Eating well even during the bad times: Walnut Creek's Lisa Rubino
shares her life story in 'Good Grief Cooking'
By Lou Fancher
Cookbook author Lisa Rubino knows, and is out to tell, exactly what to do with grief.
Operating like an Italian grandmother to the world, the ageless Rubino (aka "Nonnie") delivers advice and recipes in a new cookbook, "Good Grief Cooking." Nineteen chapters tell the Walnut Creek resident's sad, humorous and sometimes startlingly honest life story while dispensing advice on how to eat well while enduring depression, death of a spouse, devastating house fires and more.
Recipes she designed -- 148 in total -- are interspersed with the biographical chapters. Chop, boil, bake, fry, whip, stir, broil or slather it with olive oil, Rubino says life's ups and downs are meant to be cooked into quick, nurturing meals.
A book launch in Lafayette in late September is a three-generation family affair, with Rubino's daughters, Michelle Ramos and Gina Hewlett, and granddaughter, Emily Ramos, offering unsolicited advice throughout.
"Don't say that, Mom," and "Tell about your cooking show, Nonnie," add spice to the presentation. Neighbors and longtime friends show up, if not as vocally, lending a reunion sensibility to the atmosphere.
She'll be talking about her book again, at 2 p.m. Dec. 9 at Orinda Books.
Sure, she tends to speak in clichés and has a fondness for cute sandwich names like "Tummy Rubble Rueben" and "Eggsactly Right Sandwich," but she also has charm, humor and a tough, gritty durability that makes being in her company seem like safe shelter from life's storms.
Rubino, who declines to reveal her age, grew up in an era when women left the island of stay-at-home mom and began crossing the bridge to the mainland -- assuming careers and obtaining advanced degrees from universities. Choosing to stay at home, Rubino fed her firefighter husband Richard and tried to corral her children despite having mothering skills she writes were "the consistency of pudding."
Cooking with limited money from one income, Rubino developed recipes using low-cost ingredients while slowly earning her teaching credential.
Her first job was in the Mount Diablo Unified School District, cooking part-time for a life skills class at a day program for teens and adults with developmental disabilities.
"Many had schizophrenia, but had college degrees when their minds blew," Rubino recalled. "They were very intelligent but they'd come with a slice of bologna between two pieces of white bread and call it lunch." Rubino said she allowed students in her class to become helpers.
"I had to be careful who I picked -- I had two murderers who'd been released from mental hospitals -- but it worked out," she said.
Eventually, seeking more income, Rubino added other pursuits. Teaming up with a friend, she led "Rock of Ages," a local cable television show featuring exercise for seniors.
That endeavor, and increasing chaos in the day center program, propelled Rubino to what was arguably precursor to today's reality cooking shows.
"The ShortCut Cook" was not a gourmet show, Rubino said. Cameras rolled without stops or edits and if food -- or one of the cooks -- fell on the floor, she said the solution was, "you picked it up and cooked it. The food, anyway." Convinced that fan letters, calls and hits on the website would lead to a national presence, Rubino traveled to Florida for a Home Shopping Network presentation.
"At 5 o'clock in the morning I had to sell cooked chicken," Rubino recalled. "I bantered, raved and talked. Guess what? I decided to taste the chicken. It lodged in my throat. I thought, 'I'm going to die on HSN.' I never found out how many chickens I sold: I was too chicken to ask."
The cooking show ended, but not Rubino's passion, which resulted in her co-authored cookbook, "Beat the Clock Cooking." Coincidentally, and tragically, her husband's behavior became erratic, eventually leading to an Alzheimer's diagnosis, a house fire, financial struggles, her own deteriorating health and husband Richard's death.
"Life is not smooth asphalt," Rubino said, later adding, "But you don't want a book about grieving that's so depressing people won't read it. I share a lot, but the positive spin is easier to digest."
Relying on pets, children, a sense of humor and inevitably, pasta, Rubino's message appealed to Richmond resident Susan Hirtz, who interrupted the family chatter and said, "You tell your story of grief so directly. It would be a great book to give a man who doesn't know how to cook or who's recently widowed."
Rubino, never at a loss for words and dispensing complimentary "Sassy Salsa" and "Shake & Roll Ricotta Puffs," asked, "Who is he? I want to meet him."