The Best Meal and the Worst Meal Ever

We have been working hard and we have been stressed by the unprincipled doings in Washington. So, here is a new story.

First, let me pull rank on you, reader. I was born and reared in France. I left when I was twenty-one. My godmother was a fine cook in the French tradition. She made it a point to train my palate from when I was a little kid, including with good wines. (You would be amazed to find out what two glasses of wine with lunch do to a seven-year old.) Then, I moved to San Francisco where it’s possible (though not easy) to find an excellent Chinese meal. I spent most of my adult life there, with frequent trips to Europe where I moved around as a dedicated gastronomy tourist, though not the moneyed kind. Once, for two weeks, I sampled the most expensive Japanese cuisine, possibly the best in the world overall. For a longer period, a Vietnamese lady with a fine pair of chopsticks graced my home and my kitchen with her presence. She was supplanted for thirty years following by an Indian lady who puts her pride in her cooking. I would like to tell you that the Vietnamese lady and the Indian lady had a kitchen cat-fight and that the latter won me as the prize but that would be stretching it

In any case, I am pretty sure I know more about food than anyone raised on burgers, fried chicken and Mom’s Sunday brisket and vegetables, even with Italian great-grandma’s Italian spaghetti thrown in occasionally. Yes, this sounds a little pretentious. So, what’s your point? Now that I have got you humbled, you will pay attention to the two demanding philosophical stories rolled into one below.

They are the stories of the best meal and of the worst meals I have ever had in my life. The best first. It was not in Paris; it was not in the deep French provinces where tradition survived the phony tsunami of “nouvelle cuisine;” and it wasn’t anywhere near any Chinese person. The event took place in Amber, in the Rajistan region of India. The climb on elephant-back to visit the Rajput fort up on the cliff had taken too long. I came out around 2 pm famished. Amber sounds like a tourist town but, in those days, twenty years ago, Indian tourism wasn’t much. There was not a hot-dog stand anywhere and, as elsewhere in India outside of big cities, no restaurants. Indian tourists make bad restaurant customers anyway because of their many and diverse food prohibitions. Indians were also bad tourists in every other way then. They had not learned yet how to be tourists. They would line up behind any small group of western visitors, or even behind a single western tourist, and copy their gestures. But, that’s another story, obviously.

At any rate, my wife and my young kids and I walked into the very small town below the Rajput fort and ended up at a miniature painter’s shop. The shop was a miniature itself. After buying two of his pieces on silk, my Indian-born wife asked the artist in her fractured Hindi where we could find something to eat. As is nearly always the case in far-away places, the artist must have derived most of his knowledge of westerners’ lives from television. Like most people in the developing world, he was implicitly and powerfully ethnocentric.The miniature artist explained vigorously that there was no restaurant in town, none. I think he had in mind a McDonald’s or some other stereotypical burger joint. Of course, most Indians are Hindus and Hindus tend to venerate cows so we pretty well knew beef was not on the menu. Moreover, as I have said, I am a dutiful food tourist. Had there been a burger joint here, I would have had to be dying to patronize it. Then, my wife uttered the Hindi word for bread, “roti.” The artist got up off the floor and graciously offered to guide us.

We walked several blocks through narrow streets and the atavistic cells in the back of my nose began detecting the rapturing aroma of bread baking. The artist stopped at the edge of a street that was broader than most and pointed to the cinder-block, open-front house right across. The bread fragrance was so strong I could almost see it. The artist then took his leave without crossing the street. This happens frequently in India where caste prohibitions combine with run-of-the mill community enmities and with family feuds to make large portions of small towns forbidden territory for someone or other. In this case, I would guess the artist was a Hindu because some of his miniatures were on the erotic side, and the baker was a Muslim and, therefore, a prude.

I motioned to the baker that I was hungry. I used my right hand and my mouth, and I waved my ten fingers in the interrogative mode. He motioned back with seven fingers exactly, seven minutes. I stayed put so as not to lose my position vis-à-vis the bakery. Though stationary, I looked around to pass the time while the wild beast of hunger was growling inside me. When the baker finally came out to the front of the store with a handful of nan, I found it was as delicious as I had anticipated. I stuffed a whole nan in each of my children’s mouths and they were soon off, looking for a kite to help fly. My wife, always weary of her country origin, only took a mouthful. I must have eaten two pounds right there, in the street, my feet firmly planted in cow shit.

That was good, but I am a white man, with a hundred generations of flesh-eaters at my back. My brain, and perhaps even my body, were clamoring for something else. By that time, my Indian wife was embarrassed in a peculiarly Indian way. (Happens all the time! Her life with me as been a calvary.) She refused to take part in any further proceedings. Nevertheless, somehow, I managed to communicate to the baker that I wanted something other than bread. I could smell in fact that there was something in his oven that was not bread.

A friendly passer-by intervened in English. What’s still in the oven is just the baker’s family dinner, he said. Poor Indian food. You wouldn’t like it, Sahib. Give me a taste, I dared the baker. He brought me a small bowl of prodigious fish curry. I asked for more. He brought me a large bowl. I asked for seconds and he smiled and obliged me. Standing in the street, now ankle-deep in cow shit, hundreds of miles from any ocean, I was getting a taste of the luxury that is heaven. It was with no question the best food I had ever put in my mouth. It was strong in flavor yet possessed layers of refined and sophisticated undertones. It was a masterpiece of what we had not yet learned to call “slow food.” Given the dryness of Rajistan, its utter lack of flowing rivers, I speculate that the fish was carp from the stagnant water reservoir at the foot of the Rajput fort. Normally, I hate carp, wouldn’t touch it with a gun to my temple. French anglers throw carp back angrily when they catch one by accident; some tastes and distastes may be hard-wired.

And yes, I am pretty sure I ate the poor Indian baker’s family dinner, possibly the whole thing. But so what? I paid him vastly more than he would have dared ask, a princely amount, in fact. He and his family probably needed cash more than another fish curry, I would swear on it. Besides, there was more carp in the tank. Besides, he and his kin almost certainly came from endless generations of vegans, before their conversion to Islam, only a couple of centuries ago. Their genes could handle a bread meal better than mine could. One thing is sure: From the look on his face, I gave him face. He couldn’t stop grinning as the big sahib wolfed down his curry standing in the street right in front of his poor shop. This best meal in my life almost certainly gave him the best story in his life. Stories matter too; they matter especially to the poor in poor countries.

The worst food I ever ingested, I did not find in the United Kingdom, as you might think, although I have had many unsurpassingly bad meals there. And certainly, it wasn’t in the US; not even close. My worst meal was in France but the Brits were indirectly responsible for it, not surprisingly, in reality!

It’s a little known fact that northern France is at the latitude of Newfoundland. Correspondingly, the night falls late there in the early summer, as late as 11pm. Once, in mid-June, I was driving in Brittany with my family. It was the end of the afternoon and the light was beautiful. Soon I had the road to myself. We had had a late lunch so I did not think through the cause of this emptiness. It was that dinner time had come and the French take their mealtimes even more seriously than their driving although they tend to be ridiculously competitive about going from one place to another in the briefest of instants. The light was good, the countryside was fetching, as the French countryside often is, and I was speeding without danger and without likely consequences. I was on a roll and I kept going.

By the time someone in my family declared himself or herself hungry, it was too late. English-speakers like to think of the French as relaxed. That’s a mis-perception. The French have their Prussian side, now powerfully reinforced by thirty years of socialism. Closing time is closing time, pretty much the same in every town. “Avant l’ heure ce n’est pas l’heure; après l’heure ce n’est plus l’heure,” they state sententiously. (“Before the right time is not yet the right time and after the right time is not the right time anymore.”) If you arrive late, restaurants are closed and that’s it. It’s their penchant and there are rules reinforcing it. There are no 24-hour diners, and no burger joints, and no sandwiches in gas stations. The majesty of the Law insures it, in many but in all places. You can just frigging starve!

Exactly this almost happened to me. My family was going to go to bed on an empty stomach because of my improvidence and because of my irrational enthusiasm for twilight driving. It was near nine and everything was closed though the deceitful sun was still going strong.

Hunger and guilt toward my kids knocked a different part of my brain into gear. That’s the completely French part composed of specifically French food-seeking genes. (Don’t search, you don’t have them unless one of your great-grandmothers committed a secret indiscretion with a French visitor.) We were traveling along the southern shore of the English Channel. My French brain was urging, “A harbor, find a harbor!” Wind sailors reach port on irregular schedules, I knew. Something is liable to be available to feed them. I saw a sign for a tiny harbor, nestled at the bottom of a cliff. I drove down a narrow road and, bingo, there was what looked like a restaurant. I stopped at the front door and sure enough, it was open.

The family filed in and I vaguely noticed that the place looked nice but kind of quaint. I realized a little later it was because there were well-ironed white curtains at the windows and geraniums on the sills. The hostess greeted us in. She spoke French with a slight accent I couldn’t place at first. Then I put it together with the geraniums and reckoned she was German.

There was only one other set of diners. They were a couple of very tall middle-aged English people and their two equally large grown sons. From their salt-stained clothes and their sunburned faces, I surmised they were a party of yachtsmen just in from crossing the Channel. They were quietly waiting for their dinner. The over-sized sons were happily shoveling down buttered bread while digging into the open pickle jar sitting in the middle of every table. They washed it down with good wine. The thought crossed my mind that they might be surprised to see real dishes land on their table: To the English upper-middle class, buttered bread and pickles with wine looks and tastes like a serious meal.

The German hostess-proprietress approached our table to take our order. The kids were hungry. I was hungry and relieved to have found any restaurant at all open. It was a good time to act rationally and to avoid creating any new delays. I took a quick look at the set menu and ordered it for the whole family.

Quickly, plates of tomato soup appeared. The first to dig in was my seven-year old daughter, normally a fussy child. Incidentally, many little girls are fussy eaters because that’s the only way they have to exercise power while trying to be liked, which they crave. I think they do it only to piss off their mothers while getting their fathers’ sympathy. At any rate, my daughter brought two spoonfuls of tomato soup to her mouth and immediately, her pretty face turned into a horrible grimace.

I was just about to reprimand her with the savagery of pent-up anxiety when reason won over and I took a sip of the soup. My own face formed into a contortion that my wife met with raised eyebrows. Now, I am not a fussy eater. I will normally ingest almost anything other humans eat. What I had in my mouth was so awfully bitter it did not even taste like food. It would even have been unbearable as an old-time medicine. (That’s when men were men and sweet-tasting medicine couldn’t possibly do you any good.) My eyes were searching for a spot to spit the bitter mouthful out discreetly. I did not find one and I swallowed with disgust.

After a decent one minute I got up and calmly told the German lady behind her counter that there was something wrong with the soup. She insisted that there wasn’t. I insisted there was. Faced with my obduracy, she walked into the kitchen, presumably to do her own tasting and testing. When she returned thirty seconds later, she stated simply, “The cook must have put too much gin in the soup.” Would I make this up?

I know, technically, it was the German restauratrice who was at fault. Yet, I can’t help but think that she was just doing the businesslike thing: catering to her main group of customers. Those must have been sailors straight from the southern coast of England. While they came to France largely for the good food and the abundant and inexpensive good wines, they were not about to abandon their home-grown health habits. They were used to taking their vitamin C laced with booze, two goods in one, so to speak.

There was no substitute first course. I suspect the German or worse, the English cook, back in the kitchen, made the soup by mixing a can of tomato juice with an equal part of gin and thickening it over a low fire with a spoonful of potato flour. No virgin soup was available. I don’t remember the rest of the meal well. It must have been more than mediocre given the clientèle but it couldn’t have been as bad as the first course. Anyway, that’s the worst meal I remember, ever. I experienced it in my home country, a country famous everywhere for its fine cuisine. It took the combined efforts of France’s two main hereditary enemies to produce such an abomination. Of course, I blame the European Union which allowed this accursed combination to take root in French soil in the first place.

Like all stories, this one must have a moral. It is that generalizations work pretty well but not necessarily straightforwardly. There is often good seafood near the ocean but good fish eating does not require proximity to the ocean. Wealth does not guarantee good eating and good eating does not demand wealth. And you can take the English out of England but you can’t take England out of the English. Also, the Germans are up to no good, no matter what.

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