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The Boonville Birthday

March 05, 1992|RUTH REICHL

"To honor Marion, we'd like to present her with a book in which she herself is the subject--an anthology of informal tributes from all those present at the party."

--from the invitation to the 70th birthday party

Judith Jones brought a poem from her husband Evan. Alice Waters brought a collage she had made. I brought a photograph from an earlier birthday--a group of miserable-looking people huddled around a table looking hungry.

Which we were. In 1983, Alice Waters, Judy Rodgers (Zuni Cafe), Stephen Singer (Table 29), John Hudspeth (Bridgecreek Cafe) and I had the brilliant idea of driving Marion to the New Boonville Hotel for a birthday lunch. In good weather, Boonville is a three-hour drive from San Francisco; on this wet, thundery day, the trip seemed to take forever.

Marion, who has driven hundreds of thousands of miles in the 15 years I've known her, was at the wheel. We stopped in Sonoma to see M.F.K. Fisher, and as we pulled out, the weather got worse. Alice was pregnant, the roads were twisty and we kept having to pull over. We stopped once for gas, which Marion insisted on pumping herself, looking sickeningly cheerful. It took us four and a half hours to reach Boonville, and we were starving when we got there.

Which was too bad for us. Vernon and Charlene Rollins, the original proprietors of the now-legendary New Boonville Hotel, were famous for growing all their own food and serving it very slowly. On this occasion they were planning a special five-course Mexican lunch; unfortunately it was still in the planning stages when we arrived. The room was icy cold, and it took two hours for the first course to arrive. The meal itself lasted three hours; pigs' feet was the piece de resistance.

Most of us did our best to be cheerful about it, although Alice did turn slightly green when the pigs' feet arrived. When the excruciating feast finally crawled to a close, we headed south to San Francisco. The weather had not improved; I bit my nails all the way. Meanwhile Marion regaled us with stories from the war, when she worked as a service station attendant. She seemed to be having a grand old time.

"Oh, hon," she said as she dropped me off, "wasn't that a wonderful day!"

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