1940s Archive

An Alphabet for Gourmets

Originally Published July 1949

M is for monastic …

… and for what happens when men become monks—at table, I hasten to add!

It seems to me that too much has been written about the dogged pleasures that lean be savored by a knowing gourmet who sits down alone to his own idea of culinary excellence. Lucullus is called on far too often to bolster such solitary morale, and many a man who secretly yearns to join the nearest roistering group has smugly comforted himself by remembering how, one rare time when the great Roman general dined alone, he chided his chef for a slight feeling of hit-or-miss slapdashery in the menu. “But, My Lord (or Your Excellency or however anyone as rich as Lucullus was addressed some two thousand years ago) has no guests tonight,” the poor dolt stammered, “and therefore…”

And then enough was said, when the fabulously skilled gastronomer shrugged coldly and remarked, “But tonight…tonight Lucullus dines with Lucullus!”

Yes, what comfort that cruel reproach has been to countless lonely but still normally hungry souls! They have sat back in world-wide beaneries, called everything from Twenty One to Ye Kats Meow, and hoped devoutly that they looked as blandly gourmandish as they wished they felt.

Some cities make this solitary public act much easier than do others. It is apparently impossible for a man to dine

alone with dignified enjoyment in Los Angeles, for example—perched at a drugstore counter which automatically cancels out the dignity, if not the enjoyment. I have yet to see any normal southern California male go willingly by himself to an eating house and consume an intelligent meal easily and pleasurably.

On the other hand, San Francisco has many restaurants where men seem to go, not merely to stanch the sounds of their immediate appetite, but to sit alone and savor without chitchat what has been set before them. There arc places like Sam’s and Jack’s and Tadich’s, often with mousy-looking, curtained booths upstairs which, in the main, are not filled with the expected willing damsels and their expectant hungry escorts, but instead with calm-faced lawyers and bankers and vintners and sea captains, sitting miraculously by themselves, reading Elizabethan sermons and sonnets or studying the intricacies of a cracked crab shell.

When I was last in Paris and last in London, they were like that and will be again, I think.

But no matter how much help a place may give, men dining alone in public do not often find the Lucullan ease and elegance they wish for, and as for their private gastronomical patterns, they are fantastic! For one famed celibate whose Filipino houseboy understands not only the intricacy of a soufflé au Grand Marnier but also the precise and precious moment at which to serve it, there are a hundred, a thousand, myriad men who are caught in the drab toils of modern monies and cannot afford such escapism.

They must live alone, for one reason or another. They learn countless ugly little tricks for such existence, which add to the hateful pattern. They gradually forget Lucullus and lean on One Good Meal a Week, with the rest filled in by snatched bottles of milk and grabbed drugstore ham-on-ryes. Now and then they let a girl grill them a steak in her kitchenette, which they would not let her pay for in a restaurant, for obtusely virile reasons.

But in general they prefer, in a strange, proud monasticism, to survive in solitude. Quite often they find themselves, like a friend of mine aptly named Monk, in much that position.

He was about twenty-eight, which sounds young to some of us, but he was much older than must of the students in the university where he was writing his doctor’s thesis. He had very little money, and thanks to family troubles and an occasional irrefutable urge for pretty girls, he found himself living on a food-purse which dwindled within a few months from seventy-five cents a day to about twelve. This happened to him in 1939, when the sum meant twice as much as ten years later, but even so, he was hard put to it to sleep, for the way his innards cried out and warbled to him in the night.

He was not alone in his hunger: thereare many such students, who later grow fat as college presidents, and they tipped him off to the timeworn tricks of serving at fraternity banquets and eating the scraps and suchlike. But Monk was finicky, and out of pure finickiness, his belly protested at such untidy snatchings.

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