Sunday, October 25, 2009

Two Goodbyes

Dominick would have gotten a better shot: A House Wren at La Chua Trail.

This month, two friends passed suddenly, before I could even say goodbye.

The first was an old friend that had been a part of my life and my family's life since my childhood: Gourmet magazine. The corporate bean-counters at Condé Nast decided axe the revered 70-year-old franchise while continuing to support its vapid kid sister, Bon Appétit.

I love cooking as much as I love birding, and as a former professional cook, I can say with objective certainty that the difference between Gourmet and Bon Appétit was the difference between Roger Tory Peterson and the doofus I met a while back who mistook a Great Egret ten feet away for a pelican.

All the obituaries for Gourmet sneered that it was fusty and elitist, not designed for "the way people live today" in "these recessionary times". I call bullshit. True, it wasn't meant for people who are content with microwaved Lean Cuisine for dinner. But neither was it unusable: most of the recipes were easily do-able by any competent home cook, and the magazine had a regular section dedicated to recipes meant for weeknight cooking. And these generally contained lots of (cheap) pasta and veggies. And it featured, along with its wonderfully out-of-left-field travel and food culture articles (Slovenian food! The cooking of Yemenite exiles in Israel!), the ever-entertaining Roadfood column, which lovingly described regional specialties at some of the most blue-collar, American vernacular eateries imaginable.

Bon Appétit, by contrast, features celebrity hamburger recipes.

I looked forward to a new issue of Gourmet every month, to travelling vicariously to decidedly weird places and trying the accompanying recipes—the smells and tastes made me imagine I was there. My subscription was cheap, the writing was great, and the recipes were fun to make and to think about. When I was too busy to follow them to the letter, which was often, I'd just riff off them and still get some pretty good stuff.

And I just got my last-ever issue in the mail yesterday. It even had a bird on the cover—just for me!

And as usual, when I tore off the shrink wrap and opened it, all those annoying perforated "Send a gift subscription to a friend!" cards fell out.

I feel like filling them out and sending them all back to Condé Nast as a protest.

The demise of Gourmet was a sad surprise. But even sadder, and more surprising, was the passing of Dominick Martino, known affectionately as "the unofficial official photographer of Paynes Prairie". He lost his battle with bone cancer—which I didn't even know he was fighting—last week.

The first time I met Dominick was on my first-ever visit to La Chua. I went with another local birder, who had volunteered to show me around. Dominick was, as usual, tooling about in the little golf cart provided to him by the park, and immediately struck up a bird-related conversation. As we left, my host remarked, "Some people around here are kind of afraid of him."

"Really? Why?" I asked. I couldn't imagine anyone being afraid of such a friendly and jolly character.

"Well, if you get to talking with him, you might get sucked into 45 minutes of conversation. Sometimes, he just can't stop!"

It was true that he could talk forever about the flora and fauna of Paynes Prairie. And about taking photos. Both of which he clearly loved.

There was rarely if ever I time that I went to La Chua and didn't see him there; he was as much a part of the landscape as the alligators and wintering Sandhill Cranes, and his New York accent was as interwoven into La Chua's soundtrack as the calls of Red-winged Blackbirds. I thought of him as the Tommy Lasorda of Paynes Prairie: a knowledgeable and shamelessly biased booster.

The last time I saw him was in early August, during an especially pleasant day of birding: I was at La Chua with a friend and we were enjoying summering Purple Gallinules, Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites, and even a few distant Whooping Cranes. Dominick was at the observation platform at the end of the trail with his camera, and we spent close to an hour up there, chatting and watching storm clouds go by. As usual, he was having a whale of a time watching the movements of the birds and animals. And despite the typically repulsive Florida summer heat, it felt like a perfect day to be alive, with perfect company to share it with.

If he was already sick at the time, he certainly didn't look it or act like it.

I can't say I knew Dominick all that well, except for his love and knowledge of Paynes Prairie. But my visits to La Chua, his usual haunt, will be sadder without him. Like my lamented subscription to Gourmet, I figured he, and the pleasure of his company, would always be there.

Goodbye, old friends. Life will be a lot less fun without you.

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