Saturday, June 6, 2009

I am the Niece of Bob Synes

In a small stack of papers and photographs, at the bottom of a box that had been forgotten in a dusty garage, was a piece of scrap paper -- water-stained and corners brittle from age -- with words hastily scribbled in both black and blue ink, suggesting more than one session of writing. MENU, it says. Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls, Brisket, Potato Kugel, Turkey with Mushroom Stuffing. Gefilte Fish, Egg Soup, Asparagus, Pineapple/Strawberries/Kiwis, Cookies. It also contains a grocery list, broken down into categories: Booze, Produce, Meat, Fish, and included the names of the specialty stores where he would obtain the items.

It appears to be a menu for Passover, and judging by the quantities on the grocery list (4 briskets, 12 pounds of fish, 9 pounds asparagus, 30 pounds potatoes), he was going to have guests. Lots of guests.

He scrawled these words on a piece of scrap paper at his kitchen table as he designed a feast for 50 of his friends and family. As he wrote it, he was thinking about his guests, the flavors he would delight them with, the traditions he would both uphold and elevate through imaginative preparation. He was thinking about place settings, and music, and the progression of the courses he would serve. I'm sure he was filled with memories of Passover from his childhood, and trying to recreate them in his new home, on this new coast. He would have considered his sister's feelings on asparagus, his best friend's request for macaroons, his mom's deep need for tradition.

I am certain he did not think, while he was at that table, about me. He never considered the piece of scrap paper in front of him, jottings of a menu and a grocery list, would end up in my hands over twenty years later, and that I would tremble with the excitement of discovering such a rare and important piece of my history.

Bob Synes, was (and is) my hero. He was also my uncle, which is one of the proudest things I can say: I am the niece of Bob Synes.

Bob was an Artist. A Chef. A Poet. A Traveler. He was also a successful Television Producer for over 30 years. He worked with Monty Hall, Jackie Gleason and Dinah Shore, was pals with Joan Rivers and Brooke Shields, and gave Greg Kinnear his first break. He had a convertible Mercedes the color of champagne, and I remember he brought me a shirt from Paris with "C'est la vie!" italicized in neon colors, which made me the coolest girl in the 5th grade.

His house in the hills of Los Angeles had walls lined with books, furniture that looked like art, and speakers that poured out the most transcendent classical music (even to my then Debbie Gibson-loving ears).

Bob, at work, 1960's

I remember his kitchen was so unlike our own, with dark woods and heavy knives and the smell of dill and capers (it seems to me much of what he cooked included dill and capers, but memories can be appallingly wrong). He took such care in preparing a meal, tasting each ingredient, using his senses to guide him through each step. When he cooked, he was attentive, specific, but never fussy.

I remember him sitting at the kitchen table, his ever-present apron on, chopping herbs masterfully, describing to me the poetry of the dish he was making. He was much more of a gourmet than anyone I knew at the time, cooking rich sauces and decadent cuts of meat, unafraid of bold flavors and butter. He was at once intense and completely at ease at the stove -- an artist who was both confident, and smart enough to know there was always more to learn.

His passion for art and life translated deliciously into the food that he cooked, and the parties he threw - his table was populated with the most creative and vibrant people I've known, and they knew better than to ever pass up an invitation to pull up a chair at Bob Synes's table.

When he died at 58 of cancer, I was only 12 years old. I often think that if he had lived longer, we'd have been very good friends as adults. I would have invited myself over for dinner as often as possible, eager to glean as much of his wisdom and perspective as I could. I would have asked him about cooking, and which countries I should explore, what music to listen to, which books to read, the movies I should see. He was the person you went to for that information, the person you knew would not only know the best restaurant in town, but probably knew the chef.

Gregg Sheldon, Bob Synes with Wolfgang Puck and Barbara Lazaroff

It wasn't until recently that it occurred to me just how much he influenced me. Without intending to, I've ended up working in the same industry, even working directly next to people who had once worked with him. This wasn't by design, but it is impossible to pass it off as coincidence, given how much I adored him. And there's no denying his love of food influenced me greatly. Watching him as a child, it seemed to me cooking was an expression of soul, and bringing people into your kitchen and cooking for them was the key to a rich and happy life. Bob did many things beautifully, but his heart was in the kitchen.

Last week when my mom opened a long-forgotten box, and discovered a small stack of random scraps of paper, she almost threw them away before realizing that they were recipes and sketches of Bob's. And when she handed them to me, these forgotten jottings -- a sketch of a friend, a map to his house for one of his many parties, the Passover menu, recipes -- my heart did flips in my chest. These scribbled notes are the closest thing I have to being able to ask Bob all the questions I would have asked him. This small collection of recipes are a way to connect to the uncle of my childhood, as an adult. With his notes and comments and instructions, he'll be seated at my kitchen table, describing the poetry of the dish he's making, cooking them again through my hands.

It's just a small stack of notes jotted on scraps of paper. But it's also a way for this brilliant man to live on, each time I make one of his recipes.

And I could end the story here, if I wanted. I could share his original recipe for stuffed zucchini and I could just leave it at that. But I'm not going to.

Because Bob Synes was not my real uncle. I myself am not Jewish; we shared no blood and no legally-sanctioned ties.

He was my Uncle Gregg's life partner. They were a couple like all other long-term couples: they built a life together, made a home, their separate families came together to form a new family, and I was their niece. Bob was my uncle from the time I was born, and I never once felt he wasn't my real and true uncle. Throughout their relationship, Bob and Gregg went through those life things that all couples go through: falling in love, chasing after dreams, facing hardship, joy, illness, prosperity, aging.

One day Bob woke up and he couldn't walk. He was paralyzed, numb from his waist down, and no one could tell him why it had happened. My memories of him cooking are at the kitchen table, not at the counter, because he had to learn to do all of his cooking from his wheelchair.

And his partner was there by his side. And when he was diagnosed with cancer years later, they went through that hell together as well. And as Bob faced death, he had to take every precaution to be sure that his mate would be able to stay in their home; he had to worry about protecting his partner's rights; since they could not marry, they were not protected or recognized as a couple. And so on top of the paralyses and the cancer, Bob had to worry about Gregg being allowed to visit him in the hospital.

All of this is only one small part of my Uncle Bob. Artist. Chef. Poet. Traveller. Producer. Cancer Victim. Homosexual.

My uncles were brave enough to look each other in the eye and say they would stay together no matter what: through success, through paralysis, through Cancer, and beyond death. That's something, isn't it?

Bob Synes was my Uncle. I have no doubts about that. But I can't help but feel that it sure would be nice if the government would acknowledge it.

From the small stack of papers, I now have a dozen or so recipes of Bob's, and I'm half-tempted to frame them, they mean so much to me. There's no way of knowing if some of these recipes were his favorites, or if he'd ever even made them. But a few of them stand out. One is for gingerbread cake, which he'd noted was especially delicious. Another is an original recipe of his, with his own distinct style of explaining the process for making it. I've added to the instructions here, to make it clear, but have kept much of his quirky language intact.

He calls the recipe That Zucchini, and I'm not sure why, other than to guess that the people he fed must have requested the recipe for "that zucchini." And once I tasted it, I could see why. It's perfect food for entertaining -- comforting, intelligent, surprising and memorable. A lot like Bob himself.

Adapted from Bob Synes

Perfect for entertaining, or as a side dish.

4-5 "fairly fat" zucchinis, 7-9 inches long
1 package frozen chopped spinach
3/4 cup golden raisins
1/2 medium to large onion, about 1 cup, finely chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus 3 tablespoons
1 egg, well-beaten
1/4 cup bread crumbs, Italian style
1 teaspoon paprika
salt and pepper to taste

In a pan, saute finely chopped onion in two tablespoons olive oil until soft (but not brown) over medium heat, about 7 minutes.

Now in a pot, cook frozen spinach according to directions. When it's done, turn off flame and add raisins, cooked onions, almonds, dried basil, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover, and let all that sit together for about half an hour.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375.

Cut off and discard the ends of the zucchini. Cut remaining zucchini into 2" pieces, making sure your cuts are straight and parallel, so that the pieces are about the same size and not cockeyed when they stand together (each zucchini should yield 3 or 4 pieces).

With the point of a teaspoon, press into the center of the cut piece and scoop out about 2/3 of the zucchini center, leaving the bottom intact to create "zucchini cups." Frugal souls will save this to cook it. I don't.

If the spinach mixture is moist, drain the whole spinach mess in a colander. But really drain it (using your hands to squeeze it, if need be). When it's good and drained, put the spinach mixture in a bowl, and mix in sour cream, half a cup of the Parmesan cheese. (Should be fairly stiff, but creamy stiff at this point, not too liquid.)

Now add the well-beaten egg. Stir it all madly.

Mound the mixture into the zucchinis, and cover with bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese. Dribble a little olive oil and paprika on each one, and put the zucchinis into a lightly oiled (but lightly!) baking sheet or pan. Bake till the top seems browned and the zucchinis are softening, but not pulpy (you can test with a fork), about 25-30 minutes. Serve hot or cold.

Yields about 12 stuffed zucchini cups.


  1. what a loving tribute. thank you for sharing this. i am envious of all the great recipes you have in your possession now.

  2. This is a beautiful post! Thank you so much for sharing your Uncle's personal story with us. I absolutely agree with the sentiment 100%.

  3. Man Sara, you keep making me cry with your posts! My daughter has an Uncle Mike and an Uncle Dale, neither of whom are actually related to her (though Uncle Mike is her godfather, and Uncle Dale is her uncle by not-yet-marriage). I hope she adores them as much as you adored your Uncle Bob.

  4. Sara, what a wonderful piece of you this is! Thanks for sharing, in such loving and fine detail, your Uncles' story - and That Zucchini, too.

  5. Thanks guys! As I told my family, the best part of finding those recipes was that I am collaborating with Bob on recipes almost 20 years after his death. This is what I love about food, and why I choose to write about it.

  6. I really love the community aspect of food, too. I love that when I make a recipe, even if I tweak it and make it my own, I'm sharing it not only with the people who will eat it, and the people who will read about it, but everyone who has ever made the same recipe, like we're all cooking together in some big space time continuum kitchen.

  7. This looks delicious and I have added it to my "must cook soon" list. And what a lovely post - a great story, well written. I just discovered your blog and really like it all...

  8. Very sweet story. It really honors your Uncle.
    There is definitely something special about finding those old working recipes. My sister and I treasure all those (sometimes indecipherable) hand-written notes from my grandma's collection.

  9. Thank you for sharing the story of your uncle Bob with the world. It is at least partially through warming stories such as yours that equality will someday be won, one heart at a time.

  10. Hi Sarah,

    This is really wonderful. You ARE Bob Synes' niece, and I know he would be so proud of you.

    That box of notes is such a wonderful gift. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  11. Really beautiful post, Sarah! A scrap of paper, a link through time. So happy I got to read this!

  12. Sarah,
    I lucked upon your site while searching for a really great bacon & cheddar corn muffin. Your writing is instantly captivating, honest and humorous. After reading "I am the niece of Bob Synes" I am truely moved by your courageous Uncles and can't wait to read more and try out your recipes. Thanks for sharing your family recipes and stories. You are a great story teller. Cheers to you!

  13. Sorry about the h on Sara, force of habit:(