I’d love to be meeting Jane Gardner for lunch today. Alas, the extraordinary woman Coastal Virginia knew as an award-winning reporter and trailblazing female anchor (at a time when that gender-descriptor was requisite), died on July 11.
That’s how I first knew her, too, mesmerized by her poised delivery on WTKR and WVEC, moved by her dispatches from Africa with Operation Smile. Somewhere along the way we became friends. It might have been working together on the local board of the non-profit C-CAP (Careers through Culinary Arts Program) nearly two decades ago. We both had a vested interest in nurturing the next generation of chefs: we loved dining out.
Our first lunch date was at Phillip Craig Thomason’s Vintage Kitchen. If memory serves (it doesn’t always, at least not as well as the admiring wait staff who angled for her table), Jane ordered fish; I ordered meat; and we went half-and-half to create our own surf-n-turf. For dessert, we split a decadent ice cream sundae, inspired by the high-ticket Golden Opulent Sundae at New York’s Serendipity 3.
Jane, intuitive and kind, christened our friendship by surprising me with Poet of the Appetites, a biography of noted food writer M.F.K. Fisher. Fisher (a cat person, like Jane) became our godmother: “There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine is drunk…”
Oh, how we communed…
Indulgently breakfasting at Chocollage, indiscriminately slurping ramen at Alkaline, nibbling rainbow-hued Hummingbird macarons as we strolled the Pagoda and Oriental Garden near the home she shared with the love of her life, husband Gary.
Before long, the late, grandiose restaurateur Monroe Duncan swelled our luncheon ranks. We plowed into verdant salads and fresh-caught tuna at Leaping Lizard Café, and at Saigon One, waved our hands like orchestra conductors over steaming bowls of pho to better inhale the basil perfume. When Monroe managed the historic Smithfield Inn, he planted us on the front porch and treated us royally. We co-opted the name “Red Hat Society,” poking more fun at our merrily voracious trio than the organization.
Conversation bounced from politics to sports to fashion (with Jane’s soigné style, I couldn’t help but tease: “Still getting a wardrobe allowance from the station?”). Ever the trained journalist, she knew how to listen. Ever the true friend, she cared deeply. She’d gaze at you intently with those exquisite almond eyes, making you the story.
Invariably talk circled back to food; she was an accomplished cook. Even during cancer treatment (starting in 1999, she fought four kinds, five times, magnanimously sharing her journey publicly), she was drawn to her kitchen. One email from 2015: “After my Neupogen shot, I am home, about to make bread pudding.” Her shallot-laced pâté could hold its own against any Michelin-starred chef’s.
Among Jane’s circle, no—make that galaxy, of friends were many restaurateurs, including Leonard Logan. Visiting the Gardners on the Outer Banks often meant dinner at his Elizabeth’s Café. The fact that The Blue Point was within walking distance of their beach house probably convinced them to buy the second home. When time came to sell, Jane, wistful yet serene, purred in her lyrical way, “I can say we had a house in Duck, on a high dune, with views of the ocean and the Currituck Sound.”
The picture I keep of her pinned to the bulletin board near my computer shows us celebrating her 60th birthday. As always, she is radiant. After heaven knows how many bottles of bubbly, nobody wanted the party to end, so we kept it going the next night at Sydney Meers’ Stove.
As much for her gigantic heart as her personal experience and professional expertise (she had been this area’s premier medical reporter and later became Eastern Virginia Medical School’s Public Affairs Director), Jane was the first friend I confided in when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. She offered to accompany me to doctor’s appointments, and dispensed advice, vital and practical. On wigs: “After you buy [it], take it to your hairdresser to have it trimmed and styled. Wigs come with way more hair than either of us has.”
I modeled mine at dinner with our husbands at 37 North at Long Bay Pointe Marina. And when treatment concluded, the four of us toasted at Kyushu with a “break the sushi fast.” (Chemo patients, like pregnant women, should abstain from raw fish—quite the challenge!)
Other double dates found us at Luce and Café Europa, lingering over postprandial coffees. Her epistolary follow-up after Judy’s Sichuan: “Ever since our dinner, I have been fantasizing about pork and chilies.” (Among world travels, she and Gary cherished New Mexico sojourns; she knew chilies.)
The four of us were last together at Sonoma (soon-to-become Quirks) over drinks, before they headed to an event honoring Lefty Driesell (the Gardners met at the University of Maryland campus radio station). The wine breathed, we laughed.
Pre-pandemic, Jane and I planned to lunch at Nouvelle (she adored the lamb Bolognese with a rosé and Filipino brunch there). I had to cancel to attend a funeral. She emailed: “I will miss you, but, as a wise person once said, you can’t make up weddings or funerals.” Sigh. You also can’t make up Jane Gardner. Her capacity to touch everyone she encountered, her indomitable spirit, graceful carriage, flawless beauty (and, despite her estimation, lush hair) were nonpareil. ’Til we eat again, dear friend!