Things I Know (response to Lake)

Still on the subject of food. Commenter Lake said, “Can you also tell us about the rare dishes you’ve had, the memorable ones, the perfect dishes that made for perfect nights? I’ve traveled a bit and have had some incredible meals, especially in France, Antigua, and right here in my CT town.”

Fair enough. But I fear I’ll disappoint. I have what I’ve always laughingly termed a lower class palate. It’s true I’ve been taken to great restaurants on four continents and the open sea, but I somehow don’t remember the food as much as the occasions.

The question does deserve an answer, though. I just wish I were better able to provide a food literate answer. Maybe honesty will suffice.

Whatever the top Michelin restaurants are, I’m pretty sure I’ve been to one. Can’t remember the name. La Maison Blanc? Dunno. It was a corporate outing, preceded by a tour of the City of Light in an old double decker bus with champagne flowing in a surreal setting of motion and glory at sunset. The restaurant was mostly blue. The bathrooms were the stuff of science fiction, shocking white with water spouting spontaneously whenever you wanted it. I saw a golden lab seated at his mistress’s feet. The hostess was the single most beautiful woman I’ve ever laid eyes on, blonde and beyond the elves of LOTR fame. Just jaw droppingly gorgeous. The food? Great. The wine? Even better. But I honestly don’t remember anything except the dessert. I ordered vanilla ice cream. Low class palate, remember? It came with a sail made of sugar flying from the dreamy base. I don’t even like dessert.

Yet the best French bread and pastry I’ve ever had was in Hong Kong. (And I actually lived in Paris for a time.) Our hotel. I recall a dining room overlooking that spectacular, unreal harbor, acres of starched tablecloths and napkins, and such perfection of baking I will never experience again.

I was on the first Cunard liner called the Queen Elizabeth. I was ten. In First Class, they brought breakfast to your paneled cabin. I ordered Rice Crispies. I was ten. Something about English cream? On Rice Crispies it was the best breakfast I ever had till I ordered Eggs Benedict at the Boston Ritz-Carlton eight years later.

Worst breakfasts were everything in Europe. The French have great croissants and coffee that tastes like boiled sneakers. Italians don’t understand orange juice. They think it should be nasty, sour, clumpy, and vile. Germans turn breakfast into sausage porn. Distended links festooned over everything, and all the menus talk of nothing but Sweinfleisch. Disgusting.

In Colombia, they want to convince you they have the best steak. You know. They raise their special cattle on the slopes of the Andes, and they have all those gauchos to bring them to slaughter in the most natural and picturesque possible way. In Colombia, everything smells burned. Even the air. The steak? Burned.

Best steak I ever had was a tie between Dayton, Ohio, and New York City. Funny how that works. Dallas tried hard, but my nod goes to Dayton’s Pine Club.

I’m not trying to say there’s no good food outside the U.S. There is. When I was a kid, my dad took us to a Paris restaurant called Au Cinq Pandorge. Shotgun style architecture, tiny booths. All the dishes were appetizers. They piled plates upon plates on your table, and everything was magnificent. My mother spent years trying to reproduce just one tomato dish. So simple but so elusive. I think she got close eventually.

And Italy is a wonder all its own. The pasta is so fine you just stop taking note. All you remember is events. One time we were with a Frenchman who asked for Parmesan cheese as a garnish. Instantaneously, a 300 lb chef burst from the kitchen to dress him down, denounce his cuisine illiteracy. The Frenchman blushed purple in his humiliation. I don’t remember the dish, just the farce.

Still, most of the best food I’ve had is here in the U.S. White chicken gravy on turkey at a family style place in Ohio. Pressed duck at a Chinese place located in a strip mall near Trenton. Cheese steaks at Shannon’s in Millville, NJ. For all their braggadocio, Philly is just an also-ran asshole when it comes to cheesesteaks.

I could go on, but that’s enough for now. Though I will close with two more nods to Italy. Somebody talked me into trying a blue cheese and apple pizza. Heaven. And, as a Jersey boy, I hate to admit this, but the best hoagie type sandwich I ever had was in a tiny village outside of Milan. Cheese and salami. And some magical oil. Perfect.

3 thoughts on “Things I Know (response to Lake)

  1. Ha! Rice Crispies and cream on the QE. What a great memory.

    I have a peasant’s palate and wouldn’t know gourmet food if you slapped it on some wonderbread with a side of bbq sauce. But I have had food in some special places.

    I ate reindeer in a restaurant on the ground floor of the house in which Descartes died. It’s in old Stockholm (Gamla Stan).

    My dad and I ate fish’n’chips at a pub called the Ship and Castle just outside of the naval yard at Portsmouth, England, when we went to tour the HMS Victory for the bicentennial anniversary of Trafalgar.

    I ate steak in Colombia once on a ranch a ways out from Bogota. Cooked on a grill set up over the smoldering end of a tree trunk by an old rancher who used a “paintbrush” of green onions to baste the meat. It was a bit tough, but tasted wonderful… The old rancher had been a powerful and violent man in his day (which in Colombia is saying a lot). Then he’d become a Christian or some such nonsense. Now he enjoyed making food for people and sharing his ranch.

    My grandfather could make some of the best chicken-fried steak and cream gravy in Texas. Tender enough for his toothless mouth. We all tried to learn his secrets before he died, but he “warn’t tellin'”. After a lot of observation, I managed to work out some of his techniques, and mine isn’t half-bad… But the Real Thing has been lost to this earth forever.

    When I was a kid in northern Japan, I always enjoyed a regional dish of mutton and vegetables that the diners grilled themselves at the table. You could make a game out of trying to steal choice morsels that your friends were grooming for themselves. There was a technique to snatching meat right out of their chopsticks. If your food made it to your bowl of sauce, you were home free. Cooking while you ate stretched the meal out sometimes over hours. It was a social event. And delicious!

    Thanks for the stories…

  2. No disappointment here, that’s exactly what I wanted to hear. Confirmation, largely, because while the best and most memorable food I had in France was incredible, it was purely the memories that made it. I told myself I wouldn’t say no to trying any food, and I’m glad that I didn’t.

    But the best steak that I’ve had? Good old Mortons, but in Puerto Rico.

    I have no problem with your palate, it’s an American palate. That mean that it’s not too highbrow to enjoy the hell out of the basic staples (as outlined neatly in your first food post) and not too humble to appreciate a fine exotic dish. Let’s face it, we’ve got it all here, the top of the top notch and the best basic comfort foods in the world.

  3. Thanks for sharing the memories. I enjoy food a great deal, but I think the best meal I ever had was the egg, ham, cheesy burger and french fries sold by this vendor in Korea right off post. Only thing is you had to be drunk to bring out the full, fantastic flavor of the food. Had one sober once and it was terrible.

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