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Significance, Fun in Fight on Cancer

The American discovery of the chocolate truffle made life easier for charity committees, which used to scramble for new ideas--monogrammed paperweights and similar dust catchers, for example--for the party favors customarily handed out to guests at top-ticket fund-raisers. But there is inflation even in the party favor racket, as witnessed by the miniature bottles of Photoplex sunscreen lotion handed out at Saturday’s “Pacific Passage” benefit for the UC San Diego Cancer Center.

The pocket-size gifts were, of course, an appropriate memento of the beneficiary, which netted more than $125,000 from the eighth installment of the annual “Celebrities Cook for the UCSD Cancer Center,” an ever-popular voyage into the realms of the gastronomically arcane. The gala attracted 520 guests to its traditional site, the Champagne Ballroom at the Sheraton Harbor Island East hotel.

Although favors have become less important to an event’s success, theme has become paramount. Committees once felt successful if the colors of the table linens matched the shades printed on the invitations (at least, it often seemed that way), but not these days. Important or merely portentous, the theme has to promise not only gaiety but significance. “Pacific Passage” did that and more by focusing on the Pacific Rim, the recently conceived international neighborhood of which San Diego is a member and in which UCSD would like to play a prominent role.

Dr. Mark Green, director of the cancer research and treatment institution, said of the theme that “looking further West--to the East, in fact--is the idea. Our goal at the cancer center is to be a leading institution of its kind on the Pacific Rim. It’s part of our thrust, and that is why tonight’s Asian theme is so appropriate.”

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The guests, however, did not have to concern themselves with the theme beyond displaying their proficiency, or lack of same, with chopsticks. As one of the preeminent food events of the year, “Pacific Passage” laid out so much in the way of Oriental nibbles and noshes that those who indulged in all of it tended to waddle like prodigally fattened calves by evening’s end.

The event followed its classic format. After opening with a cooking competition, it continued with booths featuring exotic hors d’oeuvres prepared by both contestants and non-competing celebrity cooks. The balance of the evening concentrated on an elaborate dinner and, for those who felt that shaking a leg would benefit their digestion, dancing to the Bill Green Orchestra. The theme dictated la cuisine asienne , represented by local restaurant chefs who prepared Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese offerings. In the end, the judges--Beringer Vineyards culinary director Antonia Allegra, Rancho Santa Fe farmer Tom Chino, San Diego Union food editor Maureen Clancy and San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Cost--awarded the honors to Su-Mei Yu of Saffron, who served a somewhat incendiary Thai pineapple curry.

Although a pair of golden Buddhas and ropes of flashing oblong lights that simulated strings of exploding Chinese firecrackers presided over the scene, the crowds thronged to the tasting booths. Lines were longest at the booths that housed Udo Nechutneys of the Miramonte Restaurant and Country Inn in St. Helena, and brothers Tommy and Frank Wong of the Trey Yuan Cuisine of China restaurants in Louisiana.

Nechutneys offered up a kind of nouvelle- Oriental dish of Japanese eggplant with bonito flakes in a sort of Chinese vinaigrette; guests went back for seconds at the Wong’s pavilion, where helpers dished up a Cajun-Chinese concoction of crayfish in spicy lobster sauce. There were also scenes of dueling chopsticks at the booths manned by cooks from San Diego County’s A Dong, Le Bambou, O-Sho, Mr. Sushi, Celadon, San Choy and Yen’s Wok on Pearl restaurants.

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All these tastes amounted to about a dinner and a half, which made the following multi-course banquet of gingered scallops and char su beef tenderloin seem too much of a good thing. But few seemed able to resist the dessert of papaya and mango mousse in a broiled coconut shell.

At the close of the event, chairwoman Cheryl Rohde said she was surprised by just how good a time she had had. “I can’t believe it, but I really enjoyed myself!” she exclaimed. Organizers often have difficulty enjoying the culmination of their labors, but Rohde added that she also found the moment “fascinating” because of the uses, such as research and experimental therapy, to which the funds raised will be put by the cancer center.

Several women took advantage of the sartorial opportunities offered by the theme; former event chairwoman Marie Olesen stabbed a pair of pearl-tipped chopsticks into her tightly piled hair, and fashion plate Sheri Kelts stole the show in a gold cheongsam . But Shirley Rubel, wife of cancer center board President David Rubel, did not wear her authentic kimono because the instructions that came with it--these garments evidently are difficult to fasten--were printed only in Japanese. VCR owners may wish to take heart from Rubel’s travails.

Among the gala’s sponsors were Maurice and Charmaine Kaplan, Frank and Lee Goldberg, Pat and Dottie Haggerty, the Douglas Pauls, John and Sally Thornton, David and Dottie Garfield, Theodor and Audrey Geisel, George and Alyson Goudy, Ivor and Collette Royston, Richard and Harriet Levi, Robert and Bea Epsten, Mickey and Faiya Fredman and Harry and Dorothy Johnston.

LA JOLLA--Jeanne Lawrence and Elizabeth Zongker shared an unusual sensation in January when San Diego magazine included them in “89 San Diegans to Watch in ’89,” its annual compendium of locals that the magazine expects will be news makers in the current year.

Both literary agent Zongker and Lawrence, whom Mayor Maureen O’Connor last year appointed to the city’s protocol office, said they liked being included in the noted crowd; what seemed odd to both was that they knew few of the others.

“This is an interesting group that makes up the fabric of the city, and it’s exciting to get to know it,” Lawrence said. Parties have been planned on far flimsier pretexts than the March 15 get-together (spouses excluded) that Zongker and Lawrence gave at the latter’s home.

Although the party roster included a few of the city’s brand names, many of those who chatted amicably over coconut shrimp and white wine were meeting for the first time. Magazine Publisher Ed Self said that the list purposely drew on as wide a spectrum of the community as possible.

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“We wrote a list not just of bigwigs, but of people on their way up who are about to make news,” Self said. “We went after intellectuals, politicians, scientists, media people, women, different races--a real mix.”

More than half the ’89 watchables turned out, and none seemed to mind being watched. Victoria Hamilton, executive director of San Diego’s Commission for Arts and Culture, said, “It’s great and it’s a challenge, but I’m being watched all the time right now anyway.” Suzanne Townsend said she enjoyed meeting her fellow honorees because “when you’re 100% involved in what you do, you forget about all the other people who make this city the mosaic it is.”


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