By Nancy Cole Silverman
A gourmand loves eating and frequently overeats, which is certainly true of Big Keith. Strange that three of his wives died of food-related accidents.
I knew when I first spotted Big Keith, balanced on two stools at the chef’s table reserved for VIPs in the kitchen at Bottega Louie in downtown Los Angeles, that this was a man with whom I could have my way. Keith was a food critic for the LA Times, and I was a struggling, thirty-two-year-old actress waiting tables. He had a bib around his neck to protect his expensive, blue pin-striped suit and had ordered the chef’s signature dish, branzino with carrots and charred lemon with capers. He took a bite and smiled at me, the type of smile that told me the man had an appetite for something that wasn’t on the menu.
And . . . being that an actress is always in search of her next meal, and my career had dead-ended after the failure of my last B- list movie, I was looking for the role of a lifetime: Hollywood wife. They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.
While I had always considered myself to be culinarily challenged, as a waitress/actress I did have access to some of L.A.’s best kitchens. And with a server’s knowledge of their exotic menus and a few ideas of my own on presentation, I came up with a plan I hoped might close the deal and invited him for dinner. Oysters on the half shell in my teddy. Lobster Newberg a-la-naked in front of the fire. A sinfully sweet chocolate mousse at bedtime along with an expensive bottle of Dom Pérignon. All of which I cleverly brought home and transferred into my own newly purchased chef- ware and served hot from the oven—as if I had made it myself—to his waiting lips and welcome arms.
Three months later Keith and I were married at an elaborate beachside wedding at Nobu, an exclusive Peruvian-Japanese fusion restaurant in Malibu, where the only thing more awesome than the million-dollar view was the food.
I might have been happy with my life as the wife of a famous restaurant critic had I not learned soon after we married that I was not the first Mrs. Keith Van Buren . . . but the fourth! And while life was better than I had planned—a lovely Beverly Hills home, a lavish lifestyle that included personal appearances and dinners out, sometimes three, four, and five nights a week—I began to suspect the reason I knew nothing of my husband’s previous wives or why he never spoke of them was because they were . . . dead.
Thus, the beautiful home, the expensive imported cars with personalized plates—FOODIE1 and FOODIE2—and a closet full of hand-tailored, oversized thousand-dollar suits. Food critics seldom make the big bucks. But a critic with an insured wife, who had met with an untimely death, did. And Keith had three of them, all of whom had died accidentally.
Or what looked to be accidental.
Their mistake was the same as mine. A hurriedly signed prenup along with a stack of documents that included joint title to the house, bank account, and a multimillion-dollar life insurance policy. All of which I’m sure they had signed as quickly as I had, anxious to marry for the love and security of a big man with a big name and a big appetite for an even bigger lifestyle. They didn’t call him Big Keith for nothing.
Now there are some who will say I should have known marrying Keith was a high-risk proposition. After all, in addition to his being twenty years my senior and grotesquely overweight, there were those three ex-wives (or more correctly, deceased wives). But I didn’t know about them at the time and what woman didn’t think she could change a man? Particularly when presented with a four- carat diamond marquise like the one Keith put on my skinny ring finger.
However, once I had learned about my predecessors’ deaths, I couldn’t help myself. My curiosity got the best of me and I decided to learn more about them. Specifically how they died. Their obits were easy enough to Google.
The first Mrs. Van Buren had died after choking on a chicken bone. The paper reported Keith had prepared a mushroom coq au vin, and as they dined, his wife began to show signs of choking. Keith had performed the Heimlich maneuver. Unfortunately unsuccessfully. The article went on to say they’d had a harmonious relationship. His wife traveled with him frequently, and the two were looking forward to celebrating their second anniversary.
Okay, so maybe the jury was out on that one. And perhaps the first Mrs. Van Buren’s death had been accidental. Albeit, I believed a fortuitous death, and the beginning of Keith’s plan for a series of insurable, disposable wives.
However, it was clear to me that the second Mrs. Van Buren hadn’t died accidentally at all. She had been poisoned. Keith had taken his wife on a trip to Japan where he was to do a PBS special on the training of fugu chefs who prepared and served deadly poisonous blowfish. Unfortunately, the article read, the chef made a mistake, and Mrs. Van Buren, who had agreed to be Keith’s taster, expired before she had even finished her meal.
And the third? The poor woman died tragically when she experienced an unexpected allergic reaction to shellfish. Note to self: avoid sushi restaurants.
It wasn’t that I was overly suspicious. But on the eve of our first anniversary—when I should have been shopping for a new dress to wear to Spago, where Keith and I had been asked to dine with the famed chef, Wolfgang Puck—Keith had accepted an assignment to judge a food truck competition. Food trucks had become the popular mobile cuisine for today’s busy millennial-on- the-go, and Keith’s job was to determine if the truck force of Asian fusion meets Tex-Mex was worthy of the three Michelin-Tire ratings the trucks had given themselves.
Now I have to say, I’m hardly a food snob, and probably wouldn’t have given the food truck stop a second thought had it not been for the food poisoning I got that night. I spent the next day, my anniversary, convinced I was about to die, and that Keith had planned it all. I never did find out if it was all just a coincidence, but from that day forward I told Keith I’d eat nothing he hadn’t sampled first. Of course, I didn’t tell him why or that I was growing ever more suspicious he had murdered the previous three Mrs. Van Burens. Only that as a food critic, I trusted his judgment more than my own and I’d enjoy whatever he ordered for me. Provided, that is, he tasted it and explained it to me first. I figured between the time Keith took his first bite and explained the texture, seasoning, and history of the food—the only thing Keith did better than eat, was talk—that if he hadn’t dropped dead after explaining it to me, it must be okay.
Then one night, while my husband and I were out, somewhere between the chateaubriand and the fresh-faced young waitress who Keith couldn’t take his eyes off of, I became convinced my time was running short and Keith was planning to kill me. And, if I were going to survive my husband’s ever-growing appetite, I’d need to take matters into my own hands, or more correctly, into the hands of some of L.A.’s more renowned chefs. I decided I’d feed him to death.
I began with my plan the very next night at Michael’s in Santa Monica, where we dined beneath the stars on the restaurant’s canopied, courtyard patio. We had just completed Michael’s world-famous pappardelle, rabbit legs with porcini and thyme along with an order of cavatelli, braised shitake mushrooms, and asparagus with Parmigiano-Reggiano, when I leaned close to Keith and whispered suggestively into his ear, “Why don’t we take an extra order of foie gras home . . . for later.”
Keith had long considered goose-liver pâté to be an aphrodisiac and used to tease, “A little pâté in the evening, and . . .”—as long as I was on top—“. . . we could pâté forever.”
I should probably explain that despite the enormous quantity of calories we consumed, I have always been blessed with the metabolism of a hummingbird. No matter what I put in my mouth, be it sweets, fats, or forbidden salty foods, I’ve never gained an ounce. Keith, on the other hand, in our first year of marriage, had ballooned to more than three-hundred pounds. Together we were the reverse of Jack Spratt and his wife, with Keith the forever enormous-and-getting-bigger-by-the-day-fatty and me, his perpet- ually slim bride.
Don’t hate me.
I truly believed I was fighting for my life, and despite all the late-night snacking and pâté-ing, Keith wasn’t slowing down. The man had the constitution of a prized bull. The heavier he got, the more popular he became and the more hand-tailored suits he had to order to cover his growing girth. It was as though his added weight confirmed his fine taste in gourmet dining. Food aficionados throughout L.A. began to seek him out. Suddenly Keith was everywhere. On billboards. On TV. On radio. And for me, the only discernible difference, aside from the fifty plus pounds Keith had gained since our marriage, was a slight case of sleep apnea about which I said nothing and suffered silently through his endless nights of snoring like an overweight walrus.
I was beginning to think of my relationship with Keith as a kind of race, with the finish line being death. His or mine. I wasn’t sure which might come first. In reality, I didn’t think Keith, with his high blood pressure and Type 2 Diabetes, could go on forever. But he wasn’t slowing down. And neither was his popularity, his voracious appetite, or his wandering eye. I had to do something.
So I upped the ante. I suggested we increase the number of nights we dined out and the number of meals we ate to satisfy the growing number of review requests Keith was getting from his fans. With a little more gentle coaching on my part—“Try a little more of this, darling” and “Oh, have you tasted that?”—I believed my husband would do what he loved best, and eat himself to death. And I’d be free.
I suppose I could have left Keith. But in my defense, with little over a year of marriage under my belt, why would I? As a divorcee, I would have nothing. And I considered Keith’s new improved popularity to be my doing. My insistence we dine out more often, sample more and increasingly caloric foods, and accept more gigs was my doing. If I divorced him, what would I have? Nothing. But as a widow? Everything would be mine.
I’m no saint. But I’m not stupid.
But six months into my campaign to feed my husband to death, I realized he was growing ever more ravenous. This I discovered when he returned home from a late-night publisher’s meeting with the Times, tasting of hot buttered rum and smelling of garlic mixed with the faint aromatic scent of Chanel.
That’s when I knew. No visit to Crustacean in Beverly Hills for their fried catfish, no trip to Korea Town for Seongbukdong’s braised short ribs, and no dessert from the Grill On The Alley, not even their Key lime pie, was going to do the trick. I had to get creative.
So I volunteered Keith to judge the Southern California Mystery Writers Chili Cook-off. What better person than Big Keith to do the job? I flattered his ego and off we went. While Keith was a big hit and sampled every type of chili from beanless to five- alarm, I became like many celebrity wives, extra baggage. Sensing he didn’t need me, I found a small table and at Keith’s suggestion, grabbed a bowl from the kitchen and waited for him. Which might have been fine, had I not had a terrible reaction to the chilies. By the time I got home, my mouth was tingling, my lips had swelled, and I went quickly as I could to the bathroom where I spent the evening with my head over the porcelain bowl, certain Keith had once again tried to kill me.
I was convinced my time was growing short, and with the approaching holidays, I suggested Keith increase his review schedule. There was no reason why we couldn’t cover two, possibly even three restaurants in a day. This was genius on my part. Not only were we able to accommodate more restaurants, but it had the desired effect on Keith’s slowing metabolism. I could see it in the way his clothes fit, the puffiness around his eyes, and the way with which he moved. He was slowing down.
So, on what I thought had to be our final evening, after Keith had bid goodnight to the chef at Petit Trois, the third restaurant we had dined at that night, I suggested we be adventurous and try a new little Italian place I had heard about in Brentwood. I convinced Keith, despite the late hour, we should stop by. If for nothing else than a nightcap. A glass of white wine and the escargot, which I had heard, were to die for.
Of course, I knew the minute we had walked in Il Piacere and Keith smelled the French onion soup, that it wouldn’t be just the wine and escargot. We ordered the soup and a double order of the escargot, and when it arrived Keith teased I’d better check his cellphone and make sure his cardiologist was on speed dial.
“No problem, darling, you’ve got me.”
Keith smiled and patted my hand. “Yes, I do.”
We agreed I should drive home, and Keith fell asleep in the car. His breathing was irregular, his skin clammy and wet to the touch.
I helped him to bed. “No pâté tonight, darling. You’re too tired.”
He mumbled something.
“Yes, dear,” I said, and kissed him on the cheek.
I left his side and went to change into my favorite silk nightgown, then returned and snuggled into bed next to him, convinced the end was near. Along about three a.m. I thought I heard his breathing stop. I placed my hand on his heart. No, dammit, it was still beating. I put my head on his chest and he took a deep breath and began to snore again. I pulled away. Or tried to anyway, but . . . I couldn’t move! My negligee had caught beneath his body and try as I might, I couldn’t wrest it free. “Keith!” I yelled. But he couldn’t hear me for his snoring. And then he turned over. On top of me! My slim body trapped beneath his enormous bulk. My screams smothered. I flailed with my one free arm. Hitting the bed. Hitting him. But to no avail. The harder I hit, the louder he snored. I couldn’t breathe. My lungs were about to burst from his weight on top of me. “Keith . . . Kei . . . Ke . . .!”
If only I hadn’t ordered that last esgargoooooooooooooooooo.