I had another post all ready to go for today, but then realized that Valentines’ Day is this Sunday. Luckily, the wonderful women in my DC writers’ group liked a recent essay I wrote about the meeting of the minds and palates that led to my long marriage. They urged me to share it with the readers of my blog. So I’m posting it here. WARNING: It’s very food-centric and may pique your appetite; perhaps you should eat a delicious snack of your choice before reading it.
The Last French Fry
I blame my parents for my love of fried food
My Mom died when I was 28 and my Dad is now 93 years old and no longer eats fried food, with or without his false teeth in place. Except when we travel from DC to visit him in Connecticut. Then for old times’ sake, even though we all acknowledge it is not half as good as it once was, a fact which does not deter us, we drive to our favorite place, Rawleys, the old hot dog stand with the wooden booths on the Post Road where locals patiently stand in long lines to eat deep-fried hot dogs. We order with “the works” for my Dad, with “light mustard and onions” for me and with “chili and onions” for my husband. And two large orders of French fries, please.
I always fight over who gets the last French fry.
It is not that I am overly-attached to French fries. It is that I never used to eat the last French fry. For many years I meticulously avoided eating the last of anything, the last cookie on the plate, the last slice of pizza, the last chip in the bag.
My Mom told me that eating the last of anything meant I would become an old maid. A spinster. Unlikely to wed. She shared this bit (among many others) of folk wisdom of unknown origin with me when I was in my vulnerable teens and I took it quite to heart. It was not likely I would be without a husband since I was, from age 13 on, perhaps due to my large breasts, never without a boyfriend in tow. But I studiously refused to eat the last of any food item. Just in case.
When I met Jim, my husband-to-be, at a mixer in our dorm’s courtyard on the first night of international relations grad school, I tried to impress him with my sophisticated tastes.
I pretended to knowledge of foreign films I did not have and acted like I understood his position on the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. I did not want to let on that I regularly watched low-brow shows on TV to relax, read murder mysteries set in cozy British villages for the same reason and relished all fried foods. He thought he had met an intellectual, highly cultured young woman raised in an upscale suburban town. The part about the upscale suburban town was true.
On one of our first dates he set about to impress me with his high-brow interests. He took me to the Brattle Street theatre in Cambridge to see one of his favorite films – the painfully long, classic black & white 1938 Russian drama “Alexander Nevsky” which told the stirring tale of a 13th century battle on the icy steppes of Siberia. As giant horses and costumed Cossacks galloped on the screen, I feigned interest and glanced frequently yet discreetly, I hoped, at my watch.
After the film finally ended, he steered me to a Cambridge cafe he had found earlier that day. For all of Jim’s lofty talk about Eastern European politics and his multiple language abilities, he did not know how to read restaurant menus very well.
Only after we sat down did he discover that the menu he had seen outside the restaurant had been for lunch only. When the waiter handed us dinner menus with their significantly higher prices, I saw him wince. It was then I learned he was a scholarship student from a working class family.
The lunch menu he could afford; the dinner menu was well beyond his budget. I offered to go 50/50 on the check, an arrangement well suited to my 1970’s era feminist policies. And thus our long-term dating and dining relationship was born.
We both liked talking about international affairs (I acknowledged to his delight that he had the more in-depth knowledge), but when it came to eating ethnic cuisine, our palates were on equal footing. It had not gone unnoticed by me that ethnic cuisine offered many varieties of fried food. Somehow it was less guilt-inducing to indulge in fried food if it originated in another country.
As we continued to date through our first year of grad school, we frequented inexpensive restaurants of every ethnic stripe in the Boston area – Greek, Mexican, Sushi, Szechuan and Thai. When those became too tame for us, we ventured further out to Armenian neighborhoods to sample lahmajuns, to Korean communities to eat kimchi and to an Indonesian café to taste nasi goreng.
One of the reasons that Jim liked me, or liked eating with me, which was almost the same thing, given how often we dined out or carried in, was that I talked far too much. I talked more than I ate. He figured this out early on and took advantage of my garrulousness.
While I was busy chatting, he would nod his head, appear to be listening closely to me, but actually was aiming his fork at my plate of half-eaten Kung Pao Chicken, spearing a piece or two or three as I blabbed on. It was only after we had been together for about six months that I realized half of my dinner was regularly disappearing into his mouth. By that time, I was so besotted with him that I didn’t care.
When Jim was introduced to my Mom, she fell in love with him too. In part because he was an adventurous eater, but more so because he was always willing to share his dessert with her. When we visited them in Connecticut, my parents took us to their favorite French restaurant where Jim enjoyed moules Biarritz and the restaurant’s signature, Grand Marnier soufflé (order 25 minutes in advance please) for the first time.
Jim impressed both my Dad and Mom as a thoughtful person and a well-mannered eater. However, when he asked the waiter for mayonnaise to put on his tongue sandwich during a lunch at my parents’ mostly-Jewish country club, my Dad’s eyebrows raised high with disapproval.
It took us nearly four years to gain my Dad’s approval, and to realize that despite our religious and socioeconomic differences, our shared food palate would unite us forever. After we got engaged, my Mom gladly set about finding a caterer who would offer a menu to suit the tastes of both our families.
The ceremony was set for 12:30 p.m. rather than noon, because, according to another bit of obscure folk wisdom courtesy of my Mom, it was luckier to marry when the hands of the clock were on the upswing. On a lovely day in late May in the backyard of my family’s house, we toasted with Greek metaxa whiskey sours, dined under a big striped yellow tent on spanakopitas, gazpacho andaluz and coulibiac of salmon and then danced the Jewish hora and the Macedonian horo in circles around the dance floor.
There was nary a French fry in sight at our wedding reception. But then I didn’t have to worry about biting into that last fry anymore. And, luckily, 37 years later I still don’t.
Happy Valentine’s Day to all!