Nora Ephron was really all about the food.
An acerbic observer of life whose wit translated so easily to the big screen, she was often as interested in the menu as she was in the script, and her appetite for moviemaking and crab cakes brought her to Baltimore in the early 1990s for the filming of "Sleepless in Seattle."
Ephron, who died Tuesday after a battle with leukemia, was called in to doctor a screenplay about a long-distance love affair between an architect in Seattle (Tom Hanks) and a woman newspaper reporter (Meg Ryan) in, of all places, Lancaster, Pa.
Declaring that she couldn't possibly write a script based in a town without a major-league team, she changed the location to Baltimore. (Co-star Rosie O'Donnell, who had just appeared in "A League of Their Own," would throw out the first pitch at an Orioles game during filming.)
When the director objected to the new location, he was fired and she got the job — only her second movie.
"I loved Baltimore," she said when she returned to the city for the premiere in June 1993. "Crab cakes, soft-shell crabs. It's a wonderful city.
"The last day, we were filming on the dock at Fells Point ... and we had just eaten 40 crab cakes and soft-shell crabs, and I thought, I could have shot this movie forever," she told The Baltimore Sun. "We had the most wonderful time in Baltimore."
The movie was filmed using the exterior of The Sun as a backdrop. Ryan's brother was turned from a psychiatrist to a musicologist so Ephron could film in the stately Peabody Conservatory library. But when she visited the Woman's Industrial Exchange on Charles Street, it was love at first cupcake.
She'd been to the century-old tea room on a scouting trip and sampled the orange cupcakes. Eventually Ryan and her editor, played by O'Donnell, would have lunch there. Ephron would lunch there almost daily, and the Exchange would deliver something like 72 cupcakes to the set each day.
"They're fluffy," she explained. "You can eat three or four of them and not feel bad about yourself."
In addition to the chicken salad and the fluffy cupcakes, the Exchange had a special quality that Ephron was looking for for this movie, which was to be her unbridled mash note to "An Affair to Remember," the 1957 movie starring Cary Grant.
"It was out of time," she said of the Exchange, revived last year as the Woman's Industrial Kitchen. "We had to do a movie about love that was also about movies about love that I want people to watch for 20 years.
"I don't want them to say, 'Oh, that was made in '93.'"
Crew members remembered visits to
for crabs. And Ephron apologized to Faidley Seafood in Lexington Market after footage shot there ended up on the cutting-room floor despite the fact that she had loved the place.
Members of The Sun staff still recall her visit to the newsroom — which, by the way, looked then (and today) nothing like the shiny, sun-filled offices in the movie.
"She was very good at details," said former Sun theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck. "She was able to find the universal in the specific. And she was very, very good at that."
Rousuck remembers when Ephron was scouting The Sun as a location for Ryan's job as a reporter.
"She was taking pictures," Rousuck said Wednesday, "and she took a picture of me and I went tearing across the room to tell
that my mother would kill me because I was wearing my rattiest jumper.
"And Jean said, 'Don't worry, now everyone in the movie will be wearing jumpers.'
"I was very disappointed when the movie came out and everybody was wearing those little suits."
But it was food that was the totem for much in Ephron's writing. "Crazy Salad" was the title of one of her first essay collections. She made the betrayed housewife in "Heartburn" a food writer who smashes a Key lime pie into the face of her cheating husband.
The famous orgasm scene in "When Harry Met Sally" takes place in a deli, and Ryan's funniest bit was how she ordered from the menu — everything on the side. In "Hanging Up," the warring sisters make up in the kitchen by throwing flour at each other. In "Sleepless," Tom Hanks, whose character hasn't dated since the Jimmy Carter era, thinks tiramisu must be a lovemaking trick. And Ephron's last film was "Julie and Julia," a lusty, foody tribute to Julia Child.
In her last book, "I Remember Nothing," she warns that we should all eat what we want, when we want, because we never know which meal will be our last. The chapter about the things she will miss when she dies ends with "pie."
For the record, Ephron wanted her last meal to be a hot dog from Nate 'n Al's in Beverly Hills with a little mustard and maybe some sauerkraut.
She died in New York City surrounded by her family.
I wonder if Nate 'n Al's delivered.