I spent five weeks this summer in a surreal dream. In Hartford of all places.
I watched Dana Smith-Croll, a Yale-trained actress, play me! I watched Emmy-winning actress Marilyn Sokol play my mother! Internet star George Salazar played my father! (Among other parts.)
Here’s how I got to Hartford.
My very first signing of my book, “The Raging Skillet — The True Life Story of Chef Rossi,” was in New York. It was at a huge convention with thousands of writers, editors, publishers and readers. I put out trays of peanut butter and bacon sandwiches to draw a crowd. It worked. Powerful stuff, that bacon, but oy, my mother would not have approved. A line formed. Down the line, I saw a man dressed in brown (the same shade as a UPS delivery man) with a scraggly beard. He looked like the Unabomber.
“I’m Jacques [Lamarre],” he said, “and I want to turn your book into a play.”
“Psycho,” I thought.
I didn’t take him seriously, but he stayed in touch as psychos do, so I Googled him. Turned out the psycho was the real deal, with a history of turning memoirs into plays.
While I was on book tour, he sent me the first draft. I was in my hotel room, alone, laughing out loud. Psycho was kinda, sorta REALLY brilliant. And it was commissioned by TheaterWorks, so it was REALLY going to happen. In Hartford of all places.
A year later, TheaterWorks asked me to meet the cast and work out the recipes they’d be cooking on stage. I made my home base the Hilton and ate almost every meal (and had many a cocktail) at Trumbull Kitchen. I can’t recommend that place enough — and being a chef, I don’t dole out compliments on other people’s food frequently.
The morning I went to meet the cast, I saw two giant signs announcing our play. “They can’t change their mind now,” I thought.
I met Marilyn first, a petite woman with curly white hair and a huge smile. She was Mom on impact. She tenderly pushed my hair out of my face and said, “You’re so cute. Let’s see your face a little more, dear.”
Dana walked over with arms outstretched and gave me a long and wondrous hug, the kind of hug New Yorkers never give because it takes too long.
It was a day of cooking and laughing and hugging. I met the whole behind-the-scenes team of TheaterWorks. Each one of them treated me is if I were the queen of culinary England. I’m fairly sure I floated to the Amtrak back to the city.
“Half of them are Jewish!” I could hear my mother say. “You finally have some Jewish friends.”
Preview night came. Once I heard Patti Smith blaring onstage, I felt at home. An image of my mother and father when they were young and gorgeous flashed on a screen. They’re both gone now: I lost my father last year, my mother 25 years before, but sitting in that theater, I felt closer to them than perhaps I ever had.
“How do you feel?” a woman next to me asked.
I kept trying to answer that question, but the answer felt bigger than I could grasp, as if I needed a year of contemplation on it.
Opening night came. The crowd went wild. “Raging Skillet” was a smash, and Hartford was way more awesome than I ever could have imagined.
And then on Aug. 27, it came to an end.
So that’s how it happened. Here’s how it started.
In 1991, I wrote a little thingy for Provincetown magazine about how cooking as we knew it stopped the moment my mother got her first microwave. I was doing what I loved to do most: making fun of my mother.
I mailed it to her. I expected a phone call from her screeching about my poking jokes at her. Instead I got, “Slova, you’ve immortalized me!” She made a hundred copies and mailed it to every friend and relative she had.
“Shana Madelah! Promise you’ll keep writing about me!”
That funny little piece found its way into the book and then into the play. The morning after that first-night preview, I called Jacques. I wasn’t sure what words would spill out of my mouth. I said, “Thank you for giving me back my mother.”
“Shana bubelah,” I could hear her say, “I never left.”
Rossi (she goes by a single name) is the owner and executive chef of “The Raging Skillet,” a catering company in New York City.