Sunday, July 28, 2013

Up Close and Personal with author Randy Wayne White

I'm sitting here looking at the screen, fingers poised over the keyboard. I have to write about a writer. A prolific one. One in whose words I have taken wisdom, solace and enjoyment. One whose words have forced me to look inward at myself, without losing site of who and what lay before me.

In his stories, particularly those that are non-fiction, I have been made to consider how I impact all that is around me and how we, as human beings, interact and co-exist with not only those that surround us, but the environs in which we all reside. Through his Doc Ford novels, he has infused me with his absolute love for all that is Southwest Florida and be it politician or business man, I am hard pressed to find anyone who rivals this man's passion for his beloved Southwest Gulf Coast.

So of course my first idiotic instinct was to get out my thesaurus. Make this my soliloquy. Really impress my readers and this writer with the magnitude and capaciousness of my vocabulary. I'll tell ya, I've no better laugh than when I catch myself at these moments acting like a complete fool. I'm human. I'll admit it. I couldn't help myself. I'll try to restrain myself from this point on.

I also sat back and realized that by doing so, being verbose, (anyone who has ever met me will tell you I have few rivals in that area and I sometimes need to take a breath) I would betray everything I have come to learn from, and about, the man and his writing. He is one of my favorite authors, and, as I have had the good fortune of spending some quality time with him, one of my favorite human beings.

Well for one thing, he is living my dream. Randy has had more adventure than most of us could ever hope for in one lifetime. Our good fortune, as his readers, is that he also has a very special talent to not only take these journeys, but to write about them with a passion and style that allows us to vicariously live some of these special moments with him. I have read stated of him, "He is the George Plimpton of our day, who decided to write mystery novels." For those of you asking right now 'Who is George Plimpton, I can only begrudge you your youth and admonish you to go Google the name. If you are my age and don't know the name, you simply need to broaden your scope, your horizons and get out more. Really.

The man I met is a fascinating, humble, caring human being with a thirst for knowledge, lust for living life as if it were his last day, and whose heart and character are bigger than most I have encountered. He is forthright, honest almost to a fault, and his actions actually speak louder than his words. By the way, his words are pretty loud.

This is a man who took a boat and sailed to Cuba during the Mariel Boat Lift at the request of a friend seeking 2 people, and ended up bringing 147 back to the States. A man whose humanitarism brought joy to children of Cuba, giving them back Little League Baseball (see the video below). Co-founder of Florida's Big Brother program, he is a gentle soul who puts his money where his mouth is. Literally.

I was honored to have been invited out to his house to sit down and bring you this feature. I have come to understand that much like his character, Marion Ford, Randy is a private person who relishes his solitude, yet yearns for that human interaction we all need. He is just very selective in his tastes and without saying so, it is apparent at least to me, that he does not suffer fools nor the insincere.

He is a warm and genial host who opened his home and heart to me and he and his wife Wendy made me feel like part of the family from the moment I arrived until the moment I left. This is a man I would be proud to call friend. Not because of his celebrity. Not because of who he is or who he knows. Simply, because he's the kind of person that inspires one to be the best they can be. "Be relentless!" Well, that and, he's got a really well stocked bar on the porch! 

It is my sincerest hope that I get more opportunities to experience the wonderful persona that is the man behind his books. It is my distinct pleasure to bring you Up Close and Personal with N.Y Times best selling author and Southwest Florida's own, Randy Wayne White.

The Man

Lou: I’m a very big fan of your writing. Probably more so your non-fiction than your fiction.
RWW: Me too.

I'd like to get an idea of who you are. The guy who talks about wildly applauding when Nick finally says "dol dol dol dolphin." That’s who we want to speak to as opposed to the 'Doc Ford guy'. Obviously there is some dynamic of that, but it’s just an informal chat.
And this goes on the internet? You know, I’ve not seen your website.

You don’t know what you've missed.
But I will do that, I’ll do it today by gum

Good food, good wine, good living.
That’s a lovely idea
You were born in Ashland Ohio and grew up in the Midwest.
North Carolina and the Midwest. My maternal family is all from North and South Carolina.

You were quoted as saying "Other kids heros were ballplayers. Mine were writers. Conrad, Steinbeck and Twain." What were you aspirations as a kid?
(We) lived on a little tiny farm. In fact my screensaver has the view down the road from the farm where I lived. It was taken recently, so it’s far more built up. The little village of Pioneer....was seven miles away. My dear late mother would drive me there, she loved books and I would sit there and read books. Loved the magic I found in them. Even though I was not a good student, I hoped that if I could write a book, I might find the magic that I found in reading them. I truly never thought I was smart enough, certainly not qualified, to write a book. But it’s something I worked at very hard. In my spare time. I’d get up early, stay up late.

Did you write as a teen?
Privately, yes. I kept journals and I would practice. In hindsight I was practicing description, reading writers I admired, analyzing why certain rhythms worked for me and others didn’t. Certain writers captured me, other writers did not. But I did not write for the school newspaper or yearbook or that sort of thing.

Do you think that was because of your confidence level and what you felt you could do and that’s why you kept your writing private?
Maybe. There was not a ready venue for writing. Well that’s not true, there was a literary magazine, a newspaper. I went from a little school my sophomore year to a gigantic industrial high school. In the farm school there were 27 kids in my class. In the entire school, from kindergarten to 12th grade, there were fewer than 200. I went from that to a very large high school where in my class alone, there were more than 600 people. It was the size of a college.

A huge adjustment for you.
Big change.

Is that the school you were 'all state' springboard diver?
Yes, I played baseball too.

Great segue, I know that you are very athletic.
I was.

You still are, windsurfing recently! Still play for the Roy Hobbs League?

No, I haven’t played in years. I played in the world series, two games, 6 years ago. I badly broke my hand and some other things. I miss the guys. We have such fun.

Tell me about your tryouts with the Reds.
I had two tryouts, right out of high school. Two legitimate tryouts. I was invited to a camp by the Bay City Angels, a Los Angeles Angels organization. I was invited to a tryout with Cincinnati Reds that was in Cincinnati. I had a really good game there. I hit a double that for anybody else would have been an in park home run. (laughter). I threw a guy out at second and I did not have a great arm. The guy doing the tryout, the third base coach for the Reds, was very kind and smart. He took me aside and told me there are 5 major league tools and a player has to have at least one of those tools. A major league arm, a major league bat speed, etc. He said, "You don’t have any of those tools." And he was right, I didn’t have a major league arm, I didn’t have any of those gifts. He said you have really good hands, better than some of the guys who play for our organization. It was actually I think, an act of respect, but I still played.

You were this farm boy, you transfer to this huge school, I can’t imagine what the cut must have been like for that team.
Yeah, that was a tough team to make, it really was a tough.

Where did that love of the game come from?
Baseball? The farm school. My freshman year our team placed second in the state. That was before single, double A, triple A. Second in the state, against all those huge schools. I remember walking on the field, in the grass. I get goose bumps. There was just something orderly and historic about baseball. Although I did not follow a team, I loved that symmetry of baseball. The fact is, and it is a fact, even if you’re not a gifted athlete, and I’m not and I wasn’t, you can still, through persistence and practice, participate. Love is above your own gifts. I like that. I like being in the dugout. Baseball players are funny and you can let loose. I played three positions. I caught, pitched and I played two games in all those years at first base.

You were recently inducted into their hall of fame, correct?
That’s right behind you. The Iowa High School Baseball Association just gave me that award in February. But not because I was a good player. It was because I’ve done other things. It’s one of those awards they give to people in appreciation. Wendy and I flew up there in the Hooter’s jet. (laughter)

What is it about baseball that so captures you? What is that thing that made you bring the equipment to Cuba and make sure they had baseball?

It is more alchemy than chemistry. Something about lights at night on a baseball field. A defining and crystalizing of personalities in the field. It’s team, but it’s also very individual. As catcher working with pitchers, I just loved it. Pitchers liked pitching to me. In Iowa, they moved me to varsity for one reason. The best pitcher liked throwing to me.

Where did the Doc story about catching Castro develop?
Castro was never a ball player, that was the fantasy. He was brilliant in his way. He selected baseball as the vehicle to spread to the masses that he could have been a major league player. That he’d been scouted and he’d turned down a contract. All of which was a lie. He chose the perfect metaphor. Not basketball, football or soccer. That fiction was actually endorsed by a scout who scouted for the Dodgers. The guy, like many ball players, was undependable of facts. He said, ‘Oh yeah, I scouted him when he was with Sugar Kings and told how he signed him. But these are bar stories. He was probably talking about Juan Castro who was short stop or something. If you read that portion of the book, (North of Havana) Doc actually comes to the mound and says to Castro, "You’re terrible......I'll make you look like the rag arm you are." When we made the documentary, we found all these films in the Kennedy Library of Fidel Castro swinging a bat. Others of him throwing. I can watch a man throw a ball once and I can tell you if he can play or not.

In getting to the essence of who you are, I read that on a farm where you worked, the owners spoke about Sanibel Island.
They did..

....and you came here.
They were the best people I ever met.

Was is what they were sharing with you about Sanibel Island alone that got you here, or a combination of that and your visit here? You’ve been here since 1972. What about here enamored you? What ‘hooked’ you to here?
Those two people, a man named Burt Meyers and Judge Mildred Meyers. They had an elevated sense of obligation in terms of social matters. Or their own land. I worked for them. They were incredible. Mildred Meyers had read the law in a time when you didn’t have to go to law school or even college. If you read for the law, you passed the bar, you were an attorney. She not only passed the bar, she became president of the Ohio Bar Association. Just decent people. After high school I traveled for, gosh, 5 years. Just traveled around. The time in my life had come for me to settle down. Or at least try. And so, during the course of those 5 years I was installing phones in various places. I called newspapers all over from a telephone pole in town.

From a telephone pole?
Yeah, cause I’d call for free. (Everyone burst out laughing) Clip into a line and I’d talk for free. I called Hamlet, a newspaper in Rockingham. Wilmington, North Carolina. Called them and said "I’d like to get a job as a reporter." Well where’d you go to college? Didn’t go to college. I called the Fort Myers News-Press. To the receptionist at the time, I said, "I’d like to get a job as a reporter." She said, "Where’d you go to college?" I said, ‘Didn’t go to college.’ She said, "I don’t think a newspaper’s going to hire you, but Gannett just bought us, we might. (more laughing)

Well if you know Gannett, you understand..
That’s actually true and we laughed about that until she passed.

And they hired you.
Came down and they hired me. Not as a top editor, but on my own, I brought my feature stories. But the editor, Bob Bentley who I still stay in touch with, smart guy, very positive. During the interview he said, "So your reporting experience?" I said, " I really don’t have any?" "Do you think you can layout pages?" "I’ve never done that." "As a copy editor how do you think you’d do?" "I’m a bad speller." So he says, "You seem like a nice guy. You’re hired."

You said that you ‘got an education’ there. What do you mean by that?
Journalism is a proactive education if you are willing to make it so. People at the News-Press were positive, elevating and if I had an idea they’d said, "Go write about it." They didn’t pay me more, but I didn’t care. It gave me opportunity to practice and learn my craft. This area is powerful in that it attracts powerful, interesting, eclectic people. The people as a journalist I have the opportunity to meet, for me, are potential treasures.

We are experiencing that right here today.
I remember when after I was hired at the News-Press, driving to Captiva, Southeast Plantation, sitting down and the people at the next table were from Great Britain. I thought golly those people are from England. (Laughter)

How old were you?
23. The people who were here at that time and now were James Newton, Henry Ford, Charles Limburgh. They came to Sanibel every year. James Jones, who wrote from "Here to Eternity" wrote much of it on Ft. Myers Beach. Peter Matthiesen who’s still probably my closest male confidante, met him, because I lived here. It’s a wondrous place. Mackinlay Kantor won the Pulitzer Prize for ANDERSONVILLE, dear guy, met him. Very elevating to see that these icons are real people.

First piece you received monetary compensation for?
It was for the News-Press, a rewrite I’m sure. First piece I sold to a magazine was while I was at the News-Press, I sent a story to Outdoor Life about Hog Hunting. Hunting feral hogs. I wish I had it.

How did you possibly come up with an experience hunting feral hogs?
I went out with this veterinarian who hunted feral hogs.

Here in Florida?
Oh geez, it goes on right now. They have hog dogs. It’s an enclave of people who love to hunt hogs. (Smiles broadly and we laugh) The dogs catch ‘em, the guys tie, geld ‘em if they’re males, disinfect them and turn them loose.

Your hog-hunting experience here in Florida, did you use that when you chased the hog into the sanctuary of the church, in Nicaragua? (More laughter) Why were you chasing that hog?
(Big smile) It had gotten loose. Dunko wanted it. It ran right through church while there was a wedding going on.

How did you come to being talking to these guys? (the feral hog guys) Were you doing a story on them?
I went out with them, I wanted to publish in a national magazine, thought, 'golly this could work.' I didn’t contact Outdoor Life, I just wrote it and sent it to them. It appeared in their regional segment, which was a disappointment, but still. I got paid four hundred bucks or some such.

But you’re published.
That’s the magazine.

Is that the same time you went hunting for the skunk ape and the one armed man?
Summertime, Peter Matthiessen and I did that

What prompted that?
I just like doing stuff.

You obviously brought that into the book, when Doc and Tomlinson go do that.
That’s right. At that time there were a lot of sightings of the so-called skunk ape. People were seeing them everywhere. Somebody in Cape Coral, there was a big hand print on a house and I thought well I’ll have an expedition (laughter) and invited people. Absolutely, coincidentally I’d gone to a book store at the mall. I saw this beautiful book, turquoise cover and bought it. Didn’t know about the author, Peter Matthiessen. It’s called ‘Far Tortuga.’ Incredible. Finished the book.

Shortly thereafter while planning this expedition the phone rings and it’s Peter Matthiessen and he says "I’m Peter Matthiessen and I understand you are going in search of the swamp ape." "Yeah." He says, "I’m very interested in the Sasquatch, the abominable snowman" I said, "Is this Peter Matthiessen the writer?" He said, 'yes.' I said, "You don’t want anything to do with this, it is complete bullshit." (Much laughter here) But he came anyway. The first General into Normandy was General Pistan Tempelwhite, I invited him, his son was a Colonel in Special Forces, he came with a group of Special Ops guys.

How do you make these connections? Is it just a phone call?
I know a lot of people. So they came, I assigned everyone who came a rank. I had grays I had gotten from the Army Navy Store. Everyone was assigned a rank. The real Special Ops guys were security. So we went down to the Everglades for 10 days.

What a blast!
It was a blast. Pete and I had the best time and have been the closest friends ever since.

Tell us how you went from being a journalist to a fishing guide.
Journalism was great education and the people were terrific, but I knew I didn’t want to be a news people person. It was not my calling. I got my captain’s license in 1974. At that time it was very hard to get, now it’s really easy. Started guiding part time then full time at Tarpon Bay on Sanibel and did that for almost 13 years. Spare time I worked hard at being a writer. I heard that there was a boat for sale, guy was retiring, and I went down to see Mack, the owner of the Marina and told him I just wanted to do light charters, you know, take people around to see the sights, no real fishing. So he says, "Yea alright, we can do that." Next morning he calls me in and says "You got two for a snook charter, take em out." I didn't know the first thing about fishing and he knew it. That was Mack. Great sense of humor.

You went dog-sledding in Alaska.
The thing I remember most from that is they have this ritual, kinda like the Polar Bear Club thing, but in this case, everyone dresses in bizarre costumes and then jumps into this shockingly freezing cold water. And they announce you. Like, "Ok this is Bill, and he's dressed like a duck. And then Bill jumps in. "Next up is John and he's dressed like a cowboy." And he jumps in. Well, I'm from Florida. And I have no costume. And I have on shorts and a tee-shirt. So they get to me and the guy says, "and this is Randy..... and he's um.... not wearing a costume." So I jump in. And unknown to everyone there, sometimes there is a reaction that happens if you are shocked like that and it happened to me. My body instantly went numb and did not respond. Couldn't move my limbs.

So they're all watching and I'm thinking, "Ok this is it, I'm gone. Can't move my arms or legs." They are all laughing and I'm drowning. So I finally make my way over to dock to get out, I struggle to pull myself out of the water and I've lost my shorts. Then horrified, it hits me. Not that I have no shorts. It's "I have no shorts and there are about 2000 people watching and 1800 of them have a video camera." (much laughter!)

At this point Randy notices my photographer Regina just lurking around us snapping away with her camera.
What does Regina do when she’s not taking photographs?

She works for the March of Dimes.
We then took a photograph in front of the Persian doors seen in the picture below so Regina could leave, and we then continued with our discussion. As we posed for the picture, Regina mentioned that her son played Little League. Without hesitation, Randy went and got a brand new ball, signed it,
writing "Be Relentless" and gave it to her for her son, Sam.
How appropriate that we take a photograph in front of your Persian doors, because it's something that I'd like to talk about in a bit. Let's get back to it. Like you , I love to read. My mom had a library. I've read every classic. Steinbeck, Twain, all the great writers we've talked about. When I discovered your writing, there was something about what you do. Especially when you write about you and relate these stories.

For instance, reading the story of Paloma in Mexico from your cookbook, which, by the way is far more than just a cookbook. You are really talking from the heart and I was pretty much near tears when you were writing about how, when you took her for the plane ride, she said, " I always wanted to know what it would be like to fly away."

I wanted to be a marine biologist when I grew up so there’s this connection I get from who I believe you are. You have combined two loves I have; mystery writing with the ocean and biology.

Someone interjected, "That’s 3."
Randy smiles: To a biologist, it’s two.

I’m really fascinated about your head, what’s in it.
Me too. Everybody laughs and he says, "Let’s find out."

My point of entry is going to be the doors. We looked at the collection of photographs that you have of these beautiful doors.
They’re stunning, yes.

Is it the simple beauty of them that intrigues you, or is it more a Tomlinson experience, in that the doors represent an exit from one space to the next, or an entrance into the things unknown?
That’s really interesting, geez, I don’t know. Maybe that, certainly. That’s the way Spanish houses are built. You see a large plain wall with these gorgeous doors and you step through and it’s wonderland. It’s a garden.

An oasis on the other side.
In Cartagena, the doors, the history, they date back to the Conquistadors. Unusual and brilliantly done, but simply done, hand carved. To just put them side by side and look at them.....I like that very much. I’ve been trying to talk my wife into going to Cartagena and most people are afraid to go there. I was trying to impress her. It’s a fun thing to do, walk down Cartagena street at night and take photographs of the doors because they are everywhere.

They each have a personality of their own, which personifies the people who lived there, if they are original with the property.
That's true.

So the answer, it's the simple beauty of it, not a little deeper?
Possibly, I don’t know,. Why do we do things? Why are we drawn to things? The history, who did this? Someone cared deeply about these artifacts. I think and also the visual. If you go to Loews and buy a door, it’s a whole different thought process.

I'd like to talk to you about Cuba.
I like Cuba a lot. The people are dear and the politics are unfortunate. In 1980, I came back with 147 refugees on a 55 foot boat.

How did you get involved with that?
Cuban-American friend of mine called me in May of that year, 1980, and said my grandmother and my aunt, we want to get them out of Cuba. Randy then told a sample story he had a daughter and a son. January, 1959 he and your his son fly to Miami. His wife was supposed to come the next day. The airports were shut down, his family was separated for 20 years." He asked, "Can you get a boat?" I said: "I can." I borrowed a 55 foot grouper boat. We went to Key West, picked up my friend and dragged along 3 of my roustabout baseball buddies. Had no chart. We just went south. We saw Havana, turned right and got to Mariel Harbor. We were there for 10 or 12 days. There were two gun boats at the mouth of Mariel Harbor and then two small gun boats boarded you, searched you, told you what to do, what not to do and you went in and anchored. But then you couldn’t get out.

How did you get out?
They called us over to Pier 2, where they processed the refugees, loaded us up with 147 people that we didn’t want and sent us on our way.

Have you kept track of any of those people?
I so wish I had. We got to Key West, the Marines sent them one way, we went the other way.

What a great thing for you to do.
It was. (said very humbly)

Did you get your friend’s family?
No, but they came 2 days later, accidently. The government did not want them to come. But anyway they got here.

At this point Randy asked, "Louis you want a beer? That one’s got to be getting warm and I’m going to get a drink because it’s cocktail time. We took a break, watched the sun setting over Pine Island Sound and relaxed.

The Writing

We are going to get a little deep here but I just want to understand where you are coming from. You're books really make me think.
I’m so glad.

It seems to me that the long running and evolving conversation between Doc, the pragmatic scientist and Tomlinson, the spiritualist, is a way for you to delve into both sides of who you are, and by writing about those conversations you are really putting into print the exploration that you are having within yourself. Would that be an accurate statement?
That's a great observation. Pretty insightful. I think it is, yeah. I think that we are all, well I can only speak for myself, are made up of two basic spiritual components. Basic cerebral components, one of which is linear and pragmatic, the other is, for me, the wistful spirit, intuitive. Because I don’t believe. I’d love to but I don’t. So when I start the books, Ford’s really linear, Tomlinson is purely spiritual and intuitive. I knew early on that they were involved in a kind of death dance. It’s only alluded to in the books but I knew what was going on as a sub-text, cause I think those two components are at war in all of us. Which wins, the spiritual or pragmatic? But yeah, I can say anything I want to say and get away with it. It was a good thing to do. Very insightful of me.

I'm glad to hear that because I disagreed right away, as I started reading your books, with people who take it right from the surface. They ask "Is Doc Ford really you?" I immediately sensed these two people, Doc and Tomlinson, make up the essence of who Randy Wayne White is. I have had a lot of discussions about those two characters. You prompted, actually you promulgate me to have debates, About what's going on, what the dynamic is.
You are actually debating yourself and that’s what I wanted from the characters. Doc Ford is never described physically. I wanted the readers to build their own characters. But that is an interesting observation, and you're arguing was your own duality.

I’m sure you get a lot of input from your readers and fans. I hope that you get it on such a level that lets you know that you are causing people like us to think. To really ponder what is important. Loyalty. Our impact, however minute we think it might be, on the people next to us, those we meet down the street. Or, as you put it, "What we do to the water here and how it is affected, then moves out of Pine Island Sound to other parts of the world. There's this person half way around the world who may swimming in water that we have fished here months or even years ago."
The circles span.

I hope you realize that you are impacting people on that level.
The books, the characters, they are real, actually to me as well. But it's the readers who bring those qualities to the books. Books don’t bring those qualities to the readers. That is the kindred thread that links writers and readers. It’s a direct brain conduit, directly from one person’s brain, through his or her hands, paper to paper, through his or her eyes to the brain. It’s without friction, like quantum physics. There’s no friction. It’s pure.

It’s a catalyst for introspection, when you have another person who is thinking the same type of the thing. Both people, becoming introspective, each then thinking about that same dynamic.
The brains are talking, yes. The brains are communicating. Words are simply tools to a degree. But only to a degree. There are no wrenches that fit bolts that are out of spec, and our thoughts are often out of spec.

You spoke about and are quoted as saying, "MacDonald pushed the genre’s (mystery writing) envelope using McGee and other characters to explore the dark, quirky and sometimes hilarious corners of the human condition." You said, "He used digression to jump on a soap box and speak his own mind" and you talked about his "expanding the genre and all writers everywhere should be grateful to the man."

It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from George Bernard Shaw "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. It is therefore, in the unreasonable man that all progress lies."
That’s good.

That said, do you think that with your combination of biology and philosophy with the mystery/thriller, you have continued the legacy of what MacDonald did and in fact have pushed that envelope even further?
The envelope is not mine. It dates way back to Conan Doyle and Poe, Mark Twain. Hemingway said, and I’m paraphrasing, "Mark Twain invented the Modern Novel. It’s sidekicks, the realistic dialogue, the brilliance of dialogue. It’s really not dialogue, it gives the impression of being comfortable dialogue, but it’s not comfortable what-so-ever. It’s impressionistic, believable, similar. So the envelope was there, it is not mine.

But you took up that envelope. You do get up on a soap box.
Too much sometimes.

I don’t agree with that. I think it's your right, you’re freedom as a writer, being able to voice your opinions. But you do it in a way that I think has pushed it even further than MacDonald.
I hope so, thank you very much. The books are written on three levels. First level is a fast entertaining story with interesting characters. Second level there is an environmental theme or sub-text. Third level is spiritual. Are questions posed, seldom resolved or answered? In the back stories there are little hints, allusions to things that have happened. In fact, some of which did happen. I do it for me. I like the fabric of that reality.

For me as a writer, when I am writing and article that I know people are going to read .....
You hope so....

Absolutely. It’s always in my mind, it’s got to be in your mind too, doesn’t it? The audience that you are speaking to.
Yes. Readers are more important than I am. It’s the way I see it. The reader is more important. If I don’t communicate, I’m a tree in the woods that falls and no one’s around. No, I write for the reader, but I also write for myself.

You really found a way, that the weaving (the fabric) of those three levels produces a product that satisfies you personally?
I hope so, but the obligation of a writer is to communicate. That is foremost.

You don’t just communicate, you also educate.
I wish I could remember the things I write. Yes, but the obligation of writers is to communicate. I don’t buy for a moment the premise of people who say, "I write for myself. I really don’t care." Well, then, why write? Why, if you are not trying to communicate. Much of technology today has to do with eliminating the loneliness, the isolation of the individual. That’s why we write. If one writes effectively, one finds readers. There’s an obligation to those readers to do it well.

You’ve been described as the "George Plimpton of our day who decided to write mysteries."
Who said that, it’s interesting?

I'll make sure to get you that info. In fact, quite a few things that Doc or Doc and Tomlinson get into are from your real life experiences. What fuels the need for: A) adventure and, B) learning more and new things?
I don’t want to miss anything. We’re going to miss a lot when we die. It’s much easier to say no than it is to say yes.

Yes is a very hard thing to do.
When I speak of going on trips to people, they say "Geez, I wanna go, I really wanna go." I'll go, "I’ll call you." Well, I can’t, I got this.. I've got that" It’s difficult to say yes. Saying yes requires energy, requires input, constructing something, building something. To denigrate, to say no, to deny is easy.

Do you think it also requires some sort of sacrifice and we’ve become such a self centered society; Let’s take the easy way out.?
It’s just human nature, to follow the path of least resistance. But yeah, I don’t want to miss anything.

What was your reaction when you were nominated to be a Fellow in the Explorers Club?
(HUGE SMILE). Oh gosh, I was so excited. Read about it since a kid, The Explorers Club, and pictured this musty, antique memento and artifact filled building. And that's just what it is. But to be nominated as a fellow? It was geez, maybe they’ll make me a member. So Wendy and I went to New York, I had a driver, and man I had him take me straight, didn’t go to the apartment, went straight there. Told Wendy I’ll call you. It was terrific.

Southwest Florida

I’m going to shift to your other love which is Southwest Florida.
That’s true.

You said, "It’s sad but not surprising. Florida is a transient state in which too many rootless people care nothing for the past of this state nor its future. It’s a vacation destination, or a retirement place, as temporary as time spent in a bus station. Like a bus station, it attracts con men and predators. It always has. It always will." Do you still feel that way?
I do. I like that sentence a lot. I do feel that way. But there are also these wonderful people.
I found my home. These Indian mounds. I’m not a spiritual person, but I do have a wistful personality. I love the idea that, well, it’s not an idea, it’s a fact. At this precise spacial intersection here, people have been telling stories for 2000 years and that’s a fact.

And here you are telling stories.
Here WE are!

Your love of Southwest Florida is a fait accompli. What is it about this area that has gotten ‘under your skin’ and made you become so invested here, especially with your time? You were on the Judicial Nominating Committee, South Florida Big Brothers, Grievance Committee for Florida Bar Association.
I had subpoena powers which is frightening. (We all laugh). I think it’s, Mariel Harbor, bringing back those refugees, the 140 something. When they saw Key West they took up this chant, "Libertat" Liberty and they’d all been sick and they’d given up everything. Experience something like that and you realize what a treasure we have in this republic. Also an obligation to serve, to give back, it is important. The guys on the farm, it was to serve to give back. It’s an obligation, so I try to do that. Big Brothers was a fortunate thing. I came up with the idea, three local bankers we founded the organization. The cliché is people come to Florida, they love it, they buy a place and they don’t want anyone else to come. Lament the good old days when fishing was better, which is BS. When traffic was less, which is not BS. I’ve traveled enough to know that the first casualty of a failed economy is the environment. So a strong economy is very important, it’s an attractive place.

You said before "It’s the greatest place in the world."
It is, I’m fortunate I can live anywhere I want in the world. It’s the reflective, valuable people. With this house. The people that have been in this house. You don’t have to go anywhere and everybody comes here, ultimately. It’s like, were I a trapper, this is where I’d stay. Paths cross here.

Just as these words had left Randy's lips, as if on cue, the wife of the late Olympic Great Al Oerter, Cathy, showed up with her daughter to just hang out with he and Wendy. It is easy to understand what it is about this place that makes it such a great confluence for the vast variety of people, spirits and experiences that pass through this home. Randy will tell you it's the history of the place..... or the setting. He'll explain that it's the feeling one gets when sitting on the porch, looking out at the setting sun over Pine Island Sound.

Randy would say it's the mounds, the connection to the past. But I'll tell you, as soon as you step onto the property, it envelopes you like a warm blanket. You feel safe, alive, connected. As one who has been fortunate enough to feel this aura, so thick that you can almost swat it away with your hand, I can tell you, the reason we all Randy Wayne White.

Till next time,


Photographs by Regina Toops and Courtesy of RWW

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Jacques Pépin & Carmella Catena, one you know, one I wish you could have...

L'Ecole w/ Jacques Pepin
Great and iconic people inspire us. Some are famous some are not. Yet, the impact they leave on our lives is indelible and forever. Such is the case with Chef Jacques Pépin. You see, me and many of the chefs you now know as household names, all have our culinary careers due to the inspiration received from chefs like Julia Child, Alaine Ducasse, Paul Bocuse and of course, current king and culinary emperor, Chef Jacques Pépin.

I had a quiet lunch with him at L'Ecole recently but before we sat down, we toured the ICC in New York City, where Pépin is a dean. I watched with amusement as we walked the halls, stopping in various classes being taught. This was a rare treat for me, a lay person in this world of mis en place and strict French culinary tradition, to watch the students, instructors and fellow deans react to just his presence in the room. He stopped to check the bread, seeming the most content I'd remember seeing him as he took a loaf, turned it over and tapped it, listening to the sound to check its doneness. Then, we popped in on a cake decorating class, wishing some well, catching up with others. This was his element.

Each time we would enter a classroom, the students, and yes even the chef/instructors, would light up as the Master Chef entered, explaining to him in this brief moment in time, how they had seen this or that he had done, or that the reason they were attending was because of the inspiration they received as their mom, or dad, or in my case, my Grandma, introduced them to the culinary world through him and his endeavors. A moment, they explained, that was shared with one of his 'many' moments, where the two worlds collided and theirs was changed forever. The awakening in them of this culinary dream, the setting of their course or impact it had their future, leading them to this adventure.

Such is the case with me. In meeting Chef Pépin, I realized that my current path had been set long ago by he and someone very dear and personal in my life. My grandmother, Carmella Catena. After a recent meeting and subsequent lunch with this legendary chef, I recently realized why I am now doing what I'm doing. Seems I grew up a foodie. My childhood years were centered around the table, a meal. The kitchen. Now, I had no idea I was a foodie until the word actually hit the lexicon of our everyday lives, but when it did, it described me perfectly.

As a child, my mom worked and I came home from school each day to my grandmother. We had a very special relationship. She was faithfully there each day, from the time I was six, until I was 14-15. Each day when I walked through that door it was her face I saw. Some of the most formative years of my life. It is only now I understand that when my grandmother watched me after school every day, I had actually been her sous chef. "Okay now add the egg, Louis, slowly," as she mixed the dough when we were making her 'knots.'

She was famous for those cookies....Grandma's Knots... I remember, I always begged her to let me lick the bowl of homemade icing after she would dip all the cookies. She always seemed to have just enough to satisfy my sweet tooth. Such a simple recipe too. Food coloring, confectioners sugars, orange juice and love. You can't forget the love or it just doesn't taste the same.

Each week, my family had a traditional meal together one night a week. Thursday. Macaroni night. My mom, my grams and my Aunt would take turns hosting the meal at there respective houses. Two weeks, then it would move to the next house. When it was at gram's or my mom's, gram would do the cooking of the sauce, or gravy as it's referred to in my house. In my family there was gravy. Three kinds: Marinara and Meat for the reds, and Brown. When we said 'gravy' most times we were referring to what you all call spaghetti sauce. That's just the way it was. It was here also that I was sous chef before I knew what a sous chef was.

She would add the ingredients to the bowl for meatballs, and tell me, "Get in there and mix it with your hands, they are the best tool in the kitchen" or, "Turn the meatballs gently," followed by, "and stop eating them before we get them into the gravy!" She would always laughingly scold me as we would sear the meatballs to par cook them before dropping them into the sauce. Now, folks, I love fried meatballs! She would let me turn them in the pan and I would sneak eat all the little ones and she would scold me, but not really mad. I later found out as an adult that she would make extra, counting on the fact that I was going to eat some while we were cooking. I also,  as an adult, realized I was taught the difference between searing and sauteing, how to braise, to make stock, to bake. I just didn't realize what was happening then. But she did and she had so much love. She taught me love was as important ingredient as than anything else you were putting into your dish. Maybe more so.

She was a quiet, affable woman, who was quick with a smile and never seemed to have a bad word to say about anyone. Just a gentle soul whom everyone loved. She was a hard working mother of 4 who worked most of her life in a sewing factory, with long hours and sacrifice. I also remember she had a helluva right arm. No, not throwing. Whacking me on the arm with a wooden spoon. I was, let's say.....feisty. At seven, I backed the car into the side of the house while moving it so I could play basketball with my friends. It's safe to say, she had her hands full and I deserved every whack I got. She broke a lot of wooden spoons on me.

Now that said, we spent a lot of time together and had an excellent and special relationship. I remember, as if yesterday, sitting in the living room after school each day, watching Jacques and Julia and the The Galloping Gourmet with Graham Kerr with her. Well, at least on the days I did not have baseball, or football practice. I was 7-8 yrs old. When I think about it now, it was my grandmother who truly turned me into a foodie. She was the one who introduced me to all those cooking shows.

I grew and as a young adult, I was into music, sales, finances, travel. I liked eating, but one would not have called me a gourmet by any stretch. When life's curves and unexpected twists sidelined my previous career choice, a great friend, Elaine, awoke in me the 'foodie' gene and I seemed to fall into this culinary lifestyle as if putting on an old comfortable sweater. I never gave it much thought, but after years of watching my mom and grandmother in the kitchen, I guess the culinary world and a love for the kitchen is ingrained in me.

I recently chatted with Chef Pépin at an event in Cleveland and during that conversation, it hit me. The reason the foodie sweater fit so well is because it had been crocheted by my grandmother years ago. We made plans to have lunch that day at the famed French Culinary Institute (now called The International Culinary Center). I was thrilled. You know folks, there is a reason he is now, as he put it, 'a rock star.' It is through him and, the influences and inspiration of Julia, Kerr and those early acclaimed chefs, that many of the chefs and food personalities you now know today, pursued their culinary careers.

He smiled at me and explained, "Years ago we were just cooks, trying to simply make good food, but today, I have to laugh. With the popularity of the foodnetwork, with all the great chefs, like Bobby and Mario and Michael, I am now 'touring.'" He smiled, "Back when I started the show, we didn't even know if anyone was watching," he continued, "now, with the food shows, we chefs are all the rage. I travel all over sometimes alone, sometimes with Claudine and I am having fun. And I have been put in the archives in Boston University, it's nice if a bit strange."

He had mentioned this twice now in our conversations, pointing out that many people were not aware that he has taught at Boston University for almost 31 years. I asked him what he meant by 'if a bit strange' and he expounded, "I was alone in my house, you know and they had asked me to put together these things, mementos, writings, tapes, things to go into a box to bring to the school and it was weird, I, thought, 'You know, I'm not dead yet,' and he laughed, adding, 'who knows I may need these things. To put your life in a box..."

The Jacques Pépin Collection spans an entire career in kitchens around the world, from his earliest Certificats d'Emploi as an apprentice in post World War II France, to teaching career at Boston University. The collection includes extensive manuscript drafts of Pépin articles, essays and books, including The Apprentice, and The Art of Cooking. Correspondence and photographs, both personal and professional, are plentiful and feature the likes of Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, Laura Bush, The collection also includes vast holdings of Pépin's recipe books, printed materials featuring Pépin, interviews, datebooks, menus and artwork by Pépin, awards, and memorabilia.

Also included is a large number of personal and professional videos featuring Jacques Pépin's Kitchen: Cooking with Claudine, Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, Today's Gourmet with Jacques Pépin, and Jacques Pépin: More Fast Food My Way. He winked at me, "But of course, it is a great honour, I am in with such people as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Alistair Cooke, Dan Rather, many others and me, just a cook."

I found during my recent conversations with him, in Cleveland and New York, he is always humble, a bit self deprecating and even a bit mischievous in his thoughts and remarks about himself. For instance, when talking with me about he and his fellow deans at the ICC, famed in their own right, Chefs Alain Sailhac and André Soltner, he referred to himself and the two of them as "the dinosaurs, and 'the three stooges of culinary." Quite a description of three master chefs who are among the greatest French chefs alive on the planet today, with a combined total of two hundred years culinary expertise.

We talked about his thoughts on cookery today and the sudden explosion in the popularity of cooking shows. He explained "Well on one hand, it has really made the chefs the star with all the shows and competitions. Back then, when we started out, Julia and I, it was about just showing people how too cook. I'll tell you a secret not many people know," he smiled, "we had no script or recipes...we would just wing it! Sometimes those were the best shows. At the same time, the public's awareness of culinary and the influx of new students and chefs is a good thing, so overall I believe we are headed in the right direction."

I asked if he thought about slowing down, and he answered immediately, "Well, who knows how long this will last, you know. I love the live shows, the interaction. It is nice to know that there were people out there buying the books and watching the shows," he winked, "and it's an honour to greet them one on one." I have seen that effect; folks looking up on stage with a big grin, re-living some memory or moment when Chef Jacques made them cook better, or feel better, or hungry. I was there myself when asked to lunch with him.

For me folks, this was true foodie dream come true. As a child watching Chef Pépin with my Grams, and through all the years of watching his shows as an adult, following his career, to now, being 'in' the food entertainment business, the thought that one day I would be sitting with him sharing an intimate one on one lunch was childish fantasy, a dream to not even dare dream. But here I was. We talked pure food, sharing thoughts on life, his wife and daughter, life as a chef, teaching, Julia, my life, etc.. When this moment finally came, I chose to be in it, as opposed to attend it for the sake of publication. And, I was rewarded with a great moment in my life, bringing together the real reasons I do what I do; the pure passion for the food, and most importantly, the simple acts of cooking together and sharing a meal that can help create the human bonds that shape us. Food in the right hands and with the right motive and presentation can be a unifier. For me, I now know that not only my Grams, but through her, Chef Pépin, were very influential in the career path I have finally chosen, the passion I have for all things culinary and the person that I have become, both personally and professionally.

I thought about giving you an elaborate piece here, possible video, long interview, but then as the afternoon wore on and Jacques and I talked about things it dawned on me that while I should share the moment and it's impact on me with you, this one I would keep close to the vest. A little treasure that I could take out once in a while and feel all those good feelings and re-live all those great memories of cooking in the kitchen with Carmella. The love, the laughs, yes even the scolds and broken wooden spoons.

Thanks Grams, I miss you. And thanks Chef, for taking the time to remind me what's important. Told ya, iconic people will do that. They will make you lift your game, make you think and hopefully impact your life for the better. I really am a pretty lucky guy.

Bon Appetit


Monday, February 04, 2013

These two sweet treats will have your Valentine eating out of the palm of your hand....hmmm....this could get interesting!

I thought I'd post a special treat for Valentines day and because this, February, is the month of amore. The challenge for these GGM chefs, Pastry Chef Paw Mikkelsen and Chocolatier Ingo Wullert was to use an imported blood orange juice imported from Sicily. Well, the phrase great minds think alike has never been more true. Paw and Ingo have brought two wonderful variations of a blood orange mousse that will have your lover literally eating out of the palm of your hand. Hmmm.....this could get interesting. And, the great thing about them is that while they may look intimidating, that's just due the presentation. With a just a little time, patience and practice, you too can get fancy in the kitchen. The recipes are easy to follow and the home cook will have no problem.

What could be more romantic? The one you love, luxurious sweets, succulent fresh berries, combined with a glass of champagne........soft lights........ ahhh love!

From Chef Paw Mikkelsen:

Blood Orange Mousse

7 sheets gelatin
1 quart heavy cream
2 1/2 cups puree or juice of blood orange
2 oz lemon juice
2 cups egg whites
1 lb 2 oz sugar

Dissolve gelatin in cold water. Remove gelatin sheets and squeeze squeeze out excess water. Melt the gelatin down in the blood orange juice over a double boiler and add the lemon juice.
Whip the egg whites with half of the sugar. Add the rest of the sugar before whites become a meringue. Whip to a soft peak. Add juice and gelatin in to the meringue. Fold this entire mix in to the cream.

Put in heart shaped molds or in a pan. (If using a pan, cut shapes out after freezing). Freeze and unmold mousse. Serve with anglais sauce or a fruit sauce.

From Master Chocolatier Ingo Wullaert

Dark Chocolate Blood Orange Mousse

16 oz heavy whipping cream
12 oz dark chocolate (drops)
5 oz whole milk
2 oz blood orange juice
1 oz orange liqueur
½ oz lime juice

Combine in microwave safe bowl, milk and chocolate drops. Heat in the microwave for about 2-3 minutes. Take out and stir the mixture until smooth. Add the blood orange, liqueur and lime juice. Stir until blended.
Whip the heavy cream into soft peaks. Fold the heavy cream into the chocolate mixture. Pour in heart shaped cups, if available.
Refrigerate mousse to firm texture. Decorate with cocoa powder, chocolate or fruit.

I hope you have a wonderful Valentines day and please let me know if you makethese as I would love to know how they came out.

As always, Bon Appetit,