Eating Life
Eating in with Venice bohemians John Thomas and Philomene Long

John can go into the icebox and make the most delicious food on earth, from whatever he finds there," says Philomene Long, pulling out a manila folder entitled "The John Thomas/Philomene Long Recipes for Destitute Bohemian Royalty and Their Pets." She rifles through the beautifully handwritten sheets to find and read a recipe called "The Moldy Green Last Resort," which calls for two elderly green onions, a hardened chunk of provolone cheese (largely rind), a can of elderly vegetarian baked beans opened a week ago, two to three cups of leftover rice, beginning to harden and dry out again ("so I guess that's two generations of hardening," she interjects), two tablespoons of chopped fresh ginger, and one half of a badly baked potato. All of which are sautéed quickly in oil or butter.

"Actually, it's quite good, that one," says Philomene, poet, filmmaker, custodian, and historian of Venice's bohemian past. She has been mulling over the intersections of food, poetry, philosophy, and life since we arranged our dinner weeks before. But, while she has many food-significant theories, it is her husband, poet John Thomas, who does the cooking. A portly man with full white beard and thinning ponytail, he joins the conversation from the tiny book- and paper-crammed room where they spend their days reading and writing (with Philomene making forays into the world to teach), and where we will soon dine.

"He seduced me with his cooking," she says. "He made the most subtle omelets."

"Not omelets," John corrects in a rumbling baritone. "Scrambled eggs."

"Yes, scrambled eggs," Philomene goes on. "I had never tasted eggs so sublime, and it was because of all the butter -- a fistful of butter. Maybe I'd never had eggs with butter, and that was the subtlety," she said.

"I'm a gastronomical submarine," John calls -- from the kitchen now -- "sinking any previous entanglements."

In 1959, years before he began cooking for Philomene, John Thomas, leaving a series of previous lives behind, found his way from Baltimore to Venice, which along with Greenwich Village and San Francisco's North Beach, his original destination, was a mecca for those in search of la vie bohémien. He was soon hired as the manager and cook at the Gas House, where he cooked breakfast and supper every day for the poets and artists who lived rent-free at Venice's Grand Hotel (an experiment in tourist-subsidized art).

"It was a big year for beatniks," Thomas says. "There was a big donation jug at the door. The daily menu depended on how much money the tourists put in it. Breakfast was usually eggs, and dinner would be something cooked in a big pot. I would buy trash fish -- bonito or barracuda -- from the fishermen at the end of the pier, chop it up, and make a fish stew. There were a couple of times that I got filet mignon," he says, adding that he didn't tell anyone it was horse meat from a local pet shop.

Philomene arrived in Venice in the early '60s, after a five-year stay at the convent at Mount St. Mary's, and has been writing poetry and tending the bohemian flames ever since. She has documented those years in a film, The Beats: An Existential Comedy, and both Long and Thomas are represented in the recently published tome The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry (edited by Alan Kaufman, Thunder's Mouth Press).

"I never learned to cook," Long says, setting the table as John brings out focaccia with olive oil and garlic. "I can, however, choose very nice plates." In college, I took Nutrition 1A, and I do remember them saying color was important," she adds, referring to the plates. But John takes this opportunity to draw my attention to the colors of the meal itself -- pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, and broccoli on the side -- the red, green, and white of the food representing the national colors of Italy. "I feel I'm eating life when I eat Italian," Philomene adds, before returning to her story.

"My mother was a queen of Ireland. She would make fine meals, and put out crystal, china, and silver. I poured ketchup over everything. I was not brought up to cook. I was brought up to be highly cultured, to write poems, and to marry a millionaire."

She does write poems. And she did find someone to cook for her.

"I have a speech to give," says Philomene, after completing her previous speech.

"Would you get the silverware first?" John asks politely.

"I want to say, you can live a cultured, aristocratic life as opposed to vulgarity in Southern California -- so simply and so free. The trade-off is time. A poet needs air, some nutrients, and time."

"The salad," says John, carrying out his duties as explicator of the meal, "is romaine lettuce, arugula, and blue cheese. The vinaigrette is olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Dijon, and garlic."

In deference to Philomene, who has eschewed meat, for the most part, since her pet duck Danny died when she was eight, their menu is always vegetarian.

Although they could have been together forever, and had known of each other for years, they truly met in 1983 at a poetry reading at the old Venice Jail. "I sat next to him," said Philomene. "He started telling me a story, he couldn't finish, and we went to the Comeback Inn to continue. I remember the exact moment he fell in love. I was telling a story. He started laughing. At the beginning of the laugh, he was not in love but when he finished the laugh, he was. He said. "I don't like what you said, but I appreciate your way of saying it.'" He was 51, she was 42.

"I don't know exactly when I fell in love with him," she continues, "but I realized I was in love when I was walking down the boardwalk with a dozen roses. Everyone was looking at me, and I said to myself -- they're looking at me as if I'm in love. I must be in love." John fell in love on March 10, and Philomene realized she was in love April 6. How did John handle that cruel month of March?

"I had hopes, but no prime expectations," he says.

This, we can imagine was the month of the omelet-seduction scenario.

The meal is drawing to a close. John brings out dessert, and, in this apartment overlooking the sunset and the sea, where they try "to live a life of refined simplicity," Philomene admits that they have recently acquired an addiction to Seinfeld, and, in a world of infinite contradictions, as we eat our slices of organic pineapple, she turns on the TV.

Reproduced from the Los Angeles New Times Website before it went offline.