A Man of Morels

first published May 1992, for the Los Angeles Times SyndicateVintage-Horwitt-Museum-Dial-watch-gold.jpg The Original Movado Museum Watch Uncle_Nat.jpg The Designer Nathan George Horwitt, a self-portrait I was moved to retell and post this story when I noticed all the Movado holiday ads featuring their latest permutation of the famed museum watch and, coincidentally, fellow blogger David Brawley posted a photo of the original on Face Book, which reminded me how much more aesthetically pleasing it was. In fact, Uncle Nat mocked the fancier designs. He detested the wider triangular hands and what he referred to as a the "foolish little jeweled nipple" replacing the discretely flat bezel of his design. Uncle Nat was a great inspiration to me. He made me feel that anything was possible--but I thought this applied uniquely to him. When the first cover for The Cake Bible arrived, shortly before his 90th birthday, I turned it into a birthday card for him. I drew a candle on the cake and wrote the following note below the cake: Happy 90th Birthday dear Uncle Nat. Little did your father the rabbi know that he would have a great granddaughter, named after his wife, who would write a bible. Two years later, shortly before he died, his last words to me were: Thank you for making the family proud. I felt as though I were given the blessing of Abraham. And I realized that a little of his magic just might have rubbed off on me. Two years later I wrote this obituary: Nathan George Horwitt, who died 2 years ago this June at the age of 92, at home, in his beloved Berkshires, was known by many as the designer of the Museum watch, the one with the dot that spawned a revolution of watches without numbers. Horwitt was also known as a witty raconteur, effective idealist, humanitarian and political activist, responsible for helping with the establishment of the state of Israel in the 1940s and for promoting "wave of wheat," designed to provide grain to India during the famine of 1951. I did not learn in detail about Horwitt's many activities and accomplishments until reading his obituaries, because though outspoken, he was innately modest. To me, he was known mainly as the most colorful, entertaining and magical member of our family: Uncle Nat. I was a child when he completed the design for the Movado watch but remember how he showed me the drawings, describing with pride the elegant simplicity of his design, the dot signifying both sun at high noon and moon at midnight. As an industrial designer, his work was grounded in original, philosophical concepts, though sometimes they were whimsical: On the wall before me is the hilarious self-caricature he drew on a brown paper bag to entertain me one day at lunch over 30 years ago: half man, half dog with a bone in its mouth. Uncle_Nat_Self_Caricature.jpg Nat was my grandmother's younger brother; a Peter Pan of a person with dark brown eyes sometimes stern with impatience, sometimes quizzical with irony, other times disarmingly warm with intelligence and love. Perhaps some saw Horwitt the dogmatist, but I experienced Uncle Nat the teacher. He was so entertaining, I learned from him without ever knowing it was a lesson. Driving along in a car he would suddenly screech to a halt, back up with terrifying speed, leap onto someone's lawn and pluck the mushroom he had spotted out of the corner of his eye. They know me here, he would explain. (One of Horwitt's sidelines was selling morel mushrooms to Lutèce in New York.) A walk in the forest was full of experiences: Taste this mushroom! Can you feel the pepper on your tongue? That's why it's called the pepper mushroom, or see this mushroom with spots? It's called Amanita Muscaria, the fly mushroom, because it draws flies. Don't eat it, it's poisonous. My favorite lesson was: Do you see anything among those dead leaves? His eagle eyes had spotted a prized morel mushroom and after showing me the first, he pointed out how others always grew nearby and I joyfully scurried to find them. He taught me not to eat too many wild mushrooms at one sitting by one year sending me 5 pounds of morels with a note: Don't eat them all at once! I thought he was kidding and ended up with the implied stomach ache. Uncle Nat's final and most important lesson about morels was how to cook them. As simply as possible, he instructed. Here's how: Serves: 4 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or 1/4 teaspoon table salt 1 pound morel mushrooms 3 tablespoons butter, preferably unsalted 1 large clove garlic, smashed with the broad side of a knife freshly ground black pepper to taste In a large bowl, stir together the salt and several cups of cold water. Add the mushrooms and allow them to soak for about 10 minutes. The salt draws out any live insects which may be lurking in the mushroom's cavities. Remove the mushrooms to a colander and rinse well under cold running water to remove any dirt. Cut off the stem bottoms and any of the stem that may be tough. Slice each mushroom into 1/8-inch thick rounds or cut them into pieces, depending on the size of the mushroom. In a large, heavy frying pan with a lid, heat the butter over medium heat. When bubbling, add the smashed garlic clove and mushrooms. Cover and cook on low heat for about 10 minutes or until the mushrooms soften and become tender. Continue cooking uncovered, over medium heat, for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until all liquid evaporates and the mushrooms begin to glaze lightly. Add the black pepper and taste to adjust the seasonings. Caveat: do not pick wild mushrooms unless you have had expert training in their identification.