1940s Archive

An Alphabet for Gourmets

continued (page 3 of 8)

Then I went to Bernstein's on the Park in Los Angeles and bought fresh, beautiful shellfish: tiny bay shrimp in their shells, crab cooked while I waited and lobster claws, too, pink prawns, little mussels in their purple shells. I went down behind the Plaza and bought flat, round loaves of sour-dough bread and good spaghetti and sweet butter. I bought some honest-to-God cheese, not the kind that is made of by products and melted into tinfoil blocks. I bought Wente Brothers' Grey Riesling and Italian Swiss Colony Tipo Red, and some overroast coffee blended on Piuma's drugstone counter for me. There, in short, was the skeleton of the feast.

The flesh upon this bony structure was a more artful thing, compounded of my prejudices and my enthusiastic beliefs. It is true that my comparative youngness made me perhaps more eager to do battle than I am now, but I still think I was right to rebel against some of the inevitable boredom of dining en famille. I reseated everyone, to begin with. I was tired of seeing my father always looming against the massive ugliness of the sideboard, with that damned square mirror always a little crooked behind his right ear. I assumed, somewhat grandly, that he was equally tired of looking down the table toward my mother, forever masked behind a collection of cigarette boxes, ash trays, sugar shakers left there whether needed or not, a Louis Quinze snuffbox full of saccharin, several salt shakers and a battered wooden pepper mill, and an eternal bouquet, fresh but uninspired generally, of whatever could be gleaned from the ranch garden. With never a yea or nay to guide me, I eliminated this clutter from the center of the table, which had been on my nerves for at least fifteen years, and I made a low bowl of “bought” camellias instead of a “grown” bunch of this-or-that from the side yard.

And I switched places on my parents. They were rocked on their bases, to put it mildly, and only innate good manners kept them from shying away from my crazy plan like startled and resentful deer whose drinking place has been transferred.

Those were my first and most drastic attempts, clumsy enough, I admit, but very successful in the end, to break up what seemed to me a deadly dull family pattern. Then I used the sideboard for a buffer, which had never been done before in our memory. I tipped off my siblings beforehand, and we forced my father to get his own first course of shellfish, which he enjoyed enormously after he recovered from the first shock of not having someone wait on him. He poked and sniffed and puttered happily over the beautiful platters of shrimp and suchlike and made a fine plate of things for my mother, who sat with an almost shy smile, letting the newness of this flood gently, unforgettably, into her sensitive mind and heart.

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