December 22, 1969 | Vintage Insatiable
Haute-Meal for Pamela
Moonwalks bore them silly (“They did that last time”). “Yellow submarine” is a golden oldie. The non-verbal Barbie doll is prehistoric. Fresh-squeezed orange juice just doesn’t taste real … not yummy, like reconstituted. They’re moppets of the McLuhan Age. They thrill for pop-up pastry. McDonald’s is their kind of place. Take the MSG out of the puréed lamb strew. .. abandon them to the blands. Doesn’t anyone here want to play haute high chair?
I weep for the prematurely ossified palates, the paralyzed taste buds, of our hamburger-fixated young. Taste must be acquired. Surely even Craig Claiborne, growing up in Sunflower, Mississippi, had to be weaned from corn mush before he was ready for Brie.
I happen to be an expert on child-raising. Like most non-parents. To raise a child you need good, solid perspective. Unfortunately, the minute you acquire a child, you lose that perspective. And so I determined to borrow a small, sheltered, unformed, narrow-minded American child and transform her into an incurable gourmet. In the gastronomic wastes of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, I found what seemed like the ideal candidate-victime – a niece aged 10. Pamela, poised innocent, loves to eat.
Her mother was dubious. Her grandmother was even less optimistic. Pamela looked a little nervous… first time solo away from home. Could she wear her green jumpsuit? Would we go to the top of the Statue of Liberty?
Abandoning Bloomfield Hill’s Greek chorus of doomsayers, we headed toward New York. Sunday in the country was a time for building trust over French fries and hamburger, well done. And panic. I’d borrowed a hopeless one. Stretched out on the bobcat rug before the hissing fire lay one of pre-pubescent America’s most finicky eaters… hideously miscast, I now realized, as a gourmet guinea pig. All meat must be well done. Chicken, dark meat only. Fish… “I can’t remember the name of the kind I like.” Cheese must be cottage or cream. She nibbled a bit of Jarlsberg, swallowed with effort. Her finding: negative. She tasted a toasted sesame cracker, warily… pronounced a soggy plain saltine “much better.” Pamela the Impossible…one of the .0001% of the nation’s 10-year-olds who don’t like pizza.
Clearly Pamela thought New Yorkers had barbaric appetites. But she didn’t feel seriously threatened. “It’s nice to go on vacation without your parents,” she bubbled. “There’s no one to yell at you.”
“Is there something I should have yelled at you for?”
“No. But my mom would have thought of something.”
The Kultur Maven was more anxious. He had invited us to dinner at La Seine. He withdrew the invitation. “If you persist in this sadism, do it at lunch.”
Still I had hope for the triumph of wit and reason. And if wit failed, there was always bribery. Hypnosis. Blackmail. Given the drastic situation, however, gradualism seemed inappropriate. I abandoned plans to let Pam dip her toe into the haute swim at Le Brasserie. Let her leap from the high board at Café Chauveron. Listen, I want to tell you something about these imported young provincials. They are too primitive to be properly intimidated. Pamela was not the least bit impressed by the chiaroscuro of attendants mademoiselel-ing her. Nor by the unusual compliment of discriminating businessmen being fed by the Internal Revenue Service. The Gallic obscurity of the menu was simply cruel, as if someone had stolen three crucial pieces from her jigsaw puzzle. “How do you know what it says?” she asked.
“I am about to translate. We will start with lunch. Here, déjeuner special. Lunch. To begin. Oysters, mackerel, shrimp, clams, V-8 juice.” (Pam’s face glows: “V-8 is better than just tomato juice.”) “Meatloaf of duck, sardines, half a grapefruit.” (“Oh boy.”) “Forget the grapefruit. Sausage and potatoes, mussels.” (“Muscles.”) “Forget the mussels. Melon and ham.” (“Together?”) Instinctively I fell back on deceit, trying to spark her interest in the terrine of caneton. “You like duck and you like Grandma’s meatloaf.” The eyes seem about to brim. “Oeuf en gelée, Pam. You eat eggs. Soft-boiled eggs.” (“No.”) “Hard-boiled eggs.” (Nods.) “Well, this is a hard-boiled egg, except the yellow is beautifully soft and it’s surrounded by Jell-O; not really sweet Jell-O, nice Jell-O like chicken soup. Or how about the duck loaf?” (She gulps. “No, I’ll take the egg.” Now the entrée… lobsters, shrimp and filet of sole are as unthinkable to Pamela as brains, kidneys and tripe. “Oh, Pam, here’s something I know you’ll love. Le boeuf Bourguignonne.” (Where?”) “Here.” (“Eight dollars, wow! … impressed at last). “It’s beef, like chuck… well done, cooked in wine.” (“Can we have wine?”) “Of course.” (“Order grape wine.”)
Pamela loves her petit pain. “It tastes like a bagel.” She adored the beef, not exactly haute cuisine, but still. “How do they make the gravy so thick? And sipped the wine slowly. “My mom says wine should always be sipped.” The oeuf was a disaster. The gelée was downable but the runny yolk was “gunky.”
“What is that black thing?” she asked, eyeing the truffle as warily as if it were a cockroach. I explained the truffle myth and the price, $60 a pound. “I guess I just threw away $8,” she noted.
“At least eat the ham,” I muttered.” Daintily she scraped the gelée off a dollop and nibbled it. “You’ve got to admit that’s lovely ham,” I insisted.
“I don’t know,” Pam said shyly. “I never tasted ham before.”
For a stubborn, narrow-minded, unformed American hamburger addict, I thought, Pamela had performed nobly. She’d even eaten never-heard-of-before greens in (ugh!) salad dressing. The mousse au chocolat (“Moose?”) was no challenge at all. She liked it best without sabayon sauce. Cubes of sugar (another first) made the tea “delicious.” Behind my back I heard the waiter describe her performance to the captain: “Fantastique,” I translated.
She beamed. “This food gives you a marvelous tummy ache.”
“You need some air. Let’s try the air on top of the Empire State Building.” She slipped a mint into her mouth and another into her bag. “Fantasteek.”
Next morning was a frenzied entr’acte of dinosaurs, ferryboats, doll houses, feeding llamas, and capturing the last extant children’s size-10 maxicoat. Of the saleslady in Macy’s junior teen department who shooed us away, saying, “That is definitely a child, not a junior… are you kidding?” Pamela remarked: “She sure knows how to insult you.” Then we headed for lunch at the Four Seasons. The menu, in English, was just as foreign to our sheltered Pamela, and the à la carte prices left her squealing in delight and horror. “A dollar and ten cents for French fried potatoes. You know you can get them anywhere else for 35 cents."
Pamela’s mellowing torturer decided to finesse the appetizer struggle. Let her encounter her first entrée with a keen appetite, I decided. We discussed the possibilities, ridiculous and sublime: grilled bass, crisped shrimp with mustard fruits, barquette of flounder, breast of chicken Polignac. She didn’t care for cheese soufflé, and pancakes with “tuna-sort-of” in a cream sauce (crabmeat crêpes Imperial) sounded “gunky.” She longed desperately for chopped sirloin or… “Look… lamp chops.” Fat chance. “I think you should try quail, Pam…exactly like chicken, but very tiny.” All right. A brace of quail. She would eat a salad – autumn greens, with dressing, yes, anything to avoid a vegetable.
She hated my raw mushrooms, loathed my crabmeat crêpe, thought the croissant tasted like glazed doughnut, and wanted to know, “Do you have a Dairy Queen in New York? The butter looks like little Dairy Queens.” She loved the coarse salt and managed to sprinkle some into her ice tea – a bit more sugar corrected that lapse. The quail was a four-napkin spectacular. “It’s chicken,” she cried, picking up a miniaturized drumstick. The bird had been carved with exquisite precision.
“We’ll bring you a finger bowl,” the waiter promised.
“I feel sorry for this bird I’m eating,” she said, gnawing away. “Do you think they killed these birds or did they maybe just wait for them to die? Veterinarians don’t eat meat, you know.”
She grinned. “I mean vegetarians.”
She had just decided to try chocolate velvet “to be scientific and compare it with the chocolate mousse” when the waiter marched up with a great cloud of cotton candy like an ermine muff, studded with autumn leaves. “A snowball,” said Pam.
“The surprise is in the middle,” Mario said, spooning through the spun sugar to a heart of rich, creamy, candy-studded frozen soufflé. What a conflict. Regretfully Pam cast a farewell to her chocolate-velvet research. I explained and the waiter returned with a sliver of that, too.
“I hate it,” Pam grinned, and ate, tearing off neat little wads of cotton candy between each mouthful of soufflé. Then the chocolate velvet. “Very different…great.” Ten years of sugarless gum and artificially sweetened peppermints down the drain. “Food is fascinating, but it gives you a tummy ache,” she reported cheerfully. “What was the name of that little bird again? I’m going to ask for it next time we go out to dinner at home.”
The cost of expanding Pamela’s sensory awareness was $59.95 with tips. You too can corrupt and debauch the child of your choice.
Don’t send an underprivileged youngster to camp … take him to lunch.
Click here for Vintage Listings Page.