When lung cancer took the life of my friend Bob Wallack earlier this week, it removed a ton of flavor from a world that’s already too often bland.
Bob was many things: Husband, father, grandfather, friend, newspaperman, businessman, thoughtful member of the global community. Throughout his media career he wrote for and edited newspapers, acted as head of a regional newspaper association and ran newspapers on the business end for many years. He was a dedicated, talented member of the Fourth Estate.
But I will mostly remember him as Chef.
I met Bob sometime in the 80s while we were both editors of our respective newspapers in the North Shore Weeklies chain. Bob was the guardian of the Amesbury News; I was the gatekeeper of the Marblehead Reporter. We quickly became fast friends, close enough that I felt comfortable ribbing him when he won a statewide newspaper award for obituary writing. I always felt it demonstrated the depth of Bob’s humanity that he took the time to write about someone after their lives had ended.
So it feels only right to do the same for him.
Here’s a guy who reinvented himself, transporting his life out of a newspaper industry in full retreat in Massachusetts and into a world of creativity and exploration as a culinary wonder in northern Maine. At first he cooked for a summer camp, rising early to cut and chop barrels of prep to feed the campers three squares and snacks and learning the art of cooking for masses along the way. When an opportunity arose to buy The Olde Post Office Café just down the road from the farmhouse where he and his wife Vicki lived, he jumped, answering the call to a passion that he carried deeply within every single day.
Bob didn’t turn out meals; he put his heart into every dish he created and every meal he plated. I know. We watched as he created and refined his menu, trained his staff and personally oversaw the food that made its way from kitchen to table.
I also ate more than my share of his magic, and as a fledgling chef with a fraction of his talent I learned a ton from the master.
Bob’s cooking was an extension of himself. He was a guy who moved with thoughtful precision in a world seemingly hooked on crystal meth. Where others rocketed about with manic gyrations, Bob’s movements were measured, efficient, considered.
He taught me how to dice an onion into precise cubes with few tears and little effort. He taught me the enormous value of a constantly sharp kitchen knife. Watching him dice cloves of garlic was a thing of beauty, and I learned how to fold my fingers to protect finger tips while rotating the blade rather than chopping with it. He’d smile a wan grin while grilling perfectly carved slices of baguette over an open gas flame and then smearing each with a generous coat of goat’s cheese.
“Just a little crudité,” he’d beam, tossing a cook’s towel over his shoulder.
And he introduced me to Neuske’s bacon, adding to the complexities of my years’-long effort to eliminate meat from my diet while continuing our pattern of indulging in quality pork products together.
Several years ago during a magical week in an Umbrian villa with Bob, Vicki (my dear friend for years even prior to their marriage) and our friends Steve and Katy, Bob and I struck out from the others while visiting a local food market. We stumbled upon a prosciutto vendor set up in a small truck leaning against a leg of cured ham in a prosciutto rack and with a knife in his right hand.
We engaged the guy in our pidgin Italian – read, zero language skills – and ordered a kilogram of prosciutto. Shocked into action by the size of the demand – normal order for thin-sliced prosciutto, which is carved by hand, is 100 or 200 grams – the guy got to work creating a mountain of ham in an aluminum holding tray. There we were, two middle-aged guys – one Jewish, the other a lapsed vegetarian – salivating in anticipation of a week’s worth of prosciutto sandwiches while the guy meticulously sliced away for half an hour or so.
I spoke to Bob a couple of weeks ago after learning of his diagnosis. Predictably, he was nonplussed and blunt.
“Hey, I’ve had a helluva ride. I’ve had a great life, done everything I would have wanted and then some. Would I love to have another 20 or 30 years? You betcha. But that ain’t gonna happen.”
He ended our conversation with words that men too rarely say to one another but with an honesty that typified my 30-year friend and colleague: “I love you.”
I told him I loved him, too, and we hung up after promising to speak again soon.
Last week I got an email from him, asking for detailed accounts of our culinary exploits in southern France. I knew something was up when I got no reply to my blow by blow report on our trip to the local truffle market, but I had no idea the end was at hand.
Vicki told me yesterday that Bob went the way he would have chosen: quickly and quietly, surrounded by his wife and daughters and listening to “When I Go Away” by Levon Helm, who performed the song at Woodstock in the late stages of his own terminal cancer. Bob’s plan was to play the song with his band at a “going away” party sometime after the snow melted in northern Maine.
Looks like that’s not going to happen, so I’m pasting a link to the song here. Please give it a listen and think of Bob. And have something wonderful to eat today – maybe even some bacon
I think he’d like that.