One day in early January I received a telephone call.
“Hello, may I speak to Beth please,” came the soft toned voice. “Speaking,” I replied absentmindedly, used to unfamiliar voices inquiring about catering.
“This is Mimi Fariña of Bread and Roses calling from Marin County. I am having a small fundraiser at Bill Graham’s house in Mill Valley next month and I was wondering if you, as a bread baker, would be able to do something for us.”
Anyone who knew anything about 60s folk music knew about Mimi, the sister of Joan Baez. They both went to Palo Alto High School and were often spotted at Stanford shopping center. Their mom, Joan Sr., also still lived locally.
Bread and Roses is a homegrown Bay Area non-profit organization. It was well known that Mimi’s heart and soul was actively put into Bread and Roses. It is a humanitarian social service that had been providing live entertainment to people confined in a variety of institutions–senior homes, convalescent hospitals, correctional facilities, and rehab centers–for over twenty years. Instead of giving a chunk of treasure, a person can give talent or their time. All sorts of local artists from musicians, dancers, and puppeteers to poets and mimes contribute their services. Mimi was helping others before it became chic.
“Bill is very generous letting us use his home.” she said. “He’ll be there to act as host, too. It’s a casual evening. We will be having a great Mexican buffet brought in by this restaurant called Guaymas that just opened in Tiburon, but I was hoping you could do the table decorations and set up for us. I sure would appreciate it. You are welcome to stay as my guest for the evening as well, to enjoy the entertainment and have dinner. Please bring a friend.”
Considering it was a charity event, my labor and materials would all be donated, so I was relieved not to be responsible for the entire meal. My mind had originally flashed on handmade bread for 200, but I did not have to do that either. There would be fresh tortillas. Table decorations was going to be fun. And a chance to meet Mimi and Bill.
Anyone who was conscious and living in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 60s and 70s can tell you who Bill Graham is. Just the most famous rock concert producer in the USA. He created the legendary Fillmore Auditorium. When that closed he moved to Winterland Arena across the street and booked all the big shows at the Oakland Collisium for the likes of the Rolling Stones, The Who, and Jimi Hendrix. Bill had just built Shoreline Amphitheater out on landfill in Mountain View, my hometown. He was so familiar it was like extended family. I had a friend who worked security for Bill Graham Productions concerts. My Professional Food Society friend Narsai David, a local restauranteur and TV food celebrity, had cooked Thanksgiving dinner for hundreds with a bevy of rented restaurant ranges brought into the cellar of the concert hall for the last concert of The Band for him. I had friends that were sound engineers, band managers, light show technicians, and smaller-time producers.
“I would be most happy to help you,” I said.
“Then I will send you an invitation with directions how to get here,” said Mimi. “The date is February 7, a Saturday. I hope that is a good day for you. We will be running a shuttle from Mill Valley Middle School, which is just down the road a bit, every 15 minutes since there is no room for parking at the house. But since you will have to unload the car, just come here directly first. We’ll have all the table linen here, and the tables and chairs will already be set up for you. Call me if you have any other questions and see you there.”
I put my mind to creating the centerpieces for the table. That was easy. A bread and roses theme. Food and flowers. After a few days juggling fantasies in my mind, I came up with making oversized cornucopias, a receptacle shaped like an oversized curved goat horn, of bread dough. They would sit nicely, one to a table, on a bed of ferns. I would make small round crusty French rolls and have them cascading out of the cornucopia mixed with an equal amount of fresh blood red roses. It would look really cool and give the emblematic appearance of overflowing abundance. Just what I wanted to convey. People could eat the rolls too, if they wanted. Since I didn’t know how much work was involved, I would also bring Crystal, my friend since high school and one of my most dependable workers, much less a total rock groupie.
I only needed to bake for two days and I used a recipe I made at the bakery over a thousand times. The loading of the car was a snap, too. The cornucopias and rolls all fit easily into towel-lined cardboard boxes. Since the guests would arrive about 5:30, I estimated I better arrive no later than 4 p.m. to set up. At 3 o’clock, Crystal and I were on our way north on Highway 280 into San Francisco and over the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin.
We took the Blithedale/Tiburon exit off Highway 101 and headed towards the emerald green hills that separate Mill Valley from the Pacific Coast. We turned left onto Camino Alto, a smooth road that seemed to take us straight up a steep hill into the sky, lined with eucalyptus trees on both sides that acted like a natural canopy. We were not far from the freeway, but in a matter of minutes, seemed to be in a completely different environment. It seemed devoid of human life.
The driveway was about halfway up the hill on the left hand side. I was surprised there was no gate and had to concentrate not to miss it. I accelerated up the narrow drive through stands of the large, graceful eucalyptus. They were so thick that a lot of the natural light was filtered out and the mood changed to serene, slightly surreal. The air was fresh, cool, and slightly mentholated.
My first sight as I was driving was a gigantic sculpture of a skull on a side lawn swell over 10 feet high. It was a startling image on this lovely driveway; I could have been on a prehistoric island. It was overgrown with a cacophony of morning glories and other dark green vines, trailing in and out of the eye sockets and other orifices, giving the appearance that the plants were holding the skull hostage on the earth. Crystal reminded me that the skull was the symbol of the Grateful Dead band, one of Bill’s first clients and close friends.
Across from the skull was an open-work sculpture of the world, tilted on its axis, with Christmas lights hung all over and twinkling. As I looked at it, it was like a relic from Leonardo di Vinci’s workshop perched on the edge of the earth. I could stare right through the open metalwork into the trees and into a vacuous space above Mill Valley. Talk about unconventional landscaping.
I pressed the car upward and ended up in a small, rather cramped turnabout area in front of the house and three-car garage. The garage door was open and a Jaguar convertible was inside. The front door was only a few feet from where I stopped the car. Everything felt very close.
As I stepped up to the front door, I looked down. I had stepped onto a large parquet Star of David, two opposing equilateral triangles superimposed on each other, representing the inner and outer worlds of human matter and spirit. It is the revered emblem of Judaism also known as Solomon’s Seal, the hexagram symbolic of the divine union of energies that maintain life in the universe that was copied from the Shiva Tantric yogis of India by medieval Jewish Cabbalists. The revered symbol, known as the Bhaeravi Cakra in India, has been used as a visual tool for meditation for thousands of years for its harmonious effect on the mind. The motif was set right into the porch landing, pulling the eyes effortlessly from the outer points right into the blank center then back up to the door. The door opened as I stepped up and there was Mimi, smiling and welcoming us in a pair of old purple sweat pants.
“Hi Beth, let me show you around.” she said. I marveled at her graceful figure, her swarthy skin, and flowing black hair. She had a becoming natural shyness. She showed me the front room with a big oval dining table, the kitchen off to the side, the large empty room to the other side, and the first bedroom off to the side that was cleared for extra seating. This was a regular size family ranch-style home, no mansion nor ostentatious residence in any sense of the word. It was spare and relaxed.
Mimi excused herself to go handle a telephone call and I was left to unload the car. Crystal carried in the boxes with me and we placed them in the empty bedroom, which was hung with Egyptian calligraphy wall hangings from floor to ceiling on all the walls. I recognized the hangings immediately. Jefferson Airplane, another early band of Bill’s, had taken a series of photos for one of their album covers in front of these parchment-like wall hangings. They looked authentic.
I had to move the car, so Crystal and I headed back down the driveway and over to the school to park. A big black limousine was waiting to shuttle us back. It was my first limousine ride and it was really something. Exceptionally comfortable.
End of Part 1 To be continued….
You want to use unbleached bread flour or unbleached all-purpose flour for French bread. Unbleached flour is aged naturally to oxidize the proteins and bleach out the natural yellow pigment present in freshly milled flour (also known as green flour). Bleached flour is aged quickly with chlorine dioxide, has less gluten, and lacks vitamin E that naturally remains in flour after milling. I consider unbleached flour superior to bleached in bread recipes. My favorite brands include King Arthur, Bob’s Red Mill, Stone-Buhr, and Hodgson’s Mill.