1940s Archive

An Alphabet for Gourmets

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Then he made a deal with a hash house for one meal a day, everything he could eat, in return for washing plates. It was not right: the black greasiness underfoot wiped out any pleasure he may have found in the sparkling counter cops of the little joint, and again he was racked with sickness.

This time it seemed to color not only his fresh eagerness for life, but also his politics and even his lovemaking, and he realized that he must ignore the common ways of such poverty as his and devise his own plan. He was an intelligent man, although dulled and warped by hunger, and deliberately he lived another week on scraps, to save a dollar or so and buy himself one pot, one plate, one spoon, and one fork. He did not need a knife, recognizing fatalistically that he would never cook anything that needed to be cut, anything like a steak, a chop…

He arranged to use the back of his landlady’s stove two or three times a week. She would have been more than glad to see him in her kitchen every day, but by now his monastic approach to life had spread from the table to the bed.

He made himself a stew on Saturdays and Wednesdays. It had good things in it, which he bought just at closing time in the big public markers. It smelled good. It tasted good. He did not languish on it, but grew strong and sparkling.

The important part of the story is not that he nourished, but that he stopped. One day he realized, alone in his odorous little back room with his empty plate before him, that he had at first, a few weeks earlier, eaten nicely from it with his fork. Then he had spooned up his food, for a few more weeks. And then, one day after he had done with the spoonings, he found himself very neatly, very thoroughly licking the plate clean, to save the bother of washing it three flights below!

He was flabbergasted. He sat back and thought about it. In some ways this licking was a logical act: no other soul but him would eat from the plate, and therefore it was not contaminated by his dog-like behavior, it saved some of his jealously husbanded strength for his studies and such secret washing protected him from the sly-eyed woman in the kitchen. But even so he was horrified.

He took the plate up quietly and broke it over his knee.

He went down to the kitchen and gave the rest of his stew to a family of blue-green kittens which had lately emerged from the back alley.

Then he took $3.11, which he had counted on for the rest of the month, gastronomically, and he called his favorite girl, who was majoring in dramatic diction but who enunciated his own language with great clarity,

And the next morning he felt so much more, energetic than he had for several months that he applied for, and immediately got, a fat job as laboratory assistant. What happened to him later really should not happen to a rising physicist, but at least it had very little to do with monasticism, culinary or otherwise!

N is for nautical…

…and inevitably for nostalgic, in my own alphabet. Dinners aboard ship have a special poignancy for me, partly because I have not sailed anywhere since I went with the “Normandie” on her last fateful crossing, and therefore they are all remembered, but mostly because I have always been in love at sea, so that each bite I took was savored with an intensity peculiar to the moment. I think I am not alone in this particular juxtaposition of two words for N.

The first time I ever rode a ship it was deep down in the shuddering guts of it, so that dining-room silver and china jingled tinnily on the calmest day…another alliterative coupling of two words: S was now for Student Third, rather than Steerage It was smart to hop the Atlantic thus cheaply and uncomfortably in 1929, and a great many bored travelers who could afford A-deck accommodations titillated themselves by rubbing elbows with broken-down fan-dancers and students in the renovated holds of a dozen enormous liners (mine was the “Berengaria”).

I myself was happily dazed with love, but I do remember one priest, one dancer, three medical students, and, most of all, one incongruously proper, middle-class, plump Englishwoman who had nothing to do with anyone at all and seemed nonexistent except three times a day, in the dining room. Then it was at she became immortal, at least for me.

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