Nora Ephron, essayist, screenwriter, novelist, playwright, director, and, yes, serious eater, died tonight. You didn't have to know her to realize what a terrible loss this is. Nora was razor-sharp, smart, funny, dignified, and generously spirited, not to mention ridiculously talented.
If you haven't read her collections of essays such as Crazy Salad you are missing some of the most prescient non-fiction writing about food and life ever written. Her writing and her movies like Silkwood, Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail, and Julie and Julia, were marked by a love of language and life, a fundamental decency, and unabashed optimism.
We met when I e-mailed her a zillion years ago to see if she would be a guest on my old radio show Dish. I was blown away when she responded in the affirmative. So she and Ruth Reichl and Daniel Boulud came on the show together. I was in heaven.
Over the ensuing years I saw her half a dozen times: we had a magical lunch at the Spotted Pig, where she asked my advice about who to get to cook for Julie and Julia. Spot-on as always, she hired Susan Spungen.
She invited me to be an extra in Julie and Julia. I was treated like a star. She asked me to sit next to her in her director's chair, invited me out to dinner, shot my scene out of order so I would get home at a reasonable hour, and had her driver take me home. Only the back of my head made it into the movie, but that didn't matter.
We invited her to taste frozen biscuits and dinner rolls at the old Serious Eats offices on West 27th Street with her longtime assistant JJ Sacha. She treated all the young serious eaters as equals, and I will never forget their faces that day. Then she sent us some cupcakes from DC with a note: "These aren't bad. " And they weren't.
Then she came over to my house for a pastrami and smoked meat taste test. Again, she made everyone feel special, even though we all felt we were the ones in the presence of greatness. And she made us feel that she genuinely wanted to be there, and maybe she did. Nora stayed a long time that day, and she laughed a lot and in turn made us laugh a lot as well.
Last November we had her and her wonderful husband Nick Pileggi (the author of Wise Guy and the screenwriter for the resulting Good Fellas), and Calvin Trillin over for dinner. In Trillin's honor I had some burnt ends and beans shipped from LC's in Kansas City, and for Nora I had fried chicken from Rack and Soul, delivered by Charles Gabriel himself. For dessert my wife Vicky made an incredible lemon cake from the Silver Palate Cookbook. Nora and Nick and Trillin sat in our living room and talked about how great the Serious Eats book was. I had sent them all copies, and it sounded as though they had actually read it. Nora and Nick practically recited chapter and verse from it. I floated through the rest of the evening.
With her characteristic grace and style, she e-mailed me a thank you note the next day:
That was so much fun and so delicious. Thanks to you and Vicky .... I am still thinking about that lemon cake. And the beans. Omigod the beans. Congratulations again on the book. It's just terrific. xxx n&n
The last time I reached out to Nora was a few months ago, when I asked her to see my son, Will, who was interested in becoming a talent agent. She graciously agreed to meet with him, and they ended up chatting about the movie biz for quite some time. She didn't have to take the time to see Will, but she did, and that is an act of generosity I will never forget.
Goodbye, Nora. You will be missed in more ways than you could possibly know. If we had a Serious Eats flag it would be flying at half-mast tonight.