Celebrating dining in America: a Meals on Wheels fundraiser

Jody Stump / TMT Partygoers line up for vodka martinis that have been poured down a spiral encased in an ice block, all part of the extravagant American Food and Wine Festival, which raises funds for Meals on Wheels.

Every year for the past 21, Wolfgang Puck and Barbara Lazaroff have hosted a celebration of American food and wine with a single intent-to raise as much money as possible in support of Meals on Wheels. Although the tally is not yet in for last week’s event, the 2002 festival raised more than $330,000 for the charity in Los Angeles – that is 70,000 hot meals personally delivered to people in our neighborhoods too elderly or infirm to cook for themselves.

Meals on Wheels is a concept that has been around since the Blitz in England when a small group of women got together to cook for people who had lost their homes to the war. It crossed the Atlantic in 1945 and began as “Platter Angels,” who delivered meals to shut-ins regardless of circumstances. For a tiny fee, which ranged from forty cents to a dollar, every diner got a hot lunch right on time every day. The effort continues and grows as our population ages. Today, our local Meals on Wheels West serves 120 lunches to hungry shut-ins in Santa Monica, Topanga, Malibu and Pacific Palisades who might otherwise never have a nutritionally balanced meal or see a friendly smile during the day. They need drivers, so if you have an hour or two free, give them a call at 310.394.5133 or in the Valley at 818.374.5350.

This year’s festival fundraiser took over a back lot at Universal Studios, setting food and wine stations like mini cafes on one of those vaguely European sets with huge piazzas and romantic lampposts that you might have seen in “The Italian Job” or maybe “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Standing behind hot plates and Sterno pans were renowned chefs from all over the country pitching in to help. Offerings ran the culinary gamut from Wolfgang Puck’s own spectacular appetizer Gravlax, familiar to diners at Chinois on Main to ice cream with addictive super-light and crunchy churros from Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery and Campanile. Tom Colicchio of the Gramercy Tavern in New York weighed in with tender steak and salad, and Lydia Shire of Boston’s venerable lobster house, Locke-Ober, contributed a succulent, almost-sweet lobster pizza with a paper-crisp crust. There was barbecue from Houston’s CafĂ© Annie and sweet-sour baby lamb chops from Sam Choy of NBC.

This was upscale grazing on a national scale but diners had to tread only a few steps to taste featured specialties from legendary chefs. Malibu’s own Jennifer Naylor of Granita was smiling broadly as she handed out one of the evening’s most buzzed about treats, fig fritters. And Nobu was offering super-spicy hand rolls that passed from hand to hand so quickly it was hard to grab one in passing.

Cheese and chocolate were designed for pairing, which brings us to the other featured stars of the event, the winemakers. All evening, vintners poured generous samples of some of America’s most highly rated wines, from Jordan, Mayacamas and Iron Horse to our own Rosenthal cabs.

All that wine must have loosened a few wallets because silent auction tables were crowded and the event’s very persuasive auctioneer, TV personality Mario Martinoli, cheerfully upped the ante on specially featured items.

The festival’s tally may be unknown but with streets filled with people in support of such an important cause, it is likely to have topped last year’s contribution. Perhaps even more hot dinners can be served this year to those going hungry in L.A.