Most of us experience meals that are especially memorable from time to time. Sometimes the food tastes or is presented so wonderfully that we remember those factors, perhaps even forgetting the occasion. Then there are the times when “yummy” was not enough, but something special happened or a celebrity or famous person appeared or was nearby. Perhaps a simple meal changed into a memorable one simply because of the circumstances. Here are a few “Memorable Meals” that have brightened and highlighted my life and remain important in my memory.
When I was a small child in the 1930s living in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, I saw little of my father during the week. The Great Depression brought hard times to virtually everyone, and my father was fortunate to have a job that put bread on the table for his wife and bratty little kid (me), paid the rent, and kept the wolf from the door. He arose at 5:00 AM and was out of the house by five-thirty six days a week. He did not return home until sometime between 7:00 and 8:00 PM daily. But HE HAD A JOB; many others did not.
He would load his delivery truck with packaged cakes and pies, drive into the anthracite regions of Central Pennsylvania, and service “Momma and Poppa” grocery stores in towns like Shamokin, Mount Carmel, Shenandoah, and Paxinus. (I am not certain of the spelling of the latter, but to this day I remember the small bridge leading into and out of the town that frightened me every time we crossed it. Bridges do not usually bother me, but just thinking about that one bridge still gets me queasy some seventy-five years later.)
When I matured to the ripe old age of eight or nine, on summer days with school out, my father would wake me at five. I got dressed and ready, and got to watch him shave. Then we headed out to a small diner on Fourth Street where we always had the same breakfast: ham and eggs with toast, coffee for him, and milk for me. After breakfast we, really he, loaded the truck then drove out for the small towns and little stores. (Super markets did not exist yet, at least not in that area.) I helped him carry the cakes and pies into the stores where the proprietors would make a big fuss about “Cohen’s kid.” Then they plied me with candy, pretzels, and soft drinks in every store. I was a “man” helping Dad and working. I believe I slept most of the time while Dad drove, but I was as happy as any kid on the planet. (To this day, just thinking about those special breakfasts puts a smile on my now old, wrinkled face. Often when something bothers me or some family crisis hangs over us, I manage to get to an old fashioned diner and order, you guessed it, ham and eggs. Breakfast, lunch, or dinner? It does not matter, although I do not recall ordering it more than once in any day. Ham and eggs remains my number one comfort food, only with English muffins and iced tea instead of milk.)
In April of 1950 I was nineteen years old and a student in junior, now “community,” college. A buddy of mine from high school had joined the Marine Corps Reserves and played on their baseball team. While we were playing catch and hitting fungoes to one another, he told me that the Reserves had a good team, but lacked a first baseman. I played first quite well defensively and hit all right, at best. He told me that if I joined the Corps, I would have to march around once a month, get $10, and could play first base on their team. I agreed to sign up on a Saturday morning that April.
For the life of me I cannot remember what the occasion was or why I had to go, but that Saturday there was some sort of brunch at my college and I had to attend. I, therefore, did not enlist in the Marine Corps Reserves in order to play baseball. The fateful day was in April 1950, in June the Korean “Police Action” broke out, my buddy and his group were called up to active duty immediately. By August they had suffered 50% casualties. (I do not remember the occasion, the food, or anything else about that brunch, but I thank my lucky stars for that MEMORABLE MEAL.)
In August 2016 my wife Shirley and I celebrated our 50th Wedding Anniversary. In addition to a brunch for family and close friends, we treated ourselves to an Alaskan cruise. We had taken the Alaska cruise before, so sightseeing was not our primary motivation. We had had a relatively difficult year and wanted to be pampered. Someone else would prepare meals, clean up after them, make the beds, and generally take care of the little daily, household chores we wanted to leave behind for ten days.
For those not familiar with cruising, meals are quite sumptuous, well prepared, usually delicious and plentiful, plentiful, plentiful. Those so inclined can easily enjoy three to six fine, large meals every day as part of the basic fee for the “room and board” on the ship. Most ships also have specialty restaurants where, for an additional charge, one can be served ethnic foods in large portions and delightfully presented. Shirley and I had never bothered with any of the specialty restaurants in our many cruises.
When we arrived at our stateroom as we boarded the ship, we found an envelope outside the room with an invitation to enjoy a special dining experience at the Steak and Seafood specialty restaurant. It was, indeed, special! The courses and portions could have fed us for two or even three dinners, although we managed to pack away most of it. The preparation and presentation of the various courses were just delightful. The taste, or rather, “tastes”? Tres Bien! Molto Bene! Delicioso! In other words: a heck of lot better than our usual fare. It capped our two week celebration of our fiftieth in fine style. (Thank you, Princess Cruises, for a delicious, memorable meal that greatly added to our already memorable celebration.)
About ten years ago Shirley and I visited Venice, Italy, for four days. It was our first, but not last, time in Venice. We were on a three week Grand Circle tour that included Rome, a week in Sorrento, a week in Montecatini near Florence, and an optional four days in Venice. Our hotel was an ancient convent that had been renovated, modernized, and made comfortable and inviting. Venice consists of many islands and we stayed on Lido Island.
We decided to take a sightseeing walk around some of the island and search for a place for lunch. We found a place in Italy that served a wonderful American food: PIZZA. Although Shirley eats chicken, fish, and some beef, she could easily become a vegetarian. To me, pizza is Hawaiian—ham and pineapple, period. The restaurant did not have individual sized pizzas (pizzi?), so I asked if we could have one half veggie and half ham and pineapple. One would think I had asked to desecrate the Italian flag or vandalize a church. All the server said was a resounding, “NO!” Slowly, in English with my newly acquired ten words of Italian, I tried to explain that it can be done and how it is done, using, of course, many gestures. The server relented enough to say he would ask the boss, his attitude indicating that there was no way for it to happen. A few minutes later he came back with a puzzled expression and hesitantly said, “Okay.” We got our half and half pizza.
The pizza was good, not great. There some places here in the East Bay that, in our opinion, are as good or better, but it was tasty and palatable. (We remember that lunch fondly, however, because we felt that we had changed the course of Italian culinary history.)
When I was about fifteen or sixteen, my family lived in Atlantic City, New Jersey. People were just settling into life that did not center on war and the wartime economy that predominated during World War II. Radio was our primary, indeed only, means of immediate communication with television a few years off in the distance. When I could, I enjoyed listening to Arthur Godfrey over the AM, simple, scratchy quality radios available then.
One day on his show, Godfrey told the story of Ginsberg, a Jewish tailor from the Bronx who had no wife or family and was ready to retire. He decided to give himself a retirement present of cruising back to Europe and visiting the graves of his parents. The first day on ship he was seated with a Frenchman who also was alone. At dinner the Frenchman arrived first, sat at the table, and greeted Ginsberg with “Bon appetite!” as Mr. Ginsberg sat down. Speaking no French, he simply replied “Ginsberg.” The situation repeated itself at every meal until a steward overheard the two men unable to communicate in a common language. The steward took Mr. Ginsberg aside and explained that Mr. LeBlanc was saying, in essence, that he should have a good satisfying meal, which embarrassed the retired tailor. At the next meal he made a point of arriving first and when the Frenchman sat down, he proudly said, “Bon Appetite!” To which the Frenchman replied, “Ginsberg.”
When Shirley and I got married, I told her the story and it became a family joke. (Recently in the dentist’s office, I spotted a copy of the magazine “Bon Appetite,” and said to Shirley, “Look, there’s Ginsberg magazine.” The receptionist who overheard had a puzzled expression on her face which seemed to ask, “A magazine named Ginsberg?”)
About twenty years ago when we still lived in Daly City on the Peninsula, early one morning we got up, drove to the airport, flew to Vancouver, Canada, rented a car, and headed for Banff National Park. By about three-thirty in the afternoon we had not had lunch and both of us were exhausted and famished. We found a rustic, upscale restaurant high in the Canadian Rockies where we each ordered a salad. It seemed to take forever to prepare the salad, and we both were losing patience when the server finally appeared.
He placed our meals before us and, with a touch of attitude, said, “Bon Appetite!” Simultaneously we both blurted out, “Ginsberg,” and both of us started laughing hysterically with tears streaming down our faces. The poor server could not understand, asked if something were wrong, and lost his “tude.” We tried to explain between the laughter and the tears, but we were not too successful. The memory of that meal was worth every penny of the extra tip I left the bewildered young server.
So to you, dear Reader, when you sit down to dinner tonight, we wish you “Bon Appetite!” You know the response!