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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Wednesday, Feb 3 1999
"Southern cookin' and home-style lovin' " read the subject window of a recent incoming e-mail.

This, I thought, is my kind of message.
The sender turned out to be a woman known to AOL's Digital City denizens as Ask Ms. Ann (aka Jessica Leigh Lebos). She claimed, "Ms. Ann Thorpe's Love Advice for the Jaded cuts through the crap when it comes to relationship woes, offering real suggestions for a really messed up world."

Ms. Ann's invitation went on to paint a terribly enticing picture of food, friends, and Fairfax. Dinner, she explained -- a buttery, garlic-infused Low Country Boil -- would be prepared by Mark, her Savannah, Ga.-raised husband. "It's a seafood vegetable dish eaten with the fingers and not found anywhere west of the Mississippi."

Ah, three magic words: butter, garlic, seafood, and fingers.
OK, four magic words.
In addition, she promised, we would be joined by her Digital City partner-in-angst, twentysomething columnist JenX (aka Jenna Peterson). "She happens to be the most gorgeous single shiksa around," wrote Ms. Ann, "if that sweetens the deal."

It might. Besides, I thought: Gar-lic. But-ter.
Before ravenously accepting the invitation, I decided to verify the quality of Ms. Ann's advice. Over at AOL keyword "Ask Ms. Ann," I found her dishing out responses like:

Bordering on Bitter: When he says, "It's not you, it's me," it means it's you.

In a Daze: Don't get naked for the delivery boy just cause he's got a package.

And although her disclaimer warns that she is not a "licensed therapist, counselor or anything else," her advice, at the least, scores pretty well on the entertainment meter.

Meanwhile, next door at AOL keyword "JenX," I discovered an archive of Jenna's Rants and Raves on topics such as E-Love, Girl Power, the Mother/Son Organism, and Sex With the Ex.

Several days later, with a case of Low Country Boil on the brain, I found myself climbing a steep, dark road in the backwoods of Mount Tam, searching for Jessica and Mark's Fairfax address. Inside the couple's cozy Marin newlywed pad, I met Jessica, Jenna, and Mark, all while zeroing in on the large bubbling pot on the stove.

Mmm ... Boil.
Jessica (who, incidentally, with long black hair and a flowing silk skirt, looks more like a Jessica than a Ms. Ann Thorpe) offered me a "Coca-Cola spiked with Jack Daniel's," which somehow sounded much more exotic than a plain old Jack and Coke. I eagerly accepted.

Jenna, on the other hand, with her short blond spikes and wide black heels, looked pretty much the way you'd expect a JenX to look. We all settled down at the 12-sided table in the small country kitchen between Mark and Jessica's living room and bedroom to sip our cocktails and watch Mark cook. Jasmine, their shaggy gray-haired dog, attached herself to my side for what would be the remainder of the evening.

"How hungry are you?" asked Mark, as he prepared his ingredients.
"Whatever you've got, I'll eat," I promised. "Is that the Pot?"
"That's the Pot," he said, sensing my appreciation for the magnitude of the dish.

We talked about the type of letters Ms. Ann typically gets. "Some of them are just ridiculous," admitted Jessica. "Either totally vague or too long, or it's like, 'You know what? I can't help you.' I mean, I'm not a therapist. I go to therapy."

She regaled us with tales from her previous life, including how she came to settle in Marin. "After college in Arizona I was just slacking. I had this freak artist boyfriend and I just had to get out of town. So I shaved my head and moved into my van. I was gonna drive to Alaska, but the van broke down in San Anselmo and I've been here ever since."

Good Bay Area story, I thought. Better than most.
I got up to pay a visit to Mark's creation in progress.
"I just boil water," he explained. "Then I put in chopped-up chunks of red new potatoes, sausage, Creole seasonings, half ears of corn, celery, squash, and, at the last minute, shrimp." Back in Savannah, Ga., "This is a traditional dish where you just took whatever you had in your fridge and threw it in the pot."

"Would you like an edible flower?" interrupted Jessica, brandishing a plastic container of rainbow-colored plants.

"I swear to God," I announced, "if I wasn't writing this column I'd definitely say no." I selected a pretty blue-and-white number and tossed it back whole.

"Do I just chew on it?"
"Oh, yeah," answered Mark. "It's very Marin."
"It's minty," I observed. "Are they all minty?"
Someone said, "No."
And that's all the explanation I got.

Instead Jessica told us about the long hunt for their quaint little home. "In Marin every couple our age who's looking for a one-bedroom apartment has jobs in the city, is really wealthy, drives the brand-new Jeep Cherokee, has the beautiful golden retriever. We've got Jasmine, who is very lovely in her own right, but isn't exactly purebred, you know. My hem's coming down from my skirt. Mark's got, like, weird hair. We must have looked at 50 places. Every weekend that's all we did."

"I cut my own," explained Mark. "I shave my own head with the thing I shave my dog with right afterwards. How do you compete with people in BMWs when you cut your own hair?"

I like Jessica and Mark.
Turning back to the meal, Mark began to drain the pot. "It's not a soup or a stew," he explained. "You serve it dry."

Jessica peeked in the oven to check on an enormous homemade apple pie. "I just discovered baking," she told us. "It's kind of embarrassing. I'm like, Renegade Chick, living in my van, then all of a sudden I've become pretty domesticated. Tomorrow I'm meeting a girlfriend in the city who I haven't seen since high school and she's like, 'You're married?' "

"Aren't you a lesbian?" asked Mark.
"No," answered Jessica, "I thought about it and, you know ..."
"... you couldn't find a woman to put up with your shit," finished Mark.
"That's probably true," she conceded.

With that, Mark took the enormous mixture of low-boiled food and dumped it into a giant bowl in the middle of the table. The multicolored ingredients overflowed onto the tablecloth.

Chow time?
Not yet.
Mark delayed us from diving in. "I hate to expose you all to our religious thing, but we do say grace before meals and you know ... pray to who you want." Then in a very simple and casual manner he offered, "Thank you, um, Lord for providing us with this fantastic meal, great company, and the opportunity to share ideas."

"Amen!" shouted Jessica. And we all dug in.
It was a very sincere sentiment, I thought, but a bit unexpected in light of their traditional Jewish wedding photos. I guess they all do things differently down South.

As Jessica had promised, Low Country Boil is eaten with the fingers. I grabbed a piece of shrimp, twisted off the shell, and ate it. A potato. A sausage. Shrimp. Sausage. Shrimp ... you get the idea.

The shrimp and potatoes were great; the corn cobs were spicy and tender. The sausages, two kinds, were amazing: a basic smoked sausage and a spicy andouille, which Mark told us is hard to find around here in its authentic incarnation.

"This is the dish that really made me fall for Mark," confided Jessica. "He made this for my birthday. A ton of friends came over and we all sat around and just chowed. I was like, 'Whew, he's pretty damn foxy.' "

On the side were bowls of drawn garlic-lemon butter for dipping and collard greens cooked in bacon and onions. I complimented Mark on his extraordinary effort, and vowed to re-create the meal soon for a group of close friends.

"I actually wrote you that invitation before I asked Mark to cook," Jessica told me. "He came home and I said, 'Uh, I did something. I invited somebody to dinner.' He said, 'Who?'

'Well, we don't actually know him,' I said, 'but he writes a column and, you know, I just think it's going to be really great and I want you to make Low Country Boil for him.' He said, 'What? When is this?' 'Uh, like, Wednesday.' " Mark finished the anecdote by recalling his own response: " 'What, are you high?' "

But it all worked out pretty well for me. As Jessica sliced me a huge hunk of her incredible homemade apple pie, Jenna passed around bags of fortune cookies she'd picked up on the way as party favors.

We each took a turn reading our fortune.
Jenna: " 'You will be awarded some great honor.' "
Mark: " 'Life to you is a dashingly bold adventure.' "
Jessica: " 'Good news will come to you from far away.' Right on."
Barry: " 'Good news will come to you from far away.' "
Jenna forced another cookie on me. This time I chose more carefully.
Barry: " 'Good news will come to you from far away.' "

The group deflated. "We're stopping back there on the way home and kicking some ass," I said.

By Barry Levine

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

About The Author

Barry Levine


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