When I was very young, my parents took the family to The Blue Fox in San Francisco. It’s long gone, but at the time it was considered one of the better restaurants in the United States. Looking back, I can’t imagine what they were thinking taking children to a restaurant like that, but some 30 odd years later I still remember the meal or at least the important details. I had my first frog legs and then escargot there – important accomplishments for a ten-year old. Even more surprising, I can still remember the food that evening and smile at the memory. [For a mind-blowing photo, check out this link]
Food is a lot like music: one bite and you are transported back in time to a particular moment many years before. When a steaming plate of escargot is put under my nose I am catapulted back to that night at The Blue Fox. When I see the waiter carrying it across the room, I know how it should smell and what the texture should be like. One rarely sees frog legs these days but when the thought of them passes through my mind I flash back to telling my father in a disappointed tone that they tasted like chicken. “What? He exclaimed. I didn’t fly you 500 miles for you to tell me that! You aren’t really tasting them!” All these years later I berate my dining companions in a similar way.
M.F.K. Fisher wrote in Serve it Forth1, that many people “because they have never been taught to search for differentiation of flavor”. If you sit in the corner of a restaurant and pay attention, you will see how true this is.
When most people eat, they pay attention to the first bite or two and then continue their conversation without really noticing the food. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to eat at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, you know that Thomas Keller firmly believes that people quit tasting after the first couple of bites. For this reason, he likes to serve meals with many small dishes. People in the know get the Chef’s Menu – his choices for the day. We are talking up to twelve courses here. This may sound daunting and it is, even when you take into account that many plates are only a few bites, some literally in a spoon nestled in a napkin, propped on a dish. Second mortgage applications are available at the door.
In the 60’s my parents would leave us in the arms of the babysitter while they escaped to a nirvana of a restaurant called Papa DiCarlos. Legend has it that Mr. DiCarlo, an Italian immigrant, was driving into Los Angeles with his wife looking for a place to live. Stuck in traffic, she finally declared, “Take the next exit. We are getting off this damn freeway!” As any intelligent man does when faced with such a demand, he pulled off the road, and that is where they stayed, opening a restaurant the likes of which Los Angeles had never seen before. It was also one of the best-kept secrets in the area.
Papa DiCarlos was ahead of its time. Meals were multiple hour affairs; many courses of fine Italian food coming in waves over the evening. A big secret, critics never reviewed it, you had to know someone to get in, and even then you had to be part of a group. With only one seating a night, it took months to get a reservation.
On my 12th birthday when it was my turn to go, I remember being delighted by the cloud of smells that poured from the kitchen every time the waiters came through the big swinging doors. All through the meal Dad would remind me not just to eat, but to taste. If I talked too much he would shush me and point to the food. That is the first place I ever had Tuscan style pork, and even traveling through Italy years later, I still compared every similar dish to that experience. I remember everything from the sommelier with his oh so courant silver cup, to the many bruschetta, my first veal, and the funny vibrating belt exercise machines that guests would get up and use half way through the meal to shake things down and make more room. Papa DiCarlos was the beginning of my real education about food.
These days when friends introduce me to new people, the conversation most often includes something to the effect of, “He ruined me for cheap food! Before I met him I could have chicken nuggets at McDonald’s. Now I am picky about everything.” That makes me feel good. Teaching is a noble profession.
It makes sense that most of you reading this are passionate about food. You know how to taste, to pay attention to the lingering finish of a bite, to the texture and consistency of the food. Lead the blind from the darkness and share your knowledge. Teach your children how to behave and take them to restaurants. Inspire your family, your friends, everyone that will listen. Promote great restaurants. You’ll leave a heritage of love and memories that only sitting around a table groaning with food will bring.
My Dad died many years ago but he left a legacy in what he taught his family and friends about food and wine. I like to think that our love of food is infectious, that after we are gone people we crossed paths with during our lives will think back to meals we had together, a smile crossing their faces, a memory crossing their palate.
1Pity the Blind in Palate was a wonderful essay written by M.F. K. Fisher in Serve it Forth, 1937. She was one of the greatest food writers of our time and is still a wonderful read.