and farm-house cheeses. I threw in a trashy favorite, peanut butter and bacon tea sandwiches.

We packed up everything to go. After years of cooking for hundreds of people, I simply do not know how to cook for 8. I sent them off with enough food to feed Pittsburgh. They were thrilled, of course. Everyone enjoyed the picnic and then took home lots and lots of leftovers. The food and love for our first week of Mini Skillet was overflowing, but alas not the money. When I added up my expenses, my profit was less than I would have paid my dishwasher if I’d hired her. But at least there was a profit. It was a beginning. 

In 32 years, I don’t think I’ve ever prepared better food. Even with budgets 100 times higher. In the last two decades I’d been so busy selling and running my business, I had to delegate a lot of the cooking to my chefs. Now, I have the time and the mental clarity to truly throw myself into it; a little more toasted coriander to the tomato soup; a bit more garlic in the Korean beef marinade, sprinkled with apple smoked sea salt and imagination. 

So what’s the moral of this story? Oy vey. Who has times for morals in this day and age? We’re too busy trying to stay alive and relatively sane. (I said relatively.) Losing a year of business has been painful, scary and surreal. It’s also been humbling. But I find a layer of myself has peeled away. Leaving something fresh and alive underneath. I’ve been thinking a lot about the first few years I was cooking. I was giddy with excitement every time I learned how to make something new. I was open to the all the possibilities of food; where it came from, how to prepare it, how to cook it, how to serve it. I felt like a wide-eyed kid entering the first grade. My eyes are wide again. Not sure how long I’ve been sleeping. But I am awake now. And for the record, pretzels are fabulous with sea salt and caramel ice cream.

Celebrating Launches & Openings!

The Jean Moye Dark Fund kicks of its campaign for a magical space, “A Strange Loop” cast album is released, and a Chelsea space safely brings back live entertainment!

Today, we share some exciting news from three of our arts organizations: the Jean Moye Dark Fund for Black Women / Femmes + TGNC Artists, Playwrights Horizons, and the cell. In the midst of ongoing uncertainty for our ravaged communities, our artists continue to imagine and create and shine warm light on those of us fortunate to be open to receiving.

If you’ve been to any of Undiscovered Works’ virtual events these last six months, you’ve heard me talk about the Jean Moye Dark Fund and, in the spring, we were fortunate enough to host a presentation from Nia Witherspoon who created the fund, named for her great grandma who was discovered to have been a writer only after her death. Now, on Tuesdays, you can hear Nia read from Jean’s work!

There have been many wise folks encouraging Nia to dream forth the reality of her extraordinary vision for a different, sustainable future. The result, I am thrilled to share, is the launch of phase 1 of a capital campaign fundraiser to develop a space that nourishes the human spirit – a collectively-imagined residency space that centers Black Women (Cis and Trans), Non-Binary Folks, and other Transfolks to be artists, world-makers, healers, and visionaries.

When Nia talks, I see a Brook Farm for the future: a balanced community- based approach to not just sustainable, but thriving existence, in balance with the land we humans seem determined to destroy; a space for Black Women/Femme + TGNC Artists  to safely, boldly dream and pursue that dream. I urge you to please check out the fundraiserwatch the video to learn exactly why Nia inspires us all so much. If you’re in a position to contribute, please consider a tax-deductible donation.

Before NYC theatre went dark, something extraordinary unfolded at Playwrights’ Horizons, one of my personal favorite theatres in town because of their devotion to bringing to life work that challenges more traditional theatre-going audiences. In their 2019/20 season, they premiered a ground-breaking musical called A Strange Loop, by Michael R. Jackson.

My friend and U.W. frequent contributor Rona Siddiqui was the music director on this Pulitzer Prize winning ensemble-driven journey that featured some of my very favorite local actors. Together, the cast and creative team won an Obie Award in the midst of the pandemic for their masterful work. We are giddy to learn that the cast album we’ve been eagerly awaiting has been released! You can support some of NYC’s hardest working theatre makers by getting your copy today!

Finally, for this week’s community celebratory news, if like me, you are desperately craving live entertainment in a safe environment, may I recommend the cell in Chelsea. This gallery space that presents and produces art installations / shows, plays, concerts, and more, is open again! They’re now offering backyard musical and visual arts presentations as well as appointment-based installation visits in addition to their ongoing virtual programming.

For me, it is fitting that my first official show (beyond Harlem Late Night Jazz up the street on Sugar Hill that’s been entertaining me all summer) will be at the cell – the first place in the city to provide me and what would eventually become Undiscovered Works and the monthly storytelling series with an artistic home.

So, please, go forth – visit the cell, listen to A Strange Loop, and support the Jean Moye Dark Fund. And, PLEASE… VOTE!!!