Food is good
My first indication that food was something other than a substance one stuffed in one's face when hungry-like filling up at a gas station-came after fourth grade in elementary school. It was on a family vacation to Europe, on the Queen Mary, in the cabin-class dining room. There's a picture somewhere: my mother in her Jackie O sunglasses, my younger brother and I in our painfully cute cruisewear, boarding the big Cunard ocean liner, all of us excited about our first transatlantic voyage, our first trip to my father's ancestral homeland, France.
It was the soup.
It was cold.
This was something of a discovery for a curious fourth-grader whose entire experience of soup to this point had consisted of Campbell's cream of tomato and chicken noodle. I'd eaten in restaurants before, sure, but this was the first food I really noticed. It was the first food I enjoyed and, more important, remembered enjoying. I asked our patient British waiter what this delightfully cool, tasty liquid was.
"Vichyssoise," came the reply, a word that to this day-even though it's now a tired old warhorse of a menu selection and one I've prepared thousands of times -- still has a magical ring to it. I remember everything about the experience: the way our waiter ladled it from a silver tureen into my bowl; the crunch of tiny chopped chives he spooned on as garnish; the rich, creamy taste of leek and potato; the pleasurable shock, the surprise that it was cold.
I don't remember much else about the passage across the Atlantic. I saw Boeing Boeing with Jerry Lewis and Tony Curtis in the Queen's movie theater, and a Bardot flick. The old liner shuddered and groaned and vibrated terribly the whole way -- barnactes on the hull was the official explanation-and from New York to Cherbourg, it was like riding atop a giant lawnmower. My brother and I quickly became bored and spent much of our time in the "Teen Lounge, ' listening to "House of the Rising Sun" on the jukebox, or watching the water slosh around like a contained tidal wave in the below-deck saltwater pool.
But that cold soup stayed with me. It resonated, waking me up, making me aware of my tongue and, in some way, preparing me for future events.
My second pre-epiphany in my long climb to chefdom also came during that first trip to France. After docking, my mother, brother and I stayed with cousins in a small seaside town near La Cabourg, a bleak, chilly resort area in Normandy, on the English Channel. The sky was almost always cloudy; the water was inhospitably cold. All the neighborhood kids thought I knew Steve McQueen and John Wayne personally-as an American, it was assurned we were all pals, that we hung out together on the range, riding,horses and gunning down miscreants-so I enjoyed a certain celebrity right away. The beaches, while no good for swimming, were studded with old Nazi blockhouses and gun emplacements, many still bearing visible bullet scars and the scorch of flamethrowers, and there were tunnels under the dunes-all very cool for a little kid to explore. My little French friends were, I was astonished to find, allowed to have a cigarette on Sunday, were given watered vin ordinaire at the dinner table and best of all, they owned Vélo Solex motorbikes. This was the way to raise kids, I recall thinking, unhappy that my mother did not agree.
So for my first few weeks in France, I explored underground passageways, looking for dead Nazis, played miniature golf, sneaked cigarettes, read a lot of Tintin and Astérix comics, scooted around on my friends' motorbikes and absorbed little life-lessons from observations that, for instance, the family friend Monsieur Dupont brought his mistress to some meals and his wife to others, his extended brood of children apparently indifferent to the switch.
I was largely unimpressed by the food.
The butter tasted strangely "cheesy" to my undeveloped palate. The milk -- a staple, no, a mandatory ritual in '6os American kiddie life-was undrinkable here. Lunch seemed always to consist of sandwich au jambon or croque-monsieur. Centuries of French cuisine had yet to make an impression. What I noticed about food, French style, was what they didn't have.
After a few weeks of this, we took a night train to Paris, where we met up with my father and a spanking new Rover Sedan Mark III, our touring car. In Paris, we stayed at the Hôtel Lutétia, then a large, slightly shabby old pile on Boulevard Haussmann. The menu selections for my brother and me expanded somewhat, to include steak-frites and steak haché (hamburger). We did all the predictable touristy things: climbed the Tour Eiffel, picnicked in the Bois de Boulogne, marched past the Great Works at the Louvre, pushed toy sailboats around the fountain in the jardin de Luxembourg-none of it much fun for a nine-year-old with an already developing criminal bent. My principal interest at this time was adding to my collection of English translations of Tintin adventures. Hergés crisply drafted tales of drug smuggling, ancient temples and strange and faraway places and cultures were real exotica for me. I prevailed on my poor parents to buy hundreds of dollars' worth of these stories at W. H. Smith, the English bookstore, just to keep me from whining about the deprivations of France. With my little short-shorts a permanent affront, I was quickly becoming a sullen, moody, difficult little bastard. I fought constantly with my brother, carped about everything and was in every possible way a drag on my mother's Glorious Expedition.
My parents did their best. They took us everywhere, from restaurant to restaurant, cringing, no doubt, every time we insisted on steak haché (with ketchup, no less) and a "Coca." They endured silently my gripes about cheesy butter and the seemingly endless amusement I took in advertisements for a popular soft drink of the time, Pschitt ("I want shit! I want shit!") They managed...