If you could choose anyone to have one last lunch with, who would it be? The Sunday Times restaurant guru, Marina O'Loughlin, imagines a perfect meal with her ultimate idol. Spoiler alert: they have a fabulous time.
My recent sad little lockdown birthday was brightened by the arrival of a book from my pal Fay called One Last Lunch, a title I initially thought doom-laden. Well, we are, aren't we? Instead it was an uplifting collection of essays, put together by Erica Heller (daughter of Joseph) and published in May. The idea is that you could have one last meal with a dead somebody you loved, someone of note — everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Grey Gardens' Little Edie.
It set me thinking. The idea of one lunch with someone who had died was a little melancholy for this particular time and place. Maybe I could allot myself a fantasy meal? Just me and one other living person, the lunch date of dreams? In which case, it had to be Dolly Parton, my beloved Dolly.
I've followed her around the country, united in adoration with the devoted audience she attracts wherever she goes. At one concert, in Leeds, my fellow fan pals and I bonded with a middle-aged mother and her son in front of us and ended up dancing with them afterwards till 2am. Dolly will do that to you.
Where would I take her? I looked at all the restaurants and food concessions in her Tennessee theme park, Dollywood, to get a handle on her tastes. The likes of Aunt Granny's, an "all-you-care-to-eat buffet" (note that neat distinction: not all-you-can-eat), for fried chicken and fish, mashed potatoes, cornbread and biscuits, those sconey American jobs. Or elsewhere, hot dogs, barbecue, funnel cakes or many things made with sugared dough. The writer David Landsel once wrote about eating at every Dollywood concession in one day and I don't know whether I was more appalled or horribly, toxically jealous.
Maybe baby Dolly in her Tennessee mountain home might have eaten in places like these, but this tiny, fragile doll of a woman looks as though she hasn't eaten a carbohydrate, let alone a fried one, since God invented peroxide. I might take her to Rules, every American's idea of Olde England, steeped in centuries' worth of serving game pies, claret and suet puddings to plutocrats and politicians. "This is so precious," she might say, sitting under the portrait of Margaret Thatcher and sipping at a Duchess of Cambridge cocktail (if I can persuade her to drink). But maybe we should go somewhere American tourists don't reach much: Inver by the banks of Loch Fyne, so Dolly can gaze over the water to the castle beyond. Or Hjem in wild Northumberland. Or Mana in Manchester. All will give her that frisson of undiluted Britishness while blowing away any non-native's preconceptions. She'll love them, I know, the succession of small, perfect dishes, some served in what look like elven gardens, the cool theatre of it all. "I never knew food could be like this over here," she'll say. "I thought your restaurants were like the whole British teeth thing."
She'll sweep in, tits like satin-upholstered torpedoes, spangling like a constellation. She moves like quicksilver and doesn't look anything like her 74 years; in all honesty she doesn't really look particularly human any more — she just looks Dolly. It's my fantasy, so she'll be wearing her outrageous 1970s finest, not an inch of her untasselled or unrhinestoned, a flammable bombshell of lurid beauty with a golden knickerbocker glory of hair. Her feet — her teeny-tiny trotters — in alligator-skin cowboy boots, her handspan waist cinched and unassailable. Beside her I'll feel like a lumpen troll woman, but I won't care.
What do I want to ask her? I want to know what she thinks about the proposals to replace a statue in Tennessee — of former KKK leader Nathan Bedford Forrest — with one of her. "It was an ugly old thing," she'll laugh, "and I'm undeniably gorgeous." Do she and her rarely seen, asphalt-layer husband still live together? "What woman of sense can live with a man full-time?" she'll trill. "I love everybody too much to spend all my time with just one person." Did Jolene end up taking her man? She'll adjust her embonpoint and give me a look: "What do you think, darlin'?"
I'll ask her how she manages it, how she's loved by everyone, even the most warring tribes: Trumpists and feminists, evangelicals and the godless, old and young, gays and hipsters and good ol' boys, whites and blacks. There's even a dissertation on it: The Parton Paradox. "I told you, I just love everybody," she's happy to trot out her usual shtick. "I see God's work in everyone." Even the truly horrible people? "I believe in forgiveness." Putting her hand over my microphone, she's going to throw me a bone: "I never judge, not publicly. And nobody really knows anything about me, no matter how many interviews I give. So they use me to project themselves on to. If they're gay, I can be gay; if they're foaming fundamentalist Christian, hell, me too. Traditional wives? Why not? Purveyor of knowing irony with a giant wink? Of course."
I want her to be president, I'll say — President Parton. Her philanthropy is as legendary as it's understated: her literacy programme, Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, has delivered more than 100 million books to children worldwide, her Dollywood Foundation finances education (her father was illiterate); she has just donated a cool million bucks to Covid-19 research. Why can't the poor, beleaguered US have her instead of that whimpering, bunker-cowering manbaby? "Honey," she'll say, "why would I do that to myself? It's only men who think that in order to do good, you need tanks and generals and Air Force One."
I'll try to crack the carapace, but she keeps me out. Even though she sparkles as wildly as her rhinestones, she keeps everyone out. I won't even mind when she wheels out her tried-and-tested witticisms: "It costs a lot of money to look this cheap"; "People always ask me how long it takes to do my hair. I don't know, I'm never there." But she'll know that I know it's a performance and not give a toss. Every now and then she'll drop me a wink: we're in this together.
And then she'll leave without having eaten much, her limo with its darkened windows pulling up outside, drawing as many stares as she does. Off she'll strut, directing one of her tinkly, crystalline giggles in my direction (a real one, not one of the ones she puts on for the camera), saying how much she enjoyed our lunch. She doesn't offer me a lift.
Written by: Marina O'Loughlin
© The Times of London