Monday, March 21, 2011

FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD

Amazing how many stories of interest center on food. Some of my and my wife Pat’s liveliest adventures involve eating. Take our holiday weekend in Beach Haven on the Jersey shore, where we had dinner at the leading hotel restaurant. I ordered snails (I doubt if they were known as escargots there), and they came with a modest mountain of croutons. I decided, next, on a salad which arrived with an immodest mountain of croutons.  Then onion soup topped with--you guessed it! “More croutons?” I exclaimed in horror. Promptly the waitress returned, beaming, with a Himalaya of croutons.

Wonderful place, Beach Haven. In her musical-comedy actress days, Pat had starred there at the Starlight Theater. But star-bright everyone is not. When at a local cafe, I ordered hot tea and lemon, the waitress apologized that they were out of bottled lemon juice, and all they had were fresh lemons. But can nature, pace Oscar Wilde, really imitate art?

Or take the time in a London Chinese restaurant, where an item on the menu fascinated us: Mange Tout. This didn’t sound Chinese. We asked the waiter what was mange (as rhyming with change) tout (rhyming with trout)? He answered in good French that mange (rhyming with blancmange) tout (rhyming with choux) referred to peas in the pod, eaten whole (mange tout).

Then there was the time in Paris, when we could still afford such things, and went to the most expensive restaurant, Lucas-Carton. Pat ordered something innocuous, but I ordered brains, imagining something nicely breaded, perhaps like a wiener schnitzel, only brainier. When the elegant cover was removed, there was, all by its naked self and staring at me, a large, gray, quivering, convoluted mound, the size of a human brain, perhaps one actually. “Yikes!” as we say in French.

Venice brings to mind a lovely lunch I enjoyed with a former girlfriend. On a cart next to our table was a huge truffle--I still don't know how they could come that big. When no one was looking, she stuffed it into her pocketbook. We kept it hidden in our hotel closet until it started to smell. We had to toss the precious thing into the lagoon. I hope the fish develop a taste for it.

Perhaps the most wonderful dish either of us ever ate was in pre-Katerina New Orleans, at the Stella Restaurant.  It was a veal tenderloin, beyond delicious, and much as we searched everywhere, we could not find anything of that kind—not just in culinary quality, but even in quiddity—again. We still think of it with lip-smacking nostalgia, as of a long-lost relative.

Memorable as well were long-ago meals at Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia where on our first visit I opened the gentleman's menu with the prices and exclaimed loudly, "It costs $85.00 per person!!!!"  It turned out worth every penny.

One New Year's Eve we hoped to dine at Le Bec Fin but couldn't get a table so decided on the Ritz Carlton where they had a prix-fixe dinner and dancing.  There is an art to a proper tasting meal in that the courses must be sized and spaced for enjoyment.  By the time the main course--buffalo filet--was served Pat and I were both feeling quite full from the preceding courses but tucked in. We then discovered that we disliked the taste of buffalo filet and asked the waiter to bring us something else.  He offered us filet mignon and we agreed.  When it arrived we realized we were too full to enjoy it but felt terrible about having asked the waiter to make a switch.  So we hid the filets in a potted plant next to our table.  The next morning at breakfast we laughed wondering if the people seated at that table could smell the meat beginning to rot.

Our all time best tasting meal was at a now closed restaurant in Portland, Maine.  Run by Erik Desjarlais, it was called Bandol--but it should have been called Perfection.  Erik now runs a less fancy place in Portland called Evangeline and we keep talking of returning to Portland to see what he's up to there.

At the instigation of the then famous Andre Heller, the Austrian government invited us to visit Salzburg (out of season, alas) and Vienna (never out of season). On Austrian Airlines, in first class, the food was outstanding, and we looked forward to more adventures in gastronomy.

On our very first evening, we were given seats at the Opera for a performance of  Don Carlo (not one of my favorite Verdis) starring Placido Domingo. After that, there was to be at the famous Hotel Sacher (home of one of my favorite deserts, the Sacher Torte) a late night supper in our honor. The guest list read like a who is who of some of the greatest names in opera.

We arrived at the already late hour to find a table set for about 24, but no one there except a bunch of nervous waiters eager to get things started and over with. After a while, an elegant elderly lady arrived. It was the fabulous Martha Moedl, an octogenarian still in fine voice, as we found out later at The Queen of Spades, another of my nonfavorites. (How crazy of Tchaikovsky to prefer it to his true masterpiece, Eugene Onyegin.) The diva was utterly charming, graciously spoke perfect English to  my wife, and the highest German to me.

Finally, the Nr. 2 guy on the Opera staff, an affable chap, showed up as we sat down to eat. He looked at the list of invitees and laughed. Muti had left Vienna the day before, Abbado had not yet arrived, and Domingo had gone off to his hotel for the night. And so on. We started on the soup just as Herr Direktor showed up, as grouchy as Nr. 2 was jolly.

An awkward, faltering conversation ensued, until the subject of Croatia came up, which, with Teutonic support, had just seceded from Yugoslavia. I expected Austrians, part of whose empire Croatia had been, to side with the Croats. Still, I put in a good word for the Serbs, among whom in Belgrade I grew up, and considered much nicer than the Croats. Well, whose face lit up? That of Herr Direktor, who joined me in enthusiastically extolling the Serbs as far finer than the Croats. Thereupon, though no one further showed up, a pleasant supper was had by all. This despite the accursed Tafelspitz, which pursued us all through Austria. The national dish, beloved of Emperor Franz Josef I, it is boiled beef in broth Viennese style, usually served with roasted potatoes and sourcream mixed with horseradish. Horsefeathers! Imperial palate nowithstanding, we thought, and still think, it tastes like meat gone bad.

But back to the celebrated Sacher Torte, which we bought at the Hotel Sacher with high hopes. Well, it was a huge disappointment. Though gorgeously packaged—the outer wooden box itself is a thing of beauty—the cake was dry, not quite as dust, but approaching sand. I eventually discovered that this was indeed the original Sacher recipe, although later, decadently inauthentic versions have been much more to my taste.

Oh, the shock of it, though! Can you imagine Modena vinegar disappointing in Modena? Dijon mustard fall flat in Dijon? Swiss cheese flunk in Switzerland? Kobe beef batting out in Kobe—prior, of course, to the current catastrophe? But such things do happen. Not in Greece however where Pat found every moussaka she ordered to be different and terrific.

One night dining at Per Se, we found the very nice young waiter mispronouncing Montrachet as he poured it, with the middle T sounded. I amicably informed him that this T was mute, as in, say, Montparnasse, because the T in Mont (French for mountain) is unsounded. Which reminds me of one of my favorite anecdotes, quite likely apocryphal. Jean Harlow was invited to lunch by Lady Margot Asquith, and kept mispronouncing the Countess’s name as Margott. Finally, the great lady pointed out politely, “My dear, the T in Margot is mute—as in Harlow.”

Let me not forget, however, what Pat does for me. Rushing home from her teaching job, she cooks up a helluva a meal in no time before we run out to the theater. To abolish the boundary between good home cooking and fast food is a miracle to be grateful for.





5 comments:

  1. "It was a veal tenderloin, beyond delicious, and much as we searched everywhere, we could not find anything of that kind—not just in culinary quality, but even in quiddity—again."

    Veal is the meat of a baby cow. How cruel to kill a baby! It is barbaric and uncivilized, like fox lynching.

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  2. Pauline, think you lost something at the movies.

    By all means, make a vegan/vegetarian argument against the slaughter and consumption of animals. All animals, whatever age. But how does killing a "baby" cow for its veal differ from killing a fattened steer for its beef steak? None to the dead animal. All such creatures depart this vale before their allotted time, that is, none die of old age. And where do you draw the line with eggs? Eat only unfertilized eggs? Fertilized eggs? Balut eggs? No eggs at all?

    Far from being uncivilized, one might argue that civilization began with the introduction of high-protein meat products into the human diet, and the economic and social benefits that ensued. Argue, if you wish, that all this must end, and perhaps you will convince me, but not with talk of "baby cows" and "fox lynching."

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  3. It's always worse to kill a child. Killing animals is always unpleasant, but we should at the very least allow babies to grow into adults.
    At least an adult cow saw and lived something of life. A baby cow is cute, weak, and helpless. To slaughter such a creature is foul.

    Suppose we were into cannibalism. Wouldn't it be worse to kill children than adults for food?
    If I were a cannibal, I would eat you as you are but not if you were 5 yrs old. I mean I have some values.
    There should be a grace period. In war, we kill adult soldiers. We try not to kill children

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  4. One night dining at Per Se...

    What a charmingly affected and insouciantly spritely name for a restaurant!

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  5. This food article lingers, so I have to fess up. Favorite meal? My first peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Or the one I had yesterday. Favorite alternative? Peanut butter and bacon sandwich. Both on toasted white bread, of course, and washed down with a flute of Coca-Cola. Uncivilized any other way.

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