One of Tamara’s many tasty backyard dinners (Photo: The Sunday Night Dinner)
Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, I spent most of my time outside: swimming in the pool, eating charred hot dogs and fudgsicles in the grass, swinging from the diseased sycamore tree.
It was my (hated) job to mow the lawn, year round. Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve cut the grass in 114 degree heat. You will see God in a sweat-and-dehydration-fueled hallucination. You will also smell God in the scent of the freshly cut grass clippings — earthy, vegetal, sweet and lemony. I spent a lot of time twirling around in circles and then falling to the grass to watch the sky spin, and playing dodge ball with the kids down the street.
It wasn’t until I moved to New York City that I realized how much life outside mattered to me, and would shape not just my neighborhood and apartment choice, but my entire life and career.
It was a bumpy entry into NYC 17 years ago, starting with sublets and ending in a 6th floor walk-up with a talented, though narcissistic, artist boyfriend. When we broke up, I moved in with another newly single girl in Astoria, Queens. I cried and cried that day — tears of complete despair that I was moving to Queens. I couldn’t believe I was leaving the shining star of Manhattan, city of my dreams. I thought this arrangement would last three months — just enough time to save money so I could move back to Manhattan. I refused to sign a lease.
The apartment in Astoria was in a three-family house and we occupied the first floor, which had an 8′ x 18′ front deck and a back Juliet balcony. What a luxury! I could have a beer outside! I could sit on my back balcony with Band-Aids on my nipples and get a tan! (This was before health insurance could afford me a dermatologist, who explained to me that this is how we get skin cancer.) I could drag out my little vintage card table and eat dinner with a couple of friends on the front deck!
Soon those dinners became coveted invitations in the spring, summer and fall. Sometime after the NYC blackout in 2003, they morphed into my dinner party/underground supper club, The Sunday Night Dinner. Up to 15 of us would cram ourselves into that space so tightly that if a person sitting in the corner had to get up, we all had to get up and disperse to the stoop to create the space.
One New Year’s Eve, I decided I had to roast a whole baby pig on that deck. Only none of us — me or my friends with whom I was cooking — had any idea how to do this outside on a tiny deck. It involved procuring a 50-gallon drum and a beam from a junkyard, “liberating” some cinderblocks from the construction site across the street and repurposing a broom handle as a spit. At the last minute, we decided to add lamb too; it was a wild success (even if we didn’t realize until afterwards that only using mesquite coals essentially meant we smoked both animals instead of spit grilling them). We bribed party guests with beers and bragging rights to get them to take turns cranking the broom handle spits for hours in the freezing cold.
But of course, like every obsessive, soon the front deck wasn’t enough. I began coveting a neighbor’s sweet backyard, with its tulip magnolia-shaded privacy and perfect southern exposure. At first I was merely jealous, but eventually wanted it so much I could hardly stand it. A real BACKYARD! With a hammock and lawn furniture, flowers and even a couple of super tacky garden gnomes. I offered to pay the Honduran woman who lived there to allow me to hold a Mint Julep party in her backyard. She asked me if I was on drugs.
After eight years of longing for large backyards, the old man next door died (he was 93), and I managed to secure his apartment from his daughter. It was the mirror image of my own apartment, except for one big difference: it had sole access to THE BACKYARD. My obsession led to gaining not just any backyard, but one I could do whatever I wanted in, without having to share it with anyone.
Soon I was out there in really inappropriate cut-offs, drinking rose on ice and gleefully replacing her vinca and lily of the valley with tomatoes and cucumbers. (My motto is: If I can’t eat it, why would I want to grow it?) I was holding weekly supper club events with my now-husband, Karl; grilling, frying, roasting our little hearts out. That backyard had its moments, for sure. Karl was drunk one night and accidentally burned his leg so badly on the grill he ended up hospitalized. We buried Karl’s first pet of his own, his beloved cat Feedback, under the Rhododendron in the back corner. My dream of having my own cooking show was tugging hard, so we found a producer and shot a pilot in that backyard.
The TV show was rejected, so I decided to write a cookbook instead with a friend and writing partner. There were whole sections extolling the virtues of a backyard oasis and how you too could roast whole animals out there, even in New York City.
But soon it came time to move to a bigger apartment. Of course, during the hunt, I wouldn’t even consider places without backyards. We ended up in a big old house with ugly vinyl siding and a side yard that had been turned into a parking lot. And a TEENY backyard. The outdoor parties raged on.
When we moved into our current apartment, the real estate agent said, “I know it is two blocks further than you want to be from the N train, but trust me, this is your apartment.” That statement alone told me I couldn’t trust her; obviously she was trying to get me to take a place that wasn’t right for us. But when I saw the 22′ x 60′ yard, I realized that this was indeed my new home. “Think of the parties we will throw!” I think I terrified the landlord.
Eventually, I also found my place on TV as well. For four years I’ve been part of the Cooking Channel’s show Unique Eats, and I’ve developed my own one-hour special with Karl, Married With Dishes. I got the opportunity to do these shows because TV producers attended our insane outdoor parties. And I continue to run my underground supper club.
I also have a gardening partner, Christopher, who I share an intimate friendship with precisely because we garden together. Last week we planted herbs and tomatoes and this weekend we will put in the chard, kale and cucumbers. Karl is getting a projector and we’ll hang an art canvas over what should be the grape arbor in the back of the yard, and we’ll host movie nights.
When I sit in my backyard alone, with friends, or even with the strangers who attend my supper club, I am so very far away from my outdoor childhood in Phoenix, and yet so close to who I am. I am a woman who loves to drink, eat and feed others by the light of citronella-filled tiki torches and fireflies. A woman who needs to walk on the grass.