Alan Handwerger

Alan Handwerger

I’d been looking forward to Tuesday evening for a while. Lorrie and I were meeting her sister and brother-in-law in town for dinner at a new French bistro that was getting a lot of buzz. I had looked a look at the menu online, and it read pretty well. I say pretty well because it appeared that they had taken considerable liberties with many bistro classics. Oh well. The proof is in the pudding.

•••

Stylish room. Well-spaced tables. Comfortable chairs. Happy, healthy looking loved ones, recently recovered from a hip replacement (his) and a bout with vertigo (hers). Hugs, kisses.

Enter the waiter.

Is it my imagination or is he looking down on me? Not in the sense that he is standing while I am seated, but rather in what I sense to be his disapproving look when I, disdaining the opportunity to order a $14 cocktail from the elaborate list of the house’s specialty beverages, instead order a Coke.

So, do I call him out on this? Blow up the family dinner before the apps even get ordered? Maybe I’ve misread him? I hold my tongue.

Our beverages arrive. The Coke is flat. The waiter begins his recitation of the evening’s specials, a veritable compendium of culinary gobbledygook designed to make the diner feel hopelessly inadequate. I ask him, in the spirit of two-can-play-this-game, where exactly on the cow the evening’s steak special, teres major, is located. He doesn’t know. Score one for the lowly diner.

Teres major, for the uninitiated, lives in the chuck section of the cow, just around the corner from the flatiron. It’s a muscle that helps connect the shoulder blade to the front shoulder. It used to be cheap; but that was before it got “discovered.”

I only know about teres major because I used to buy it to use for steak sandwiches at my sandwich shop. Not only was it affordable back then ($3.50 a pound with near total yield), it was also flavorful and tender. Still is, I’m sure. But I’m not about to pay $30 for eight ounces of it to find out.

Meanwhile, the waiter, having exhausted his litany of delectables, now eyes my sister-in-law’s near-empty glass and asks, hopefully, if any of us would care for another beverage. What better time to introduce the issue of the flat Coke? I bite my tongue.

•••

I have ordered bouillabaisse for dinner, its preparation being one of the liberties the chef has taken with a classic — mussels, shrimp, fish, octopus, peppers, fennel, udon noodles, coconut broth, toasted baguette, saffron aioli. But my mind is open.

I quite like the udon noodles. Not so much the grossly overcooked shrimp, fish and octopus. But it is the broth, not the chewy seafood, that has me bothered. Granted I have never before had bouillabaisse cooked in coconut milk. But still. How could you cook all of that fish in any liquid, other than perhaps motor oil, and not have the liquid pick up at least a faint trace of seafood flavor? Oh well. Just a meal.

Far more importantly, the family is able to report to one another that all 11 of our grandchildren and their parents are thriving. It is a pleasant enough evening. Maybe not $100 a head pleasant. But pleasant. I tip the waiter from the low end of my scale. Not Canadian low. But low.

•••

“Why are you stopping?” Lorrie asks when I pull into a convenience store on the way home.

“I want a Coke,” I tell her.

As I drive along, relishing the pinpoint carbonation in every swallow, I share at length with Lorrie my views on our restaurant experience. They are not dissimilar from my views on several other of our recent restaurant experiences. I feel badly for her. But I can’t stop.

•••

At home now on the couch, as I lay watching “Heartland,” a show about a family of Canadian horse ranchers who live a delightfully simple life in a small town near Calgary, Alberta, I begin to get hungry when I see Grandpa start to make a bologna sandwich for his lunch.

“Wouldn’t you just love a bologna and cheese sandwich on white bread?” I ask Lorrie.

“With French’s yellow mustard?”

“Absolutely.”

The very next day there appears on my office desk a sandwich. Bologna, American cheese, yellow mustard. On a white roll. If she’s not the nicest person in the world, I don’t know who is.

The sandwich is disappointing. No, really. It is. The market, evidently, was out of the traditional Oscar Mayer beef bologna of our bologna sandwiches past. So, Lorrie has opted for the stuff from the deli counter. And the roll? Well, it just doesn’t have that texture that lets the sandwich stick to the roof of your mouth like it’s supposed to.

I am at a loss. Is it me? Are the bouillaisses and bologna sandwiches of my past destined to become distant memories? Am I never to enjoy another bite of anything that I put in my mouth? What is wrong with me? I resolve to say nothing, focusing instead on the lovingness of my wife’s gesture.

“Well, that sandwich really sucked,” Lorrie comes into my office to say. “The bologna was the consistency of liverwurst.”

“It was kind of mushy,” I concur. And, since the lid was off: “Why the roll?”

“They didn’t have any white bread. Can you believe that?”

Oh well. Life goes on.

•••

Another day. Another sandwich delivered to my desk.

“But …”

“I went to the big market.”

Savor. The only word which comes to mind as I chew, thoughtfully, each enchanting bite of this sandwich, grinning as, with my tongue, I peel the slightly sodden, wonderfully spongy white bread from my palate.

It only gets better. Not only are there enough slices left in the bag to make several more sandwiches, but there is also plenty with which to make my other white bread favorite, the Spit in the Eye for breakfast: a luscious, runny egg cooked into the center of a slice of buttered bread from which a hole has been cut. The bread and egg fry together. The hole is fried in a corner of the pan, and then used for dipping.

So good. So easy. Here’s hoping that bistro never gets hold of the recipe.


Alan Handwerger is a former Stowe businessman. His collection of stories, “There’s a Plunger in My Tree,” was published by Peppertree Press.

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