Black pearls of the Sturgeon from the Caspian Sea, stuffed into the claws of lobsters, and eulogising the God of the Oceans.
The Filet of Pompano known as the Demoiselle of the Atlantic, placed in a paper bag with the nomenclature “Greetings from the Poseidon.”
The Breast of Chicken served in a little nest to represent the safety of the ketch, with its escort of vegetables and green salad.
An excellent dessert bearing the nomenclature “Ritorna vincitor” from Aïda, and little galettes. A sweet liqueur to seal the anticipation.
Wines in small quantities but of choice bracket, of lip-smacking delectability. Pink Champagne. Flowers. Candles, music, etc. All this will blossom with those hundred dollars that you were so provident to save.
I was thunderstruck with excitement and full of gratitude to the two busy men who had taken time to write, but I was also dismayed. I didn’t have even close to one hundred dollars saved. With my November paycheck included, I would have a grand total of sixty-six dollars and twenty-five cents when I met Jean after the game, and there were train fares and other expenses to consider. Regretfully I wrote Mr. Williams that he had made a much closer estimate of my resources than had Mr. Black, and I would appreciate it if he would reserve a table for me.
I heard nothing further from The Waldorf. The days went by with no confirmation of my reservation—nothing. I was sure that my letter had never reached Mr. Williams, or that the whole thing had been taken as a joke. Finally it was the weekend of November 27th. The Brigade of Midshipmen went to Philadelphia and watched their inspired team hold highly favored Army to a 21-21 tie in one of the most thrilling football games ever played. After the game I rushed to meet Jean, and she was just as pretty and wonderful as I had remembered her.
On the train to New York I blurted out the whole story and showed Jean the letters from Mr. Black and Mr. Williams. I told her that I wasn’t sure that we had a reservation at all, and I questioned whether we should even go to The Waldorf. We decided that we should, and that, even if we didn’t have a reservation, we would at least see the famous hotel. So we got into a taxi at Pennsylvania Station, and I said the enchanted words, “Waldorf-Astoria,” trying to sound as though I said them every day. In minutes we were at the door.
We walked into the lobby. To the right, at the top of a short flight of steps, was the Wedgwood Room. There was a velvet rope at the bottom of the steps, and another at the top, with a majordomo posted at both places. A crowd of fashionably dressed couples was patiently waiting for admittance. They all looked fabulously rich. Jean and I were wide-eyed as we stared at the magnificence of the lobby. I looked at her, and she looked at me. Finally I gulped, “Here goes,” and went fearfully up to the majordomo at the foot of the stairs. I felt like Oliver Twist when I said, “Sir, I am Midshipman Ince, and I wonder if you by any chance might happen to have a reservation for me.”
Like magic he swept away the rope! “Indeed we do,” he said , and suddenly we saw the headwaiter at the top of the steps smiling and saying, “Midshipman Ince?” “Yes, sir,” I managed. “Right this way,” he said, and snapped his fingers. A captain popped up out of nowhere like a genie from a lamp and led us across the room toward a beautiful table. Two waiters were leaning over it, lighting tall white candles.…
Walking ahead of Bud, I looked in amazement at the table. Centered between the candles in a low white vase were flowers—white stephanotis and pink sweetheart roses. When the red-coated waiter seated me I found a box at my place. Tucked under its ribbon was a card that read, “With the compliments of The Waldorf-Astoria.” Catching my breath, I opened it and found a corsage of white baby orchids. A menu, unlike any I had ever seen, lay on the table in front of the centerpiece.
The menu was hand-painted in water-color. A gray Navy ship steamed toward the upper right-hand corner, and high-lighted on the left was a sketch of a girl’s head with blue lovebirds in her hair. Printed with a flair in French, it read:
Le Fruit Ninon
La Volaille Bergerac
La Salade Pigier
La Friande Agrippina
Mayan en Tasse
Wedgwood Room Nov. 27, 1948
At the very moment when our excitement over the flowers, the table, and the menu had subsided to a point admitting of intrusion, our waiter said to Bud, “I have just one question to ask you.”
(I was sure he was going to ask if me I could pay for all of this!)
“Would you like a cocktail?”
We agreed that we would like a Manhattan and that was indeed the only question we were asked all evening.
The dinner began. Silver sparkled and crystal glistened in the candlelight. Eddie Duchin and his orchestra played in the background. Service was constant, attentive, and unobtrusive. We never felt a waiter near us. Everything simply happened as if by sorcery. Wines we had never tasted, “in small quantities but of choice bracket, of lip-smacking delectability,” appeared with each course. The Fruit Ninon was splendid. La Volaille Bergerac was sealed in parchment, which the waiter slit to release its steaming aroma. The Légumes Testida never dreamed that under other circumstances one could think them beans. The Salade was percection. Everything was perfection. Each course was more lovely than the one that came before it, and every taste and flavor would have thrilled the most meticulous epicure.
About halfway through our dinner a distinguished gentleman with silvery-gray hair and a large Gallic nose approached our table with a smile and said, “I am Rene Black, I just came over to make sure that you were not angry with me.” Bud leaped to his feet, and I beamed as we poured out our thanks to the man who had planned this evening. He drew up a chair and sat down and talked, delighting us with anecdotes of his continuing love affair with his wife, the origin of omelets, and a wonderful tale of a dinner party he gave his regiment in France during World War I. When we asked him if he had painted the menu he smiled, turned it over, and quickly sketched the head of a chef with his pen. Under it he wrote, “Si l’amour ne demande que des baisers à quoi bon la gloire de cuisiner?“ (If love requires only kisses, what is the use of the fame of the cook?)