When it comes to talking about food and sex for Valentine's Day, you don't want to ask a chef. For a professional, Valentine's Day is like catering for Noah's Ark: a long, sweaty, jammed-full night making dinners for all those expectant couples tromping in two by two for champagne and crab salad, rare steaks and roses, not to mention the anticipation of double-caret diamonds hidden in the passion-fruit mousse.
Instead, why not talk to someone who has made the pleasures of the flesh her life's work? Here in the Bay Area, there's no shortage of experts on this subject, but few have influenced the cultural, political, and literary landscape like Susie Bright. She has written and edited dozens of books of erotica, cultural critiques, personal essays, how-to's, and more, worked as the "lesbian sex consultant" on the butch-femme neo-noir Bound, helped bring quality sex toys into the mainstream, raised a daughter, spoken and taught all over the world, and fought for the personal expression of freedom and pleasure in all its forms. Her popular blog (and its accompanying podcast) is sharp, smart, funny and unabashedly political. Her latest book is the sure-to-be-juicy memoir Big Sex Little Death, to be released by Seal Press next month.
But only close readers of a book like Mommy's Little Girl: On Sex, Motherhood, Porn & Cherry Pie might catch that the pie of the title isn't metaphorical. Head to the last chapter, and you'll find a recipe for a real pie, filled with fresh Bing cherries and laced with lemon zest, almond extract and a splash of brandy, and called, completely appropriately, Eternal Cherry Devotion Pie. Susie, it turns out, is a truly passionate cook, eater, and cocktail aficionado (yes, she makes her own nocino). As she writes about her cherry pie,
"Sometimes you need to prepare a meal that will make someone fall in love with you. Sometimes you need a dessert with an enchantment so strong that your lover will never leave you, no matter what the temptation.
Don't make this pie if you're just toying with someone--you'll be sorry. Don't make this pie for your lover if you don't want him or her by your side forever, then moaning at your grave when you're gone. This is serious stuff."
So, what would Susie propose for a Valentine's Day meal? Red and spicy is on the top of her list. Red velvet cake, beet salad, rice with tomatoes or red peppers--and for the piece de resistance, tandoori chicken, fiery and magenta-skinned, picked up from your favorite Indian restaurant.
"Living in Santa Cruz, I'm really deprived of good Indian food," she laments. "In San Francisco, I could just walk to my tandoori chicken," usually from one of the Tenderloin's many hole-in-the-wall Indian and Pakistani restaurants. "For a luxurious place, though, Amber India, near the Yerba Buena Center, has a hot and spicy green apple-curry soup that's insane."
But Santa Cruz does have its delights, not the least being its status as a perfectly laid-back, spontaneously romantic getaway. Where you can stroll the boardwalk, wake up to the sound of waves and barking seals, take walks on the beach or hikes under the redwoods...and then wallow in the hot-fudge sauce that the veggie-punk Saturn Cafe ladles over its ice-cream sundaes.
"It's the best hot fudge I've had in a lifetime of international travel. It blows my mind, especially over vanilla-bean ice cream." She's been known to beg a pint of it to go, and isn't above pleading and cajoling former Saturn Cafe waiters and cooks for the recipe. "But it's supersecret, and no one will tell me." (Happily, Saturn now has a branch in downtown Berkeley with the same secret sauce on tap.)
So, what about some first-date eateries? There's Betty Burgers (slogan, "Juicy Patties, Hot Buns") which now has two locations, the better to fill up hungry diners with handfuls like the Big Betty (described on the menu as "a half-pound burger with Betty's secret lube") or the Betty on Top, a burger patty nestled into a piled-high veggie salad.
There's also Engfer Pizza Works, "started by a couple of lesbian feminists, which warms my heart," as does the ping-pong room, the checkers, the excellent beer selection, and of course the pizzas, baked in a wood-fired oven and topped with everything from spectacular local sausages from Corralitos Market to a tofu-based vegan cheese alternative they've dubbed Megan's Vegan. "Even as a cheese fanatic, I get it as a topping. With extra cheese!"
Afterwards, of course, there's Penny Ice Creamery, whose locavore owners are chummy with Michelle Obama, as well as longtime favorite Marianne's. "Marianne's cardamom-pistachio ice cream...holy shit! It's unreal. You go get some hot fudge sauce from Saturn Cafe, pour it over that, you can just lay down and die."
To really cinch the deal, there's the rapidly expanding "food heaven" in the Swift Street Courtyard on Ingalls Street, including Bonny Doon's tasting room and Cellar Door Cafe, shaped like an enormous wine cask; Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing's taproom; and Kelly's French Bakery.
Follow it up by nightcaps for two, shaken or stirred by bartender Jeff Pappas at Clouds, right around the corner from the movie theater. "He's our unofficial mayor, the most charming, sensitive, professional bartender ever. I don't know how he keeps that many people happy."
And for waking up with a smile on your face? Lavender-white chocolate scones or a poached egg on a chile-chive biscuit from the sweet folks at Cafe Iveta.
Valentine's Day, it turns out, is one of Susie's very favorite holidays. "I'm a traditionalist. I get out my heart-shaped cookie cutters, braid dough into the shape of a heart--I really like doing things in shapes, using all the Valentine symbols." She makes a lot of valentines and valentine treats for friends and their kids. "Just go with it: you've got your red, your cuteness, your sweetness...it doesn't always have to do with Mr. or Ms. Right."
"My first cookbook was Betty Crocker's Cookbook for Boys and Girls. It was full of all these color pictures of the great things you could make. But my absolute favorite was a mac n' cheese casserole topped with a heart made of hotdog slices, with the word "mom" spelled out in hotdog inside."
Telling this story, she's suddenly inspired. Why not make a "yuppie gourmet" version of her old Betty Crocker favorite, with real bechamel sauce, fancy cheese and those dreamy Corralitos sausages, for a Valentine's Dinner for two with her longtime partner? Sometimes, the simplest things can say the most.