This past summer I read a perfectly beastly book; The Peabody Sisters of Salem. I picked it up because I was hoping to connect some genealogical dots of my own and ended up connecting the dots on what happened to Boston, the state of Massachusetts, and eventually all of America : The Peabody women destroyed everything in the path of their petticoats. While I would love to prattle on about Elizabeth Peabody, her mother who went on the game, Elizabeth's three mentally ill daughters, her son-in-law (the original Christopher Buckley) the revoltingly effete Nathanial Hawthorne (My Gawd, what a pansy pants!) or her other son-in-law, the obnoxiously superior Horace Mann who took his mentally ill Peabody bride on a 6 month tour of the English penal system for their honeymoon with the Julia Ward Howes, but I lack the time to truly delve into the whacky deliciousness that gave America Barack Obama. Besides, I promised Basil I would drop politics for the remainder of the election cycle.
But I do not lack the time to discuss another woman from Massachusetts who Basil; Louisa May Alcott. Until I read The Peabody Sisters I believed Louisa May Alcott to be pure unadulterated hot stuff. Now I realise that she was a bit off in the head too and dabbling in that intellectual bosh called Transcendentalism which was really a fancy name for a type of ambitious man who did not to know what to do when he was alone with a woman. The root of this ambitious man's problem is that to achieve his professional goals he chose not to do it in a man's world but rather do it by hanging out with 'educated' women who hated men, but, unfortunately was too impressed with himself to figure this out. But again, I promised Basil I 'd stop talking about what is wrong with the Peggy Noonans, Kathleen Parkers, David Brooks, and Christopher Buckleys of the world, so back to Louisa May Alcott.
Louisa, as almost all can recall, wrote Little Women. And dear readers none of you should for a moment not find it hard to believe Little Woman was an inspirational book. It was. Naturally I identified with Jo - the sister who had to stand with her back to the wall with her hands behind her at dances refusing partners because she had singed the backsides all of her party crinolines by standing to close to the fire place at previous dances and soiled all of her gloves beyond repair and her family was too poor to buy her new ones. Yup, that was me in a nutshell. And like Jo, I even had my own real life best friend who was a guy (Laurie) who most, if not all, assumed I'd marry. I can't say I ever assumed I'd marry him. But I will admit to serious confusion to watch Jo turn down Laurie's offer, let her sister marry him while she attempted to have a career and then marry an odd, intellectual foreigner of German descent (maybe Hungarian?) and then go on to live a happy life on straightened finances. That confusion was completely cleared up by the end of my first date with Mr. P but again I am digressing. Anyhoo, my fond memories of my girlhood attachment to Little Women caused me to not only marry a foreigner (trust me where I come from the midwest is considered foreign -look at Christopher Buckley's assessment of Sarah Palin if you require any more assistance), but to do two other things as well. I attempted to read Pilgrim's Progress but quickly put it down as the naughty bits lacked the satisfying bang for your time that other writers like uhm...let's think a bit...oh, writers like Ian Fleming gives his readers and I attempted one of Louisa's favorite recipes; Apple Slump.
It was in the early years of our marriage when Mr. P and I were on one of our Fall holidays in Maine. I was thumbing through my Gourmet magazine in front of the fire and came across Louisa's recipe. I've always had a very simple approach to cooking - keep it simple. I do not rely on the latest in fancy ingredients, the latest in kitchen gadgets and gizmos as well as the latest in cooking trends. I leave all that to the transcendental cooks who are in search of emotional highs on their dinner plates rather than looking for them where they should be; in the privacy of their bedrooms with their God-given spouses but again I digress. Louisa's recipe is simple. I made it that very evening to conclude a dinner of a roasted joint of meat. Mr. P adored it. And so did I. It's not fancy at all but it is satisfying. The apples must be good ones and you must like the baking powder biscuits to enjoy it. Apple Slump is basically tart apples sliced and scented with cinnamon and nutmeg, enhanced with dark brown sugar and baked until soft with a fresh (and sweet) baking powder biscuit dough topping.
Some time after first making Apple Slump, I was home in Michigan watching the old C-Span morning round table show as I ironed Mr. P's shirts. That day the guests were P. J. O'Rourke and Steve Forbes who was running Forbes at that time. Understandably the two of them made me laugh very hard. But Steve Forbes did something more. Steve Forbes helped me to understand economics. I'll repeat that. Steve Forbes helped me to understand economics. And I was thankful. So that very afternoon I sat down and wrote him (on my best stationary) at his office in New York City thanking him for making me laugh and a little smarter. A few days later the FedEx guy rang my bell and when I opened the door handed me a package from Steve Forbes at his office in New York City. Imagine my surprise when I opened the package to find a note (on his best stationary - the Queen of England and Steve must employ the same stationer) saying I had made his day and if that weren't enough, he had enclosed a silk scarf. Yes, you read that right, a silk scarf. Naturally that required a note and a present in return from me. So, I wrote him a thank you note and included Louisa's recipe for Apple Slump as I thought he might find it more to his tastes than the economic ones.
And imagine my surprise, when the FedEx guy rang my bell a few days later and handed me another package from Steve Forbes which had in it another note from him on his best stationary as well as another silk scarf.
A short time after this, I told my father about my correspondence with Steve Forbes. He listened my tale and when I concluded he said, "You actually sent a recipe to Steve Forbes?"
My Dad: "For Apple Slump?"
Me: "Dad, all day long he deals with economic slumps. I thought he'd like a change."
My Dad: "You're a nut."
A few years later, Steve Forbes was in town after his unsuccessful presidential primary run to help the local Republican candidates. A generous friend, who knew of my correspondence with Steve and sat on a prep school board with him, arranged for me to attend his luncheon. I sat two seats away from him and do you know what? His suits are nice as his stationary. Gosh, was his ever a delight to behold. (And I did behold it, particularly the shoulders, wow!) Anyhoo, since it was a luncheon for Steve to press the flesh and I did not have the flesh the Republicans needed (money), we did not get much of a chance to press ours together. But afterwards, when I downstairs and waiting for the valet to bring up my up car, I saw Steve making a beeline for me so I paused from taking, (considering my outfit) what could only be perceived as a most unlady-like jump into my Jeep, and he and I chatted. We recalled our correspondence, and he laughed. I expressed my sincere regret his run was not successful but hoped he would soldier on. He said he would and he asked me for my new address. I gave it to him and he tucked it into his breast pocket. I did my most unlady-like jump into my Jeep and sped off wondering if the FedEx man would ringing my bell soon. But no he didn't. And I forgot all about Steve Forbes...that is until about Christmas time.
At Christmas a very large and thick card with elegant handwriting addressed to me fell through mail slot. I picked it up and opened it without looking at the return address. I pulled out a card that had a professional Black&White photograph of a group of pretty young ladies all in evening gowns, smiling. "How did I ever get on the trunk show list for Nieman Marcus?" I wondered as flipping the card open to read it. Imagine my surprise when instead of reading of the private showing of Nieman Marcus's winter evening gowns, I read the Christmas greetings from the Forbes family. The young ladies pictured on the front were his daughters.
And I had never contributed a dime to Steve's campaign.
That is a major social accomplishment in today's world. I had just sent Steve a recipe. So, if I am a nut like my Dad said I am, then I'm Steve Forbe's kind of nut. Or Louisa May Alcott's Apple Slump recipe is really as good as I say it is. Take your pick.
For the apples
While this is baking, prepare the topping, mix together the dry ingredients. In separate bowl, mix the egg, milk and butter and add this mixture to the dry ingredients, stirring till just combined. Spread the topping over apples and bake at 350F for an additional 35 minutes -until golden brown across or it shall be doughy in the middle. Serve alone, like Louisa would and I do. Or with whipped cream or ice cream. Makes 8 generous servings.
Oh, and Mr. P and the children love leftover Apple Slump for breakfast. They enjoyed it this morning.
Le Petit Grignotage
But the results can be delicious, can’t they? Morrissey may have been serious when he penned that moralistic dirge, but the rest of us carnivores won’t succumb to such reproaches. As far as I’m concerned, as long as the animals are raised and killed humanely (I’m no card-carrying PETA member, but my conscience—and taste buds--far prefer grass-fed, free-roaming livestock over confined, factory-farmed, chemical-engorged beasts), I will feast with delight. Even those Peruvians munching on cat flesh at their annual cat-eating festival get no incriminations from me (pigs are at least as intelligent as felines, and we consume 80 million tons of pork per year), as long as the critters are given a relatively painless end…
During my weekly meanderings at the Oxford Covered Market back when I was a young and vigorous college student, I remember the butcher shops would, come Fall, trot out the carcasses—-deer, pig, lamb, hare—-hamstrung to the rafters, gutted (but not skinned), lined up neatly outside their display windows for passersby to see (and smell). November weather was cold enough to keep the corpses frigid, and they would hang there for weeks. At the time, knowing very little about meat, I wondered why these butchers would leave fresh kill to ripen and rot out in the open air. Why not cut them up immediately, store them in airtight bags, and sell them the next day? My sentiments showed I was city-raised, a product of supermarket culture, where everything comes neatly packaged, sealed, and ready to cook. The butchers would have laughed me to scorn. These days, of course, I know better: hanging is an essential part of developing the flavor and texture of meat, and if done properly, results in moist, tender, flavorful cuts. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall explains in his most excellent tome The River Cottage Meat Book:
What happens to the meat during hanging is that natural enzymes begin to act on the fibers of the muscle meat, making them softer and more elastic, so that the meat becomes more relaxed and tender. Effectively this is the onset of the beginning of decay--but it's nothing to be alarmed about. Under carefully controlled conditions, actual putrefaction, of the kind that will taint the flavor of the meat, need not occur for weeks, or even months. The meat will also begin to lose moisture as it hangs. Paradoxically, this is a good thing when it comes to cooking. Wet, fresh, underhung meat carries too much water, which expands as the temperature rises during cooking, stretching the fibers of the meat and leaching out between them--especially when the meat contracts again after cooking and during carving. This means that wet meat actually ends up drier after cooking and vice versa.
This is why supermarket meat can be a great disappointment; not only is meat not dry-aged properly (because moisture loss means weight loss, and weight loss means profit loss), the worst is done to it: cuts are vacuum-packed and left to bathe in their own juices, giving the illusion of moistness, but ending up drier and more tasteless when cooked. If one can find a good butcher, one has found a treasure. He will understand such things, know where his meat comes from, and advise you as to cuts. (I was delighted when I discovered the local butcher shop down the street--only to find out it bulk-ordered its meat from a national meat distribution company.) If you're lucky enough to have found one of your own, ask for a well-aged leg of lamb (for the following recipe, of course; all of this rambling does serve a culinary point). If you're lucky, he'll pull out the carcass from the locker and carve the leg straight off the body, made to order, just as the British butcher did when I was preparing to cook for a party of ten one Easter. Lamb is so fatty and flavorful (particularly if it's grass-fed) that it practically cooks itself, and takes minimal preparation. Just be sure to leave the fell (outer, paperlike covering) on, as it helps to keep in moisture while roasting.
One leg of lamb
5-6 large garlic cloves, sliced
Several sprigs of rosemary and thyme
Salt & pepper
Wash and thoroughly dry lamb. Rub all over with olive oil. Cut slits in meat and insert sliced garlic. Season with rosemary, thyme, salt, and pepper. Place the meat on a rack in a roasting pan, fat side up (this allows the meat to self-baste). Do not cover. Roast at 325 degrees twenty minutes for every pound if you like your meat rare. Remove from oven and set for fifteen minutes (meat will continue to cook). Carve and serve.
Enjoy more from Christine at her blog, Laudem Gloriae.
First off, let’s get one thing straight. I’m straight. I’m a man. When my parents chose to name me after a maternal uncle who had been kind enough to grant them the use of a few hundred pounds (the deal to go through the moment said uncle no longer had need of the stuff) they had no idea what they were starting. But then, American friends tell me neither did Mrs. O'Leary's cow, whoever she was.
The sniggers. The titters. The surprised looks when I show up for appointments with people who have never met me before—and who apparently have never ventured beyond the daily tabloids, daytime telly, diet crazes and the 24-hour news cycle that make up the four corners of their Known World. Good gravy, the briefest foray into the shallowest end of literature’s vast Pacific would have put them in contact with enough Percys, Evelyns, Leslies and Merediths to prepare them adequately for me.
Forgive me. It’s just that sniggers and titters have provided a sort of infernal Muzak to the lift ride of my life. And I made it quite clear to Basil as he was lugging me into writing this that I would put up with none of it in the “comment” section. Face to face I’m not saying. But jibes in the comment box will be dealt with summarily.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It all started when Basil rang me up. I was in London, he at the family compound somewhere north of a place called St. Louis in a state known as Illinois. He wanted to know when I’d be in the States. He wanted to know if I could meet him in a place called Chicago for drinks. Commending my soul to Mapquest I said fine, I’d be there.
Having gained my consent he then sprang the information which, had I but known it, would have made me crinkle up a sheet of stationary (damn the expense) in front of the mouthpiece and ring off, claiming later that the trans-Atlantic cable was getting unreliable these days.
“There are some people I want you to meet,” he said, “good friends of mine, don’t you know.”
I replied that I didn’t know and added that had I known I would have…but I’ve already covered that.
“Who are they,” I asked warily, hoping against hope, “Americans?”
“As a matter of fact, they are.”
I should have known. It’s one thing to hang around with friends your mother warned you about; it’s another thing entirely to persist in hanging around with said friends after they themselves have warned you about themselves. So I really have no one but myself to blame. Arm and arm, the Baz and I have been thrown out of more posh watering holes than any other two men of our generation. Don’t get the wrong idea, though. Basil has his faults. True, most of these are being gradually belt-sanded down by the Countess (his wife) but for the most part he could still stand in as the allegorical figure of A Good Time in a Victorian cautionary tale.
Figuring he had somehow slipped the short leash the Countess customarily keeps him on, I resolved that, Americans or no Americans, I must forgather with the old ass and let the chips—and the nuts and the little cocktail wieners on sticks—fall where they may.
Apparently these Americans of Basil’s run some sort of underground cyber-rag devoted to coaxing what my pastor euphemistically refers to as “our separated brethren” to breast the Tiber. No problem there. I mean mine and Basil's families have been hiding priests from the Tudors and whores from the Windsors for hundreds of years. The projected evening might offer some solid entertainment after all. A few weeks later, I'm in Chicago at the Club International dining with Basil and his guests. Absolutely charming people, the Mr. and Mrs. Peperium. They live somewhere in what is called "flyover country” (Mrs. Peperium claims that the higher you fly over said country, the better, especially when approaching a charming center known as Detroit). I was actually quite shocked that Basil had managed to make and then sustain the acquaintance of such sensible and well-bred friends. I was even more shocked that they were from Michigan. I assumed they were friends of the Countess detailed to keep an eye on Basil. But what took the breath away completely was the fact that, at the moment of impact, when introductions were flying left and right and hands being shaken and drink orders being placed, neither Peperium batted an eye at my Christian name. They absolutely took Vivian in their stride. Add the fact that Mr. Peperium ordered his first round of Black Velvet in a pitcher and I really don’t think I have to explain the spontaneously sympathetic spark that illumined my usually cynical bosom. The Mrs. Peperium, who sat next to me, was one of those gregarious ladies possessed of a tinkling voice and infectious laugh. Although I think she was originally from the east coast of America, she seemed quite normal. More, as the product of a small if not select finishing school, she had received a black belt in décolletage. I mean, I'm quite sure she had to have some sort of permit to wield it the way she did. A more professional display I had not seen in some time. Now I understood how she was Pied Pipering those brethren across the Tiber so easily. Later, Basil and Mr. Peperium opted out of coffee and went off to tour the nude female figures in the club’s art collection. I was sitting comfortably with Mrs. Peperium and she was explaining their online magazine and so forth and so on...The tinkling voice and bright girlish laughter continued drowning out the sounds of ripping wood and crashing glass which were coming from the next room. That said sounds were connected in some way with Basil and Mr. Peperium's nude hunt I didn’t doubt. More than that, I didn’t care. That was my fatal mistake. Being thrown out on my ear I could have withstood (no one knows me in Chicago, after all). Paying for the splintered woodwork would have been more difficult but not beyond the limits of my purse. But no. Instead I let myself be led down the proverbial primrose path. The light laughter. The flashing eye. The occasional glimpse of stockinged ankle. And by easy stages I went from a vague, polite interest in the Peperium’s pub to a firm commitment to write for them on a semi-regular basis. True, Mr. Peperium’s second pitcher of Black Velvet may have had something to do with it, too. But, man-like, I prefer to blame the woman. Be that as it may I am writing this now. In Mrs. Peperium's opinion I am a "man o' the world" (you'd better leave the room Mrs. Pierce) and therefore in a perfect position to write a column telling the homebodies and shut-ins what’s happening out there. Simple, right? Gossip, travel who's who, what's what, you know the drill. Fine I'm stuck with it now. But as the Ancient Mariner might have said, never meet with Basil when the Countess isn’t around to make him sit, heel and beg. And never, ever drink with either Peperium. Until next time...
Apparently these Americans of Basil’s run some sort of underground cyber-rag devoted to coaxing what my pastor euphemistically refers to as “our separated brethren” to breast the Tiber. No problem there. I mean mine and Basil's families have been hiding priests from the Tudors and whores from the Windsors for hundreds of years. The projected evening might offer some solid entertainment after all.
A few weeks later, I'm in Chicago at the Club International dining with Basil and his guests. Absolutely charming people, the Mr. and Mrs. Peperium. They live somewhere in what is called "flyover country” (Mrs. Peperium claims that the higher you fly over said country, the better, especially when approaching a charming center known as Detroit). I was actually quite shocked that Basil had managed to make and then sustain the acquaintance of such sensible and well-bred friends. I was even more shocked that they were from Michigan. I assumed they were friends of the Countess detailed to keep an eye on Basil. But what took the breath away completely was the fact that, at the moment of impact, when introductions were flying left and right and hands being shaken and drink orders being placed, neither Peperium batted an eye at my Christian name. They absolutely took Vivian in their stride. Add the fact that Mr. Peperium ordered his first round of Black Velvet in a pitcher and I really don’t think I have to explain the spontaneously sympathetic spark that illumined my usually cynical bosom.
The Mrs. Peperium, who sat next to me, was one of those gregarious ladies possessed of a tinkling voice and infectious laugh. Although I think she was originally from the east coast of America, she seemed quite normal. More, as the product of a small if not select finishing school, she had received a black belt in décolletage. I mean, I'm quite sure she had to have some sort of permit to wield it the way she did. A more professional display I had not seen in some time. Now I understood how she was Pied Pipering those brethren across the Tiber so easily.
Later, Basil and Mr. Peperium opted out of coffee and went off to tour the nude female figures in the club’s art collection. I was sitting comfortably with Mrs. Peperium and she was explaining their online magazine and so forth and so on...The tinkling voice and bright girlish laughter continued drowning out the sounds of ripping wood and crashing glass which were coming from the next room. That said sounds were connected in some way with Basil and Mr. Peperium's nude hunt I didn’t doubt. More than that, I didn’t care.
That was my fatal mistake. Being thrown out on my ear I could have withstood (no one knows me in Chicago, after all). Paying for the splintered woodwork would have been more difficult but not beyond the limits of my purse. But no. Instead I let myself be led down the proverbial primrose path. The light laughter. The flashing eye. The occasional glimpse of stockinged ankle. And by easy stages I went from a vague, polite interest in the Peperium’s pub to a firm commitment to write for them on a semi-regular basis. True, Mr. Peperium’s second pitcher of Black Velvet may have had something to do with it, too. But, man-like, I prefer to blame the woman.
Be that as it may I am writing this now. In Mrs. Peperium's opinion I am a "man o' the world" (you'd better leave the room Mrs. Pierce) and therefore in a perfect position to write a column telling the homebodies and shut-ins what’s happening out there. Simple, right? Gossip, travel who's who, what's what, you know the drill. Fine I'm stuck with it now. But as the Ancient Mariner might have said, never meet with Basil when the Countess isn’t around to make him sit, heel and beg. And never, ever drink with either Peperium. Until next time...
"About three weeks into this extended experiment in frugality my grandmother sat down to dinner and a button popped on her skirt's waistband. My sister, on the other hand, had lost 5 pounds. And my cousin, being a guy, had lost more than 10."
"How could the grand old lady be bursting buttons? Was she cheating?"
"They didn't know. By this point my sister and cousin were calling me every day begging me to FedEx them cash so they could go to the General Store and get some food. I kept refusing to do it because that was cheating. And my grandmother did not approve of cheating. So when my grandmother's button popped right in front of their eyes, they rang me up with the proof she was cheating. And they demanded that I send them cash so they could cheat, too."
"Did you send them any?"
"Send them money? Basil, my attitude about money is like my grandmother's. It's mine. The only difference between us is that she married hers while I earned mine. Besides, this was too good. Far too good. My grandmother had them over a barrel. Do you really think I would be so stupid as to help them get off of it?"
"Good answer. Besides, we didn't know if my grandmother really was cheating. It's a terrible thing to accuse someone of cheating. And, as it turns out, my grandmother wasn't cheating. She had, like a good Episcopalian, just followed her living on a dollar a day rule to the letter.
"She had decreed they would live on a dollar a day. And they did. It was just that there was an obvious loophole."
"No. The alcohol was the codicil. The loophole was hospitality."
"Your grandmother was able to entertain on a dollar a day?"
"No. She was allowed to be entertained on a dollar a day."
"Sometimes you're as thick as my sisters. Gosh Basil. You've forgotten the reason my sister and cousin were allowed to go up there in the first place. They were there to watch my grandmother with her friends, remember?
"Oh, yes. The hard-bitten apple dolls.
"Oh, how they would have loved you," said Mrs. P, laughing. "Yes, those apple dolls were the variety who beat their children and grandchildren whenever they could. That summer they all joined forces to whip my sister and cousin soundly.
"Easy. For more than 50 summers my grandmother made a daily round of visits among the cottages. The Home Office had expected my sister and cousin to accompany her on these rounds. But college kids never think hanging out with apple dolls on the porch is fun, much less worth their while. My sister and cousin were no different. Instead of going with my grandmother, they chose to stay home, drink, and call me begging for cash. That was their fatal mistake. Because when the children were away that was when the apple dolls played. While my sister and cousin were trying to shake me down for my hard earned cash, the apple dolls were feeding my grandmother to keep her strength up. And they were feeding her so well, she began gaining weight and eventually popping her buttons. She had never eaten so well in her life as she ate that summer."
"Apple dolls after my own wicked heart. So what happened to your sister and cousin?"
"First they had to pawn the cocktail shaker."
"They have pawn shops on that island?"
"No. My grandmother offered them $15 cash for it. Then, when the $15 was eaten up, the best thing that could have happened, actually happened."
"They had to get summer employment."
"Hah Hah!" said Sir Basil.
"I know. said Mrs. P laughing. "But getting a summer job on the island midsummer is impossible. So the apple dolls had to pull some strings. They got them work cleaning fish at the sardine factory. The smell of which caused them to lose their appetites."
"But I beseech your Grace, pardon me; I was born to speak all mirth and no matter."
"But I beseech your Grace, pardon me;
I was born to speak all mirth and no matter."
“How to live on a dollar a day.”
"That is trickier."
"Not in my grandmother’s day, Basil! She was married in the Depression. My word, in those days you could buy a furnished ten room flat in on the Upper East Side of New York City for a dollar and still have enough left over for a month's wages for the staff."
"Yes. But now she was proposing, more than 55 years later, for all three of them to live on a dollar a day. She had forgotten a dollar no longer went as far."
"I know. You can't really fault her, can you?"
"I know you wouldn't. And my grandmother did add a generous codicil to her ukase of them living on a dollar a day."
"The dollar a day was for food and household expenses only. The cost of alcohol was excluded. This meant they were all free to drink as much as they liked as often as they liked."
"That's a woman after my own heart."
"Oh she was, she was. You two would have gotten along famously. First, you’re good-looking. And, like you, she understood standards must be kept up at all times, no matter what. She knew she couldn't run her summer home on a dollar a day and expect to have something to drink at the end of the day. Or, more importantly at midday."
"No you can't. So where were you in all of this?"
"180 miles away in Boston, thank God. But unfortunately the phone could still reach me. The first call came through a few days into the summer sojourn. It was a beautiful afternoon, I was at my desk, putting my back into my work when the phone rang. I picked it up and on the other end was my sister. At this point I was completely in the dark. As my sister told me about my grandmother's dollar a day plan all I could do was laugh.
"Was your sister laughing?"
"Noooo. Not at all. Which was surprising because she was drunk. But, I guess her hunger pains were getting the better of her so she couldn't see the obvious humour of her situation. To take her mind and stomach off her troubles, I changed the subject. I asked her what they had had for lunch."
"You consider that changing the subject?"
"Considering she was a few pancakes short of a stack at the time, yes."
So tell me, what culinary delight had your grandmother whipped up for them?"
"A day-old jelly doughnut and a half of slice of American cheese."
Sir Basil burst out laughing. This rare explosion by one usually so dignified in public caused a waiter to drop a tray of Sole Mournier. The diners at the next table stopped their meals, wondering what they had missed. "Even then a dollar really didn't go far, did it?" asked Sir Basil, wiping his eyes with his napkin.
"Not even in Maine." agreed Mrs. P, also dabbing at her own. "After my laughter at the time subsided, my sister explained how the evening before they had lived large. My grandmother made toast from the end of last week's loaf of bread. Then, taking from her cupboard a tin of cream of mushroom soup, she poured the contents into a pot, added some water that had been thinned down with milk, and enhanced the whole thing with 3 tablespoons of poached chicken."
"Did she poach the chicken herself? Or did she make your sister and cousin steal it?"
"Basil....it's a good thing I wasn't drinking wine right then because it would be all over you," giggled Mrs. P. "She didn't make them steal the chicken. Oh gosh, wouldn't it have been great if she had?
"You are awful. But that's why I like you. The chicken came from the one that had to last them the entire week. My grandmother placed the toast on dinner plates and poured the Cream of Mushroom soup over it. As she placed it before them she informed them that since it was made with soup it counted not only their first course, but their main course and vegetables as well.
"Damn, your grandmother was a fine hostess!"
"They don't make them like that anymore, that's for sure."
What did she serve them for dessert?
"Wh at kind of fruit could your grandmother find on a dollar a day?"
"A 1951 Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey ."
"They got a pre-Vatican II Sauternes while living on a dollar a day?"
"Life is just not fair Basil."
"No. It's a joke. And the joke is on you and me, obviously. So tell me, were these two piskies complaining Long Distance about being served pre-Vatican II wines?"
"Complaining isn't the right word. They were doing their best impressions of dipsomaniacs, remember? My sister asked me what they should do. I told her not to worry because eventually my grandmother would get hungry and she would stop the dollar a day game."
"No. That was the best part. And the greatest mystery too. My grandmother seemed to be positively thriving on the whole dollar a day scheme. She was happy, her cheeks were rosy and there was a spring in her step many of the islanders said they hadn't seen in years. And then it happened."
To be continued...
Unity Mitford returns to home England, bullet in head,
after sojourning with Hilter.
"But I beseech your Grace, pardon me; I was born to speak all mirth and no matter."
“Basil!...stop!...ow...my nose...the wine! Maybe we should stick with white for the prairie chicken? Didn't I ever tell you about the summer in Maine after my grandfather died?"
"Mrs. P, what haven't you told me about your summers in Maine? After awhile they all just run together and sound like a Stephen King novel. Before I know it, I'm locked inside that red Plymouth Fury and it just keeps on talking at me. It doesn't stop. I can't get out. Just when I begin to wonder if I'll ever escape, I smell the carbon monoxide seeping out from underneath the dashboard. After that, what few hairs I've got left on the back of my neck settle down because soon it will all be over."
"Fine. I won't tell you."
"Oh, do tell. I'm sure I'll be terrified. I mean I'm sure I'll be amused. What happened the summer after your grandfather died?"
"Well, some family members—who to this day desire to remain nameless for reasons of personal safety—decided…”
"Were those car locks I just heard?" interrupted Basil.
"That was a champagne cork. Get a hold of yourself. Do you need some brandy?
"Alright then, back to my story. My grandfather had died during the winter, which meant my grandmother was going to be up on the island all alone for the summer. Only her friends would be around.
“What was wrong with that? Weren’t her friends exactly who she needed around her?”
"Friends, you say? Basil, erase all ideas you have right now of innocent apple dolls sitting in their ancient wicker rockers on their venerable porches in Maine watching the tides roll in and out. Sure their clothing may have all come from Johnny Appleseed's but that was only to throw you off the scent. These apple dolls had summered together through WWI, Prohibition, the Great Depression, WWII, the Cold War, Camelot, Vietnam, Watergate, and, if that weren't enough, the Carter years.
"Hardened to the core apple dolls, eh?
“Yes," sniggered Mrs. P. “And the idea of the apple dolls having the run of the island to themselves, not to mention automobiles and family checkbooks was causing some uncomfortableness among several of members of our family. So one of my Legion, excuse me, one of my sisters and a cousin who were still in college came up with what they thought was a brilliant plan. They thought it was brilliant because it got them out of having to get summer jobs. They volunteered to go to Maine to watch my grandmother and her fellow apple dolls. The idea was they could file any suspicious activity among the apple dolls with the Home Office…”
“Whitehall was following the activity of the apple dolls?”
Mrs. P laughed. “They should have been because back in the ‘20’s and '30's some of those apple dolls had gone overseas for their educations. And, rumour had it, they behaved very un-American while they were there.
“They acted like the Mitford Sisters.”
“That would do it.”
“Yes, it would, wouldn’t it? But Home Office in this case was the younger members of my family's pet name for the powers at be in the generation of the family right beneath my grandmothers’. She was the last one standing in hers. And the Home Office was concerned when she left, thanks to the apple dolls, there might not be anything left.
“Ah, I get it. Your sister and your cousin were preying on the Home Office’s reasonable fears to get out of having to behave like other college students and get jobs.”
“Bingo. You win the Cupie doll.
“I rather win an apple doll.”
“Don’t worry. In about 30 years, you’ll be one. The Home Office informed my grandmother that my sister and cousin would be spending the summer with her to help her. She was to have them do the chores like tend the flower beds, take her into town, freshen up the paint on all the wicker and the shutters, and accompany her to chapel. And when she didn't need them, they were free to go sailing, to the beach or whatever.
“Nice work if you can get it.”
“You know, that is exactly what my sister and my cousin thought. And they set out on their drive to the island thinking that. And eventually that thinking caused them to make their first mistake.”
"What mistake would that be?"
"They thought, "Why not take in some antique stores in Kennebunkport?"
"Did they ever. And boy, were they ever taken."
“They fell hook, line, and sinker for one antique store's claim that they had all of the better household items that washed ashore in the days after the Bush family’s cottage fell into the sea."
"You are so midwestern. Maine, like Scotland has a quaint noblesse oblige custom that when a hurricane hits and summer cottages falls into the sea, all the items that come in the following tides are anyone’s property. After a hurricane casually dumped the Bush's cottage in the drink, this antique dealer said he found a sterling silver cocktail shaker lodged in a nearby rock crevice."
"A very shaky story."
"Wasn't it? And of course, the sterling silver cocktail shaker just happened to have George Herbert Walker Bush's monogram on it. My sister and my cousin took one look at that Vice-Presidential cocktail shaker and thought it was the perfect accompaniment to their summer holiday. So they pooled their cash --every last cent of it-- and bought it.”
“Considering all the vice in that summer colony, it sounds like a fitting purchase.”
“For other people, maybe. But we are speaking of my sister and my cousin. And we are speaking of them spending the summer on the island with my grandmother. My grandmother had two simple rules about cash. One: It was all hers. Two: What cash she had was only spent in emergencies. Have you forgotten that, before opening my grandmother’s purse, it was sometimes necessary to spray the hinges with WD-40?
"I don't know if I ever knew."
"Trust me, the only other thing that ever opened my grandmother's purse was a good-looking man. And when he showed up, just stand back because that purse flew open. Why do you think the Home Office thought it was so important for my sister and cousin to be up there that summer?”
"I wasn't thinking. Continue."
"They arrived on the island late in the afternoon. After settling things in their rooms, my sister went and sat with my grandmother on the porch to watch the ocean go by. My cousin went into the kitchen to prepare the cocktails. He washed out the cocktail shaker, dried it, buffed it, and got out the very worn copy of “Old Mr. Boston’s Bartender Guide” and starting going through the liquor cabinet to find the appropriate alcohol. That was their second mistake.
“Basil, again, these apple dolls had weathered the Great Depression, Prohibition and all of the WWII rationing. Plus they were born in the days before income tax. They understood the key to having money was not spending it. There was no such thing as appropriate alcohol in the liquor cabinet. It was all rot gut. But it was rot gut that got the job done. Being faced with labels that bore names like Passport, Popov, and Jim Beam, did not however cause my cousin to go weak. He took what he needed and gave it his best shake. After pouring out 3 cocktails, he placed them on the drinks tray along with the Vice-Presidential shaker, monogram facing forward, and carried it out to the porch. My grandmother’s convictions about those two were confirmed the moment she spied George Herbert Walker’s Bush initials on that shaker.”
“What were her suspicions?”
“They didn’t know the value of a dollar."
"I cannot believe you just asked that question. Who would use a sterling silver cocktail shaker to serve rot gut? Especially one with a Vice-Presidential monogram on it? Gosh Basil. My grandmother loved Vice President Bush. She thought he would be our next President, which he was. So naturally she did not approve of their maltreatment of a President of the United States. But she was wise and bided her time. She said nothing. Nothing until dinner, that is. During dinner, she announced that she was going to teach my sister and cousin what she had been taught in her first year of marriage.”
“Chapters 1 through 7 of the Kama Sutra?”
“Something even trickier.”
“What was that?”
To be continued....
"But I beseech your Grace, pardon me; I was born to speak all mirth and no matter."
"Basil, these sweetbreads are simply superb. How're
your scalloped oysters?"
"Chef thought he was dealing with a pedestrian. He seems to have snuck in a few mussels in." sniffed Sir Basil, putting his fork down.
"There." said Sir Basil, using the wine list as a pointer.
Mrs. P leaned across the table and looked. Sure enough there were mussels mixed in among the oysters. "Why, how dare he? I'm insulted." she said.
"You're insulted? How can you possibly be insulted? It's my dish."
"I'm insulted because unlike you I grew up among oysters. I don't blame Chef for trying to put one over on a midwesterner like you. That's only natural. Every chef has to find a way to make a little extra on the side and slipping a midwesterner the odd mussel or 12 is a perfectly respectable strategem. But with me, the obvious east coaster, right here at your side, why his waiter ought to have known better. I say we go into that kitchen right now and show that chef who I am by flexing a few of your muscles in his general direction."
"Mrs. P don't get your feathers ruffled. Remember who you are and where you are. And remember, the man still has the grouse to ruffle."
"Basil, normally I'm all for this Quite Man no fighting thing you've got going but honestly, there are times to be quiet and there are times to be not quiet. This is a not quiet moment. It is a teachable moment, if you will. If you don't march into that kitchen and put that man in his place, he's not going serve us ruffled grouse, he's going to serve us tickled prairie chicken."
"Only a fool would attempt that. Sit back down. Now." said Sir Basil as he studied the wine list.
"Ok Quiet Man, so what are we having with the tickled prairie chicken?"
"I was thinking Chateau Lafite Rothschild 2007. Any objections?"
"Only that it sounds a bit too young for my taste."
"Mrs. P, everything is a bit too young for your taste. Youthful wines, like youthful ladies do have their charms. We don't appear to have much to choose from, thanks to you."
"Me? Why is it my fault there's nothing drinkable in this joint?"
"A-hem. You refuse to drink anything bottled during the Clinton years.
"You sound like a liberal. Is it my fault we can't drink because I've got standards? Besides, you are hardly one to criticize. You believe all wines after Vatican II are invalid."
"You believe all wines bottled after Vatican II are invalid."
"When did I ever say invalid?"
"When don't you say it is more like it."
"I never said invalid. I said pallid."
"Oh." said Mrs. P thoughtfully. "I don't think that changes anything. I mean, don't get me wrong. I like my religion to be as old and cold as you. But really, how does changing the Mass, tossing the nuns out of the nunneries, teaching children liturgical dances and how to recycle instead of catechizing them and shearing the vestments of their sumptuous mink trimmings -- oh gosh, can you imagine Father M. trimmed in mink?
"I'm ignoring that one. How did Vatican II affect the brilliancy of wine?
"Vatican II affected the brilliancy of everything. Think of the Clown Mass."
"Hey, if the New Testament is the Greatest Story Ever Told, then the Clown Mass is the Greatest Show on Earth. I just adore it when they pack the entire choir into the choir master's Cooper mini and he tools
"Sadly most of our priests do."
"Basil! Ow, the wine went up my nose. You should know not to joke when I'm mid-sip."
“Basil, you just did it again! Stop it, please!”
Thank God this happened while we were still on the
white. The cabernet would have ruined your blouse.” said Basil, handing Mrs. P
his handkerchief. “I thought you knew how to handle wine.”
“I don’t. I’m a cheap date.”
“This a cheap date?”
“Yes it is, dammit! Well, no. Let me think about it first. Let's say this is a date, ok?"
"Between you and I, I mean. Ok?"
"And let's say we're somewhat young, somewhat single, and, let's say I was, well, oh...how does one say it?"
"Yes." said Mrs. P laughing. "Let's say I'm somewhat Episcopalian. No better yet. Let's say I'm very Episcopalian and follow all of my church's teachings. OK?"
"More than OK. Hot Dawg!"
"I knew that would please you. Well, as a very good Episcopalian girl, I would automatically expect you to be expecting the Full Monty after a dinner like this. Would that be un-Episcopalian of me?"
"No, you'd just be following your church's teachings."
"Exactly. Thank you for seeing dating the Episcopalian way. Basil, I must say you can be so wonderfully broad-minded when you want to be."
"It pays to for the gentleman to be broad-minded when broads, I mean, very good Episcopalian girls are involved.”
"Yes it does, doesn't it?" said Mrs. P laughing. "However, I do
think it would be most un-Episcopalian of you to be expecting boudoir
gymnastics after dinner at a dump like this. Good Episcopalian
girls are all about equality. That's what matters most. So if I'm
going all the way, you are too. You must spend money on me. Lots of
money. At the very least, take me to places that give you oysters when you
order oysters and has something drinkable on the wine list. So, in answer
to your question. Yes. This is a cheap date. Very cheap.
"Ah. I stand corrected. Have you always been very cheap?"
Relish the Gentleman
Sir Basil Seal
A while back, our Moscow correspondent, Mr. Dareboy, wrote asking for advice from Sir Basil on Swiss watches. He was in the market, and had, I believe, purchased a watch from Raymond Weil. A very fine watch, to be sure. But the question we have to ask here: Is why does one want a Swiss watch? Let me step back here a bit and discuss gentleman's jewelry. A gentleman can wear four pieces of jewelery: a plain and non-obtrusive wrist watch, a wedding band and in the United States, a "class ring" which identifies the gentleman as an alumnus of an university, or as a member of a club or organization, such as a branch of the armed services. (This serves the same purpose as the "regimental, or club neck tie" in England) and cuff links. Some of these "class rings" are disqualified, such as the ones obtained from the military academies, due to their being the size of an automobile radiator worn on the hand. Not exactly subtle. This means, of course, that you need to leave your Super Bowl ring at home as well. In the past, it was common in England for the gentleman to sport a "pinky ring". This was not done in the United States, and has pretty much
vanished all together outside of the gay community.
As a menacingly well groomed gentleman, let me say that as with clothing, the gentleman's jewelery should be subtle and not noticeable. For example: If you have your tailor monogram your shirts, the monogram should never show. It is not placed on the cuff (what? you forgot your name?), or the breast pocket (you should not have a breast pocket anyway) of the shirt. The proper placement is on the front of the shirt midway between the waist and the breast. And since you wear a suit coat and never take it off in company, the monogram will never be seen except by you, your laundress and your tailor. The point that I am making is that it is the height of vulgarity to wear things which draw attention to themselves and to you. Buying items to try and impress others and not because you are buying something of quality which you desire is not only vulgar, but stupid. A gentleman pays no attention to advertising. He doesn't have to. He knows quality, knows what he wants and goes out and buys the best quality item in his price range, whatever that might be. And in case you were wondering....No one was impressed. When you leave someone's presence, they should remember you as a well dressed and well groomed gentleman, but not be able to say exactly why. You should leave this impression subconsciously, not smack them on the forehead with your Rolex. I must note here that you should not purchase a Rolex. Trust me on this one.
Your items should be made of gold (sterling silver if you must, but if you wear gold, they are all gold, if silver, then all silver) and of good quality, but not large and vulgar. They should not be cute or fey... Nothing reeking of office parties or dirty weekends please. Simple, simple, simple is the rule to follow here. And please note that something in good taste is not necessarily the most expensive. Lord knows there are many vulgar expensive items out there. Chose your clothing and your jewelery for yourself and with an eye toward simple elegance. I personally have worn a succession of Gruen Curvex watches on ribbon bands, sometimes black leather, throughout my lifetime, I have one on now as a matter of fact. These are the original Curvex watches from the 30's and 40's with the Swiss movement which I have collected over the years. In the 1990's Gruen came out with reproductions of the
original Curvex with quartz movements. I purchased many of these for day-to-day wear and keep the originals for more formal occasions. Why? Because I like the watch, it is of fine quality and it is perfect for someone like me who has thin wrists. Yes, I do own a 1962 Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust (a gift), a Cartier Tank Americaine and a gold Maurice Lacroix Les Classiques Gents. All very fine watches, but rarely worn. Please stay away from the submariner, pilot, mountain climber,
astronaut watches unless you are a submariner, pilot, mountain climber, astronaut, and then please only wear them while at work. It is the same rule which applies to non-cowboys wearing cowboy hats and boots...You understand, I am sure. I have a friend who could afford any watch in the world but who has always worn a Timex Dress Watch on a ribbon band because he likes it and it does what he needs a watch to do. Plus, he has no need to impress anyone. Simple Elegance. But please remember that wearing a plastic runner's watch with your suit (are you listening President Clinton) is a no-no.
If you must look into a Swiss watch then I recommend:
The Cartier Tank Americaine
The original plain model. No goofy colors.
Remember, cute is bad.
The Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso
The Frank Muller Masterbanker
The Patek Philippe Calatrava
And yes Mr. Dareboy, no one should wear jeans. Sadly, myself and the Countess are the only two people I am aware of in the United States who do not own a pair. The same applies to t-shirts...These are to be worn as undergarments. And tennis shoes, or sneakers should only be worn while performing athletic endeavors, but, alas the damage is done and everyone looks like a slob. And 30 years of feminism has turned our girls into boys with breasts with no grace or style. (I'll have to get into the tragedy which is the modern American woman in another post).Oh, but they are comfortable...How one could claim that stiff denim is more comfortable than worsted wool is beyond me, but there you have it. I hope this helps Mr. Dareboy. I must confess that I know nothing of current Russian culture and society but I do hope that you have not picked up to much nastiness from the United States, although I fear you have if everyone is wearing jeans. Nice people (mostly) in the States, but remember it is ruled by the lowest common denominator. And I do admit, England is worse, and has fallen farther. I always liked the Romanovs myself. People may call the Windsors stupid, but you know what? They still have a throne to sit on...
“Nothing finishes off a room” said Morris with a satisfied smile, “quite like a large dog.”
I was inclined to agree. Since appearing more or less out of The Void after an absence of 15 years, Morris had settled into my summer place with the ease one would expect of an experienced diplomatic attaché. And, for the past three days, so had an oversized canine of mixed blood who Morris claimed had followed him home from his last run to the Liquor Locker, the island’s only source for the occasional “drops” that were becoming more and more of a necessity in my life.
“ ‘Finished off’ is the word,” I said, handing Morris a mug of coffee. Since tripping through the fragments of an antique wicker firewood basket on the first morning of the dog’s stay, I never knew which heirloom the discerning mutt would turn his attention to next. So far a wing chair—once part of a matching set—listed like a lobster boat at low tide and a leather bellows that had survived storms, floods and even—or so local legend went—the brief British occupation of the island during the War of 1812 had breathed it’s last just the night before.
“What I mean,” said Morris “is how the beast gives your place an air of shabby gentility. Like those English country houses with threadbare rugs, tattered armchairs and a brace of wolfhounds.”
“My armchairs weren’t tattered three days ago,” I said cooly.
“Weren’t they?” said Morris, quickly dipping into his coffee. “Well, now the place has a personality. A distinctive look.”
“Yes” I said, giving him one myself. The silence that followed was only accentuated when the toaster sprang to life. Morris’ diplomatic instincts must have told him I was about to broach delicate subjects, for he changed conversational paths with the dexterity of one who has been handsomely paid to avoid delicate subjects for years.
“Did I ever tell you about the first dog I ever owned?”
There must be something of the diplomat in me too, for believe it or not as I plucked the toast out of the machine I was actually thankful for this detour. After all, I reminded myself, it was a beautiful morning. Between the sky, the clouds, the row of freshly painted summer places perched along the bank and the Atlantic Ocean, everything was either a well-mannered blue or a shade of white that made you squint. It felt as if we had woken up in the center spread of this summer’s Polo catalogue.
Besides, Morris had covered that run to the Liquor Locker out of his own pocket. True, being in the State Department meant that what came out of his pocket had originally come out of mine. But there was no gainsaying the quality of the stuff.
My hands being full of toast and coffee I kicked open the French doors to the porch. “Tell me,” I said generously, “about the first dog you ever owned.”
“The first thing I noticed when I joined the Department,” said Morris, after settling himself in a wicker armchair and making sure his toast and coffee were within easy reach, “was how Nice everybody was. You notice when I say Nice I’m pressing down the shift key in my larynx and capitalizing the first letter. Nice. Like that. Because there’s no other way to describe it. We were Nice people doing Nice things for other Nice people. Foreign aid. Foreign loans. Sending peacekeepers to places that used to require task forces. Recalling ambassadors who said the wrong thing. Granting political asylum. Apologizing for Imperialism. Apologizing for the Imperialistic act of not apologizing for Imperialism sooner. That sort of thing.”
“That,” I observed, “must have been a new experience for you”.
“Very. It was like working for a charity that didn’t need to do telethons. You know me; I’m a nice sort of guy. But I’m not Nice. Never have been. When I was a kid and those yellow smiley-face stickers were all the rage, I had to have them explained to me. But I knew that if I were ever to rise to any heights in the Department, I would have to learn How to Be Nice.
“So, I asked myself, what was it about these people I worked with that made them so damn Nice? What was the common denominator? How could they all have the same eerie personality tic? I knew the Department hired with a view to creating a simpatico sort of environment, but this was, well, creepy.
“Oddly enough, this is where not being Nice really paid off. I just selected the Nicest person in my section, a girl named Joyce, and followed her.
“Pardon? No I don’t mean stalked her. I was trying to figure out how to be Nice, remember? How many Nice stalkers do you know? I just spent a weekend sort of tagging along after Joyce.
“Well, it was an adventure. The Greenpeace rally and the sit-down strike in support of a clean needle program for the homeless were a cinch. I just mingled. Considering how I dressed in those days you could even go so far as to say I blended in. For reasons that have since escaped my memory, I affected a red-and-white kafia and an old Army Surplus trench coat in those days, the whole ensemble topped off with a grey Swiss Army haversack that set off my bright red “I read banned books” button. So like I say, I blended rather nicely.
“But the run to the local organic market was trickier, it attracting a more upscale crowd—I’ve observed in my saunter along this mortal coil that going “green” always requires more of the green. But I baffled detection by digging in behind a copy of Mother Jones I’d nabbed from the newsstand.
“The really frustrating part was, I could see Joyce being Nice but I still didn’t know what made her Nice. I mean, painting yourself dolphin-grey and pretending to die on the front steps of Amalgamated Tuna’s world headquarters is a Nice thing to do. But why did she do it?
“It wasn’t until the next day—Sunday—that I got my answer.
“I almost didn’t make it because Joyce was in the habit of rising early and I was in the habit of drinking pretty late. By the time I’d made it through McDonald’s drive-thru and gotten outside a McCoffee and a McBun of some kind she was half a block from her apartment, all Laura Ashley, white stockings and flats. Lack of sleep and a breakfast that seemed to have taken up permanent residence in my midriff made the going pretty hard. I think I would have been McSick right there on the pavement, but luckily it wasn’t long before she stopped in front of a massive building; all pointy roof and ogival arches.
“No, I don’t mean a church exactly. It looked like a church and vague memories of a respectable childhood told me it even smelled like a church when I got inside. I think you’ll understand if you just let me get on with the story.
“The first thing I noticed when I got past the ushers handing out programs was that everyone—I mean everyone—in my section at the Department was there.
“Now, I realize that this is the place where I should describe each of them to you in a series of deft character sketches. But I can’t. How do I mean? Well, you know that passage of Saint Paul’s about there being no distinction between free and slave?”
“Greek or Jew?”
“Man or woman?”
“Exactly. There was Trevor and Tony and Brad and Chad and Boyce and Joyce and Dawn and Fawn. That’s all I can say. Don’t run away with the idea that I disliked them. After a while I took to calling them my “Episco-pals”. It was just that they all looked alike, dressed alike and did everything together. Like now. They all nodded or made little wavy motions at me as much as to say they thought it was Nice I was there, and then a large person who looked like one of the sturdier baptismal fonts with the lid on got wedged into the pulpit and we were off.
The lesson was that part about loaves and fishes. Five- thousand-plus guests. No one going away hungry. Twelve basketfuls of scraps collected by the wait staff afterwards. It always figured as a sort of bravura performance in the sermons of my youth, ranking somewhere below raising Lazarus but just ahead of walking on water. And I can remember it always giving me a sort of hopeful feeling. I mean, if God can be that generous to perfect strangers who just show up unannounced, I figured I still had a chance, too. But the human font up front wasn’t having it at any price. “Think,” it intoned, “of how many people Jesus failed to reach that day.”
I had to sit up at this, spilling my coffee. So did the dog, scuffing my floor.
“But,” I spluttered, “it was their own damn fault if they weren’t there. The invitation, as I recall, was pretty open.”
Morris smiled at me the way a combat veteran might at a new recruit. “I know that and you know that. In fact, up to that moment all of Western Civilization knew it. That was part of the point of the story. You had a choice: you could be in the marketplace trying to making a killing in olive oil or you could be part of a miracle. The two things rarely intersect, or so I’ve always been lead to believe."
“Anyway, there was a lot of other stuff about strategies of subversion aimed at disestablishing and marginalizing those in our society who might not fully meet the oppressive criteria of organized religion.”
“Come again?” I groped.
Morris waved away the question and gave footnotes. “The long and the short of it was that we should all reach out to the Other. You’ll notice I’m pressing down the shift key again and giving the ‘O’ a leg up.”
“Who, exactly, are the Other?” I said, doing likewise.
“You know. People who aren’t like us.”
“But you just said everyone in the place looked exactly alike.”
“Of course. That’s why we needed to reach out. At least that’s what Reverend Nicway said when I asked about it in the undercroft after the service.”
“The moveable font. The pulpit-percher. Reverend Gean Nicway.”
“How do you spell that,” I asked, “ ‘J-e-a-n’ or ‘G-e-n-e’?”
“Neither. G-e-a-n. Don’t blame me. I heard later it was the good reverend’s way of living out the Church of England’s historic mission as the via media.”
“Oh. So which, um…”
Morris stretched out his legs and rested his coffee cup in the middle of his stomach. “Had we not been such Nice people, I’m sure substantial sums of money would have been wagered both ways. And” he added, brushing toast crumbs from his lap, “had we not been such Nice people, I’m sure we would have figured out a surefire way to settle the bet, too.
“Anyway, Reverend Nicway said that I had to reach out to the Other. And the best way to do that was to make sure some of my best friends were Other. You know, not ah…caucasian” he said, forgetting to press the shift key this time. “Of course, there went most of my friends.”
“Wait a minute,” I said slowly. “How long ago was this?”
“Oh I don’t know. Must be 15 years now.”
So did Morris. “Now look” he said, “it was nothing personal. If I hadn’t done it I’d still be in the personnel division making sure the Department has met its yearly quota of transgendered job applicants. They rarely get hired, but the rules say we have to consider their applications with the same attention and respect we accord all the other applicants. Which of course requires a separate sub-section with an annual budget and it’s own annex.”
I saw his point. A career is, after all, a career. “Were your new friends the Others Nice too?” I asked, nearly dislocating my neck in the effort to capitalize two letters in a row.
“Reverend Nicway said they didn’t have to be. Reverend Nicway said they had a right not to be Nice. Because they’d been oppressed for centuries, they had a right to be Angry and Resentful. But we were always very Nice about it.
“Anyway, as I stood there in the undercroft after the service inhaling the scent of well-bred mildew, I saw that the only thing to do was sign up. Bracing myself with a sip of weak coffee and a bite of stale butter cookie, I asked Reverend Nicway what I had to do to join.
“Showing about 97 teeth, the Rev beamed on me and said, ‘You just did.’
“Well, after that of course I tried desperately to be Episcopalian. I started recycling regularly. I only went to church when I felt like it. And of course I stopped using the ‘N-word’.”
This made me sit up again. “When,” I asked, incredulously, “had you ever started?”
“Never had. But Reverend Nicway said that didn’t mean anything. The N-word was encoded into everything I did or said.”
“I see. What about God?”
“What about God?”
“Was God ever mentioned?”
“Not if we could help it. That would involve choosing a pronoun. Besides, look what God did to the Egyptians.”
“You believed what the Bible says about that?”
“What about the Resurrection?”
“Now,” said Morris with a rebuking look, “you’re just being difficult. When in Rome—or I guess Canterbury would be more accurate—do what the Romans—or rather the Canterburians—are doing. Look, when I was special envoy to the People’s Republic of the Former Ruritanian Principalities do you think I questioned the executions at half time of every soccer match? No, I merely cheered my team on so as to mask the sound of the massed volleys from the UN inspection teams outside the stadium. Of course I admit I had strong reservations. After all, given the track record of UN inspection teams, I really didn’t think covering things up was absolutely necessary. But I did it. I’m not saying it made sense. I’m saying I had to do what I had to do."
“And in the present case, that included packing up my milk crates and sub-leasing a first floor sitting room with kitchenette privileges on a street that was home to about the mottliest assortment of human beings this side of the UN."
“In other words, the Other.”
“You got it. Well that was the program for a couple of months. Right through that summer I borrowed garden tools from the Other, attended the odd church service and recycled. Day by day I could feel myself becoming a deeper, more thoughtful person. How? Well, you mentioned the Resurrection; I recall a most insightful sermon on that topic. Reverend Nicway said it was proof positive that the world could be saved through recycling.”
I know Morris meant no harm, but this made me feel as if I were biting down on a piece of tin foil. I winced visibly.
“But you’re probably wondering, said Morris, noticing my discomfort, about the dog.”
Thankful for this ready-made segue to the point of his story, I sat up like a schnauzer that hears a can opener.
“Like most things that summer, it all started with a sermon. Reverend Nicway asked us what was the absolutely Nicest thing you can think of doing? Taking that ‘no greater love’ passage as your starting point, I mean?”
I considered the options that opened out to me like that vista of poppies in The Wizard of Oz. Donating a kidney to a complete stranger. Splitting an inheritance with a disowned sibling. Saving a baby from being baptized Episcopalian.
While I mused Morris leaned forward in his chair. “You were going to say adopt a stray dog, weren’t you?”
“No I wasn’t.”
“Well, that’s what Reverend Nicway suggested. The next day I got the dog from a rescue shelter. And let me tell you, anything less in need rescuing I’ve never met in my life. Broad-chested with stand-up ears and more teeth than were absolutely necessary, it was a mix of black lab, chow, bull mastiff, German Shepherd and pit bull.”
“Quite the Multicultural icon, eh?”
“Quite. With a black coat. Black eyes. Black pads on her feet. Even some black spots on her tongue. And a tail that positively hurt every time she walked by.
“The really unfortunate thing was her name. Blackie. I know what you’re going to say: given what I just described there really wasn’t anything else you could call her, but I wasn’t sanguine. Even Sable or Midnight would have been better. But as you probably know, the level of imagination at the average animal shelter is not high. And I frankly admit I recoiled from the idea of the dog getting loose one day and me having to traipse up and down the streets of our diverse and multicultural enclave shouting ‘Blackie’.”
“I do see. Embarrassing.”
“Yes. I’ve always tried to steer clear of mob violence, especially that brand of mob violence that features me at the center of it. Then I realized that Blackie was really nothing more than a working title. And not two seconds later I hit on a name that might just keep the peace. The animal was used to being called Blackie, but I thought if I called her Corkie she would respond just as well. See my subtle ingenuity? Same number of syllables, same basic phonetic values. After all, dogs can’t read.
“And besides, there was a charming sort of association with the name Corkie. Remember that part in Wodehouse where Cora “Corkie” Pirbright adopts a mutt from the Battersea Home?”
“Of course. One of my favorite passages.”
“Mine too. Well, it made me smile to think that this was the same sort of thing. So, Corkie it was.
“So when the inevitable happened and Corkie, spotting a squirrel, ripped the leash out of my hand one Saturday afternoon I didn’t panic. I remember bein as calm and collected as a cat who knows its litter box has just been scooped out.
“ ‘Corkie!’ I shouted, looking up the street toward our Federally-funded Community Protest Center.
“ ‘Corkie!’ I shouted again, this time in the other direction, toward our locally supported Arts-in-the-Hood Project.
“No dog. But I had snagged something else. ‘What was that you shouted?’ asked a voice behind me.
“It was Reverend Nicway, accompanied by five or six of my Section-mates. I learned later that they were on a scavenger hunt. Apparently the one who found the most evidence of encoded oppression in traffic signs won tickets to the new Michael Moore movie.
“ ‘What was that you shouted?’ asked the good Rev again. I noticed an inquisitorial hunch abaft the shoulder blades.
“ ‘Corkie,’ I said. ‘I’ve lost my dog.’”
“ ‘That big black lab mix I saw you with in the park the other evening?’
“ ‘Yes, that’s Corkie’ I said, a little nervous that the Reverend had been eyeing me without my knowledge.
“ ‘And you named it Porgie? As in Porgie and Bess, after a white man’s demeaning portrayal of African American life?’
“No no, Corky!
“ ‘Porky? As in the animated pink pig, through which you express the deep-seated wish that your black dog actually looked more like yourself?’
“This was a nasty one. I admit I’ve filled out some since, but at the time of which I speak I was downright slender. And besides, whatever people may say about me I never forget to wear pants. ‘No, no,’ I said, getting desperate, ‘Corkie!’
“ ‘Oh, Corkie,’ she said, somewhat mollified. ‘I see. Yes. Corkie.’
“But I got the uneasy feeling she was biding her time, looking for the inevitable chink—though of course she wouldn’t call it that—in my rhetorical armor. I occurred to me that a bit of candor might see me through. ‘I call her that,’ I said, ‘because…’
“ ‘Because’ thundered the good Rev, in the same reasonable tone employed when discussing Rome’s preference for male priests, ‘you intend a veiled reference to burnt cork, the theatrical medium by which people of African descent have been belittled lo these many years!’
“Then, with Reverend Nicway in the lead, Brad and Chad and Mary, Carrie, and Gerry all drew away from me in a body, as if they’d just learned I hadn’t returned the Other’s weed whacker. Which, as a matter of fact, I hadn’t.
“Well, after that there really didn’t seem much point in showing up for church, even if I felt like it. Luckily the Department reassigned me to the Outer Moribund Islands just then. A hardship post to beat all hardship posts. And believe me, I snapped it up as if it had been Paris or London. Something told me the natives were going to be a lot more friendly out there.”
Ok, intelligent audience of Patum Peperium, the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church of the United States left out a most salient fact regarding Salisbury Cathedral's "rich and varied" ministry.