How I Went from New Wave Singer to Cooking for RBG

Reading: How I Went from New Wave Singer to Cooking for RBG

Reinvention

How I Went from New Wave Singer to Cooking for RBG

One thing I never planned on was becoming a lawyer. Planning a dinner party for a Supreme Court Justice, however? Nope, hadn't expected that either

By Leslie Karst

When I was ten years old, my life’s ambition was to own a ranch somewhere out West and spend my days in the company of horses. Palominos, Appaloosas, Morgans, Arabs — as long as they ate hay and had a mane and tail, I wasn’t picky. 

Fast-forward four years, however, and the object of my affection had moved on to Paul McCartney. Now I dreamed of hanging out with the “pretty” Beatle as he composed songs — about me, of course — in his groovy London flat. (This switch wasn’t immediate, though; there was a period during which these two obsessions overlapped and I fantasized about marrying Paul and living with him on the horse ranch.) 

My best friend Nancy’s main crush was conveniently George Harrison, so the two of us would spend our afternoons together after school listening to Beatles albums while we tried out recipes from the Time-Life cookbooks our moms would receive in the mail every few months. As we prepared intriguing dishes such as pirozhki flecked with dill and chopped egg, we’d discuss what we wanted to be when we grew up and, since we were now old enough to recognize that living with a Beatle on a horse ranch wasn’t a terribly realistic option, we’d brainstorm other possibilities. Veterinarian? (Though there wasn’t much call for horse vets in Santa Monica, where we lived.) Librarian? (For we were both quite the bookish sort.) Astronaut? (The Space Cat series was a favorite of mine, not to mention Star Trek.) How about an artist? (As I’d often spend Saturdays crafting clay creations in my mom’s potter’s studio.) 

The one thing I never imagined myself doing was working as a lawyer

Yes, my dad was a law professor at UCLA, and I was accustomed to hanging out with legal-beagle types. But when his colleagues would come over for dinner and start discussing issues of constitutional law and federal jurisdiction, my eyes would glaze over with boredom. Law talk? Again? So once I headed off to university, it was as an English literature major, with a minor in Romance languages. Pre-law wasn’t even on my radar. Then, after graduation, I strategically parlayed my lit degree into employment waiting tables and singing in a new wave rock and roll band. 

It felt like nirvana. I was captivated by the rush of being on stage, and soon discovered I had a knack for crafting literary-influenced songs for the group. (One of my compositions was a W.B. Yeats–inspired tune called “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” Too bad, unbeknownst to me at the time, Joan Didion had already had the same idea.) For around two years I lived this exhilarating life of the rock and roller, fueled by bourbon, Gauloises cigarettes, and youth. But it couldn’t last. My schedule of working days at the restaurant, then not getting to bed till 3 AM after my gigs, was simply untenable, and I began to wonder, is this really something I can do for the long run? No, I concluded; it was time for a “real” job. 

So I decided to go to graduate school. Which was, of course, simply a way of postponing the decision. But hey, I figured, I’d spent the majority of my life to date in pursuit of that future diploma or degree, so why change now? The only question was, what would I study? 

My obvious choices seemed to be music or a foreign language, after which I could become a teacher. Or perhaps art. Uncertain, I simply dithered, continuing on with my life as it was. But then something fortuitous occurred: I was taking a life drawing class at my local community college, when one day I realized that the instructor’s name sounded familiar. Barbara Gunther — wasn’t that the name of a friend of my parents? Indeed it was. Barbara was married to Gerry Gunther, my dad’s Harvard Law School classmate who now taught at the Stanford Law School. So I asked Barbara her opinion about what sort of graduate program I should pursue. 

“What about law school?” was her reply. 

“Uhh….”

“Because if you become an attorney,” Barbara pressed, “you’ll always be able to do your art or music or whatever passion you have on your own terms, without having to scramble for money.” 

It seemed like sage advice. After all, ever since I’d been in junior high school, my dad’s colleagues had been telling me I’d make a good lawyer. And I did love words, the weapon of choice for those in the legal realm. 

Two years later, I found myself a first-year law student at Stanford — being taught by none other than Barbara’s husband, Gerry. Then, fast-forward four more years, and I’d become the research and appellate attorney for a civil law firm in Santa Cruz, California. Spending my days writing — just like I’d imagined myself doing. 

Except…not like I’d imagined. 

Turns out that drafting motions to compel change of venue for a trial or answering interrogatories in a slip-and-fall case was not nearly as fun as composing the little stories that make up song lyrics. Add to that the stress of court deadlines and the very real possibility that you may lose that motion and cost your client thousands of dollars — or more — in the process, and what you get are days spent concentrating incredibly hard on mind-numbingly tedious yet tremendously complicated and detailed writing projects, the outcomes of which are vital to your case. No, not fun at all — at least not for this gal. 

So what was this gal to do? 

One day as I was in my firm’s law library leafing through the California Civil Code annotations regarding prescriptive easements, my stomach began to rumble. Lunchtime. I fetched from my office the ham, cheese, and chutney sandwich I’d brought from home and returned to my place at the library table. Savoring the combination of the smoky ham, tangy Irish cheddar cheese, and sweet-and-sour mango, my mind began to wander back to those youthful days with my friend Nancy, trying out all those exotic recipes from around the world. How excited we’d been to discover new flavors like saffron and dill weed and hoisin sauce!

What if I could find a way to rekindle that excitement? For my life right about then was clearly in sore need of something to spice it up. Once again, school provided the answer: I’d enroll in my local community college’s culinary arts program. 

And it worked. The mysteries of all those French sauces, of pâtés and galantines, of liaisons, and of stocks and consommés, were unveiled for me. I discovered how to carve eye-dazzling garnishes out of simple carrots and tomatoes, how to choose and best prepare the myriad cuts of beef, how to bone out and stuff a chicken and filet a fish, and how to make my own sausage. Like an addict, I quickly consumed all the courses necessary for a degree in culinary arts and then proudly hung my diploma in my office, right above the one from law school.

Not too long after I’d completed cooking school, my mom and dad came up to Santa Cruz for a visit. “You know that I’ve kept in touch with Ruth Ginsburg, right?” said my father one morning as we sat drinking coffee. He and the then-Professor Ginsburg had met back in the 1960s when they were both involved in comparative law — he, Latin American land reform issues; she, Swedish civil procedure. Over the years they’d continued to correspond, and once Ruth had become a judge for the DC Circuit Court bench, Dad had begun to occasionally recommend students to clerk for her. 

“Well,” he went on, a finger tapping the side of his ceramic mug, “ever since she was appointed to the Supreme Court, I’ve been trying to get her to come to the law school to speak, but she’s never accepted my invitation.” A pause. “Until now.”

“What? She said yes?”

His mouth twisted into a sly grin. “She didn’t exactly commit to coming, but when I told her that next year would be my final one teaching at UCLA — and hence her last chance to come speak at my invitation — she did indicate that she might accept.”

“Oh,” I blurted out. “If she does say yes, you and Mom should invite her for dinner, and I can come down to your house and cook.” I’d mostly been joking and expected him to merely laugh in a “ha-ha, that’s a ridiculous notion” kind of way. But instead, Dad cocked his head, a serious look in his eyes. 

“That sounds like a great idea,” he said. 

Ohmygod. Had I really just agreed to host an intimate dinner party for Ruth Bader Ginsburg

What on earth had I gotten myself into? 

 

Leslie Karst is the author of Justice is Served: A Tale of Scallops, the Law, and Cooking for RBG, as well as the Lefty Award–nominated Sally Solari culinary mystery series. She, her wife, and their Jack Russell mix split their time between Santa Cruz, California, and Hilo, Hawai‘i, where Leslie passes the days cooking, cycling, gardening, observing cocktail hour promptly at five o’clock, and of course writing.

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