Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Foodie Fiction! (As Published in 1886--Oops, I Mean 1986, Which, Never mind Math, Is Equally Distant)

     by the Eons Younger Ms. Gonick 
(If you've seen this before, please forgive and So Be It.) 

I WON`T SAY THAT BEN HAMILTON`S BEing a restaurant critic was the only reason I dated him. It was, however, the main one. And why not? They say you can fall for a rich man as easily as for a poor one; I say you can be as attracted to a man who has endless access to fabulous free meals as to one who frequents Burger King.

Opportunistic? Yes. Did I use Ben so I could go to the finest restaurants without making reservations six weeks in advance? Absolutely. Call me what you will -- like Edith Piaf, I regret nothing. If Ben suffered because of me, it was certainly no more than when his lamb was overcooked.

And I myself suffered a far more serious upheaval: I lost my lifelong love of fine food. And how am I convinced of this loss? Because I have just polished off a big bowl full of Kraft`s macaroni and cheese. Because, far worse, I enjoyed it.

I HAD READ Ben`s newspaper column for years, just as every restaurant-crazed resident of our city has. He has the power to make or break a new eatery with the stroke of a pen. I devoured his reports of festive evenings with feasting friends. Even more seductive than his accounts of duck breast with green peppercorns were the intimations of conviviality: ``The five of us agreed that no appetizer on the menu could match the leek pate with tarragon sauce.`` ``Although more than sated, our group shared a pear and ginger tart and a chocolate orange souffle, unanimously deeming the tart the superior dessert.``

I lusted for such pastimes as this: to luxuriate with my knowledgeable peers in this cocoon of fine food and wine, to share tender judgments, to evaluate, to discuss nothing more controversial than pear versus chocolate. ``I belong at that table,`` I`d reflect as I read.

I never dreamed I`d be so lucky as to meet Mr. Haute Cuisine, just as I have never dreamed of meeting Elvis Presley or Mick Jagger. He came to me, as miracles do, unannounced. At an elaborate cocktail party, I stood alone beside a gleaming chafing dish, and he walked up and introduced himself.

Did I panic and wish I had just freshened my lipstick? Did I wish I hadn`t just put a run in my stocking? No. I wished more than anything in the world that I was not in the middle of consuming a cold prawn dipped in mustard vinaigrette. I remembered him railing in his latest column against the omnipresence of the prawn: ``Are these crustaceans not the most ubiquitous of all? Can hosts not think of more imaginative fare?``

``Forgive me,`` I said quickly, nervously depositing the uneaten half of my prawn into a pitcher of aioli sauce. ``Oh God.`` I retrieved it clumsily and wrapped its nasty pinkness in a napkin.

``There is nothing to forgive,`` he said generously. He was 4 inches shorter than I, with blazing brown eyes. ``Try this,`` he said, slipping a scallop adorned with fresh cilantro into my mouth. ``Better?``

``Thank you,`` I murmured, as he fed me another one. Twice blessed. ``I read your column every week,`` I blurted.

``That`s very good of you,`` he said. ``And may I say that your dress is quite lovely? It is precisely the color of an eggplant.``

Imagine Priscilla Presley`s joy when the King of Rock `n` Roll chose her, from all the corners of the universe, to be his bride. Imagine mine.

``Do you fear innards?`` Ben then asked.

I didn`t, but if I had, I`d have lied. I prayed this was a prelude to something grand.

It was. ``I am sampling the sweetbreads in urchin sauce at Ernesto`s this Thursday. Would you care to join my party?``

``I adore thymus glands. I would be honored.``

OUR PARTY WAS comprised of three well-heeled couples. I was indisputably Ben Hamilton`s date. Oh, the unspeakable pleasure of being on a celebrity`s arm, even if the arm was attached to a shoulder that barely grazed my bicep.

The six of us unfolded our napkins as Ben uncapped his pen and ordered the entire meal. Appetizers covered the table.

``Let me squeeze just a drop of fresh lime onto your mussel,`` he said to me, solicitously. And one drop is exactly what he squeezed, rerouting the second one onto the tablecloth. ``Just enough to refresh,`` he explained. I ate it, and he was absolutely correct: Two drops would have overwhelmed the poor bivalve, while one drop made it sing.

Sweetbreads arrived; we discussed their tenderness, the complexity of their sauce. Wine flowed, as did well-pondered pronouncements on the tartness of the raspberries in creme fraiche.

Ben leaned toward me, the slightest trace of creme on his mustache. ``Are you having a good time?`` he asked.

``I`m in heaven,`` I told him.

I suppose this was the correct answer, because I was invited to the next five dinners. The membership of the convivial core group rotated, depending on who was in town, who owed whom what favor, who had a special feeling for sashimi.

By the fourth dinner, it occurred to me that Ben was starting to like me in my eggplant dress even better than he liked braised eggplant salad. By the fifth dinner, I stopped feeling so intimidated.

``I made a duck in cherry sauce once,`` I announced to the table. ``But I couldn`t figure out how to carve it. I think you have to be a surgeon.``

``It`s a snap,`` Ben said. ``You just need the right knives. But of course, the love affair between duck and cherry has long been over.``

I knew that, naturally -- my duck attempt had been seven years ago -- but, ever polite, I did not defend myself. ``How would you prepare it?`` I asked.

``With juniper berries,`` he promptly said. Inspiration lit his face. ``I`ll cook it for you all this Saturday. My house at 8. All right?``

All right? To be personally cooked for by Mr. Benjamin Hamilton? Was this how Priscilla felt when her husband sang Love Me Tender to her in their bedroom?

I SPENT ONE hour and 20 dollars selecting the wine to bring to Ben`s duck dinner. I figured if it wasn`t appropriate, at least it wasn`t dirt cheap. When I arrived at Ben`s spotless and cleverly decorated apartment, he was holding court in his model kitchen, emperor of the butcher block. We guests sipped champagne from chilled flute-shaped glasses and exclaimed happily over the first course of angel-hair pasta in a red-pepper puree. As everyone applauded, Ben turned directly to me and asked, ``What do you think?``

I was mesmerized by his perfectly alphabetized spice rack. ``It`s delicious,`` I said.

He beamed. A different wine was served with each course, and mine wasn`t one of them. ``Let me show you how to carve the duck,`` he said, leading me to the huge cutting board. He stood behind me, struggling to rest his chin on my shoulder, and guided my hand. ``See how easy it is?`` he encouraged, squeezing my thickening waist.

I inhaled. ``The duck smells like gin.``

``That`s because gin is made with juniper berries,`` he said. ``Very aromatic. And lovely, like yourself.``

I had never been compared to a juniper berry before, but maybe it was harmless enough. On the other hand, maybe it wasn`t. The next morning at 11 o`clock, my doorbell rang. When I answered it, a delivery boy handed me a large bouquet of gorgeous red radicchio.

The card read:  To my lovely juniper berry. I would have grilled these if I could. Love, Ben.

Now what? Although I felt no guilt about eating dinners he wasn`t paying for anyway, this juniper berry business was something else. Was I leading him on?

I put my radicchio in water and pondered a romance with Benjamin Hamilton. If there were a chance for passion it would have to flower on a turf not entirely his own. How could I get to know the real Ben if he were constantly surrounded by gastronomical sycophants? Could Jerry Hall relate to Mick if they never left the rock concert? Perhaps an all-day outing in the countryside would help: no waiters, no convivial guests, just sunshine and fresh air.

I decided to invite Ben on such a trek when I called to thank him for the bouquet. He loved the idea but wondered aloud what food to bring.

``I`ll make some sandwiches,`` I said. ``And I`ll bring some trail mix.``

``Trail mix?`` he echoed, as if this described the animal leavings one encountered on trails. ``Perhaps I could bring a few items.``

``Fine,`` I said, cheerily.

I WAS THE picture of the well-adjusted outdoors woman by 10 the next morning. But where was Ben? The ham on rye was wrapped and ready to go. It was 11, then it was 12. The doorbell rang.

``Sorry,`` he said. ``I had trouble locating the right pate.``

``Pate? In the sun? It`ll melt.``

He insisted it wouldn`t, but it did, all three kinds. All afternoon Ben carried a baguette that was half his height; it turned to cement by the end of our walk.

``I made sandwiches,`` I reminded him, handing him one. He stared at it.

``I used Dijon mustard.``

He sniffed slightly. ``I`m not an outdoor type,`` he admitted as we sat down to admire the view. He put his hand on my knee.

``Would you like to help me review Robert`s Bistro tonight?``

I declined. I told him I`d like him to meet some of my friends, that Dennis and June were giving a barbecue and all we had to do was bring our own meat.

``I would love to meet your friends,`` he said. ``I`ll supply our main course.``

MY LOVE OF fine cuisine aside, to me a barbecue is still a barbecue -- a good, old-fashioned, all-American tradition whether you use mesquite or not. But it was not to be that simple.

As Dennis and June`s grill sizzled with beef patties and foot-long hot dogs, Ben carefully laid our meal alongside: marinated duck liver and rabbit parts brushed with mustard.

Everyone gathered around to look.

``Duck liver?`` said my friend Bill.

``A delicacy,`` Ben assured him.

``I didn`t even know those little quack-quacks had livers,`` guffawed Bill, grabbing another beer.

When it was ready, Ben made up two perfect plates garnished with the papaya and ginger salad he`d brought and insisted we eat at the end of the table, away from the group.

``Don`t you want to try June`s potato salad?`` I asked.

``Certainly not!`` he said. ``This meal cries for papaya.``

My guilt, as I ate, was twofold: Our elitist meal tasted absolutely terrific and I, too, had no craving for June`s potato salad. I was also guilty because throughout the repast, Ben stared into my eyes and told me I was his juniper berry.

``I don`t think I am,`` I told him.

He looked huffy. ``It`s because I`m short, isn`t it?``

No, it`s because you`re crazy, a voice inside me said. But instead I told him, ``If you really like me, then you should let me do something for you. Let`s spend a quiet evening together. At my house. I`ll do all the work this time.``

I knew that no matter how hard I labored over cookbooks and Cuisinarts, I could never come up with a meal that would meet his standards -- but, perversely enough, I did not feel like trying.

Cooking badly is surprisingly easy and takes hardly any time at all. By the time Ben arrived, the Cheese Whiz waited in delicate twirls upon the Ritz crackers, assembled on my coffee table alongside the bottle of Thunderbird.

``Ice?`` I asked, tossing some cubes into a Fred Flintstone glass I had left over from childhood.

I could see he didn`t know if I was serious, but I kept my countenance sincere.

``You don`t seem very hungry,`` I said. ``Wait till you try the salad. You won`t resist that.`` At the table I presented him with a perfect square of lime Jell-O filled with miniature marshmallows and pimento and topped with a dollop of Miracle Whip. ``Come on and eat,`` I said with a straight face. He reached for the Thunderbird instead.

But I would not be put off. ``Now for the piece de resistance.`` I`d read the recipe for Frito Pie in a women`s magazine. You open a giant bag of Fritos corn chips, dump in hot canned chili and grated cheese and onion, mix lightly and serve directly from the bag. I guess the theory is that the chips melt into a pleasantly pliable state.

It was almost painful to observe Ben`s face. I thought he might barf, then I thought he might cry. ``Ben, don`t you like it? Aren`t I your juniper berry?``

He threw down his blue paper napkin. ``You are not!`` he squeaked, rising and heading for the door. ``You are perfectly disgusting!`` he called over his shoulder. ``To think I grilled a duck`s liver for you!``

Goodbye, conviviality. Goodbye, free meals. I don`t even care, and that is the problem. Thanks to Ben, I, a woman once obsessed with every subtle variation of fine cuisine, now crave Kraft macaroni and cheese, and prefer M&Ms to Godiva. He out-obsessed me.

I wonder if Priscilla Presley lost her taste for rock; I wonder if she listened to opera in the privacy of her room.


  1. My dear gourmand friend,

    I want you to know that I had to Google Frito pie, and then I was... disgustingly intrigued. Except I think I could do without it being served in the bag...

    It's kind of like that Ritz fruitless Apple "pie" I've heard of -- intrigue and disgust intermingle. I don't think I could eat it, but it sounds... well, like I might at least have to try a bite... a small one...

    Bad eater! No juniper berry for me.

  2. Isn't that just how it goes? The more prissy and OC they are, the more you want to eat Cheetos (and I do and I do. . .)

  3. I've loved this story ever since it first came out. It's a real pleasure to see it again. Thank you.

  4. Tee hee. Yer funny, Miz G!