1940s Archive

An Alphabet for Gourmets

Originally Published March 1949

I is for innocence …

… and its strangely rewarding chaos, gastronomically.

There is a great difference in my mind between innocence, in this gourmand interpretation, and ignorance. The one presupposes the other, and yet a truly innocent cook or host is never guilty of the great sin of pretension, while many an ignorant one errs hideously in this direction.

Almost any man who is potentially capable of thus cheating with his guests is equally incapable of telling the truth to himself and will sneak a quick look into a primer of wine names, for instance, and then pretend that he knew all along to serve red-wine-with-red-meat, or some such truism. His lie betrays his basic insecurity.

An innocent, on the other hand, will not bother to pretend any knowledge at all. He will, with a child’s bland happiness, do the most god-awful things with his meals and manage by some alchemy of warmth and understanding to make any honest gourmet pleased and easy at his table.

The best example of this that I can think of happened to me a few months ago.

I know a large, greedy, and basically unthinking man who spent all the middle years of his life working hard in a small town and eating in waffle shops and now and then gorging himself at friends’ houses on Christmas Day. Quite late he married a large, greedy, and unthinking woman who introduced him to the dubious joys of whatever she heard about on the radio: Miracle Sponge Delight, Aunt Mabel’s Whipped Cheese Surprise, and all the homogenized, pasteurized, vitalized, dehydratized products which were intrinsic to the preparation of the Delights and the Surprises. My friend was happy.

He worked hard in the shop, and his wife worked hard at the stove, her sinkside portable going full blast, of course, so as not to miss a single culinary hint, and then each night they wedged themselves into their breakfast-bar-dinette and ate and ate and ate. They always meant to take up Canfield…but somehow they felt too sleepy. About a year ago he brought home a little set of dominoes, thinking it would be fun to shove the pieces around in a couple of games of Fives before she cleared the table. But she looked deeply at him, gave a great belch, and was dead.

He was desperately lonely. We all thought he would go back to living in the rooming house near the shop, or take up straight rye whisky, or at least start raising tropical fish.

Instead he stayed home more and more, sitting across from the inadequate little chromiumed chair his wife had died in, eating an almost ceaseless meal. He cooked it himself, very carefully. He listened without pause to her radio, which had, almost literally, not been turned off since her death. He wrote down every cooking tip he heard and “enclosed twenty-five cents in stamps” for countless packages of Whipperoo, Jellebino, and Vita-glugg. He wore her tentike aprons as he bent over the stove and the sink and the solitary table, and friends told me never, never, never to let him invite me to a meal.

But I liked him. And one day when I met him in the Pep Brothers’ Shopping Basket, where occasionally I fought back my claustrophobia-among-the-cans long enough to buy the best frozen fruit in town, he asked me so nicely and straightly to come to supper with him that I said I’d love to. He lumbered off, a look of happy purpose wiping the misery from his big face, like sunlight breaking through smog. I felt a shudder of self-protective worry, which shamed me.

The night came, and I did something I very seldom do when I am to be guest: I drank a sturdy shot of dry vermouth and gin, which I figured from long experience would give me an appetite immune to almost any gastronomical shocks. I was agreeably mellow and uncaring by the time I sat down in the chair across from my great, bewildered friend and heard him subside with a fat man’s alarming puff! into his own seat.

I noticed that he was larger than ever. You like your own cooking, I told him to tease him. He said gravely to me that gastronomy had saved his life and reason, and before I could recover from the shock of such fancy words on his strictly one- to two-syllable tongue, he had jumped up lightly, as only a fat man can, and started opening oven doors and suchlike.

We had a tinned “fruit cup,” predominantly gooseberries and obviously a sop to current health hints on JWRB. Once having disposed of this bit of medical huggermuggery, we surged on happily through one of the ghastliest meals Fever ate in my life. On second thought, I can safely say the ghastliest. There is no point in describing it, and, to tell the truth, a merciful mist has blurred its high points. There was too much spice where there should be none;

There was sogginess where crispness was all-important; there be an artificially whipped and heavily sweetened canned-milk dessert where nothing at all was wanted.

And all through the dinner, in the small, hot, crowded room, we drank lukewarm muscatel, a fortified dessert wine sold locally in gallon jugs, mixed in cheese-spread glasses with equal parts of a popular bottled lemon soda. It is incredible, thank God, but it happened.

I am glad it did. I know now what I may only have surmised theoretically before: There is indeed a gastronomic innocence, more admirable and more enviable than any cunning cognizance of menus and vintages and kitchen subtleties. My gross friend, untroubled by any affectations of knowledge, served forth to me a meal that I was proud to be a part of. If I felt myself at times a kind of sacrificial lamb, stretched on the altar of devotion, I was glad to be that lamb, for never was any goddess in the temple poured nectar with more innocent and trusting enjoyment than was my hideous glass filled with a mixture of citric acid, carbon dioxide, and pure vinous hell. I looked into the little gray, deep eyes of my friend and drank deep and felt the better for it.

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