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When I was living in Haight-Ashbury in the second half of the 1970s, you’d still see Robert Crumb drawing in some coffeehouse now and again. I don’t remember ever having a conversation with him, as I probably wouldn’t have wanted to bother him while he was drawing. I may well have met Terry Zwigoff back then (I’d bet we spent time in the same movie theaters watching the same movies), but—ahem—there are a lot of things I don’t have a clear recollection of from that era. I do remember that, when I’d occasionally take a temp office job in downtown San Francisco, I’d see Maxon Crumb sitting on Market Street, cross-legged with his bowl in front of him. I remember engaging him—or trying to engage him—in some spiritual conversation, but again, my recollection of what we may have discussed is a bit foggy.
For me, Zwigoff’s wonderful documentary Crumb comes down to a statement the director made in an interview with Filmmaker magazine back in 1995, when the film had just been released. He said he was trying to get across his belief in “how being different and not fitting in can have such great risks and rewards in your life and in your art.” I too believe this; it’s why living a creative life is not for wimps. The key is to find a way to sustain that living and to make peace with that truth.
If you want to sustain an artist’s way of life, one trick is learning how to cook and eat on the cheap. Back in those days, we ate a lot of spaghetti. My friends and I would take turns every few days and make a big pot of sauce—everyone had their own recipe. Mine was usually based on whatever vegetables were on sale at the supermarket or the food co-op (which was run by the White Panther Party in their garage). There was no fancy farmers’ market or Whole Foods in those days, kids. We’d gather at one friend’s flat and eat a couple of nights there, then continue the pasta party at another flat.
Now, I’m someone who notices details: no matter whose flat you visited, they all had approximately the same books on their bookshelves. These included a Jack Kerouac book, a Carlos Castaneda book, a Whole Earth catalog, and a J. R. R. Tolkien book. As for cookbooks, if you had one, it was probably Joy of Cooking. But sometimes you’d also find Dana Crumb’s 1974 cookbook, Eat It!, which was illustrated by her then husband, Robert. (She released an updated edition, Still Eatin’ It!, in 1996.)
In the film, we see Robert’s current wife, Aline, make the kind of old-school spaghetti sauce I’m talking about in their kitchen, though Robert seems to prefer his pasta with just a couple of pats of butter. As he digs in, he remarks: “Gotta have my starch and my fat.” There is always something wonderful about eating spaghetti this way. It’s simple but can soothe the craving for comfort food.
In another Zwigoff interview, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, he spoke of his first visit to Crumb’s parents’ home in Pennsylvania, during which he also first met brother Charles and which led to his decision to make this film.
“I found myself telling stories about that evening to friends of mine for years afterwards,” Zwigoff said. “Eventually, when I became a filmmaker, I wanted to tell this story. Especially about the connection of these three brothers and their art.” That night, he recalled, Mama Crumb (Beatrice) served them spaghetti.
While I don’t have Aline’s or Beatrice’s recipe, I do have Dana’s, which she calls “the Crumb family recipe.” We will assume Robert consumed a great deal of this while thinking up and drawing his first Zap! Comix. And if this meal doesn’t inspire you to create some art, allow me to pass along a recommendation from what Dana dubbed her “five joint” soup recipe. While the food is cooking, she says, “get away from the stove, sit down, roll one, have some tea, look out the window, relax.”
And let me note that twelve cloves of garlic is not a typo—it’s a lot of garlic.
Crumb Family Recipe à la Veronica
From Eat It!, by Dana Crumb
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions, finely chopped
1 28-ounce can stewed tomatoes, mashed
1 28-ounce can tomato puree
1 12-ounce can tomato paste
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
3 tablespoons sugar
12 cloves garlic, peeled, not chopped
1 tablespoon celery seeds
3 tablespoons salt
red wine (optional)
1 bay leaf
Romano or Parmesan cheese
Sauté onions in olive oil (do not brown). Combine with remaining ingredients except for bay leaf, in a large pot with about 4½ cups water (Dana suggests substituting ½ to ¾ cup red wine for that amount of water). Cover and simmer slowly for about 1½ hours. Add the bay leaf for the last half hour.
She also suggests: “Meat balls, partially cooked, may be added to the sauce in the last 15–20 minutes of cooking. Or 1½ pounds of lightly browned, drained ground beef may be added in place of meat balls. Add meat in the last 20 minutes of cooking only.” She also offers a vegetarian option using 1 pound of mushrooms, “which should be added only after the sauce has cooked for an hour.”
Strain (or “blenderize”) sauce if desired before adding meat (or mushrooms). She notes that the “straining is optional, but better for tender stomachs.”
Serve with grated cheese.
Her final note is: “Never use green peppers or any other variety in this recipe.” Why that rule must be followed is not elaborated on.
Ron Deutsch also blogs at chefducinema.com.