A haute time

By FRED BAYLES  |  August 7, 2009

The question of sauce led to the question of gravy. The French chef, who had been talking liberally about the need to educate the public about eating, suddenly became enraged when telling of a customer who once asked for gravy. "He wanted gravy for his meal," the chef said, then pausing to let that sink in, repeated it. "Can you imagine. HE WANTED GRAVY!" I tried to look as shocked as my dining companions. But I was confused. Gravy and sauce always seemed the same to me. One just seemed a fancy way to say the other. In a confusing world, I had always considered one man's sauce another man's gravy.

I looked over at Julia's table and received another shock. She seemed to be talking with her mouth full. I nearly dropped my sauce spoon. The others at her table were picking indifferently at their squab/pigeon, and there was Julia, arms akimbo, dismantling her main course and talking as she chewed. This is a real woman, I thought. And I ate with a similar frenzy, unconcerned with what the people at my table would think.

I spent the rest of the meal with my eyes riveted to Julia. The others at my table may have thought it rude, maybe even strange. I didn't care. There was a master at work, and I wasn't going to miss a minute. There she was, fork and knife in hand enjoying her food, slurping her wine, masticating, and talking—all at the same time. Now and then I thought I heard her make little happy noises as she ate. She even snorted once, loudly and with no embarrassment.

I have a friend whose whole family sings at the table. Not exactly songs, more like the sound of purring on a human scale. Eating with him was disconcerting at first, but I got to like it. Eating with his entire family was like eating at the symphony. They enjoyed their food, ate it quickly, and weren't shy about bringing out more. The mother made soft soprano noises; the father ate in baritone. My friend was a tenor at the table. It was one of my more pleasant dining experiences. And there was Julia, making what seemed to be the same sounds, as she carefully wiped her plate clean with piece after piece of bread. If she were the leader of a cult religion, I would have shaved my head and joined.

Dessert was Les Sorbets Maison, sherbet, I guess, to help cleanse our palates. The sherbet was in an edible bowl of some kind of pastry. The dish was covered with a detailed latticework of vanilla and chocolate icing. I looked at my dining companions. They were picking indifferently at the sherbet. I looked at Julia. She was breaking off the pastry with her hands, popping it into her mouth, and dredging up the icing in big gobs on her spoon. I followed her lead, making happy noises as I ate. I felt freer than I had in a long time.

They were passing out Le Café when I could contain myself no longer. I approached Julia's table the way someone would approach the pope. I wondered if I should kiss her ring. She probably would have understood, but it might not have been the proper thing to do during coffee. Instead, I told her of my admiration for her cooking and shyly thanked her for setting me free.

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  Topics: Flashbacks , Culture and Lifestyle, Food and Cooking, Foods,  More more >
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