"The only real stumbling block is the fear of failure. In cooking, you have got to have a what-the-hell attitude." ~ Julia Child

Babs and me

by Julie Tilsner on May 26, 2010

in Chew on This

Peacock On Thursday my Dad drives down to take me, my step-sister and her grown daughters to dinner at a nice restaurant for Barbara’s birthday. In her honor we will order several expensive bottles of wine and order from the appetizer, entree and dessert lists. When the bill comes, it will be well over $100 — easy for a group, but in this case it’s more about ceremony — because that’s what Barbara deemed “eating well.”

Barbara, we called her Babs sometimes, was my father’s third wife and my stepmother. She and my mother were good friends. Our families camped together every summer when I was a small girl. We spent a lot of time at their house, because Barbara and Tom loved to cook and entertain everyone. When Tom died years later, Barbara and my Dad fell together in a smash of love, delight and circumstance, she in her early ’60s and Dad in his late ’50s. Looking back at the framed family photo of my Dad and Barbara, circa 1974, arms around each other buddy-style and smiling at the camera, I can see, with my middle-aged eyes, that they loved each other even then.

As Babs would say, “Duh.”

They found a house on a hill from which you could see Catalina Island on a clear day. My kids called it the Peacock house because of the peahens who lived in the garden and sometimes ventured into the kitchen. Barbara fed us all. Made my kids Princess Toast. Kept my dad a happy man. That kitchen was the center of our universe for a while.

My dad and Barbara were married for four years when she got a little cough that wouldn’t go away. Six weeks later she died of non-small cell lung cancer. There was no tumor. They kept misdiagnosing it as pneumonia, bronchitis, even as she got weaker and less able to breath. I sat with my dad the night we had to call the paramedics, because her own doctor had mis-routed his answering service to a private residence, not that he would have been able to do anything for the woman gasping for breath in the next room anyway, so we called my mom, because she’s the rock of the family, to ask her what we should do and she said don’t be stupid call the F*ing paramedics NOW.

My dad and I stood in the living room listening to the sirens get closer, waiting for help to arrive. We both knew there was no help to be had. That was the night I became my father’s grown daughter.

I got all of Barbara’s pots and pans. I got three boxes of spices, most of which I’d never even heard of. I got her spooners. At the garage sale I found her cache of cookbooks in a storage locker in the garage and lugged every one of them – more than 100 – home with me, lest some stranger buy them on the cheap. Not Barbara’s cookbooks. No. Way.

I’ve tried to write about Barbara here several times and each time I’ve been unable to finish. I don’t know why. Barbara, whose thanksgivings were legendary, who would spend all day making a pumpkin soup, who would greet you at the door with home-made quesadillas and a glass of crisp white wine, was — continues to be, actually — my inspiration.

She would have loved this blog. Hell, she’d be the co-author. I’d have content to post every day of the week if Babs were still living down the freeway in the Peacock House on the hill.

I’ll write about her now.

In honor of Bab’s birthday this week, I offer you her famous Princess Toast recipe, which she made regularly for her children, her grandchildren, and then my children.

Cut toasted bread into triangles or quarters.


Add cinnamon and sugar

serve on a pretty plate with tea or milk.

I miss you, Barbara.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Bruce May 27, 2010 at 9:04 am

I sometimes make my father’s cinnamon toast: lots of butter, lots of sugar, a respectable amount of cinnamon, broil until butter soaks through sugar.
Still gives me great memories — and a craving for insulin.
Thanks for reminding me about how food can keep memories alive!


a May 31, 2010 at 4:17 pm

i’ve been quietly visiting your blog for some time but this is my first comment. when i read this post i was extremely moved and cried. it made me want to seize the chances that come my way and spend as much time as i can with the people i love. anyway, thanks.


Louise June 1, 2010 at 4:28 pm

That can’t have been easy. She sounds like a wonderful woman, life-inhabiting and open to experience. Do you think she was happy with Tom? What happened to your mother and father, if you don’t mind telling?
And did Barbara have a recipe for coconut cake.


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