Foods In Phil's Memory

In which I recall the Knoxville heyday of Phil Pollard through taste sensations

It is the nature of my memory that I am not, as the expression goes, "good with names." Or dates, or geography.

But foods, ah, that is a different story. I associate certain dishes with individuals of my acquaintance, past and present, the way others reminisce using snapshots. Food memories help me anchor, then catalog, time shared, joys and drudgery, humor and complacency. And so it was memories of carrot cake, California onion dip, dry red wine, and seedless watermelon kabobs that assailed me these past three days, as I tried to assimilate the sad information that erstwhile Knoxville drummer extraordinaire Phil Pollard died this past Saturday, in Richmond, Va., from a heart attack at age 44.

The onion dip and red wine, that is from Phil's Actors Co-op Cabaret days, maybe 2005? He drummed for Sara Schwabe and her Yankee Jass Band, and Schwabe, as we liked to call her, had the band to play for the cabaret fund-raisers. I have vague recollections of the Phil sweat, and some vaudeville-quality jokes, but mostly that we ate, lots and lots of strawberries and we'd all drink swank wines. They came via Dennis Perkins, and I recall one dry, tasty red wine almost as fondly as Dennis and this kid named Cameron—oh, what was his last name?—getting dolled up in suit and tie from the waists up and tutus and business shoes on the bottom halves and dancing to some number that was called, uh, "Let's All Be Fairies?"

I hung around that Actors Co-op group on sufferance; my daughter Lucy Hall was actually the actor and, later, apprentice who stage-managed those cabarets, and I was more the loud audience member and giver of rides to practice. Somewhere in there I was on Co-op's board, though, and thus cooked the food for opening night of Crimes of the Heart. I made '70s-style stuff, like California dip with full-fat sour cream, and cocktail wienies in a crock pot swimming with low-rent barbecue sauce. We loved that food—I can remember Biz Lyon's beau Kevin dipping double with two toothpicks, smiling and gently mocking at once. Phil might not have even been there for that one, but it all knits together into a pleasant picture of zany, entertaining folks that unraveled only when Lucy left for college in 2006.

I started Metro Pulse in 2008, and happened to cover Vestival, and Phil was there, in from Richmond, sideburned and laughing from the stage. And they sold this seedless watermelon on a stick that day—simplicity and joy dipped in luxury.

For the carrot cake, you have to skip forward a bit, to my Facebook friend Kathy Varner (oh, her last name is something or other else now). She is from the idyllic William & Mary professors' neighborhood where I grew up, younger than me, one of the youngest. She no doubt participated in our experiments with Quik chocolate water and abominable "mulberry on top" cookies that had peanut butter and jelly in the dough. But I also link her, and all my Matoaka Court cohorts, to this sublime carrot cake that starred at our Fourth of July picnic, made by Mrs. McClennan. With walnuts and cream cheese icing. Heaven; I can taste it now.

Earlier this year, I was trolling Facebook and I notice Kathy Varner "is now friends with" Phil Pollard. "What now?" I asked her. Soon it became really fun, serendipity—my Phil Pollard, Lucy's Phil Pollard, really, was Kathy's husband's bandmate in Richmond, which is just like a half hour from our cherished childhood homes. She said she loves Phil, he's a hoot.

Kathy lives close enough to be at the funeral, maybe she brought a covered dish to the house. Of course, you can't feed people over Facebook.

But I did get the recipe for Mrs. McClennan's cake from Kathy yesterday—I suspected she'd have it, and she did. I'd like to make one and feed it to some of those Cabaret folks from yesteryear, those whose tastebuds are still within striking distance.

What great fun—what good food—we once had.