November 2010

A Novel Feast Dinner with
Mona Simpson

Like her literary nuances, a meal with the author presents simply, only to turn complex on further contemplation by JONATHAN GOLD /photographs by ALEX HOERNER

Mona Simpson’s dinner parties are legendary in certain circles of Los Angeles, exquisitely choreographed evenings where the food is delicious and the crystal water glasses are light as silk, where there is always a new kind of chocolate or a rare fruit to taste and where the person next to you talking about farmers’ market avocados always turns out to be a screenwriter, a novelist of manners or a playwright whose work you could probably recite by heart.

If someone is helping in the kitchen, he is likely to be a former executive who found his true passion lay with vegetables. The dining-room table is big enough for Ginger Rogers to dance upon, and Simpson, weightless, glowing in her summer linen, is seemingly everywhere, urging you to try the cheese, flitting into conversations, doing whatever it is elegant hostesses are meant to do.

The novelist’s Santa Monica house, an airy Craftsman distinguished enough to have made it onto the National Register of Historic Places, could almost have been designed for parties, especially the pale, ball-field-size kitchen. This is clearly a place where serious writing is done: A galley of a forthcoming Alice Munro book flops open on a table; laptop cords lurk behind cushions; pens cluster in discreetly repurposed cups.

Which is why, when I stop over for lunch on a foggy afternoon, I am almost surprised to hear the kitchen thrumming with domestic activity. A trio of girls— Simpson’s daughter, Grace, and two friends—shriek through the kitchen, banging the back door on their way out to the garden. Bartleby the dog, who runs six miles with Simpson each morning and is just back from the groomer, wedges his wet nose under my arm until I give in and scratch his shaggy head. Her son, Gabriel, in an immaculate vintage Pavement shirt, shuffles in looking for somebody to take him to pick up his new driver’s license.

Simpson stands near the sink, carefully chopping tomatoes, sprinkling them with minced garlic, putting on a big pot to boil, at ease with the bustling around her. There is basil and good Italian olive oil. When I present her with a bag of assorted lettuces, Roman zucchini and heirloom tomatoes, it turns out the heirloom tomatoes she is preparing and the ones I brought came from the same place—the Altadena backyard garden of a mutual friend, novelist Michelle Huneven. Excellent produce is always important, but especially so to Simpson, who is, for all intents and purposes, a vegetarian.

“I grew up with a single mother,” Simpson says, “and although we didn’t have a lot of money, she cared a great deal about what we ate. We were the original health-food family. We shopped at what were called health-food stores before Whole Foods—everything came from bins. I’m half Syrian, and there was Syrian food around all the time.” It seems culinary pursuits run in the Syrian half of her family. One cousin basically controls the world’s cumin market.

Simpson, of course, is about as big a presence in the literary world as L.A. has at the moment. An English professor at UCLA, she is a novelist who examines the modern family with the precision of a molecular biologist dissecting a genome. Her Anywhere but Here lays bare the terrors of the mother-daughter thing—Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman starred in the movie version—while A Regular Guy exposes the odd molecular bonds of brother-sister kinship.

Her splendid new novel, My Hollywood, explores the shifting relationships between a composer, her sitcom-writer husband, their baby and his nanny. And there is scarcely a nuance that remains unsaid of what it means to raise an upper-middle-class child in the complexity of multiracial, multiclass L.A., including the differing comforts implied by bubbling adobo, the drive-thru at McDonald’s and linguine with cockles and Sweet 100 tomatoes.

“I learned to cook in college—up at Cal,” Simpson says. “I remember the excitement of finding a great pancake recipe in Gourmet. It felt as if it were mine. And it was Berkeley, of course—everybody cooked together. Cooking is what one did.”

Simpson dumps the chopped tomatoes onto the steaming pasta, then leans back as she tosses the mass with tongs, making sure not to splash tomato on her immaculate white blouse. She rummages through a heap of herbs, finding a sprig of mint to tear and stir into the dish.

As we take a seat, pinching flakes of Maldon salt from the tiny cellars she had set out at each place and spearing milky chunks of fresh mozzarella to toss with the pasta when it cools, it occurs to me: I recognize this meal—the lemony salad composed of lettuces, herbs and a sprinkling of Parmesan; the bread; even the hidden mint.

I recognize it from My Hollywood, in a meal that is almost a character in an important early scene: Composer Claire had shopped for and prepared this pasta and salad as a response to the Happy Meals she imagines her husband and toddler crave. The husband eats reluctantly, nanny Lola with careful relish. These culinary approaches are a crack in the marriage exposed, flowing into Claire’s indifference in the bedroom later that evening. It is the moment in the union where things fall apart. But here, in Mona Simpson’s house, it is just a great lunch.

“I do have food in my books,” she says. “Different people eat different ways. I’m a simple cook, and there’s a lot I don’t eat. But food is important. It translates so easily into pleasure.”