By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
Paul Newman had such a delightfully wry and self-deprecating sense of humor that he probably wouldn’t mind if I said I’m glad I’m not the reason he’s dead. But I came close to killing him several years ago, when the legendary actor and popcorn pooh-bah almost choked on a bowl of Zezima’s Zesty Ziti Zinger.
The first ingredient in my recipe for near-disaster was a ping-pong ball, which came into play when someone from the office of Newman’s Own, the Westport, Conn.-based food company that sells salad dressing and gives lots of lettuce to charity, called to ask if I wanted to play Fast Paul in a game of table tennis at the Rainbow Room in New York City.
I immediately accepted the challenge because the game would be played at the awards luncheon for the annual Newman’s Own and Good Housekeeping Recipe Contest and, being a serious journalist, I knew there would be free eats.
The place was filled with more than 100 people, not just contest winners from across the country but celebrities such as Regis Philbin, Kathie Lee Gifford and writer A.E. Hotchner, Newman’s Westport neighbor and his partner in the food company. And right in the middle was the ping-pong table, at one end of which stood Newman, paddle in hand. I was at the other end. A woman from Newman’s Own wore a striped shirt and carried a whistle. She was the referee.
I quickly learned one thing about Paul Newman: His propensity for cheating was, I am sorry to say, even greater than mine.
He hit a shot into the net. The ref said, "Point, Mr. Newman."
I hit a forehand smash past the athletic star. "Point, Mr. Newman."
One of his shots was long. "Point, Mr. Newman."
It continued in this fashion until I was utterly defeated.
The crowd roared. Newman shook my hand and said, "Nice game, kid."
At least he fed me.
Being not just a glutton for punishment but a glutton, period, I went back for more the next year. But the luncheon was delayed because there was a fire in the kitchen at the Rainbow Room. By the time it was out, the entertainment portion of the program had to be shelved.
"Is it true that you used some of your hot sauce to start the fire so you could weasel out of playing me in a rematch?" I asked Newman.
He winked one impossibly blue eye and replied, "You might want to say that."
The following year, I created a dish and brought it to the luncheon for Newman to try. The ingredients were garlic, onions, chicken, hot sausage, red and green peppers, salt, black pepper, red pepper and a jar each of Newman’s Own Bombolina and Sockarooni sauces. I also poured in some red wine and vodka and served the whole thing over a bed of pasta.
I fed the concoction, which I dubbed Zezima’s Zesty Ziti Zinger, to my family. Miraculously, nobody had to be hospitalized, so I put some in my wife’s best Corningware dish and brought it to the luncheon.
For some reason or other, Newman never got a chance to try it. To make matters worse, the Corningware dish got misplaced and was never found. To this day, my wife has not forgiven me. But Waldy Malouf, executive chef of the Rainbow Room, sampled my creation and said it was delicious. "You should enter it in next year’s contest," he suggested.
So I did. I filled out the entry form with my recipe and mailed it in. A few weeks later, I got a phone call informing me that I was the runner-up in the pasta sauce division. I, a man who can barely make toast, had finished second in a field of thousands.
I made another batch and fed some to my dog, Lizzie, just to make sure it was OK. Lizzie wolfed it down and wanted more, but I put the remainder in a Tupperware container – no Corningware this time – and brought it to the awards luncheon.
Afterward, I went up to Newman with my plastic bowl of Zezima’s Zesty Ziti Zinger and asked if he wanted to try it. "Sure, kid," he said, grabbing a fork.
As he was shoveling in the first mouthful, I told him I had fed some to my dog and that if it was good enough for her, it would be good enough for him, too.
"Gack!" Newman said in mid-chew. Then his eyes bulged, his face flushed and he gasped for air.
"Oh, God!" I thought. "He’s going to choke to death on my recipe. I’ll forever be known as the man who killed Paul Newman."
Fortunately, he recovered, swallowed the mouthful and asked, "Is your dog still alive?"
"Yes," I assured him.
That was all Newman needed to hear. He scarfed down the rest of the Zinger, saying between bites, "Mmmm! This is – umph, umph, umph – delicious! You could have been a winner, kid."
Thanks to the man with a great appetite for life and a twinkle in those famous eyes, I sure felt like one.
Point, Mr. Newman.
Copyright 2008 by Jerry Zezima