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GREAT HOME COOKS : Home at the Range

April 01, 1993|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I remember one meal my father served us," David Speakman says. "It was a big pot of beans and ham hocks with Wonder bread and butter, and he said, 'I wonder what the poor people are eating?' Later on I found out we were the poor people, but I couldn't imagine what could be better than those beans and ham hocks!"

Of course, he's recounting that story today with a glass of '85 Schramsberg in his hand, in a room with a variety of fresh-cut exotic herbs hanging on the wall. Speakman is a sturdy man with a healthy shock of gray hair, faint traces of a Texas accent from his Wichita Falls upbringing and the poise that comes from having taught calculus at Pomona High School for 28 years. He's cooking dinner, as he regularly does for himself and his wife, Lynne--and often as many as 10 guests as well--in this tiny Claremont kitchen.

"My father and grandfather were the cooks in the family," he continues. "I'd call my father a good Southwestern cook--he always made more than anyone could eat, and that's influenced my way of doing things.

"My uncle owned Lakeside Casino in Lake of the Ozarks back in the '40s. The restaurant there seated 300 just in the main dining room, looking out over the water. Seeing how a restaurant kitchen worked when I was young, how all the jobs fit together, just fascinated me, and it's why I can cook a meal for 10 people in an hour and a half. It drives my wife crazy."

He met his wife-to-be, in 1958 when he was stationed in Pasadena during his Army service. "The first time I met her," he recalls, "she and her roommates didn't cook, so I offered to make them a dinner. Lynne decided never to worry about (cooking) ever after. She sets the table, and it's a work of art the way she does it. And she washes the dishes."

Last year Speakman was selected as a Jaime Escalante teacher for creativity in math teaching--the national award named after the Garfield High calculus teacher on whose life the 1988 movie "Stand and Deliver" was based. He retains contact with many of his students and recites their achievements proudly; he's also involved in a project based at Harvey Mudd College to get minority students into science and engineering. Lynne is a teacher too, at the kindergarten level ("She starts them out, I kick them out").

When they retire next year, the Speakmans will move to Texas . . . and a home with a much larger kitchen than the tiny "Pullman-sized" one in Claremont. Altogether, the Texas connection continues to loom large in their lives. Country singer Johnny Cash has attended a party at their Claremont apartment, and his daughter Roseanne and her husband, Rodney Crowell--both major country stars in their own right--have stayed there.

Right now Speakman is finishing up the pasta for dinner, wearing a formal jalapeno-pattern apron. He recalls one of his father's sayings: "It just costs a little more to go first class."

"So on Saturdays," he says to illustrate, "we'd wake up to the sound of Porterhouse steak sizzling in the morning. That's what we had for breakfast--Porterhouse steak, maybe an egg or two. Something that would clog up the circulation of a charging rhino.

"I have a lot of friends back in Texas who weigh 250 to 300 pounds, but here in California I have to be very careful how much I serve. I'll make the portions smaller, maybe increase the salad. Everybody out here is concerned about health problems and their weight and how they look." (The big-eating Texas attitude is probably better represented by his friend Bryant Stone's saying: "The worst meal I ever had was still pretty good.")

"I've learned a lot about food here in California," he adds. "We used to have a business selling sterling silverware through teachers' associations, and then lawyers' and medical groups. Eventually (precious metals speculator) Bunker Hunt cornered silver and drove us out of business, but it had allowed us to go to the finest restaurants. I get some of my ideas from restaurants."

He's cooked a relatively simple meal tonight. A salad, based on one served at a local Claremont restaurant, of chopped spinach and red cabbage, mixed with walnut meats and dressed with orange juice and a light vinaigrette. Fettuccine snappily flavored with herbs and lemon. A boneless pork roast with a fragrant, mouth-filling sauce based on homemade jalapeno-mango chutney, the sweet-sour effect mellowed by reduced dry Marsala wine.

"I like to cook with Marsala," he says. "It has a good, nutty flavor when it's reduced. It's awful hard to find in Texas, though." He's also a big fan of Grand Marnier, which the Speakmans take in place of commercial nighttime cold medicines ("It's cheaper, and it tastes better too"). This particular meal seems rather Californian in its openness to Italian, French and Asian influences, but another time he might put together a meal where grilled fish coexists with chicken-fried steak or Texas chili.

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