Wednesday, November 18, 2020


My Dinner at the White House


My mother always pointed to Nancy Reagan as the ultimate Lady, one who knew exactly how a lady should behave and never raised her voice or appeared inappropriately dressed. Sadly, my mother passed away in January of 1985 (of congestive heart failure, the same thing that took the former First Lady Nancy last Sunday) so she never got to hear about our first meeting with President Reagan and Nancy in October of 1985 and our second one—at a White House state dinner—the following March.

It was the Reagans’ U.S. Ambassador in Charge of Protocol, Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt, who introduced us to the Reagans after Nick’s book Eleni was published in 1984—about the life and death of his mother during the Greek civil war. Eleni was tried and executed by Communist guerrillas because she had organized the escape of her children from their mountain village. In 1985 Eleni became a film starring Kate Nelligan as Nick’s mother and John Malkovich as the adult version of Nick, who, while a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, researched the details of her death.

Lucky Roosevelt gave a signed copy of Eleni to the Reagans, who both said in interviews that it was the best book they read that year. They also enjoyed the film. In October of 1985, Lucky invited us to a glamorous dinner party given by her and her husband, Archie Roosevelt, a grandson of Theodore. The guest list included actress Glenn Close, author Jerzy Kosinski, and Abe Rosenthal, the editor of The New York Times. I could not tell you what we ate, but here are some things I remember from that party: Lucky had to install $10,000 worth of new draperies in her house to satisfy the security people. On the night of the dinner, her street in Georgetown was closed, and behind every heavily draped window stood an armed guard. Nick and I both sat at the President’s table where he regaled everyone with anecdotes and funny stories filled with details—facts and figures rolled effortlessly off his tongue.

One thing I remember is that, between the main course and dessert, the First Lady took out a compact to re-apply her lipstick. This was something that my late mother had insisted was not proper behavior, so I sent a silent mental telegram to heaven, telling her, “If Nancy Reagan can do it, then I can do it.”

As the dinner ended, both tables of guests moved toward the living room. I found myself walking beside the First Lady and I exclaimed to her “He’s such a marvelous story teller!”

I quickly forgot my comment, but Nancy remembered it, because she noticed and remembered every detail and everything that anyone said.

A few months later, early in 1986, Nick and I received an invitation to a state dinner at the White House to be given by the Reagans on March 18 “on the occasion of the visit of the Prime Minister of Canada (Brian) Mulroney and Mrs Mulroney.” I began an arduous search for a dress and, with Nick’s help, I settled on one with a long black skirt and a pleated white bodice, folded like a fan. We discovered it at a store called Sumiko, in Framingham, MA. It cost $700.00--more than my wedding dress--but Nick loved it and insisted I buy it.

On March 18, 1986, in Washington, we inched forward to the White House door in a rented limousine and finally were welcomed by military aides who checked our passports. We were led down a long hall and into a room where the roped-off press waited and our names were announced. The aide with the microphone whispered to me “I like your dress”. I was in heaven. At the top of a staircase, aides handed us our table assignments. Nick was at table nine, I was at 11. Little did I know what a significant number it was.

The U. S. Marine Orchestra serenaded us to the East Room, decorated with white tulips and flowering cherry trees strung with tiny white lights. We began to recognize celebrities, including ballerina Cynthia Gregory, Fiat chairman Gianni Agnelli, columnist William F. Buckley and Prince Karim Aga Khan with Princess Salimah Aga Khan, who was wearing a double row of diamonds interspersed with emeralds as big as marbles.

The orchestra broke into “Ruffles and Flourishes” as a voice announced the Reagans and the Mulroneys. The first lady was wearing a floor-length Galanos gown in wide horizontal stripes of sparkling gold and silver.

They formed a receiving line which we were directed through, husbands first. (Unattended ladies, like Kate Nelligan that night, were provided with a military escort.) Then we headed toward the State Dining Room with tables decked with gold candlesticks, gold flatware and gold bowls of red and white tulips. And of course Nancy’s famous Reagan china service that cost $200,000 (but from private, not taxpayers’ funds.)

I was led to a table in front of the fireplace and when I saw Mila Mulroney led to a seat across from me, I began to realize—yes there he was! I was at the President’s table—an incredible favor to a non-famous person like myself.

In retrospect I think it was the remark I made to Nancy about the President’s storytelling that won me that place, because I later learned that the First Lady herself handled every detail of the seating for every event.

The others at the President’s table were: Walter Payton, the famous running back for the Chicago Bears, Allen Murray the chairman of Mobil, Donna Marella Agnelli, Burl Osborne, president and editor of the Dallas Morning News, and Pat Buckley, who sat next to the President, smoking throughout the meal.

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Once again President Reagan kept us entertained with non-stop stories. I was so rapt that, when a waiter stood behind me holding a bowl, the President had to gesture to me, saying, “You’d better take some salad.” He was telling a series of stories about ghosts his family had encountered in the White House—stories that I like to repost every Halloween on my blog.

I remember every detail of that evening—both the embarrassing ones and the glorious ones. Embarrassing: after dinner ended and everyone headed to the next room for demitasse and after-dinner liqueurs, I sidled around our table to see if I could snitch the President’s hand-lettered place card. As I closed in, the majordomo, a genial white-hair gentleman, handed me the place card. “Somebody always comes to get it for a souvenir”, he said, smiling.

Glorious moment: after a concert in the East Room, the Reagans danced to tunes from Broadway musicals, played by the Marine Dance Band. Before the clock struck midnight, they started to head off toward their private quarters and, as they passed, the First Lady suddenly stopped and seized my hand and Nick’s saying, “We must have a photograph with the Gages before we go.” I lost the ability to speak. Nancy pulled Kate Nelligan and Walter Payton into the picture. Flashbulbs popped and then the Reagans were gone. I wouldn’t have been surprised if, at the stroke of midnight, I turned into a pumpkin.

Here’s what I know about Nancy Reagan, who is now reunited with the love of her life: she noticed every detail, she was the power behind the throne, and my mother was right, she was a great lady.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Part 2--Hunting for Cowboys and Indians

On Weds., Oct, 30,  I published my first post about investigating three Western-themed vintage Real Photo Postcards:"Hunting for Cowboys and Indians-- Part 1".  In the post, I told how I tried (but never quite succeeded) to confirm that the white -haired gentleman above was a valuable image of Geronimo (or was it Sitting Bull?)

Now I've turned my attention to the postcard of a man in a cowboy hat and leather chaps holding two very large snakes.  It's labelled “Rattlesnake Joe, Souvenir of the Fair”. (I’m no expert on snakes, but I knew those snakes he had wrapped around himself were not rattlesnakes—more likely boa constrictors.) Thanks to this identification, I thought it would be easy to track down the career and importance of “Rattlesnake Joe” and to find out if he, like Geronimo, was on exhibit at the famous 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.  
It wasn’t that easy, after all, to connect Rattlesnake Joe to the St. Louis World’s Fair, but I did find through Google this great photo—it’s a 5 by 7 glass negative in the collection of the Library of Congress, with “no known restrictions on publication”.  As you can see, someone has written on the glass negative “Westchester Co. Fair Midway 7-89-15”.  I can’t figure out if those numbers are meant to be a date, but online I found another view of this image—with those same numbers-- and it’s been labeled “Westchester County Fair 1915.”

I love everything about this image: “Beautiful Mermaid Captured Alive”, “Reptile Joe, the King of the Reptile World”, and most of all the overhead sign saying, “Wild Rose & Rattlesnake Joe”.  I was happy to see that Joe had a lovely partner in his snake-charming act. The man with the big snake standing on the platform does seem to resemble my Rattlesnake Joe on the postcard, but in less flashy clothes. The man next to him with the megaphone is clearly advertising Joe to the crowd, but the man on the ground in the business suit, who appears to be holding a small snake, has drawn the attention of some of the gawking young boys. (Is he holding an actual rattlesnake?  Is he challenging Joe?)

With a little more detective work I discovered that a contemporary artist named Mike Savad has colorized this iconic image of a Fair Midway with all its excitement and drama (above).  I think he did a brilliant job of adding color to the innate drama of the scene. And he’s selling prints of his colorized work on his website, and

My enthusiasm about my Rattlesnake Joe postcard dwindled a bit when I tested my three vintage postcards to find out if they were Real Photos.  I knew that Real Photo Post Cards (RPPCs) are far more valuable than postcards that are printed-- like magazine and newspaper images.  I had read that in 1902, Kodak came out with a preprinted post card photo paper back that allowed postcards to be made directly from negatives, but a negative would only allow a limited number of prints,  while standard printing methods can be produced in huge numbers.

According to “Old House Journal”, “This technology allowed photographers to travel from town to town and document life in the places they visited….Real Photo Postcards became expressions of pride in home and community and were sold as souvenirs in local drug stores and stationary shops.”

I also learned that the best way to tell if you’re holding a Real Photo Postcard or a printed one is to look at the image through a magnifying glass.  If it’s a real photo, the image is solid, but if it’s not a real photo, the magnified image immediately dissolves into thousands of tiny dots—just like images in the newspaper or magazines.

Sadly, Rattlesnake Joe failed this test as soon as I got out my magnifying glass!  My other two “Western” images—my (I think) Geronimo and the “Ancient Squaw” both passed with flying colors—the shades of sepia (the Sioux Matriarch) and gray (Geronimo) fading into each other without dissolving into dots.

I was disappointed that Rattlesnake Joe didn’t pass the test, and was starting to suspect that he wasn’t any more “Western” than I am. But I did find a duplicate of my Rattlesnake Joe card for sale on Ebay—in worse condition than mine—for sale from “The Postcard Dude” selling for $12.57, which is more than the dollar or so that I thought it was worth.  The “Ancient Sioux Squaw” (I love her beaded necklaces and the feathered stick she’s holding) and the Geronimo RPPC could be worth many times Rattlesnake Joe.

I learned that the back of a postcard can also hold information about the age and maker of a postcard—even if it’s blank.  Check the printed “box” where the stamp is supposed to go and look up the words and design on line at “Playe’s Real Photo Stamp Boxes”.  The stamp box of the “Geronimo” postcard below shows “Noko” is the maker, and if you look on Playe’s, you see that particular design was used between 1907 and 1934.

If there’s no name on the back, but just a design, as in the Rattlesnake Joe card below, you can go to  “Playle’s Real Photo Postcard Stamp Backs” on line, which I did, but this design  was not there (because, as I learned, it’s NOT a real photo!)

The back of the “Ancient Sioux Squaw” post card, below, had the most information.  First I looked up on Playle’s the particular KRUXO stamp box design and learned it was used by the  manufacturer between 1908 and 1910.  Then I googled the name of the photographer on the side: “Real Photograph by Holmboe & White, New Salem, N.  D.”

I learned that Frithjof Holmboe was born in Norway in 1879 and immigrated to Minnesota (just like my paternal grandmother).  He became a photographer and opened his first studio in New Salem, North Dakota in 1907.  Two years later he moved it to Bismarck, N.D. and became the state’s official photographer.  So that tells us that the “Ancient Sioux Squaw” was photographed between 1907 and 1909.

Despite the fact that my three “Western” photo postcards will not make me rich, I enjoyed learning the stories behind these images and exploring a different branch of photography that took the newborn art of the camera out of the photographer’s studio and into our expanding country’s early history.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Hunting for Cowboys and Indians—The Story Behind the Photos

About a year ago, at an indoor “yard sale” on a college campus in Worcester, MA., I bought these three photo postcards for very little money. (Can’t remember how much, but it was less than $20.)  They were: a sepia photo with the words “ancient Sioux Squaw” marked on the negative, a man dressed as a cowboy holding two snakes over the words “Rattlesnake Joe—Souvenir of the Fair”,  and a photograph of a white-haired man wearing a white shirt , vest and jacket, with no identification at all, but I guessed he was Native American and probably of importance, to be dressed in European style.

(Let me say up front that I understand the name “Indian” is offensive to Native Americans, because it’s not accurate, and even more offensive is the derogatory term “Squaw” for female Native Americans.   But I often have to use such words when researching antique photos in my collection, because they were used to identify 19th century photos, since the terms were in common use at that time.)

I usually don’t collect postcards for several reasons:  I’m more interested in photos taken in the nineteenth century (the earliest photographs) and photos on postcards didn’t appear until the beginning of the twentieth century:  1903.  Also, postcard collectors number in the millions—it’s the third largest collectible hobby in the U.S.—and at ephemera auctions they buy boxes of hundreds of old postcards, which are worth pennies each.  I have no expertise in postcards and little patience for sorting through them, but I do know that authentic vintage photos concerning Native Americans and scenes of the Old West are always of greater value than most.  (By the way, if you find yourself in possession of a daguerreotype or any antique photograph of gold miners in California --or maybe an original image of Jesse James’ dead body, you can probably sell it to finance your retirement.)

Thus began my hunt to determine the identity and value of the three individuals in my “Western” postcards.  (As any collector will tell you, this is the fun part:  trying to track down the story behind your latest acquisition, hoping to find a nugget of gold amid all the pebbles and stones.)  Starting with the white-haired gent, I typed “Indian Chief” into Google.  (How did I live before the internet?  My life through high school, college and graduate school was one long trek from one library to another.). As soon as I clicked on Google Images, I said, “Bingo!  This is Geronimo!”

I had heard of Geronimo, of course, but never knew the fascinating story of his life.  Will try to sketch the highpoints. Geronimo was born June 1829. Became prominent leader and medicine man from Apache tribe.  1850 to 1886 joined fellows to carry out raids and resistance against U.S and Mexican military in Mexico and New Mexico. His fellow Apaches thought he had supernatural gifts, including foreknowledge. He had nine wives, the first one named Alope.  They had three children.  She and the children and Geronimo’s mother were all killed in a raid by Mexican soldiers in 1858.

In 1886, Geronimo surrendered to Lt Charles B. Gatewood, an Apache-speaking West Point graduate who had earned his respect.  He was a prisoner of War in Fort Bowie, Arizona, then exiled to Florida.  In his old age, Geronimo became a celebrity and appeared at World’s Fairs, including the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, where he sold souvenirs and photographs of himself and even buttons off his coat—sewing on new buttons overnight!  He died at the Fort Sill Hospital in 1909, at the age of 80, still a prisoner of war.

Convinced that my guy was Geronimo, I set the photos and research aside and recently came back to them, to write this blog post.  But in browsing, I came upon a photo of Sitting Bull and said, “Uh oh! He looks a lot like my Geronimo!”   Sitting Bull, a Lakota leader born about 1831, led his people during years of resistance to United States government policies.  Like Geronimo, he was believed by his people to have precognition—after he had a vision of his tribe achieving a great victory against Custer’s troops at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876 (also known as Custer’s Last Stand.)  Here's Sitting Bull below.

Sitting Bull evaded capture by U.S. soldiers until 1881 when he and his band surrendered to U.S. Forces.  After that he worked as a performer with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, becoming, like Geronimo, famous and feared.

But did I have Geronimo or Sitting Bull?  (That's  three photos of Geronimo above.) I turned into my Nancy Drew Girl Detective persona and started raking the internet for photos of both men with white hair in their old age.  But it didn’t work. I couldn’t find an elderly, white-haired Sitting Bull.  Then I had a moment of illumination, went to the computer, and learned that Sitting Bull was shot to death by an Indian Agency policeman who was trying to arrest him on Dec. 15, 1890.  Sitting Bull was only 58 or 59—so he died before his braids turned white!

Then I began to study with a strong magnifying glass my photo of the white-haired gent. Looking very closely, I saw he had what seemed to be two large warts just below his left eye.  A clue!  So I went back to internet photos of Geronimo as he aged, and quickly learned that he had warts all right—a very prominent one, but it was on the fullest part of his right cheek.  It’s visible in many photos taken as he aged, including the wonderful portrait of him below, taken by Edward Curtis in 1905. Geronimo died at the age of 79. After he was thrown from his horse while riding home, and lay in the cold all night, he died of pneumonia on February 17, 1909, as a prisoner of the United States at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

So at this point in my detective story, I can’t claim a verified Geronimo Real Photo Post Card, which, according to the Price Guide of Stefano Neis would be worth $50 to$125.  (Check it out at ). But I’m not giving up yet!

In my next blog post I’ll tell you what I discovered about my two other Western characters, as well as explaining how to tell when a postcard is a valuable  Real Photo Post Card (RPPC) or a nearly worthless printed postcard. And what you can learn from the blank back of a vintage postcard.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

“Watchmen” and The Smiley Face: The Superhero Goes Bad

         (Last Sunday HBO premiered its new series based on “Watchmen”, the 1980’s 12-issue DC comic book series which has been called “a masterwork” and “the greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced.”  That inspired me to publish this excerpt from my (unpublished as yet) book—"The Saga of Smiley”-- about the history of the Smiley Face symbol, created in 1963 by Worcester, MA artist, Harvey Ball.)  

          With the appearance of Watchmen, a12-issue series of comic books published by DC Comics from September 1986 to October 1987, Smiley had metamorphosed 180 degrees from happy innocence (early 1960’s) to stoned euphoria (1970’s and Acid) to complete evil.  Here is how Jon Savage of The Guardian described the bloodstained Smiley that became the symbol of the series, appearing on the first and last page of the comics and, later, on the cover of the graphic novel: “Watchmen used the Smiley as a visual metaphor for a narrative that examines guilt, failure, megalomania and compromise with a corrupt power structure,” Savage wrote.  “All is not well beneath the idealized superhero surface, as the novel spirals into an existential crisis of betrayal, mass extinction, the transience of human existence.”


        This is a heavy, deep critique and Watchmen, created by writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons and colorist John Higgins, is a whole lot weightier—and, some would argue, more culturally significant—than your average comic book.  It revolutionized the comic book medium and the popular perception of super heroes.  When the series was gathered into a trade paperback in 1987, bookstores and public libraries began setting aside special sections for graphic novels. 

         Time Magazine praised it as “a superlative feat of imagination, combining sci-fi, political satire, knowing evocations of comics past and bold reworkings of current graphic format into a dystopian mystery story.” Watchmen was the only graphic novel to appear on Time magazine’s 2005 “All-Time 100 Greatest Novels” list.  Entertainment Weekly called it, “A masterwork representing the apex of artistry”, and Damon Lindelof, a creator of the TV series Lost, [and the new HBO Watchmen series!]  described it as, “The greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced.” 

          Watchmen is set in an alternate reality which resembles the contemporary world of the 1980’s, but many things have gone wrong; for instance, the U.S. won the War in Viet Nam, thanks to the assistance of some of the six costumed superheroes who make up the eponymous Watchmen.  As a result, Richard Nixon has been re-elected for a total of five terms. And Russia, jealous of the superior powers the Watchmen give the U.S., is threatening to launch a nuclear war against America.

         Over the years since they were first organized to maintain law and order, the superheroes have become cynical and tired and increasingly unpopular among the police and the public, so that in 1977 a law was passed to outlaw costumed superheroes except those who are working for the government.  As the story unfolds, most of the heroes have turned in their costumes and retired, but two of them are still employed by the government:  Dr. Manhattan, who is blue-skinned and all-powerful and capable of teleporting himself and anyone else anywhere, including to Mars, and the Comedian, (kneeling above) who always wears a Smiley button and who is described by Richard Reynolds in Super Heroes as: “ruthless, cynical and nihilistic, and yet capable of deeper insights than the others into the role of the costumed hero.”  Also still active, but as a rogue superhero outside the law, is Rorschach. No one knows what Rorschach looks like, because he always wears a white mask with constantly changing ink-blots moving over it.

          Just before the beginning of the comic series, the Comedian has been murdered.  (In the film version you get to see it happen, when a masked figure all in black slashes him, then tosses him through the glass window-wall of his apartment many, many stories above the street.  His yellow Smiley button gets close-ups as it becomes tinged with the Comedian's blood and then clinks down on the pavement near his shattered body.)  Soon Rorschach, the rogue superhero, arrives to pick up the button and begin investigating the murder of the Comedian, all the while keeping a journal of what he discovers and going around to warn his old superhero companions that their lives might be in danger.

          Writer Alan Moore picked the Smiley Face as the symbol for the Watchmen for a number of reasons. He cited satirical author William S. Burroughs as one of his main influences, saying he liked his use of “repeated symbols that would become laden with meaning.” The blood-stained Smiley face did just that.                    

The artist Dave Gibbons, in drawing the Watchmen panels, often added symbols himself that Moore would not notice immediately.  Gibbons created the Smiley face badge worn by the Comedian in order to lighten the overall design, and added the splash of blood.  He later said that he and Moore came to regard the blood-stained Smiley as “a symbol for the whole series” and he pointed out its resemblance to the Doomsday Clock ticking up to midnight—another prominent symbol in the story. 

          At the end of Watchmen we learn that one of the retired superheroes has killed the Comedian and stage-managed the exile of Dr. Manhattan to Mars as part of a plan to save humanity from an impending atomic war between the United States and the Soviet Union.  He intends to fake an alien invasion in New York City, killing half the city’s people, in hopes of uniting Russia and the U.S. against this perceived common enemy.  And although the others try to stop him, in his hideaway in Antarctica, it’s too late; the death and destruction have already been unleashed on New York.  The Doomsday clock has struck 12.

          Literary analysts have called Watchmen “Moore’s obituary for the concept of heroes in general and superheroes in particular.”  Moore himself said in 1986 that he was writing Watchmen to be “not anti-Americanism [but] anti-Reaganism”.  He added he was “consciously trying to do something that would make people feel uneasy.”

          Plans to make a film of Watchmen went through many different hands and scripts and studios and potential directors. In 1986 producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver acquired the film rights for 20th Century Fox.  Alan Moore was asked to write a script, but he declined. After spending more than 20 years in development hell, passing through a multitude of scriptwriters, directors, studios and producers, Watchmen was finally released on March 6, 2009 in both conventional and IMAX theaters.  Watchmen grossed $55 million on the opening weekend.  It grossed over $185 million at the worldwide box office (and had a budget of $130 million).

     Smiley had been the cover, the symbol and the star in “the book that changed an industry and challenged a medium,” as it says on the back of the Watchmen graphic novel.   Inevitably Smiley’s worldwide fame and his ability to symbolize everything from innocence to drugged euphoria to rabid consumerism to dystopia brought him a flock of roles in film and television.  Even though he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Watchmen, everyone in the entertainment business wanted a piece of him.  So Smiley went Hollywood big time.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

How Many of These Banned Books Have You Read?

Recently I walked into The Tatnuck Bookseller in Westboro, MA and was fascinated by this display titled “Banned Books Week, Sept. 22-28, 2019.  So I photographed it!

 I’ve read most of these, and Amalia has read the “Junie B. Jones” series and all of Harry Potter.

 I was reminded of how, when I was 18 in 1959 and coming home from a student trip to Europe, we all bought banned books in Paris--the ones with blank yellow paper covers and the pages you had to cut apart—and then read them on the boat and threw them into the sea before we got to Customs in NYC. 

There was  "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and  lots of Henry Miller  and the Marquis de Sade.  Wish I had kept those yellow paperbacks with the rough paper edges.

But how could anyone ban my childhood favorites, Jack London's "The Call of The 
Wild"? And "To Kill a Mockingbird?"  And "Tom Sawyer"?  And "Grapes of Wrath"?

When I was small my mother told me I couldn't read "Gone With the Wind" until I was 21.  So naturally I read it the next week.  And loved it (as well as the movie.)

What banned books have you read and loved?

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

About Our 11-Course, $600 Dinner

When you’re traveling, it’s the unexpected adventures that can be the most fun (or the scariest—or both.)  Nick and I are currently staying at Costa Navarino Resorts in Messinia, Greece, overlooking the Ionian Sea.  It’s my favorite resort in Greece for so many reasons, including their respect for nature, the environment, and the people, animals and traditions of the surrounding area.

When we checked in to Costa Navarino this time, we learned that they now offered a “Funky Gourmet Summer Pop-Up Restaurant” -- an “unconventional culinary experience” presented by the owners and chefs of the two-Michelin-starred Funky Gourmet Restaurant in Athens.  The pop-up restaurant at Costa Navarino, I read, is “located in the brand new Earth-sheltered Club house at the Bay [Golf] club house.” Nick made us a reservation for Saturday night, to my great excitement, because I had never ever eaten in a two-Michelin-star restaurant, even (especially!) in my single-girl days in the sixties when I lived in London and traveled frequently to Paris.

In our room in the Romanos section of the resort complex, I found a magazine which had an article about the two young, married Greek chefs—Georgianna Hiliadaki and Nikos Roussos--  who opened the “Funky Gourmet” restaurant in Athens in 2009, the only restaurant in Greece to serve a degustation menu. (The couple originally met at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. They have two children, aged four and almost two.)

Their first Michelin star came in 2012, the second in 2014.   Now they’ve closed the Athens restaurant temporarily, except for private events, and in November of 2020 they will reopen it in the newly re-launched Athens Hilton.  Meanwhile they opened the pop-up version here in Costa Navarino from July 8 to August 17, creating an all new 11-course menu based on their research about the traditional cooking of Messinia.  In the month of November, they will open a similar pop-up restaurant in Salzburg, Austria.

The magazine article stated that “There’s something ‘funky’ about all of their dishes, be it the unusual shapes, colors, textures or aromas.”  That was certainly true.  The meal we enjoyed was made up of eleven courses, and as we were told at the beginning, there were surprises and gifts throughout.
After a ten-minute taxi ride to Costa Navarino’s newest golf course, we were escorted to a table overlooking a stunning view of candlelit tables, green swards, olive trees reaching down toward the bay, and stars and a new moon overhead, appearing as the sun set.  We were welcomed by two servers, a man and a woman, who would be the main actors in the drama we were about to enjoy—explaining every course and adding ingredients, including special sauces and spices, to our plates as we watched. 

The first surprise of the evening was the price.  The servers handed us each a menu which began, “MESSINIAN LAND, Degustation Menu 220 Euros per guest, Wine and Drinks Pairing 90 Euros per guest, Picnic under the Olive Trees (Supplement 45 Euros per guest.)
Without a word to each other, we quickly decided to forego the opportunity to begin our meal while sitting under the olive trees on the sloping hill below for 45 euros.  We also chose to avoid the 90 euro pairing of a different wine with every course, choosing instead a bottle of a local rosé to take us through the meal.  (But two dishes were still presented with a special wine that the chefs felt was an essential partner to that course.)

Our servers warned us, before the food arrived, that we might be unwilling to try certain ingredients, namely fish roe, sea urchin eggs, and lamb’s brains.  I opted out on the brains, but okayed the fish roe and sea urchin eggs, which I’ve had many times in Greece.  Nick, being Greek, is fine with eating brains, not to mention the eyes of the roasted goat or lamb, which are often given to the honored guest in his native land.

Then the drama began with a “welcome course” that was not even on the menu.  Our servers brought us each a wrought iron tiny olive tree supporting three small, round, crusty appetizers called “travihktes” which they said were traditional in Messinia (but probably not served exactly this way, with pure gold leaf on one, bits of honeycomb that crackled like glass on another, and tiny marshmallows on a third.  They also included truffles and caviar.) I thought they would be sweet, but the flavors hovered between sweet and savory and were absolutely delicious!
Next course, housed in the first surprise gift of the evening, was presented as a small wooden box with a clasp, on top of which was burned: “Joan welcome to Funky Gourmet in Messinia!”    Nick received the same message, but written in Greek, welcoming “Nikola”.  Opening the boxes, we found in each one a single “Dipla”. I think of Diples as a Greek version of fried doughnuts, but this single Dipla was stuffed with something delicious (I think cheese) and decorated with fruits, veggies and cheeses.   And set on a bed of cut and dried figs.  The servers whisked the boxes away, saying they would be given back at the end of the meal, and they were—but now they were each filled with four small bottles of “Navarino Icons”—the famous olive oil of the region-- combined with different flavors

The third course, called “Kobe”, was a piece of watermelon flavored with thyme, fleur de sel, and including cheese underneath.  Then a beef demiglace was poured over it, as it sat in a large beef bone.
Course number four, called “Salad of the region” was arranged to look like a summer wreath, and included orange, potatoes and quail eggs, with siglino consommé poured over it.

The sun had slipped below the horizon and it was getting dark as we were presented course number five—called “Kolokythokorfades Ladera”. 

 “Kolokythi” means “zucchini” and “Ladera” means cooked  in olive oil, for which the region is famous.  But this dish looked to me like a poinsettia flower that had been dried.   (I knew that poinsettias are poisonous, so hoped I was wrong!) I learned that this was a flower of the zucchini plant that had been cooked and then dried for 24 hours in a desiccation machine, making it flat, crispy and tasty.  Hidden beneath the flower was an oblong thing that looked like a meatball.  Nick said that it was delicious because of the flavor of the hamburger, but it turns out that this was a vegetarian dish, featuring quinoa.  The last touch was to have an olive oil concoction poured over it.

Before course number six, listed as “Gourounopoula”, our servers cleared the table and then covered it with brown parchment paper.  Then they brought in round plates decorated with colorful (desiccated and edible) leaves and flowers, laid on a translucent circle which we were told was edible rice paper.  In the center was something that looked like lasagna, but was in fact pork belly on top of what, I can’t remember.  And nearby was placed a pot of plum sauce that we were told to add as we wished.  Then, around the table, were scattered crunchy things that we were told were fried pork, also to be dipped in the plum jelly.  There was no cutlery for this course, as we were supposed to roll up the circle of rice paper and eat it all like a taco.  This was tricky, but, as with several  other courses, we were furnished with warm, damp towels to clean our hands afterward.

(Dear Reader, I’ve walked you through the first six courses of our $600 meal and this is long already for a single blog post.  Tune in to my next post if you want to hear about the final five courses in which we eat: raw eggs , “Clever Sea Urchin Eggs”, a sherbet that began as a Greek salad, and a dessert --one of three--that exploded!)