Taste, the Final Frontier

There is a limit to how many culinary charities you can donate your way through

Note to self: Stop attending charity food functions. The mortification factor is getting way out of control.

For instance I'm awfully tired of being looked at funny when I give my name at the registration table. I know my last name's a tiny bit of a doozy, so I make sure to spell it. And once I do, the response is almost always the same: You're not on the list. Which means I have to dig my New Times card out of my packed purse and ask for the organizer of the event, who is usually the person who invited me. Then I wait while the volunteers behind the table give me the party-crasher once-over, feeling like I'm in line at a club and knowing I'm not tall, thin, or blond enough to be picked out of a typical South Beach crowd.

Of course once the director shows up, the problem is cleared up -- I amon the list, but my name was misspelled, sometimes so severely it can't be recognized. Like the other night at the fifteenth annual Taste of the Nation Miami event at the Mandarin Oriental, where my moniker had been butchered badly enough that I'm not sure how the organizer made the connection between the Jen Karetnick on my business card and the Gen Coretnec on my place card. To her credit, she was so embarrassed that she forced me to tell her I was once written down as Jenka Retnik. Then she felt a bit better.

Jeremy Eaton

Once inside the event, which was held in the ballroom on the fifth floor -- could you get a more stunning view? -- I flashed the place card around to certain chef friends, hoping to get a good laugh. Not only did I get some chuckles, Elizabeth Barlow of the Blue Door pointed me in the direction of the live-auction catalogue. "If you think yours is bad, look at this," she told me, pointing to the very first entry, a trip for two to New Orleans. "Dinner for two at Susa Spicer's James Beard award winning Bayona Restauran and Dinner for two at Emeril's." Spell-checking might not have picked up the inappropriate capital, lack of hyphenation, and the fact that "Susa" is actually "Susan," but it certainly would have highlighted "Restauran."

Nor was Chef Spicer et al the only oopsie. Robbin Haas appeared alternately as "Robbin Hass" and "Robin" and the National Smithsonian Institute is now known as the Natinal. Some other goodies? "Dig you toes into the white sands of Paradise Island" and my favorite: "The includes overnight delu xe hotel accommodations, dinner and personalized tour."

Okay, so the poor proofreading didn't seem to deter anyone from bidding thousands of dollars on the live lots (Taste is a charity event run by the nonprofit organization Share Our Strength, whose beneficiaries are Daily Bread Food Bank, Camillus House, and P.A.C.T.). But the auction brings me to another reason for cutting back on appearances: They're getting damn expensive. Most of the time I am lucky enough not to have to shell out my own peanuts for attending these fundraisers. But when I'm comped as a member of the media -- even when I know I'll be covering the event and giving it publicity afterward -- I feel oh so Jewish. That is, guilty.

While I can't afford to vocally collect the rare wines or bid on the big-ticket travel items, however, I try to assuage myself by contributing something via silent auction, raffle tickets, what-have-you. Which is how I ended up walking out of the Biltmore, where I was judging a culinary contest, proceeds to benefit the Food for Life folks, with a piece of art under my arm. And leaving the Mandarin clutching a pair of gift certificates to a hair salon I can visit only at the risk of pissing off my current stylist.

It's a good thing the Taste of the Nation is one of the last fundraisers of the season, or my husband would be frisking me for my checkbook every time I left the house.

Speaking of being frisked, security at these events has been tighter than it used to be, so much so that driving to and parking at various venues -- Grove Isle or the Kampong, for two examples -- has become an even bigger problem. To circumvent long walks in high heels and more blisters, I've taken to shamelessly tagging along with a variety of chef friends, passing myself off as prep help. Only problem is, then I'm the first one at the party. So gauche.

In the end it's the lengths I'm willing to go to that get me in the most trouble. Many fundraisers this year were themed, a necessity for competing organizers. Miami Life Saveurs at Grove Isle, naturally, was all about patriotism. In the spirit of participation -- or maybe that's with the participation of spirits -- I allowed my husband to draw an American flag on my chest with my kids' body crayons, which by the way don't wash off as easily as billed. Then I suffered a variety of pick-up puns the rest of the night along the lines of "I'll be your George Washington if you'll be my Betsy Ross" and "Hey baby, I've got a great pole for that flag."

At the Taste of the Nation bar-mitzvah-style bash, the organizers hired DJs to spin some disco to flashing colored lights in a separate room. I couldn't think of a better way to relive the acute humiliation of my own coming-of-Jewish-age than to hit the makeshift dance floor, even though neon green strobe isn't my most complimentary look, for a couple of John Travoltas. Next thing I know some guy's tossing me all over the place in some semblance of a salsa. Honey, my skin tone and hair color might make me look a wee bit Cuban, but my feet stamp out gringa pretty damn quick.

The truth is I was hoping to see Taste chairman Allen Susser boogie down, but he was still orchestrating the final course of the dinner -- Todd Weisz's (Turnberry Isle) herb-crusted medallion of lamb with goat cheese and rosemary polenta and Carmen Gonzalez's tenderloin with mushroom ragout and fingerling potato galette. So I made do with watching the cutie pies putting out the sweets: J.D. Harris (Rumi), E. Michael Reidt (Wish), Jason Strom (Six Degrees). Not a bad-looking group, come to think of it. Too bad the DJ didn't play any slow numbers.

Then again I needed a little activity after all that heavy fork-lifting. As did others who were leaving the ballroom before dinner was officially over; the feast was running long because two chefs were preparing each course, so the reality of it is that it was more like eight courses. And those dishes followed what had already been a foodie-friendly walk-around sampling of items like Donna Wynter's (Satine) shrimp cigarillos and Michael Wagner's (Tuscan Steak) orange-glazed New Zealand lamb chops. Club kids would have outright sneered, but the handful of diners who took the floor took it places that would have made a good wedding singer misty-eyed.

Oh how I suffer for the good of Food for Life, the Daily Food Bank, the Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund, the Salvation Army Mobile Kitchen Program -- you name it. But for all the hardships I know when the next invite comes my way, I'll be back with a bid for whatever's on the block. For one thing, I never read those notes I write to myself anyway. And I have to give credit to all those chefs who so generously donate their time to ensure that the world is a better-fed place, even if it means a bad parking spot and painful dancing. What's a little discomfort compared to such beneficence?

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