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About That Time Pam Grier Made Fried Pigeon for Federico Fellini…

Pam Grier is a good talker. Her stories are rich and detailed, her outlook is both funny and true, and once you get her going, you just let her go — over the course of a 50-minute “Clips and Conversation” Q&A at Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Film Center Sunday afternoon, I believe she was asked four questions. She’d answer the query, and then spin off into something else, and then somewhere else, the connections sometimes tenuous, but the destination always worth the journey. The appearance came at the conclusion of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s weekend-long tribute to Grier, who tells many of these stories in her new book Foxy: My Life in Three Acts. The highlight, without question, was the tale of her unexpected meeting with Federico Fellini, and the meal she made for him in the commissary of his Italian studio.

It happened in 1973, when she was making Roger Corman’s “epic” The Arena at Cinecittà Studios in Rome. “I’m playing this Roman slave girl,” she recalls, “in the skimpiest, thinnest, fakest leopard skin — with no bra — and sandals on a black stallion, who’s the lead horse.” But that horse panicked on the set, taking off through the studio. Grier, who’s been riding horses since she was six (her family comes from Colorado and Wyoming), knew she just had to ride it out, and she did — with no reins (“I’m hanging on the mane”) and no stirrups (“it’s just my butt, grabbing on to this horse”). Then she saw “this big, huge wall — a backdrop. And I didn’t know what he was. I said, ‘Okay, there’s a crack in between, I’m gonna go right through there. And it was Fellini’s Amarcord, it was a big ship. I rode in, in the middle of his take, and he said, ‘Ah! My fantasy has come true!’”

Grier was embarrassed, but Fellini was delighted, and invited her to come to lunch with him at the studio commissary. (“But we just had lunch!” she whispered to her producer. “Go, it’s Federico Fellini!” he whispered back.) So she went, in her slave girl costume, for lunch with the maestro. “I love America!” he told her, explaining that he’d been to Harlem, “and I had mucho fried chicken! Do you know how to make fried chicken?”

“I can!” she said. “Double crispy!” He suggested they go back to the kitchen, where he would teach her to make red sauce and she would teach him to make friend chicken. Trouble was, they were out of chicken. What they did have, she discovered, was squab. “It’s pigeon in American,” he told her.

“Fried pigeon,” she laughed, recalling the moment. “Oh-kay. So I’m gonna make this fried pigeon!” She walked him through the process — soaking in buttermilk, rolling in flour, putting it in the skillet, taking it out, dipping again in the milk and flour (“The duey-dip! Double dip! Write that down!”), and back into the skillet. “And it smells fantastic, because their garlic is real garlic,” she explained.

“And we take it out, and there’s this little pile of squab! Crispy and golden, and you see him, just mouth watering. He’s leaning over it, and he picks up this little tiny drumstick, and he bites into it, crunchy, deepest crunch. And he closes his eyes and goes, ‘Mmmmmmmm! Delicioso! Deliciosso, we’re gonna have this every day!’ He loved that fried squab! He sucked that bone, he thought it was a Popsicle. And he sent me a birthday card every year, because I taught him how to make fried chicken.”

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