The ritual of dressing was a pleasure so removed from the present that I look back on it with much the same helpless emotion I feel about a ten-pound tin of caviar a friend brought me to Dijon from Moscow in 1931: I can only dream of its present impossibility, as I do of the hot water and the countless towels and the dreamy leisure…
Before dinner, ordered in advance from a sheet which had nothing to do with the vulgar printed menu of the main dining salon, I drank either champagne or two very dry Martinis, depending on whether the captain’s chart marked the wind velocity at three or seven. The little bar—I never went into the main bar!—was full and amusing.
Dinner in the club, which suddenly might sprout orchids on its walls or pine branches from the Black Forest, behind which tired, invisible cabin boys tootled bird whistles—dinner, indeed, was exquisite.
And then, after dancing perhaps, or talking in the bar, my bar, came the best part of the pattern, when I went to my cabin and there, in the soft light by my bed, saw the same curiously exciting and satisfying thing each night: a split of my favorite champagne in a little silver bucket, and a silver plate of the thinnest sandwiches in the world, made knowingly of unbuttered fine bread, slivered breast of chicken, and cayenne pepper generously within the whole. I really do not understand what chord it was that always vibrated in my nature at this sight, but hum and twang it did, inevitably…and still does, in my mind.
I have forgotten what it used to cost, in those happily vanished days, to lunch and dine and sup thus fastuously, but it was one-tenth of what it cost the steamship company to put on so sumptuous a show…one-tenth or one-fiftieth. And I wonder now what it would cost to make me young enough again to love it, and all the silken extravagance it meant, instead of the forthright reconditioned steerage I first sailed in. I think back on it with no regret, but still with a real nostalgia.
I would like to be a lithe, eager twenty, in some ways, and sit across from an immortal, big-bosomcd, implacable gastrolater who could say “Yes!” and mean just that. I would, but less so, like to be a suave thirty…the caviar was so good then and so plentiful, and I do so love caviar.
Nostalgia hits all my five senses and colors and perfumes my thoughts and makes me touch and hear and bite them. Still I remain upright and cogent, in the face of such a backlog of remembrance, knowing that I, like many another honest gastronomer, can safely lean in secret, now and then, on such things the word “nautical.”
O is for ostentation…
…and how dignity is most often lacking in it, but need not be, at table anywhere.
While it is very true that rich amphitryons (and that is indeed an ostentatious way of saying hosts!) are more apt to strut and to attempt bedazzlement than poor ones, I think it quite possible for a bowl of soup and a crust of bread to be served with the pompous affectation that in any social level spells real ostentation.
In a subtle reversing of the law, it is a poor man who might more easily be ostentatious if he pretended riches and served forth a truffled turkey rather than a stew, to impress me for no matter what venal reason; but a rich man who with great show invited me to sup on pottage would be equally suspect. In either case my gastronomical suspicions, dormant somewhere between my heart and my stomach, would be roused to the lasting damage of my innocent appetite. Why, I would ask willy-nilly, is the stage thus set for me? Why has the delicate peace of a friendly table been thus threatened?
More often than not, ostentatious dining has little dignity about it, although such a combination is possible. I can think of one good literary proof of this apparent contradiction: the unforgettable dinner in Alice Adams, by Booth Tarkington. There, the fact that Mrs. Adams served wilted canapés of caviar, without cocktails in that prohibition day and without warning her husband of even what to call them, could be a perfect example of undignified ostentation if it were not for her true nobility, her enormous generosity in wishing, by this puny attempt at worldliness, to work a miracle for her daughter Alice. She failed, in a masterpiece of misery-at-table, but her innate goodness kept her effort from vulgarity.