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Breaking the chains and being set free

December 28, 2016 Leave a comment

A dear friend asked me to share this personal witness for those of you afflicted with addiction or who have a friend or loved one caught in the struggle. The hope is to cast some light in the darkness. Addiction can be an isolating thing and with the ice storm shutting us in and everything down, the loneliness, the temptation, the internal conflict can be overwhelming, So, for those needing it, please heed these words and let go of all that fear and anger, of all that hopelessness and despair, to know, receive and accept the love that is in you and that is inherently you. There is no lack in you, except maybe surrender and faith. Anyone fighting the good fight will understand what the title of this message “Breaking the chains and being set free” refers to, but it is in fact applicable to so much of our human condition. The thing to know is that once the shackles are shed, all you need do is follow the light and let your spirit fly free. That’s when you can soar to the sun. The freedom starts by acknowledging you have a problem, that you can’t lick it alone and that you accept the healing gift of a higher power to break the chains holding you down. It’s all in how you think and what you do. But true freedom only comes from getting out of your head and getting in touch with your heart. And, so, with no further ado, I present my friend’s call to the heart on this cold winter’s night. May it warm you and light the way out of the dark.

 

 

Breaking the chains and being set free

The time has come to part ways.

A long time ago, you saw the gaps in me and made me believe you filled the void when nothing else could.

That was a lie, of course, but I didn’t know it then. I didn’t know it for a very long time.

Like a lost child, I sought comfort wherever I could find it.

Even when I discovered the truth, I found it hard to say goodbye.

You are such a bedeviling creature and I am such a slave to your seductive charms. You go right for my weaknesses and unless I am careful I succumb every time.

You are the ultimate illusionist. Even though I know better by now, if I find myself tired. angry, afraid, depressed or lonely, you will still appear to be the answer, the relief, the escape I desire – unless I am honest with myself and willing to see through the mask.

I know now what I seek is love of God and love of self, not lust. I seek wholeness and unity of mind, body, spirit, not betraying oaths for momentary pleasures that only splinter me. What you offer is a mirage, not even a temporary fix, but merely a distraction to numb the pain. In the end, you don’t fill me or complete me, you empty me and keep me shattered in pieces.

Like a fool, I sought to purchase love, solace, oneness. These things cannot be bought or sold. They can only be claimed as rightful, divine-endowed parts of me.

But I would not believe that I was God-worthy. I would not accept that I was created from love, by love, for love.

Feeling loveless is no way to live. Nothing good comes from the desperation and despair that follows.

In spurning God, I let a hole in my heart fester. Like the seducer you are, you are always eager to fill that void, though in reality you can’t.

You are the Pandora of the fabled box. Once I open that chest of alluring pleasures, your stream of temptress guises are too many and enticing to avoid. One or more is sure to envelop me if I let things go that far.

You are the mythic siren calling me and your bewitching powers cast a spell that pulls a veil over reality, obscuring moral bounds. so that I fall back into your wiles again, suddenly grown blind to the truth, willing to risk all, to cross boundaries, to betray myself and others.

In the haze of your intoxicating pull, it’s as if all sound judgment is rendered powerless.

You make it seem as if I have no will to resist and in fact by the time I do entertain your delights, I am in your control.

With some perspective, that we call sobriety, I now know that I always have a choice.

It begins by admitting that I have a problem but also by believing that it need not define me. It is a part of my nature. It is a chronic affliction that thrives under certain conditions. If I am in a vulnerable state of mind, heart and soul, then I am at risk. It doesn’t mean I will act out, it just means that is when I am most susceptible, therefore that’s when I need to be most vigilant.

Those of us who identify as afflicted this way find that recovery, even in our darkest, lowest times, is always freely offered and within our grasp. The solution is surrender to a Higher Power of our choice. Whatever name you give it, healing flows from this wellspring of love that is the source of all life.

This disease feeds on negative energy. Recovery springs from positive energy.

Recovery is the conscious, intentional act of walking out of the darkness and into the light. It is a choice that must be made over and over again. It means bravely facing life one day, one action, one decision, one thought, one feeling at a time. It requires basking in the glow of life, with all its intensity or boredom, its anxiety and discomfort, its pain and pleasure, rather than hiding in the gloom of shadow and looking for some artificial high.

Man in despair

I am not cured. There is no such thing as a cure where this is concerned. I am, however, informed, armed with tools, working a program, taking steps and slowly making progress. There are stumbles along the way. I sometimes take wrong turns. I sometimes relapse. Been there, done that.

I am getting too old for this shit.

The longer it is with me, the more rewiring my brain requires. A lifetime of bad habits and patterns in my thinking and reacting must be unlearned and new, healthier ones put in their place. It’s like an old dog learning new tricks.

Starting over at 58 is not a good picture or prospect, but it’s a lot better than dying alone or being a sullen mess feeding on chaos and misery. That’s where this leads if left unchecked. Ruined relationships, losing your spouse, your family, your home, your livelihood, your name, your health, even your freedom.

Did I mention losing your mind? You see, this affliction is a form of insanity. Despite my best intentions and full recognition of right and wrong, I am liable to turn a blind eye and throw everything away I say I cherish for a fix. I’m liable to lie and cheat, to break promises, vows, oaths. I’m liable to sabotage goals and plans.

I have been lucky so far. Nothing lost. Except peace of mind. Except causing various people in my life untold pain. Making amends is a lifetime project.

The past can hold me hostage if I let it. This problem can enslave me if I empower it.

Revealing my truth in this forum feels awkward but right. It is a public testimony. It is a declaration. It is a prayer. This disease is all about secrets and rituals, about holding onto old wounds and hurts and getting stuck in the muck and mire. Recovery is all about honesty and transparency, about housecleaning, about moving forward and freely. Telling my story, my truth, symbolizes my saying goodbye to something I don’t need anymore. I therefore let go of the crutch and the anesthetic of addiction. I let go of the fear, resentment and self-pity that lead me to seek these false supports and cause me to become dependent on them.

Mark this as my release – release from the bonds and chains that held me captive. I hereby claim that release for myself. I hereby resolve to choose freedom, sobriety, serenity.

I am scarred but not broken. I am healing. I am free.

 
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Pot Liquor Love: Anne and Craig McVeigh bring Beacon Hills take on American comfort cuisine back to where their food careers started

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Anne and Craig McVeigh both got their restaurant starts in Omaha but it was in Lincoln they made their mark on the area culinary scene with their Beacon Hills restaurant and after a long, succesful run there they’ve closed it and opened a new Beacon Hills in Omaha’s emerging destination place, Aksarben Village. Like so many restauranters today, the McVeighs do their variation on American comfort food by adding fresh, refined touches to familiar old dishes. This profile I wrote for Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/) covers their journey in the industry from worker bees learning the ropes to entrepreneurs spinning their own take on food that makes us happy. Follow my Pot Liquor Love food blogging at leoadambiga.com and on Facebook at My Inside Stories. And since food and movies are such a good pair, remember to follow my Hot Movie Takes on the same two social media platforms.

 

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Pot Liquor Love:

Anne and Craig McVeigh bring Beacon Hills take on American comfort cuisine back to where their food careers started 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in 2016-2017 winter issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/)

 

It is back to the future for Anne and Craig McVeigh and their new Beacon Hills restaurant at 6750 Mercy Road in Aksarben Village.

The restauranteurs got their industry start at M’s Pub and the Garden Cafe in Omaha before moving to Lincoln. As franchisees, they opened two successful Gardens in the capital city and eventually their own signature place – the original Beacon Hills.

They did American comfort food before it turned trendy. That was Garden’s staple brand and the couple refined the cuisine concept at Beacon Hills.

Craig McVeigh, who supervises the kitchen, said he and his wife are bemused by the whole comfort food revolution that’s made the tried-and-true cuisine fashionable.

“We’re not trying to catch up, we’re trying to just keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’ve been doing it all along. We were doing it without even realizing the comfort food march was going on. It was cool way before it got cool.”

Anne McVeigh said, “I look at what other people are doing but I’m more concerned with what we’re doing and the product we put out.”

They long ago sold their Garden Cafes. This past summer they closed the old Beacon Hills after a 16-year run. Now the pair’s trying to make magic again with their Omaha eatery. The combined restaurant, catering operation and banquet facility opened in the Pacific Life building on October 14. Stinson Park is just to the south and Baxter Arena just beyond it. The Keystone Trail and College of St. Mary campus are to the west. A large patio features a stone fireplace, decorative pavers and a distinctive wrought-iron gate. The relaxed outdoor area is just off the Elmwood Room, an informal Beacon Hills party space that can accommodate 72 seated diners.

The Elmwood Room and main dining area feature a wood and stone motif of earthen-colors. The exposed, industrial ceiling is given warmth and texture by a fan of big wood beams and stone-splashed walls. Salvaged artifacts serve as vintage wall art. Mounted in the dining room are weathered windmill blades. Between the restrooms’ hangs an old unpainted barn door. On a back wall are splays of Spanish oak branches.

“We didn’t want to do anything cookie-cutter,” Anne said. “We’re not just going to throw something up to throw something up. We’re going to put stuff up we really like .”

The dining room is dominated by the granite-topped bar. The Elmwood Room features an over-sized credenza. Large windows let in ample light throughout.

Anne, who runs the front of the house with daughter Beth, said diners like the intended cozy, neighborhood feel. Comfort is behind much of Beacon Hills. It’s in the homey, familiar dishes like meatloaf, fried chicken, chicken pot pie, pot roast, mac and chess and crab cakes. A signature dish is the garlic-mustard-butter sauced sirloin steak.

Craig said, “The comfort food thing – it’s just good food that doesn’t go out of style. I think sometimes it goes away for a little while. But it you get a slice of perfectly baked meatloaf or fried chicken that’s crispy not soggy, who’s not going to like that. My description has always been we take the classics and put our spin on them.”

Anne said, “There’s a lot of things on this menu we’ve been doing since the first menu (in Lincoln). It all started with the crab cakes. People love them. The recipe comes from a 1940s-era Maryland cookbook. Our crab cakes are very simple. Crab meat is the star.

“Friends say that Craig and I are together because of his crab rangoon. They’re so delicious. They’re super-stuffed with real crab.”

“On the creative side,” she said “we have pretty good palates. We are not fussy people but we try to put selections on our menu that everybody will like. Our chef Elizabeth Reissig-Anderson has worked for us for 25 years. The three of us bring all of our unique backgrounds together to put together menus.”

Since their Garden Cafe adventures until now, the McVeighs have worked virtually every day together for 30 years

“Most people would say that’s insane,” Anne said, “but the reason it works so well is that what Craig does he does very well and what I do I think I do very well but we don’t do the same job. It’s always his decision when it comes to anything in the kitchen. He’s the wheel or the ramrod.”

As the expeditor, no order leaves the kitchen without Craig’s approval. Anne handles the business side, writing all the checks. It’s not to say they never butt heads.

“Now. have we had some spirited conversations from time to time? I think so,” she said, smiling.

The key is letting the small stuff go and getting together on the big stuff. It helps that they both thrive on hard work and in putting customers first.

“This comes with our shared Midwestern upbringing and value system. Nobody works as hard as Craig and I do,” she said.

The point of putting in long hours and seeing to every detail is customer satisfaction.

“When we can be part of making people’s day a little bit better for the short time they’re here with us, that really makes us happy,” Anne said.

Just as in Lincoln. their new Beacon Hills is already drawing notables and creating regulars. Craig said the goal is giving everyone, no matter who you are, the same quality service and experience.

“We just want you to come back.”

He was born and raised in Tekamah, Nebraska. Anne, in Omaha. He came here as a young man to help his brother frame houses. He did that by day and at night worked food jobs. He learned the kitchen ropes at the old Playboy Club and the Acapulco, then did a stint at Bonanza, before a chance meeting with an M’s co-owner got him hired there.

He acknowledges he “fibbed a bit” about his skill set. But with help from his old boss at the club he learned the essentials of food costing and executing fancy culinary techniques.

Meanwhile, Anne’s grandfather and father were cattle brokers at the Omaha stockyards, where she spent much time as a girl. She traces her love of restaurants to Sunday family dinners at Johnny’s Cafe. Anne worked her way through college waitressing at various venues before joining M’s, which is where she and Craig met. They both mourn the loss of M’s to fire in 2015. The “anchor” Old Market spot gave many others their start in the food industry.

The ambitious couple then caught on with Garden Cafe just as the Omaha-based business begun by Ron Popp (Wheafields) began expanding and franchising.

“We got in on the ground floor,” Craig said.

They moved quickly up the corporate ladder before seizing an opportunity they saw to buy the franchise rights for Lincoln. While other Garden Cafes struggled and the company downsized, the McVeighs’ first facility was such a hit that they built a second.

Lincoln developer Larry Price asked them to do a new venture tied to a hotel complex under construction. He died before its completion but a new developer finished the project and invited the McVeighs to open their Beacon Hills restaurant there on a handshake deal.

Developers came to them, Anne said, “because we’d established ourselves as good operators.” Craig said their Garden Cafes “did numbers that I don’t know we’ll ever match anywhere again – Lincoln was so ripe for that (concept) at the time.”

Beacon Hills cultivated many loyal restaurant, catering and banquet customers. The McVeighs’ experience helping Garden Cafe grow prepared them for having their own food ventures. It helps that Craig enjoys working through challenges until he finds solutions.

“I like problem-solving. Because of how fast Garden Cafe moved, we spent every day solving growth problems. I wasn’t involved in planning new stores but once new ones came on board I was involved in hiring people in and getting things organized.”

He said the hardest transition they ever undertook was implementing PSO or Point of Sell. Twenty years he devised a custom system he still uses today that automatically updates food costs as prices change.

The couple meant to keep the flagship Lincoln store even after deciding to open the new one in Omaha. But the hotel their Lincoln facility rented space in changed ownership and when lease negotiations stalled, Craig said “we saw the writing on the wall.” The couple have brought some veteran Lincoln staff to Omaha

Aksarben was their choice for the Omaha startup because of its dense residential-commercial surroundings, high traffic and vibrant goings-on.

“This is an A plus location and it’s only going to get better with the new HDR headquarters and the new hotel coming in,” Craig said. “Our location in Lincoln was a C.”

Being at historic Aksarben is full-circle for Anne, whose family has long ties to the rodeo, coronation and ball and foundation. She loves “the symmetry of it all,” adding, “I just love being back at home.”

The couple didn’t doubt they wanted to do a new Beacon Hills, but Anne said, “we weren’t sure we could do this again physically – we’re not young.” They’ve proved they can. Besides, not much can throw them by now. As she put it, “We’ve seen it all.”

While she appreciates imitation is high flattery, she believes some local eateries copied Beacon Hills dishes without crediting the source and, as her cattle broker family used to say, “It chaps my hide.”

But as the McVeighs know, all is fair in love, war and restaurant competition. After all, they reinvented Garden Cafe in Beacon Hills. Now they’ve reinvented Beacon Hills in Omaha. Let the good times roll.

Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Call 402-033-3115 for reservations.

Visit http://beaconhills.com/ for details.

Pot Liquor Love: Chef-owner Jenny Coco proves she can hang with the boys

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Jenny Coco is well aware she’s an outlier as a female chef in a profession that’s still very much a man’s world, but she hasn’t let it deter her from carving out a successful niche in Omaha’s dynamic restaurant scene. After making a name for herself and her food at the Flatiron Cafe, she’s made her mark as chef-owner of J Coco, where she does American comfort cuisine in a fine dining way, and now she’s embarking on a second restaurant that will feature a distinct concept all its own. Chefs are artists and just like visual and performing artists, they develop a following and fan base, and Jenny Coco has cultivated a large and loyal group of foodies who’ve followed her from V Mertz to the Flatiron to J Coco. They will no doubt support her new as yet unnamed new place as well. My profile of Jenny for Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/) charts some of her journey and what makes her passionate about what she does.

Follow my Pot Liquor Love food blogging at leoadambiga.com and on Facebook at My Inside Stories. And since food and movies are such a good pair, remember to follow my Hot Movie Takes on the same two social media platforms.

 

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Pot Liquor Love:

Chef-owner Jenny Coco proves she can hang with the boys

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in 2016-2017 winter issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/)

 

In the male-dominated culinary field men get the lion’s share of attention. In Omaha, Clayton Chapman and Paul Kulik headline a deep roster of acclaimed chefs. But at least one woman, Jenny Coco, has proved her chops compare with anyone’s, regardless of gender.

Coco doesn’t make a big deal about breaking down the doors to this exclsuive boys club.

“It takes a certain personality, male or female, to do this and we all have the same type of mentality I think,” she said. “Since our brains are wired very similarly, it doesn’t matter that I’m a woman. I mean, if I wasn’t meant to be doing this, I wouldn’t be doing it.”

Besides, she added, “I know I can hang with them.”

Like the best of her male colleagues in town, she’s been nominated for the prestigious James Beard prize. Unlike them, she never went to culinary school. She’s learned everything she knows working on the line, reading and absorbing things where she finds them. The Omaha native paid her dues at landmark Omaha eateries. She did her first professional cooking at the Baking Company in an all women-staffed kitchen – a rarity then and now.

Though she doesn’t consider herself a trailblazer, she’s well aware that women chefs are still few and far between and often face a tough road.

“I don’t want to see that keeping other women from jumping in and I’m finally seeing that change,” she said. “I can count on one hand how many women I worked with after the Baking Company 30 years ago. There’s just not a lot of women chefs. A lot of them still do pastry.

There’s so much more, there’s so much talent.”

She’s heartened by the many talents, male and female, emerging from Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for Culinary Arts.

“They’re woven into the fabric of kitchens all over the city.”

“There’s so many restaurants in this town,” she said, that opportunities abound for young chefs starting out here or going away for more experience and coming back to make their mark.

Coco really honed her skills at V. Mertz and the Flatiron Cafe, where she developed a following.

Then, in 2012, ready to break from her chef-for-hire career, she opened her own J. Coco restaurant. The chic, not fussy spot at 5203 Leavenworth is all about her fresh take on traditional dishes using refined yet simple techniques and fresh, quality ingredients. Like so many of her contemporaries, she passionately elevates American comfort food to new heights, whether the espresso and chili-rubbed pork chop or peppercorn and porcini-dusted ribeye.

Directly across the street is a venerable bakery and cafe, Gerda’s, that features a German slant on comfort food. It’s namesake proprietor is also female. Indeed, Coco said the stretch of Leavenworth from 52nd to 48th Streets includes more than a dozen female-owned businesses.

It’s a full circle life for Coco. As a girl she ate home-cooked meals that her mother, Joan Militti, who went from lunch lady to school District 66 food services manager, prepared. Now Coco’s putting a gourmet stamp on things like oxtails, short ribs and mac and cheese that she grew up eating.

“It’s just taking what everybody recognizes and maybe showing them   something different or doing a new twist on things. I want to make sure my food is prepared properly and is as approachable and clean and simple as possible, so that we’re always on people’s radar. Maybe we’re not breaking down the culinary walls, but you’re going to get a wonderful meal here and we work very hard at that.”

Tradition is important to Coco, who located her restaurant in the former Wohlner’s grocery store. The iconic Wohlner’s occupied the brick building from the 1940s until moving a few years back. Before that, the structure housed another grocer, Newman’s. All this matters to Coco because her great-grandfather was part owner of Kotera & Sloup Staple and Fancy Groceries generations ago. A blown-up black and white photograph of that store’s proprietors proudly standing in front of their wares pops at one end of J. Coco. Adorning another wall are oversized prints picturing vintage goods from Wohlner’s.

Always wanting a neighborhood place of her own, she knew she wanted the Aksarben-Elmwood space as soon as it became available.

“It’s a beautiful building with a good history to it. We wanted to keep the neighborhood connection. There were such strong feelings after the store left. People were so mad. They liked seeing their neighbors here.

They liked coming every day and grabbing the food for that evening’s dinner. It was part of their thing, their day, their routine and then it was gone and being in this neighborhood here I know that’s who’s going to support us here day in and day out.

“Residents of this neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods are dedicated, devoted, supportive. They prove it over and over again.

They’re not going past 72nd (Street) – they’re here and they don’t want to go anywhere else.”

She said she’s taken pains to make her place “very comfortable,” adding, “It’s like eating in my dining room at my house. We have family pictures up at home, so why wouldn’t we here?”

With J. Coco established, she’s about to open a second, as-yet-unnamed, spot on the southeast corner of 50th and Underwood, in a building that’s seen much turnover and recently suffered a fire.

 

“It’s a big space we’re planning on dividing to have two concepts under one roof. One side will be a lounge-bar with craft cocktails and late night food. That’s where the restaurant side comes in. It will keep regular restaurant hours and then close down, but the bar side will be able to serve food later. There’s nobody doing late night food.

“What I’d like to move into now is more playful. Like doing a food truck inside that serves street cuisine or updating the Cheese Frenchee. I want to feature small plates that people can share. That’s how my friends and I eat when we go out.”

She said she meant to take J. Coco in a similar direction, though she has pared down its entrees and expanded the starters, but she and her patrons weren’t ready for it.

“I wanted this to be a complete break from what I’ve always done

but the customers wanted to see an extension of Flatiron. That was my comfort zone, too. I knew how to cook that style of food.”

Having her own branded place in J. Coco meant quite a leap for her.

“After spending 20 years hiding in the kitchen to now having my name on the wall has been different. People expect to see me when they come. They want to talk to me. So, now I split my time half and half between the kitchen and the front of the house. It was difficult at first. But if people can’t put the face to the experience, they’re not coming back. They like that connection. They like you to remember their name or their favorite drink or entree, and that’s nice, too, because people have been supporting me for so many years. It’s just a small gesture to be able to thank them face to face.”

She’s out front more, too, because she’s overseeing construction of the second restaurant, which she expects to open May 1 or after.

Another reason her kitchen time’s reduced these days is that she has a capable cook in Pedro Garcia, who was with her many years at Flatiron before following her to J. Coco. Another member of the kitchen team she led at Flatiron also followed her to her restaurant.

“They’re just blossoming and that was my goal. At Flatiron I got to spread my wings and experiment and teach myself and that’s the kind of kitchen I want here. While I might not be cooking every day, I’m a resource. But mainly it’s their turn and they’re taking the ball and running with it. If I’m there blocking their rise, then what’s the point.”

She said whether cooking in the back or meeting-greeting up front, it’s evident how much more sophisticated diners’ palates have become.

“The Food Network and Food Channel have brought a great education to everybody,” she said. “People are more engaged with what they’re eating. They want to talk it about more. They want more explanation.

People want to know what they’re eating, where it’s from. They want to feel involved, where years ago I think they just wanted to be told what to eat. They just don’t want to be told anymore.”

She said diners want farm to table food that showcase fresh, local, organic, sustainable products, which are the same things Coco strives to provide with the help of area small growers and producers. While she said ingredients once difficult to find here are now available, more work needs to be done to cultivate farmer-chef relationships in order to take full advantage of Nebraska’s vast arable land.

Coco said the restaurant business isn’t for everyone because of the long, crazy hours that mean missing family events.

“I know what I’ve given up,” said Coco, who’s married with two step-daughters.

Knowing that her artistry satisfies patrons makes it all worthwhile.

“When people love it, well, what could be better. I have a talent, a gift and I want to share it and when people love it that’s pretty amazing. When the room’s humming, it’s a pretty awesome feeling, it really is.

There’s like no better feeling.”

Coco’s never been tempted to try her hand outside her hometown.

“I don’t mind being in a little pond if I can be a little bit bigger fish.”

Now that J. Coco’s going on five years, she wants it to be an institution.

“I want to be here for the long haul. We don’t have to be top of the heap – we just want to be part of the heap. Slow and steady wins the race, We’re here to finish.”

Business is good.

“I think we’re doing okay. Our weekends are always booked. You always need reservations.”

Frequent parties and a brisk catering trade boost revenues.

Though several blocks south of the hot Dundee food strip that has Mark’s, Dario’s, Avoli, Pitch, Paragon, Amsterdam Falafel and others, J. Coco’s benefits from the foodies those places draw,

“Dundee had paved the way.They were already bringing people to the area when we opened. That was a big thing. We need more. That’s what makes it all work.”

Meanwhile, Coco’s doing her part for girl power on Leavenworth.

J. Coco is open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to close.

Call or 402-884-2626 or visit jcocoomaha.com.

Pot Liquor Love: Doing things the Dario Way nets Omaha two of its most distinctive restaurants

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

As anyone who’s even a little familiar with the evolution of the Omaha culinary scene knows,  this burg has seen an elevation in quality and variety of cuisines, especially in chef-owner eateries that routinely push the envelope. One of the leaders in this movement has been Dario Schicke, a native of Bosnia who learned his craft in Europe and New York before making a dramatic impact here, first with Dario’s Brassiere, which continues strong, and now with his second place, Avoli Osteria. Two eateries within a block apart in Dundee, which boasts the best strip of restaurants in town can outside the Old Market, with two totally different cuisines and aesthetics. Dario has a big personality and a big story to match. This is my profile of him in the winter 2016/2017 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine.

Follow my Pot Liquor Love food blogging at leoadambiga.com and on Facebook at My Inside Stories. And since food and movies are such a good pair, remember to follow my Hot Movie Takes on the same two social media platforms.

 

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Pot Liquor Love:

Doing things the Dario way nets Omaha two of its most distinctive restaurants

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in winter 2016/2017 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/)

 

Half measures don’t cut it with Dario Schicke, the Bosnian chef-owner who bears a striking resemblance to Alec Baldwin. Schicke’s helped raise the Omaha culinary scene through a pair of Dundee restaurants dedicated to distinct, authentic European cuisines.

His Dario’s Brassiere and Avoli Osteria located within a block of each other on Underwood Avenue represent unique concepts at the upper end of casual fine dining. Dario’s features a French and Belgian-influenced menu complemented by imported beers. Avoli’s features northern Italian fare paired with wines of the region.

Each eatery contributes to Dundee’s foodie haven reputation. Though widely acclaimed, including a James Beard nomination for Dario’s, they were risky niche ventures made more risky by Schicke adamantly sticking to his vision. He admits he used to be even “more hardcore” demanding things be done his way but he’s relaxed some since putting together systems and staff that execute his vision.

His stubborn refusal to compromise makes sense when you understand all he went through to earn the right to do things his own way. He fled his homeland at age 20 only a few months after the Bosnian War erupted. His refugee experience began in Croatia before he moved to Germany and reunited with fellow refugees who could work but couldn’t travel. He met his wife Amy, a native of Kearney, Nebraska, at a Munich beer house where he worked.

He grew up in a restaurant family in Sarajevo. While surviving in Germany he worked various food jobs. Then he and Amy moved to New York City, where they soon took over a Greek deli that sold imported beers he set about studying. That search led him to train at the French Culinary Institute and he used those skills to transform the deli into a French bistro. The couple planned moving to the south of France when Amy got pregnant. The first of their two daughters was born in NYC. Amy got pregnant again. Then 9/11 happened – with the twin towers collapsing less than a mile away. The business suffered and the trauma led Amy and the girls to resettle in Omaha while a shell-shocked Schicke tried salvaging the business, then searching for a buyer until recouping his investment and joining his family here.

He briefly worked at the French Cafe before landing at the Market Basket. His classically prepared chef dinners found enough of a following that he and Amy invested everything they owned in order to open Dario’s. Its staple entrees and beers set it apart. For less adventurous diners it proved too much an outlier.

“At the beginning it wasn’t easy. I can’t tell you how many people would look at our menu and just walk out,” Schicke said. “We didn’t sell  anything but Belgian beers, That was unheard of at the time. We lost a lot of business but it was the only way I could push our waiters and front of house staff to learn about those beers. All those beers didn’t exist in Nebraska, We had to special order them.”

Some customers resisted the hefty prices but he explained these hearty brews are far different than even domestic crafts. Besides, he argues, you get more for your money at Dario’s.

“Nobody has a problem paying $6 or $7 for a glass of so-so house wine with their meal, but in this case you get 11 ounces of the best of the best beer.”

People who tried it, invariably liked it. The same with the well north of $10 burger and fries, “I knew our burger and fries were going to be a hit because they’re delicious, but if we sold that for $6.99 that’s all we were going to sell. We had duck breast and scallops and mussels and crepes and chicken and pork chop. We brought our sandwich and entree prices as close as we could so we didn’t turn into a burger joint.

But even if you order a hamburger you’re still going to get braisserie service – you’re going to get bread and butter, a huge beer glass and water glass, both hand-washed and polished. You’re going to get all that, plus fries, for $11. Our fries are hand-peeled, hand-cut, soaked in water overnight, then blanched. You get what you pay for. There was nothing to compare to it at the time.”

He recalled a disgruntled customer who complained about a burger, fries and beer costing nearly $30 with tax.

“This guy told me, ‘I’m not happy.’ I was like, ‘Sorry.’ Two days later the same guy came in, even angrier, saying, ‘Damn it. I couldn’t stop thinking about that burger and fries.’ Exactly. So we just stuck with our passion and now the culture’s caught up with us.”

Then, with Avoli, he filled a local gap in northern Italian food. In keeping with that cuisine’s tenets, there’s no pizza or lasagna or spaghetti and meatballs on the menu, rather a curated selection of fresh, homemade and imported dry pasta dishes.

“Both of our places are focused on a region in Europe and that’s what we’ve stayed true to from day one. Dario’s ten years now and three and a half years with Avoli. We don’t change for any trends or influences. That was the idea. As a chef and restaurant owner I really want to commit to the style and region we’re going to represent. We don’t want to deviate in any way.”

He couldn’t have crested more different eateries.

“They are so opposite these two restaurants that I can’t even mix a single person working in both places,” Schicke said. “Everything about them is different. There’s no overlapping menu items. I went so extreme even our security companies and computer systems are different. I didn’t want to open a second Dario’s – I wanted to start       something new.”

Besides, he said, “the only way for me to step outside of Dario’s was to do something else.” With Dario’s already well-established and having a “great crew there,” he devotes more of his hands-on time to supporting Avoli with its complex menu and larger kitchen and dining room. But he still starts and ends every night at his namesake spot, Dario’s.

He, Amy and friends did the interior designs of both places themselves.

“It’s very personal to us. Why pay somebody a lot of money to tell you what you like?”

Schicke’s passion for getting thing right and his hunger for always learning new things finds him taking off to hone his craft at restaurants. To prep for Avoli, he said, “I went to italy and worked in a whole bunch of Italian restaurants because I wanted to do it right. I wanted to do what today’s Italian food is. So I went all the way down deep, from product to menu to how people eat, what they eat, how they source and how we translate that in Omaha.”

There are no fussy fusions at his restaurants. The dishes are created using the same ingredients and preparations as in Europe.

“At Avoli we use only Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di San Daniele. We don’t cut our parmesan, we get a wheel of parmesan every few months that’s about 95 to 110 pounds. It’s like a $1,200 to $1,400 piece of cheese. That’s what we use exclusively. When we grate our parmesan it’s like snow flakes and it just melts into the pasta. It’s a huge difference. We use certified olive oils. We went out and sourced authentic Italian olive oils. We get double zero flour from Italy. San Marzano tomatoes, farm fresh eggs. That’s what we do.”

He acknowledges his ability to adhere to such standards is made possible by the independence he maintains.

“I’m really lucky I have people at home supporting me because it could easily be a situation where partners say, “We could be making a lot more money serving something else.’ But we don’t have investors – we don’t have a lot of people involved. I don’t have anybody telling me what to do.”

If he took shortcuts, it would only spoil things for this perfectionist and traditionalist.

“I do this for passion but also you have to make a living doing it. I have a family to raise, I have a house. You have to be able to build a life around it. It’s exciting and challenging. Running a restaurant, dealing  with business aspects, being creative and cooking every day for two places, not easy, and a lot of times not fun. To mix all that in one bowl, it’s rough. That’s when those Belgian beers come in handy.

“Raising teenage girls – I need stronger than Belgian beer to get over that,” he said, laughing.

In the restaurant business there’s no option but to be committed,

“There’s too many moving parts, it’s too expensive,” he said. “Our art is probably the most expensive art in the world. We have to have heat, air conditioning, plumbing, electrical. insurance, all this stuff to practice our art. You need like a thousand bucks a day to practice, so you have to be smart about it. I tell people, if you don’t have passion, just don’t do it, do something else.

“Otherwise, you’ll get burned out.”

He said the success of his restaurants is simply a function of “our crazy passion and not giving up – we just do what we do and I’m very proud of what we’ve done.”

Even though both places feature staples that never change, Schicke allows himself and his chefs freedom to experiment with new dishes. He recently introduced Avoli staff and diners to Croatian pasta.

“You make like a bread dough, roll it really thin, then bake it. Then you break it into pieces and cook it like pasta, so it’s twice-cooked pasta that has like a bread quality. We’re going to serve goose and the dried pasta’s going to be rehydrated and cooked in those goose juices, with

chestnuts and all that stuff. That’s my comfort food.”

Some inspiration is tied to the seasons. At Avoli, for example, he said, “You get to the summer and it’s all about great olive oil, vinegars, tomatoes, basil. You can’t help it. But as soon as it gets colder, the nights are a little longer, that’s when I shine with flavorful marinades and braises. A little more complex food – using less expensive ingredients and making them luxurious,”

Meanwhile, he’ll keep pushing his skills by guest working in kitchens.

“It’s fun, it keeps me excited, I learn to do things better. Then I come back here torturing everybody with what I saw.”

 

Dario’s, 4920 Underwood Ave.

Tuesday-Sunday, Dinner, 5-10 p.m.

Saturday Brunch: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.

Sunday Brunch: 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

402-933-0799

 

Avoli Osteria, 5013 Underwood Ave.

Tuesday-Sunday, Dinner, 5-10 p.m.

402-933-7400

 

Visit http://www.dariosbrasserie.com and http://www.avoliosteria.com.

Marlin Briscoe: The Magician Finally Gets His Due

December 27, 2016 1 comment

Marlin Briscoe has a story straight out of Hollywood and so it’s only right that a major motion picture about his life is in the works. The Omaha native made history on the field by becoming the first black starting quarterback in the National Football League but he achieved an even greater feat off the field by recovering from a serious drug addiction he developed after retiring from the game. The title of the soon to start production film “The Magician” comes from the nickname Briscoe was given during his legend-in-the-making collegiate career at then-University of Omaha when he’d improvise plays in the broken field with his arm, legs and head for big gainers and touchdowns. He played much the same way the one and only year he was given a chance to play quarterback in the NFL. Undeterred when teams denied him the opportunity to play signalcaller again, he made himself into a top-notch wide receiver who won All-Pro honors with the Buffalo Bills and back to back Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins. All through his NFL caereer he encountered obstacles and he took them all on and won, including an anti-trust lawsuit. But the biggest fight of his life lay ahead and he licked that, too. At the time Briscoe made history and overcame his demons, little was made of it, but in the ensuing years more and more recognition and love have come his way, includng induction in the College Football Hall of Fame. The movie should help cement his case for eventual inclusion in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. My new Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) story about Marlin touches on these and other threads of his life.

Link to more Marlin Briscoe stories I’ve written at–
https://leoadambiga.com/?s=marlin+briscoe+

Link to my Omaha Black Sports Legends series at–

 

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Marlin Briscoe

The Magician Finally Gets His Due

December 22, 2016
©Photography by Contributed
Appearing in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Omaha native Marlin Briscoe made history in 1968 as the NFL’s first black starting quarterback. His success as a signal-caller carried huge symbolic and practical weight by disproving the then-popular misconception that blacks lacked the intelligence and leadership to play the position.

The same racist thinking not only applied to quarterbacks but to other so-called thinking-man positions on the field (center, safety, middle linebacker) and on the sidelines (head coach, general manager).

briscoe4Even in those racially fraught times, Briscoe’s myth-busting feat went largely unnoticed. So did the rest of the story. After overcoming resistance from coaches and management to even get the chance to play QB, he performed well at the spot during his rookie professional season, never to be given the opportunity to play it again. That hurt. But just as he overcame obstacles his whole life, he set about winning on his own terms by learning an entirely new position—wide receiver—in the space of a month and going on to a long, accomplished pro career. He made history a second time by being part of a suit that found the NFL guilty of anti-trust violations. The resulting ruling, in favor of players, ushered in the free agency era.

After retiring, Briscoe faced his biggest personal hurdle when a serious crack-cocaine addiction took him to the bottom of a downward spiral before he beat that demon, too.

Now, nearly a half-century since making history and a quarter-century since regaining sobriety, Briscoe’s story is finally getting its due. His 2002 autobiography spurred interest in his tale. Major media outlets have featured his story. Modern-day black quarterbacks have credited his pioneering path, and several lauded him in video tributes played at an event titled “An Evening with the Magician,” held in his honor in September at Omaha’s Baxter Arena. A life-size statue of his likeness was dedicated at the tribute event. Also in the fall of 2016, he received the Tom Osborne Leadership Award. In December he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Now, he’s preparing to watch actor Lyriq Bent portray him in a major motion picture about his life, The Magician, set to film this spring.

If the movie, produced by his old Omaha University teammate-turned-actor John Beasley, is a hit, it will bring Briscoe’s role as a civil rights soldier to a much wider audience than ever before. Now in his early 70s, Briscoe fully appreciates all that has led up to this moment. He has no doubt he’s ready for whatever may come. Growing up in South Omaha’s melting pot, no-nonsense mentors and peers steeled him for life’s vagaries. Fierce competition toughened him.

“The training I grew up with was the best training any young man or woman could have,” Briscoe says.

On playing fields and courts, in streets and classrooms, he found an inner resolve that served him well through life’s ups and downs.

“That’s where I learned resilience—from my mom, my sister, and all my mentors, and neighbors. They all had this type of mentality and grit. It rubbed off on me and some of the kids I grew up with. It prepared me for anything. If I had not learned core values from growing up where I did, the things I did, the obstacles I overcame would never have happened.”

His cousin Bob Rose and Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson’s oldest brother Josh Gibson were among a cadre of local coaches who inspired youngsters of Briscoe’s generation. 

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“You had to go through them if you wanted to do something wrong, and you didn’t want to go through them,” Briscoe says. “Our mentors were down at the Northside Y, at Kellom School, Kountze Park, St. Benedict’s. They cared about where we were going in life.”

When Briscoe was bullied as boy, Rose gave him a “magic box” filled with the tools of various sports—a baseball, football, basketball, and boxing gloves—with the admonition that if he mastered these, he wouldn’t be bothered. He did and wasn’t. The magic box became the gateway for the Magician to do his thing.

Briscoe grew up respecting adults, all adults, even winos, hustlers, and prostitutes.

“They told you to do something, you did it, and went on about your business,” he says.

He conducted himself in a way that in turn earned him respect as a young leader. Virtually all the athletic teams he played on growing up consisted primarily of white players, which meant his entire athletic life he was advancing diversity. Long before he found immortality with the Broncos, he was the first black quarterback on youth teams, at South High, and then at Omaha University (now known as UNO).

Though he lived in South Omaha, Briscoe made a point of going to the proving grounds of North Omaha, where there were even more great athletes and a particular endurance test and rite of passage.

“Off Bedford [Avenue] by Adams Park, there used to be The Hills. It was like the barrier and motivational place where top ballplayers like Gale Sayers and myself would go and work out. Sometimes, I would be up there early in the morning by myself running those hills. I always tell young people today, ‘It is what you do when nobody sees you that defines and determines your work ethic and how you will turn out.’

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“There were plenty of guys with more ability than myself—who were bigger, stronger, faster—and while they worked hard when eyes were on them, they slacked off when they were alone. A lot of guys who never made it regretted not putting out the effort to match their ability.”

Briscoe might never have made history if not for some good fortune. He started at quarterback for Omaha University his sophomore and junior years, putting up good numbers and earning the nickname “Magician” for an uncanny ability to escape trouble and extend plays with highlight reel throws and runs. Just before what was supposed to be his senior year, 1966, he got undercut in an all-star basketball game at Bryant Center and took a hard spill. He went numb and was rushed to the hospital, where doctors decreed he was injury-free. He started the ’66 season football opener versus Idaho State with no ill effects. He had a monster game. Then, late in the contest, he took a hit that caused his neck to swell. When rushed to the ER this time, X-rays revealed a fractured vertebra. He’d competed with a broken neck.

Doctors told him his days playing contact sports were over. He accepted the harsh news and dived into his studies, ready to move on with life sans football. Then during a medical checkup, tests confirmed his bones recalcified, and he was cleared to play again. He got a medical hardship waiver from the NAIA and went on to have a huge senior season in 1967, earning small college All-American honors and getting picked in the 14th round of the NFL draft.

He’s convinced he wouldn’t have taken snaps in Denver, which drafted him as a defensive back, if he hadn’t negotiated his own contract to include a clause he be given a three-day tryout at quarterback. He so dazzled the media and the public during the open practices that once the season began and Denver QBs went down due to injury or were benched for poor play, he got his shot and ran with it.

Briscoe’s larger-than-himself magic enabled him to make history in a crucible year for America—a year of riots, anti-war protests, assassinations, and civil rights struggles.

“For some reason, divine intervention maybe, it just seemed the stars were aligned in 1968 for a black man to break the barrier at that position,” he says. “It just seems 1968 was the pivotal year for all African-Americans, for all Americans period. For me to do it in ’68 is just eerie, the way that happened.”

So much of his NFL experience, he says, involved fighting “injustices.” Released by Denver and denied playing quarterback again, he excelled at a new position. Blackballed by the league for challenging its power, he won a hard-fought battle for himself and fellow players.

He insists he was not resentful for being shortchanged at quarterback.

“I wasn’t bitter, I was disappointed,” he says. “When you’re bitter, you give up, you take all this stuff personally, and you quit. I tell young people, ‘You’re going to have disappointments, and you’re going to be treated unfairly, but you can’t be bitter about it.’ Instead, you roll up your sleeves and fight whatever negative things come your way. Plan A doesn’t work? You go to Plan B. Life is just that way.”

Only after walking away from the game to be a broker in Los Angeles did he meet a foe—crack cocaine—that got the better of him. Before his recovery, he lost everything: his home, his fortune, his family. 

briscoe5“Here I was on a park bench trying to get some sleep in the heart of L.A. after owning homes and property,” he says.

What was so maddening about it is that he had done everything right. “It was not like I left the game with nothing,” he says. “I left the game correctly, sitting on easy street. I had wise investments. I prepared to leave the game by going to school and getting additional degrees. I was not hurt. I was in perfect physical condition.”

But in the vacuum of his post-athletic life, without the daily disciplines of workouts and team dynamics, he slipped into an unhealthy lifestyle.

“I let my guard down. I wasn’t really prepared for the L.A. scene because my whole life was always about precision, being responsible,” he says. “Then, when I didn’t have to meet all these different obligations and being single, I wasn’t rooted in one direction—I was just partying. You know, bring it on.”

No one who knew Briscoe before could believe he was in the grip of something that controlled him so completely, least of all himself.

“I had been a player rep. I was the one they always came to just as I was when I was a kid. I was the one people always came to for sage advice. And I never did drugs in the NFL,” Briscoe says.

But there he was, enslaved to a habit he couldn’t kick. Through it all, even losing his Super Bowl rings as collateral for a bank loan, he never forgot who he was inside and what he had done. Though homeless, penniless, and stuck in a jail cell when Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to lead a team to an NFL title, Briscoe felt he shared in that victory, too.

“I felt proud on one hand, and disappointed in myself on the other hand,” he says.

He sank lower than he ever thought possible, but he came back to whip that challenge, too: “The thing is, I always knew I would let go of that descent. I always knew and prayed I’d get back to that person all Omaha knew as this accomplished individual who conquered the NFL and enjoyed all these triumphs. The people that knew me are so elated now I’ve overcome my post-career meltdown because I had been a champion for them, fighting the NFL. I was always fighting for them and fighting for myself. I put myself in positions as a player where my voice could be heard.”

Even though it was decades ago, he believes defying and defeating the NFL’s monied interests left a blemish on his career that got further stained when he was traded several times as persona non grata.

“I’m not bragging or anything, but if I had been any other player, I guarantee you, I’d have been in the NFL Hall of Fame a long time ago. Nobody had ever done it—making history as the first black starting quarterback. People don’t realize I was also the first black holder on extra points. Counting cornerback and wide receiver, I played four different positions in the NFL, and I’m not sure anybody did that before. Then you add in the fact I made All-Pro as a receiver within two years of switching positions and went on to win two Super Bowls.”

Efforts are underway to rectify his absence as a Canton inductee via a write-in campaign to the Hall’s Veterans Committee.

Just as Briscoe wasn’t bitter about being shut out from playing quarterback after his rookie year, he wasn’t bitter that other blacks followed him into the league at that position.

“If I had not succeeded in 1968, James Harris would not have gotten drafted by the Bills as a quarterback out of Grambling in 1969. If I would have failed, they would have brought James in as a tight end. But the fact I was a litmus test and succeeded, they could take a chance on a black quarterback, and James was drafted.

“Ironically, he and I ended up being roommates in Buffalo. We knew each other’s plight. We would have conversations after practice. I would tell him different things that were going to happen to him and to be prepared for them.”

While Briscoe is known as the first black starting QB, another black man, Willie Thrower, briefly got into two games as a QB with the Bears 15 years before Briscoe’s experience with the Broncos. High off his rookie year success, Briscoe had a chance meeting with Thrower in Chicago. The two men hit it off.

briscoe6Briscoe, Harris, Doug Williams, and Warren Moon have formed an organization called The Field General that uses the still-exclusive legacy of the black quarterback to educate and inspire young people. Blacks still comprise but a fraction of the professional QB ranks. The same is true of head coaches, coordinators, and general managers. That fact, combined with the journey each man had to make to get to those rarified places, reveals just how far the nation and league still have to go.

Never in his wildest dreams did Briscoe imagine his story would get so much attention this many years after he played.

“It just goes to show that, if you never give up, a lot of these things will come your way. Sometimes things come late, like this movie project about my life,” he says.

Briscoe says he only agreed to let his story be told in a movie if it stayed true to who he is and to what happened.

“It’s not for self-gratification,” he says. “It’s hopefully as an inspiration for others that you can overcome any obstacle if you really want it. I look back on my life and see what it can do for others. It’s not just a football movie. If it were, I probably wouldn’t be a part of that interpretation of my life. My life is a lot more than just football.”

He’s sure the movie’s message of “if you never give up, you’ve got a chance” will resonate with diverse audiences. He’s proud to be living proof that anything can happen when you keep fighting.

Visit marlinbriscoemovie.com for more information.

 

Gabrielle Union: A force in front of and away from the camera

December 27, 2016 1 comment

On a per capita basis, Nebraska has been sending oodles of talent to Hollywood from the start of the industry through today. Then and now that talent has been variously expressed in front of the camera and behind the camera. While there are many name actors from the state, past and present, actresses from here who’ve made a splash in film and television are a rarer commodity. The few really big name and familiar face actresses with strong Nebraska connectiosn include Dorothy McGuire, Sandy Dennis, Inga Swenson, Marg Helgenberger, Stephanie Kurtzuba and Yolonda Ross. In terms of pure popularity and exposure though I’m not sure any of them compare with Gabrielle Union,, whose movie and TV work extends over nearly 25 years now. In addition to a very large, active body of work as an actress, she’s lately moved into producing and she’s always made a mark as a beauty pitchwoman, as an outspoken advocate, as a talk show guest and as the subject of countless glam and profile spreads in major magazines. Of course, she gets added fame and attention for being one half of a celebrity couple – her husband is NBA champion and future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade. Like many peer actresses sharing Nebraska roots, she’s maintained close ties to her home turf. I touch on a variety of these and other things paramont in her life and career in this new Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) piece I wrote about Gabrielle. I’ve been covering her for 15-plus years and it’s been fun to see her development.

You can link to my other Gabrielle Union stories at–
https://leoadambiga.com/?s=gabrielle+union

 

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Gabrielle Union

A force in front of and away from the camera

December 22, 2016
Photography by Contributed
Appearing in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Actress Gabrielle Union projects her natural intelligence and feistiness in whatever role she undertakes. The Omaha native is never at a loss for words or opinions. She decries Hollywood’s male-dominated, white-centric ways and lack of opportunities afforded to women of color. She recounts her experience as a rape survivor and preaches the need for women to speak up against violence.

It took Union a while to be regarded a serious artist. Early roles included that of a wealthy suburban teenager in 10 Things I Hate About You, followed a year later by a role as a cheerleader in Bring It On. Twenty years later she’s matured into a real force both in front of and behind the camera. She expertly balances being a fashion- and fitness-conscious celebrity, the wife of NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, and a mother, actress, producer, and activist.

It is not surprising that as her life has broadened, so has her work.

Ambitious projects such as Think Like a Man and Top Five find her giving deeper, more complex performances or satirizing her own mystique. Today, as the star of the popular and critically acclaimed BET series Being Mary Jane, she represents the modern American black woman navigating her way through personal and professional relationships. In mid-October, the actress sued for breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation, claiming the network is combining seasons four and five to lower her pay and extend her contract.

Further proof of her take-no-prisoners attitude was her role in one of the most talked about films of 2016, The Birth of a Nation.

The film dramatizes the historic Nat Turner-led slave revolt, a subject of interest for Union that goes back to her Omaha childhood.

“It was a story my mom made sure I knew about. I remember going to the library and her telling me to do research on him. It wasn’t until later I realized my mom had noted I was very passive in the face of adversity and injustice, and I wasn’t willing to speak up, not only for myself, but for anyone else. She thought I might need some additional heroes to look up to and she introduced me to the story of Nat Turner,” Union says.

The interest in Turner continued for years.

“In college I learned even more about Nat Turner and I was drawn to the sense of pushback against oppression–the idea that there are stories situated in slavery where we are not waiting for someone else to save us but that we were actively trying to save ourselves. Really the story of black resistance and black liberation, I’ve always been drawn to.”

gabrielleunion2When the script first came to her attention, she says she determined that, “I had to be a part of telling this incredibly powerful chapter of American history.”

That chapter took years to produce. The film’s producer-writer-director, Nate Parker, who also portrays Turner, had a hard time getting financing for the project.

“There’s a reason the Nat Turner story has never made it to the big screen [before now],” Union says. “There’s a lot of fear of black resistance and black liberation. We see that with what’s happening with Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the professional, college, and high school athletes who are taking a knee to combat and shed light on racism, discrimination, police brutality, inequality, oppression everywhere. We see the pushback, we see people protesting [being] labeled as unpatriotic. I feel quite the opposite. I don’t think there’s anything more American or patriotic than resistance to oppression.”

With such a struggle ongoing, Union says, “I think there’s never been a better time for The Birth of a Nation to come out.”

Union plays an unnamed character who does not speak. The part was written with dialogue but she and Parker decided the woman should be mute.

“I just felt it would be much more symbolic and realistic if we stripped her of her voice, of the ability to speak, of the ability to have power over her own body and over the bodies of her family and her community,” Union says. “That was true for black women during slavery, and it’s still true for so many women, specifically black women, who are voiceless and powerless at the hands of oppressors. Sexual violence and racial inequality have always existed for black women at that very crucial intersection.

She says it was liberating to play a background character.

“Part of that was just being much more committed to the character than when I was younger. When you’re starting out, you want to stand out in every single role. I’m not as concerned about that anymore. I have enough projects where my face is recognizable and my name is out front…I’m much more interested in being fulfilled creatively.”

The film was shot on an actual Georgia plantation that stood in for the site where the historical events took place in Virginia. The dark spirit of the plantation’s past weighed heavy on Union and company.

“Every actor of color on that set felt the pain and the horror that our ancestors felt. It’s in the soil, it’s in the air. You can’t escape it, you really can’t escape it.”

She is offended that the former plantation used in the film is rented out for weddings and parties.

“It’s unfathomable,” she says.

She considers the conversations she and Wade must have with their boys about the threats facing young black males “infuriating.”

“How do you explain that to children?”

She’s banking on Birth to trigger change.

“What we keep saying is, it’s not a movie, it’s a movement. No one I know who’s seen the film is unmoved and unchallenged to re-examine everything. So I hope people walk out of the theater energized and inspired to do better, to really identify oppression and to fight back against it.”

Visit bet.com/shows/being-mary-jane for more information.

 

My Favorite Christmas Movies

December 26, 2016 Leave a comment

In thinking about Christmas movies the other day, it occurred to me that my favorites, almost without exception, are among the bleaker stories with that holiday as a theme or backdrop. These movies mostly have happy endings, mind you, it’s just that they are rooted in the difficult journey that is life, regardless of the time of year or the cheeriness of this particular holiday season in question. Like it is for a lot of people, this holiday can be hard for me. It’s filled with expectations and schedules set by others when my one true desire is to be quiet and at peace. Growing up, holidays were perhaps the most stressful times in an already strained household. That said, there are beloved family traditions I inherited and continue to this day, most of them revolving around food, which is my preferred way of gift giving to others. I love cooking and serving the traditional Christmas Eve baccala dinner that many of my fellow Italian-Americans enjoy.

But what I really want to do with this post is to share some of my thoughts about the Christmas movies that mean the most to me. One of my litmus tests for movies on my list is that they must be films that I will sit down and watch regardless of the season. Though Christmas is a clear theme in the movies, these movies work independent of that holiday and time of year. My list is sure to be missing many of your favorites. Frankly, I haven’t seen most of the more commercial contemporary Christmas movies. Perhaps I can interest you enough in some of my favorites you’re not already familiar with that you’ll seek them out and give them a try. Perhaps some of them will make their way onto your own favorites list.

My 15 favorite Christmas movies–

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

This is Ernst Lubitsch at his most masterful. A perfect balance of comedy and drama, sarcasm and schmaltz. The much-imitated storyline is handled with great finesse that only a Lubitsch could juggle so deftly in collaboration with the impeccable cast and crew – all at the peak of their powers. James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan work together beautifully as antagonistic shop workers whose pen pal relationship spawns love but this is ultimately Frank Morgan’s film. He’s the beleaguered shop owner whose lost hope is restored. This romance amidst despair will move you to laughs and tears without ever making you feel manipulated. It just flows, it just happens, like real life, and you can’t help but respond.

 

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Meet John Doe (1941)

As caustic as Billy Wilder satires could be, Frank Capra could be every bit as dark and sardonic in his work. In one of the sharpest critiques of American greed ever put on screen, a female reporter (Barbara Stanwyck) concocts a circulation-boosting scheme that catapults a hobo (Gary Cooper) to fame and spawns a populist movement only to have malicious forces usurp it for their own power grabbing ends. A fateful deadline looms when Cooper, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders for having fronted a fraud, opts to follow through on his alter-ego’s plan to jump from a building on Christmas to protest the ills of the world. Stanwyck, who’s fallen in love with him and feels awful for the betrayal, races to the top of the building to save her man.

 

 

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

I recently did an entire post about this movie. It is, for my tastes anyway, as profound a statement on the human condition as can be found in a cinema entertainment vehicle. I mean, it’s all there. Man’s inhumanity to man posed right alongside man’s self-sacrifice and the enduring qualities of love, faith. loyalty and dreams. George Bailey is our Every Man stand-in and the heartache of his perpetually deferred dreams and seemingly worthless life leave him on the brink of ruin and suicide. Even if you’ve never been that low, though I suspect most of us have for at least a moment or an interlude, we can identify with George ultimately finding wholeness and oneness in the simple pleasures of family and community, service and self-sacrifice. It is a beautifully evocative lesson in the power of humility, gratitude, redemption and forgiveness.

 

"It's a Wonderful Life": The most terrifying movie ever

 

Miracle on 34th Street (1944)

I love this urbane take on a pair of career-driven single New Yorkers who use a child’s affections and an old man’s eccentricities to broker their on-again, off-again relationship. Single mom Maureen O’Hara is a hard driving Macy’s marketing executive whose little girl. Natalie Wood, has adopted her pragmatist views on frivolous matters like Santa Claus. O’Hara’s character may be a bit too brittle at first considering how quickly she softens at attorney John Payne’s overtures, but that’s a minor quibble. The real story concerns Edmund Gwenn as the charming, charismatic Kris Kringle. He plays matchmaker for the couple by winning over Wood, who doubts he’s the real McCoy until she learns to trust her imagination. Mom follows suit and an instant family is born, but not before Kris proves his good name in court.

 

 

The Apartment (1960)

Billy Wilder caught the soulless character of modern corporate America and the misogyny of the male animal in this brutally honest portrait of what an Every Man might be willing to do to get ahead under the right circumstances. Jack Lemmon is just another number at a big insurance company before he agrees to let executives use his apartment for their extramarital trysts in exchange for a promotion. Shirley MacLaine is an elevator operator there whose dalliance with big shot Fred MacMurray plays out at Lemmon’s pad. Lemmon hates himself and MacMurray when he discovers his boss has no intention of fulfilling his promise to MacLaine of leaving his wife for her. Lemmon must decide between his career and doing the right thing.

 

 

Holiday Affair (1949)

This is an unusually mature look at adult romantic entanglements for a 1940s-era Hollywood Christmas movie. Attorney Wendell Corey and department store secret shopper Janet Leigh have a long-term thing going. She’s a single mom not ready to settle down again, at least not with Corey, even though he’s a nice guy who adores her and is just waiting for her to say yes. Trouble is, her young son doesn’t much cotton to Corey. Meanwhile, the boy and his mother fall for the charms of Robert Mitchum, a veteran and drifter who drops into their lives through meet-cute plot turns that make the two men rivals for the affection of this fetching mother-son package. Corey is the pragmatist. Mitchum, the dreamer.

 

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The Dead (1987)

John Huston was dying when he directed this beautifully muted tone poem based on the James Joyce short story. In a career of understated masterworks, Huston achieved a purity and simplicity in this work that ripples with deep currents of love and loss. It is a melancholic tale that on the surface appears to be a trifle but then layer by layer reveals itself to be about the perplexing vagaries of life and death and what it means to be a couple who’ve endured the loss of a child for which no solace seems possible. It, too, is about the nature of family and community and the ritual of gathering together over a meal to share our humanity and to find some warmth and light amidst the cold and dark. There is stark beauty and gravity attached to every word, inflection, gesture and touch in this autumnal drama where memories cling to the season like freshly fallen snow. In cinematic terms, it is a real lesson in the effective use of negative space and subtext.

 

The Dead (1987)

 

A Christmas Memory (1966)

I recall seeing this television adaptation of the Trumam Capote story on television as a child and being captivated by its intimacy and nostalgia. This movie is available for free on YouTube and I intend watching it between now and New Year’s. It will mark the first time I’ve seen it in perhaps 45 or 50 years. Geraldine Page is magnificent as the fey middle-aged woman who is best friends with her young cousin Buddy. The pair live in a rural home with stern older relatives. The woman and boy treasure being companions because their warm, close confederacy girds against the harsh world outside them. Much of the story revolves around the two preparing for Christmas – gathering pecans and buying the necessary stores for making fruit cakes they send to people they admire. Then there’s the finding and chopping down of the tree, lugging it back and decorating it. And finally, the exchange of gifts and flying their kites on what will be their last Christmas together. All of these things are acts of love. Capote adapted his own story with Eleanor Perry and Frank Perry directed.

 

A CHRISTMAS MEMORY (1967).:

A Christmas Story (1983)

Bob Clark’s adaptation of the Jean Shepherd story doesn’t try to be too coy or cute but plays its rich satire and occasional cynicism for all its worth. The movie portrays classic holiday family and childhood scenarios most of us can identify with, even though the story’s set in the 1940s and many of its references are obscure for folks born after, say 1968. The themes of bullying, bickering parents, childhood dreams and Santa anxiety are pretty universal. Peter Billingsley is spot-on as Ralphie, an All-American boy still young enough to believe in fables but getting just old enough to know all things aren’t as they seem. Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon are pitch-perfect as his harried but loving parents. For all the things that get mocked by this tale, it’s a sweet, nostalgic retelling of Americana innocence gone by.

 

 

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

Perhaps the most inspired Xmas story of them all is this animated TV adaptation of the Dr. Seuss classic that gives us one of cinema’s greatest villains, the Grinch, in all his mendacity, arrogance and theatrics. Who knew that Dr. Seuss was prescient enough to create an ego-maniacal character that anticipated Donald Trump? We can only hope that somewhere under the president-elect’s cold, hard exterior beats a heart that even the Grinch possessed. We just have to hope that something happens to humble Mr.Trump so that he can soften his avarice against today’s equivalent of the Who’s. Cartoon master Chuck Jones directed this classic and Boris Karloff indelibly voiced the Grinch. The primary colors and dynamic action sequences are eye-poppingly cool. Albert Hague composed the memorable music.

 

The Grinch steals a star from the tree

 

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

The languid, zen-like idyll of Peanuts reached its zenith in this TV special that has sad-sack Charlie Brown learn the true meaning of Christmas with help from his family of friends: Lucy, Linus and Snoopy. I believe the genius of Charles Schultz with his Peanuts characters was tapping into the longings at the core of the basic human condition. We all desire to be loved and we all want attention to be paid and just like Charlie Brown we’re willing to suffer indignities in pursuit of these things. Having a few friends we can count on sure helps. They may drive us crazy but we know they’re there for us in the end. The minimalist jazz score is so right on for the simple images and messages.

 

Charlie Brown Christmas

 

 

 

White Christmas (1954)

For a feel-good Christmas movie, this one’s hard to beat. Having seen the stage play adapted from it, I can see why this story has legs that crosses generations and mediums. The characters are likable and the situations engaging. In my opinion this movie works as well as it does because of Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. They make a great team as the veteran entertainers who conspire to help out their old commanding officer from World War II. In fact, I like Crosby and Kaye better than the Road movie tandem of Crosby and Bob Hope. As the retired general fallen on hard times, Dean Jagger has just the right blend of stoicism and sweetness. Rosemary Clooney and Vera Allen lack charisma and a couple dance sequences nearly stop the picture cold, but aside from those quibbles this Christmas chestnut still holds up as funny, heartwarming escapist fare. Director Michael Curtiz could still keep a story moving but this was grade B material compared to the great films he helmed earlier, Casablanca among them.

 

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Going My Way (1944)

Bing Crosby is the avuncular Father O’Malley come to rescue a failing Catholic parish whose curmudgeonly old pastor, Father Fitzgibbon, played by Barry Fitzgerald, resists change and resents being put out to pasture. This is old-fashioned Hollywood hokum that tickles the funny bone and tugs at the heartstrings. Director Leo McCarey had a light touch with sentimental material and though he comes close to going over the top with this one’s rather precious, nearly saccharine moments, he manages to keep things moving along and undercutting the maudlin bits with sharp humor and repartee.

 

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Scrooged (1988)

Nobody does obnoxious better than Bill Murray and here he veers dangerously near alienating viewers but always pulls back from the brink, though I must admit the first time I saw this pic his performance and the overall tone of the film turned me off. But after seeing the picture a few more times, my estimation of him as a megalomaniac media czar and of this updating of A Christmas Carol has risen considerably. Murray makes a fine if loopy Scrooge and in keeping with the Tim Burton-like approach (Richard Donner directed), Carol Kane and David Johansen bring original takes to the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, respectively. There are some nice supporting performances by Alfre Woodard and Michael J. Pollard. But this is all about Murray’s character rediscovering his heart for his fellow man.

 

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Carol for Another Christmas (1964)

Rod Serling wrote and Joseph Mankiewicz directed for television this dark as night fantasy that tackles nothing less than the human condition and humanity’s fate. In the very year that Sterling Hayden co-starred as a raving mad general who instigates nuclear war in Dr. Strangelove, he stars here as an embittered, bigoted Cold War patriot grown callous to the brotherhood of man. His Daniel Grudge is a Scrooge for the modern era whose hardened heart and cold calculus represent the madness of nationalism and the cruelty of the military industrial complex. Haunted by guilt and grief over the loss of his son. he’s visited by spirits who show him horrors and hopes that make him see things in a new way. Though didactic, preachy and slow in places, it’s well worth your time. The eclectic cast includes Ben Gazzara, Peter Sellers, Robert Shaw. Pat Hingle, Percy Rodriguez, James Shigeta, Britt Ekland and Eva Marie Saint. Henry Mancini did the music, The movie can be viewed for free on YouTube.

 

 

Some more Xmas movies that I admire:

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

We’re No Angels (1955)

3 Godfathers (1948)

Holiday Inn (1942)

The Polar Express (2004)

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Frosty the Snowman (1969)

 
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