Don't Mess with Del

Two decades ago—and more than a few career changes back—I worked in the movie business as a writer and actor. Among my credits in the latter category was a supporting role in a 1988 independent feature film whose working title was Hopalong and the Great Bar 20. An homage to 1930s serial westerns, it was directed by Christopher Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola's then 26-year-old nephew. I played a character named Ferret; he was a bad guy. For me, the best part of working on the film was the shoot's location: for four months the cast and crew were put up in cabins on neighboring cattle ranches in northeastern Nevada. During rehearsals, I learned to do all sorts of unfamiliar things like ride a horse and shoot a pistol. I also learned to appreciate the kinds of down-home, Old West foods of which my suburban California childhood had deprived me. I gorged on dishes like franks and beans and molasses pie, all lovingly prepared by Del, the film's caterer. A Texas native in her 50s, she had bright red hair that came from a bottle ("It's called Flame," she said) and drove a dented Ford pickup. And, boy, could she cook. I used to help her out in the kitchen every chance I got. One afternoon, though, something ticked Del off—to this day, I have no idea what it was—and after she'd finished making that evening's dinner, she announced that she was quitting. She loaded up her pickup and tore off into the sunset. An hour or so later the phone rang. I picked it up. It was Del; her voice was trembling. "Jim," she said, "don't let anyone eat the three-bean salad. I put Biz in it." She was referring to the heavy-duty laundry detergent. I walked over to the salad and gave it a whiff. Sure enough, it had a faintly perfumed aroma. I tossed the entire meal into the garbage. Then I went about making the three-bean salad as I'd watched Del do it. I wanted to honor her memory the best way I knew how.