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Cooking with Pat Conroy

Suzanne Pollak

My friend, Pat Conroy, died on March 4th in Beaufort, S.C. Pat was best known to many as the bestselling author of many titles, including The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini. But to me and my family, Pat was a friend and comforter, someone we came to love for his sense of humor and his sense of humanity. Pat was also my co-author, my partner in crime, in creating The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes and Stories of My Life, which we published together in 2004.

Pat and I began our cookbook in 1994, not long after we were introduced by a mutual friend. He entered my kitchen, a man bigger than life and full of joy, and (I found out later) carrying a gun. What is it like to have a man like Pat Conroy hanging out in your kitchen twice a week – for a year – and then off and on for ten years? It’s more fun than you can possibly imagine. While we made beef stock, fried squash blossoms, and baked gooseberry pies, he regaled me with animated stories, as only a gifted storyteller such as Pat Conroy could, acting out his tales for emphasis. I was captivated as he described Barbra Streisand’s call about making The Prince of Tides into a movie, insisting she sing The Way We Were over the telephone to prove her authenticity. Pat proceeded to sing to me his version of Barbra singing the tune while frying flounder.

In another of Pat’s stories, local activist Wilson Lane “Tootie Fruity” Bourke sprang to life in the body of Pat, as he mimicked the man who singlehandedly integrated Beaufort, directed traffic, and led virtually all parades, including one for the Ku Klux Klan, who didn’t know what to make of him. One time, Pat removed a life-sized portrait of me from the dining room wall, and when my young children asked what was he doing with it, he answered, “Dancing with your mother.” On Christmas Eve one year, Pat, my daughter, Caroline, and I made squash tortellini, and when Caroline’s twin brother, Charles, complained, “Tortellini. Again?” Pat described a dinner of canned dog food his mother once served his father, helping my children appreciate the bounty in front of them. 

There was one afternoon when Pat drove up to our house and saw my eldest son, Pete, sitting in the yard, unraveling countless knots of fishing line. Pat took one look and declared to Pete, “Right there is why I do not fish.” He shot hoops with the boys in the driveway, and had Pete demonstrate his left-handed pitch, bringing a quiet confidence to my son with his approval. Pat and I watched from the window as my youngest son, Christopher, buried his school of goldfish in the garden in small raisin-box coffins, while reading the funeral service from the Book of Common Prayer. Right then, Pat declared our book must have a chapter on dying. He predicted that all the shrimp in South Carolina would shake in their shells the day he died, because he envisioned buckets of pickled shrimp served at his funeral.

Our friendship grew as we worked together and discussed our distinct childhoods, impacted by our fathers’ careers (his military, mine CIA). Pat attended 11 schools as a kid, while I attended 12. It was Marion O’Neill, Pat’s physiologist and my close friend, who introduced the two of us. I later realized that she may have had an ulterior motive. During this time, Pat was walking around with a gun, (his brother, Tom, had committed suicide three months later) and Marion had Pat drive an hour and a half from his home on Fripp Island to her office on Hilton Head twice a week for sessions. She wanted Pat’s time filled with activity. What better way to accomplish that than by starting a huge project, combining three of his passions – writing, cooking, and eating.

Marion arranged our introductory dinner in May of that year, the same week Jackie Kennedy died. Marion, my husband, Peter, and my youngest child, Christopher, sat in the dining room at the Bray’s Island Main House. Christopher, at the time a fourth grader, told Pat he had just written a book, and the hardest part was sewing it together. Christopher asked Pat how he sewed all his books. Pat treated the boy’s question seriously, and then explained that sewing wasn’t half as difficult as cutting down trees and making enough paper.

I next invited Pat to dinner at my house and, when he arrived early, I put him to work. Here’s what he said about that evening in the introduction to our book: When I walked into Suzanne Williamson Pollak’s kitchen in Hilton Head Island several years ago, she was fixing supper. She had her hands full and could not shake hands, but looked up, smiled, and said, “Hey, Pat. Why don’t you make the pasta?” On the counter was a mound of flour with three broken eggs set in its well. I had never made fresh pasta in my life, but I made it that night as Suzanne gave me directions from the stove. The directions were clear and easy to follow. We have been cooking together ever since. She is more fun to cook with than anyone I ever met except for my passel of fine and comely wives. Suzanne and I are both dedicated amateurs, but we can cook our little fannies off. We collect recipes and cookbooks, and both of us believe that the cooking of food is one of the most delightful activities a human being can do during the course of a lifetime. There is joy in the preparation of food that we share and try to spread around to those we love. Now we will try to spread the source of this joy to you. Suzanne is the great workhorse and beauty behind the recipes in this book. I provide the hot air and sense of story. 

Within that year, Pat was living in the Surrey Hotel in New York City, editing Beach Music, and he decided that it would be a good idea for us to cook dinner for his agent, Julian Bach. I called Mr. Bach to find out his favorite meal, but the agent asked for more time to consider the question. The following day, he called with two menus. The plan was for Pat and I to cook in the Bach family’s elegant Upper East Side townhouse, but where in New York City was I to find Mr. Bach’s requested wild venison? Here’s where things got a little tricky. I bought a deer that had been dressed, but not wrapped well enough. I walked through the Savannah and LaGuardia Airports carrying my white plastic garbage bag filled with ice and meat, leaving a trail of venison blood and somehow managing not to get arrested. Pat feigned sickness and left me to manage cooking in Julian Bach’s basement kitchen. I was convinced that Mr. and Mrs. Bach had never entered the room, and Pat roared with laughter because he knew it had to be true. Though the couple’s knives could not cut softened butter, and their tin pots didn’t sit evenly on a stovetop, it all worked out. We sat in their opulent, chocolate-brown dining room, one floor up from the barren kitchen, feasting on sole quenelles, white asparagus, venison loin, and chocolate soufflés.

One chapter Pat planned to write, but never did, was "The Best Meal I ever had in a Hospital came from an IV." And, this is the number one reason I will love Pat Conroy forever, grateful until my dying day for what he did for my eldest son when he had spinal cancer. Pete was in the hospital in Savannah, before his transfer to Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York for the six months between Thanksgiving and Easter that year. When Pete was in intensive care with a MRSA infection, we thought he was going to die. Early on in the ordeal, I left a message for Pat, asking if he would please call Pete and say something to make him smile. Pat proceeded to call every single day for six months. I have no idea what he said in those conversations with my son, but the minute 19-year-old Pete answered the ringing phone next to his hospital bed, I knew it was Pat, because Pete always started laughing. I am convinced that what Pat had to say over those 180 or so phone calls was just as important as the radiation and medicine in saving my son’s life. 

I will miss our cooking days together, Pat. May you rest in peace.