June 27, 2012

Remembering Nora Ephron


Amid the well-deserved encomiums for writer-director Nora Epron, who died yesterday at age 71, that fill today's press, many only touch briefly, if at all, on Ephron's passionate love affair with food. Even though her novel Heartburn is about a food editor (the author, thinly disguised) and larded with recipes, it's easy to forget that aspect of her life because she was such a talented, prolific writer on everything from politics to feminist issues, and accomplished so much as a journalist, novelist, essayist, humorist, screenwriter and director. 

Yet Ephron's love of food was as central to her life as her identity as a New Yorker. In her Valentine to Krispy Kreme, which appeared in The New Yorker in 1997, Ephron wrote, "The modest, clean Krispy Kreme doughnut store on West Twenty-Third Street, with its retro green Formica tables and red-and-green neon "Hot Dougnuts Now" sign, has become a shrine--the sort of religious experience New Yorkers like me are far more receptive to than ones that actually involve God."

One of the few women to make it in the ranks of top Hollywood film directors, I can imagine exactly the kind  she was, because she once directed me--micro-managing me with bossy confidence--in the writing of a 1998 Wine Spectator article, "Sleepless at Citarella," about her New York food passions. 
This was no typical interview, where reporter asks questions and subject's thoughts tumble out, haphazardly, stream-of-consciousness fashion, to be whipped into shape later by reporter. Asked for her ten favorite New York food places, Ephron practically dictated her list to me, one one-liner at a time, meticulously and imperiously. I imagined that she must be the kind of director producers loved, who turned her films in on time and under budget. There were no second thoughts, no revisions. It was like Moses handing down the Ten Commandments, only they were about those New York religious experiences that were more her style, borscht and frozen custard. 

Sleepless at Citarella
From Wine Spectator, April 30, 1998
By Nancy Matsumoto
When Nora Ephron’s screenwriter parents picked up and moved the family from New York to Beverly Hills, Ephron immediately knew they had made a horrible mistake. Never mind that she was only four-and-a-half.
Then, as now, 50 years later, Ephron was someone who knew her own mind. “It’s one of my earliest clear memories,” she says. “I looked around in the beautiful golden sunshine of Southern California at all the happy, laughing children, and said to myself, “What am I doing here?”
Ephron fled east as soon as she could, graduating from Wellesley and then immediately striking out for New York. Her first apartment was on Sullivan Street, near Little Italy. “I moved in the week of the Festival of Saint Anthony,” Ephron recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh my God! This is some sort of miracle that I’m living on a street where there are cannoli 24 hours a day!’”
Ephron felt that she was home at last, and proceeded to prove to everyone else what she already knew: This town belonged to her. She leapfrogged from writing for the New York Post to crafting humor columns for Esquire and essays for New York magazine. Then, in the ’70s, while she was raising a family, she began writing screenplays.
When her second marriage, to Washington Post star reporter Carl Bernstein, blew up, she turned heartbreak into venomous, hilarious payback in the form of a roman à clef, and then a movie, Heartburn. Her screenplays for SilkwoodWhen Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle(which she also directed) were nominated for Oscars.
Her next film, You Have Mail, a remake of the 1939 Ernst Lubitsch comedy The Shop Around the Corner, will be set in her longtime neighborhood, the Upper West Side.
An accomplished cook, Ephron belongs to that passionate breed of New Yorker that takes its food seriously. Herewith, in no particular order, is her top 10 list of food-related places that no one should come to New York without seeing. (Four of them will even appear in You Have Mail.) “If they were in Paris,” she says, “you would make a pilgrimage to them, you would change subways four times to get to them.”
           Zabar’s:“It embodies the quintessential New York emotion, which is unrequited love,” says Ephron. “All of Zabar’s customers love Zabar’s more than Zabar’s loves them. Every time you think you’ve got the place nailed down, they move the bread department somewhere else.”
           The Sullivan Street Bakery:“It seems as if a 6-foot-long pizza comes out of the oven every six minutes, and is sliced up and taken away on the spot. Truly one of the great eating experiences in New York.”
           Barney Greengrass:“The greatest delicatessen, bar none, and not cheap, either. Everything they make is the best there is. You can practically serve the borscht for dessert—it’s so delicious.”
           The Vinegar Factory:“New York’s version of Fauchon, only better. You’d be crazy not to buy your steaks here, because they sell the T-bone that is identical to the one served at Peter Luger’s.”
           Krispy Kreme Donuts:“Of course, the only donut to have is the original glazed, although the jelly donut is good, too.”
           Soup Kitchen International:“Which I’m proud to say we put into Sleepless in Seattle long before Jerry Seinfeld ever mentioned it.”
           Citarella’s fish decoration window displays: “In which they do things like the Stars and Stripes in squid and shrimp.”
           Dean & DeLuca:“Where my favorite thing is the ginger cookie made with cayenne pepper.”
           Custard Beach(on East 8thStreet):“The only place in New York that I know of that makes old-fashioned frozen custard.”
           Gray’s Papaya:Ephron says her neighborhood branch of this citywide hot dog stand “has arguably the most hilariously untouched décor—stacks of papaya boxes on top of one another. Of any place in New York, in its own way, I think it’s one of the most romantic restaurants in the city.”