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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Wednesday, Feb 24 1999
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My family consists of me, a revolving door of housemates, and a motley collection of plants inherited against my will and which I wish someone would come over and water because they apparently seem to be dying.

That's not including my family family back East, of course.
Hi, Mom.
So it isn't very often that I have the opportunity to sit down with a good old American nuclear family for a traditional evening meal.

Mother, father, two kids, three dogs, three cats, and a goldfish. For now. That's the head count over at the McConnell house in beautiful Corte Madera. Dad, or Doug McConnell, is the ubiquitous host of Bay Area Backroads (Saturdays and Sundays at 6 p.m. on KRON-TVChannel 4) and the author of the recently released companion book, also titled Bay Area Backroads.

Doug greeted me at the door with a hearty handshake and ushered me into the house, where, in a flurry, I met Kathy, his wife, and Ginger, the one-eyed golden retriever whom they rescued from an underattentive owner.

Around the corner in the TV room we found the McConnell boys, Nicolas, 15, and Patrick, 7, in the middle of a less-than-heated match of South Park -- the video game.

Appropriately enough, the living room looks like it belongs to a local Indiana Jones. There are artifacts everywhere -- wooden carvings, paintings, and maps -- all obviously retrieved from five-plus years of regional treks.

In the kitchen, while Kathy finished preparing our dinner, she and I discovered that we have an unusual interest in common -- Ethiopia. We'd both made journeys to that country, and we ended up spending the better part of the evening sharing our experiences.

As Kathy told me about the highlight of her visit -- a 29-day rafting trip down the Omo River -- she opened the oven to check on her homemade apple cream tart. I took note of the hypnotic aroma for future reference.

Back in the living room, Kathy served up a plate of tasty mushroom and chive croquettes as Doug opened one of his atlases for a closer look at East Africa.

"When I was a kid," Doug recalled, "I used to trace maps. I thought I could memorize the whole world. And in my lifetime, which seemed to be endlessly stretching out in front of me at that point, I was going to try to go everywhere. That was one of my goals."

Doug went on to tell me about the winding trail that led him to his unusual position as official Bay Area tour guide: After early starts toward politics and television, he followed another childhood dream -- to Alaska.

Working in environmental research, public policy, and local government, Doug spent a full nine years in the Great White North, where he met and married Kathy.

Eventually a TV job in Seattle lured them south. "We got on the ferryboat to leave," remembered Doug, "and the northern lights came out. Kathy broke into tears and said, 'What are we doing?' I didn't have a very good answer then."

"You're all invited to come to the table," Kathy called.
As we rose from our chairs, Doug graciously asked, "Barry, do you need to go to the bathroom or wash your hands?"

A brief panic struck: What's wrong with my hands? I glanced around the room, wondering: What would Mom have me do here?

"I think I'm all right," I decided tentatively, worrying that I'd committed some suburban faux pas.

"Daddy says it's time to wash your hands," joked Kathy.
Nicolas and Patrick put South Park on pause to join us around the dinner table.

The meal? A fresh green salad, baked chicken with mushrooms and tomatoes, steamed carrots, wide noodles -- and pass the gravy.

Over dinner Doug told a variety of tales from the field. "It's incredible how really engaging people are," he summed up. "You know, you go to places and you talk to people about their lives and it just always amazes me how thoughtful, how articulate, how funny, how entertaining, how interesting most people are. There are lots of really interesting stories out there sort of crying to be told."

Eventually I really did need to go to the bathroom, and excused myself as politely as possible. On my return I found the entire apple cream tart had been placed before my seat with a big fork to the left.

"Oh, really. I couldn't."
"It's all yours," insisted Kathy. Then she divvied up the dessert -- but still allocated a whopping quarter of the pie to me.

After feigning more reservation, I was glad she did. It was one of the most amazing things I've ever tasted: a perfect, flaky pie crust filled with a sweet cream filling and warm apple chunks.

"It's really simple," claimed Kathy. "A foolproof recipe. French comfort food."

Meanwhile, Patrick, who was up long past his bedtime, had begun bouncing off the walls, chanting, "I want pie. I want pie," about 30 or 40 times.

"We shouldn't give him sugar after 7," teased Nicolas. "Dad broke down and gave him crispy M&M's."

Finally, after a long and comfortable evening with the McConnells, Doug, Kathy, Nicolas, Patrick, and Ginger showed me warmly to the door.

Looking back I was more than a little encouraged by this revised snapshot of late-'90s Americana: Ethiopia, Mom, and apple pie.

It's nice to be part of the family.

By Barry Levine

Want to host The Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail SFDinner@aol.com and tell us what's cookin'.

About The Author

Barry Levine

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