November 10, 2011
Mealtimes are fairly well represented in fine art. Wayne Thiebaud had an affinity for deserts. Manet gave us images of Breakfast in the Studio and Luncheon in the Grass. And I think Da Vinci may have a dining scene in his oeuvre as well. And then there’s Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s instantly recognizable scene of a convivial bunch of diners enjoying a summertime meal alfresco. Completed in 1881, Luncheon of the Boating Party is one of the most famous midday meals committed to canvas, but it’s curious to note that in spite of the title, there’s precious little food to be seen. Taking a cue from Clara Peller, I have to ask: where’s the lunch?
“It’s like a painting about the most perfect meal that ever was—but you can’t tell what most of it was,” says Phillips Collection Chief Curator Eliza Rathbone. By the time we see the table, all that’s left are a few not-quite-empty bottles of wine and a compotier of fruit such as grapes and pears, perhaps a peach or two. “It’s the end of the meal. And I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s such a beguiling picture. It’s of that time that comes when everyone has had a delicious meal, they’ve all gathered, they’ve focused on the food and now they’re just focusing on each other and this beautiful day and they don’t want it to be over. And we’ve all had those kinds of experiences where you want to linger and those are the best meals we ever have.”
The scene takes place at the Maison Fournaise, an open-air café on the Ile de Chatou where people of all social classes mixed and mingled as they enjoyed their leisure time away from the bustle of the city. In its heyday the Maison was a popular hangout for artists. It remains open for business, although the scenic views have changed a bit since Renoir’s time.
But it seems Renoir wasn’t much of a foodie. In a memoir, son Jean Renoir, who made a name for himself as a film director, remembers his father preferring simple fare, even when finer things—like veal and soufflés and custards—were laid on the table. In terms of food as a subject for his paintings, actual foodstuffs crop up most often in his still lifes, and even then, his attentions turned to raw ingredients instead of finished dishes. “He could paint a beautiful onion,” Rathbone says. “They’re the ingredients in their most natural form, which is their most beautiful moment. Let’s face it, a chopped onion isn’t nearly as beautiful as an onion whole. I think Monet and Caillebotte did more prepared food in their still lifes than Renoir did. We have a wonderful still life in the collection that’s a ham and it’s a marvelous subject in Gauguin’s hands. He makes the most beautiful ham you ever saw.”
Instead, Renoir seems to prefer to focus on the social aspect of the dining experience. “He was a people person, and people love food. So I think the subject came to him naturally.”
Next time you are in the D.C. area, you can enjoy Luncheon of the Boating Party first-hand at the Phillips Collection, which is a short walk from the Dupont Circle metro.
September 13, 2011
Food is a basic human need and humans are prone to unusual behavior. That combination has provided fodder for several blog posts that take a look at people behaving badly with edibles. Once again we’re serving up a helping of criminal behavior involving food and the food industry.
Kalamazoo, Michigan. September, 2011. Dine, dash and defraud.
Stacy Skartsiaris, 65, had been the owner of Theo and Stacy’s restaurant for 38 years and had never had a problem with customer violence until the morning of September 1. Two women, Deaunka Lynn Dunning and Sheba Jean Kirk, both 30, stopped by the downtown restaurant for breakfast, but as they went to leave with doggie bags in tow, they complained about the quality of the food and informed Skartsiaris that they were not going to pay for the meal. Skartsiaris followed them as they left and said she was going to call police. That’s when the pair allegedly attacked her, kicking her in the midsection and striking her face, leaving her with bumps and bruises. The belligerent pair was eventually arrested and charged with aggravated assault and defrauding an innkeeper. They are due back in court on September 14 for pretrial hearings.
Carlisle, Pennsylvania. August, 2011. BYOB (Bring Your Own… Bag?).
In a push to cut down on plastic usage and be more environmentally friendly, many grocery stores are encouraging customers to bring in reusable bags. Some people interpret the term “reusable bag” fairly loosely, subbing their pants for a traditional shopping bag. Donald Noone, 65, is one of those people. While intoxicated, he went to a Giant grocery store and tried to secret about $20 worth of ribs down his trousers. He was arrested and charged with retail theft and public drunkenness. Turns out he’s also a repeat offender: he tried pulling the exact same stunt back in May. Noone plead guilty to the charges.
Patton Township, Pennsylvania. August, 2011. Something “borrowed.”
Planning what foods to serve at a wedding reception is a big deal—and can be a big chunk of your budget. One Pennsylvanian decided to try to avoid the financial burden. Married on August 18, Brittany Lurch, 22, and Arthur Phillips III, 32, stopped off at a Wegman’s after their ceremony to pick up food for a reception to be held two days later. Cops keeping a keen eye on security cameras observed the newlyweds piling over $1,000 of merchandise in their cart and casually walking out of the store. They were soon apprehended by police and sent to Centre County Jail with bail set at $2,500, more than twice what the reception spread would have cost them. Both were charged with retail theft and receiving stolen property and, of course, they missed their own party.
St. Louis, Missouri. August, 2011. She came in through the drive-through window.
At 2:50 in the morning, a car pulled up to the drive-through at the White Castle on Herbert Street and North Florissant. But instead of cash, the two attending White Castle employees were handed a note demanding all the money in the cash register from a woman who seemed to be packing heat. The two employees ran and locked themselves inside a nearby office and called police. Meanwhile the woman climbed halfway through the drive-through window to grab the cashbox before speeding away, dropping her weapon—a toy gun—in the process. Police were able to track the still-unnamed 33-year-old suspect to her home where, in a last-ditch effort to elude capture, she climbed to the roof and took a three-story leap to the ground. She was hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries and now faces robbery charges.
Taichung, Taiwan. July, 2008. Watch what you write.
A blogger, identified only by the surname Liu, went to a beef noodle restaurant and wrote about her dining experience on her blog. Her words were far from glowing, describing the food as salty and the dining conditions unsanitary. When the restaurant owner learned about the review, he filed defamation charges against her. The court found that the salty food remarks were out of line as she had only one main dish and two sides at the establishment. Her cockroach criticisms, however, could not be classified as slander. Liu was sentenced to 30 days in detention, suspended for two years, and fined NT$200,000 (approximately $6,900 in American dollars.)
July 5, 2011
We introduced two Inviting Writing themes in June, one about bizarre dining-out experiences, and the other about food and sickness. Our grand finale for the latter category comes from Victoria Neff, a computer programmer who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan and blogs at I Need Orange.
A Long Recovery From Chocolate
By Victoria Neff
When I was five, someone took me, my friend, and his little brother down the street for ice cream. I remember we sat up high, on counter-side stools, and I remember all three of us chose chocolate.
That was the last time I ever wanted chocolate ice cream. All three of us (and our mothers) were up all that night, while our bodies did everything they could to get rid of whatever contaminant was in that ice cream. For years after that, even the thought of chocolate ice cream would turn my stomach. My little-kid brain put hot chocolate in the same category, and I couldn’t stand it, either.
Eventually disgust reduced to indifference. The time came when I could eat chocolate ice cream, or drink hot chocolate, but I never enjoyed them.
Fast forward to the summer of 2010, when I had the chance to spend three weeks in France with my daughter, exploring different regions and cuisines. We started in Bayonne, the capital of France’s Basque country. Bayonne is known for ham, Espelette peppers and chocolate.
One lovely morning (all our days in Bayonne were lovely), we strolled over the bridge spanning the river Adour, to the old part of town. The narrow, cobbled street leading to the cathedral is lined with bakeries, boutiques and chocolate shops. Cazenave is known as one of the very best places for chocolate. In addition to dozens of varieties of fancy chocolates, its attractions include a hot-chocolate and tea room. The tea room is a charming place, with white wooden chairs, lace, brown-sugar cubes, tiny napkins, cute china and historical information in four languages. It has been serving hand-whipped hot chocolate for over 100 years.
I ordered tea. My daughter ordered the hand-whipped chocolate. The tea was fine. The hot chocolate was much better than “fine.” Here, at last, was the hot chocolate that was able to overcome my aversion. Here was hot chocolate that was delicious. Chocolatey. Bitter. Rich. Complex. Creamy.
We delighted in a large variety of wonderful foods in France. It’s hardly a surprise that it was there that I recovered an ability to connect with chocolate. I didn’t miss hot chocolate, and I haven’t missed chocolate ice cream all these years, but as I write, I wonder if French chocolate ice cream may be as delicious as French hot chocolate. Perhaps, next time I am there, I will eat ice cream, and will be glad I chose chocolate.
June 27, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked you to share your favorite stories about dining out—your funniest, strangest, most memorable experiences, from the perspective of either the server or the served. Here are three of our favorite short items.
Assault With Menu
I was driving my mother and her friend from Florida to their home in Michigan. We picked up my sister in North Carolina and stopped for lunch. The four of us were taking our time going over the menu when my mother’s friend asked those at the table about grits because she had never had them. The waitress, who was not standing there waiting for our order, somehow overheard me when I quietly replied, “I don’t care for grits, they taste like wallpaper paste!” Suddenly, in a flash, the waitress flew up from behind, gave me one good smack on the side of the head with a laminated tri-fold menu, and said, “Honey, you’re in the South, everybody here loves grits!” I was pretty much dumbfounded! (By the way, it actually hurt and left the side of my face red!) After the initial shock, everyone in our group (except myself) politely laughed, then we ordered our meal. Later, back on the road, my sister made an excuse for the waitress (adding insult to injury) saying that the waitress probably recognized her from previous visits, which must have given her the inclination and liberty to land me a good one! Really?!
—By Judith Burlage, a registered nurse who comes from a huge family of great cooks
Invasion From The Deep
Several years ago I was an executive chef for a major oil company, managing food service on one of their offshore platforms. One night, one of the roughnecks asked my night baker if he could put a loosely covered can in the walk-in refrigerator. Thinking nothing of it, he said, “Yes.”
When I walked upstairs for work the next morning, I was horrified to find the world’s creepiest menagerie of alien-looking sea creatures wandering through my walk-in. Seems the loosly-covered can contained live critters that had been belched up from a pipe that was being cleaned and the roughneck though they would make excellent fishing bait if he could just keep them alive until he left the platform in a couple of days.
—By Rebecca Barocas, through our Food & Think Facebook page.
That’s Cancun Style?
Back in the 70s my hippie art teacher from college and I went to Cancun, long before it became the bustling resort you see today. We got to Cancun on a sketchy wooden boat that had at least 30 people on board. We’d been dining on rice, beans and tortillas all week to try to manage our sparse funds, but we decided to splurge on a real meal for a change and ordered a dish called “Red Snapper Cancun Style.” This was a quaint local establishment and I was looking forward to a nice local treat. We got our meal—and what a plate it was. It was a piece of fish with a half-cooked piece of bacon wrapped around it, skewered into the fish with so many toothpicks that the flavor of wood was imparted to the fish. Topping it were cold canned peas and mushrooms. Not what I expected! (We had a much better meal later that week in Cozumel in a beachfront restaurant that served langostinos sauteed with garlic that was just lightly toasted, and then a little lime juice. Perfect!)
—By Sue Kucklick, a mental health counselor who lives in Cleveland, Ohio.
June 20, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we asked you to share your best, worst or funniest dining-out experiences, from the perspective of either the served or the server. Our first essay reveals just how educational a job in food service can be.
Dana Bate is a writer living in Washington, D.C. She has produced, reported or written for PBS, Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and others. You can learn more about her at danabate.com.
What About Bob?
By Dana Bate
I should have known there was something odd about Bob from the start. When I met him in the summer of 2003, I was fresh out of college and looking for a part-time waitressing gig. Bob managed a small, upscale restaurant in suburban Philadelphia, and he agreed to meet with me on a hot and muggy June afternoon. I had never interviewed for a position as a waitress before. I didn’t know what to expect.
When I walked into the air-conditioned chill of the restaurant, the room lit only by a sliver of light from the glass block windows, Bob emerged from the back. His skin appeared almost translucent against his thick eyebrows and jet-black hair, and his eyes sunk deep into his skull. He looked a bit like a poor man’s Jonathan Rhys Meyers in vampire form—and I mean that in the worst way possible. Why I didn’t immediately head for the door I will never know.
Bob sat me down, and after chatting for a few minutes about my waitressing credentials (or, rather, my complete lack thereof) he offered me the job. Then he proceeded to extol, in a very animated fashion, the virtues of a macrobiotic diet—as one does when hiring a woman to bus plates and memorize daily specials.
Although I had recently graduated from an Ivy League school and prided myself on my book smarts, I lacked street smarts, and so none of Bob’s quirks raised any red flags. Maybe all restaurant managers dressed in black from head to toe and wore silver and onyx rings the size of Cerignola olives. Maybe all restaurant managers offered prospective employees a copy of An Instance of the Fingerpost. What did I know?
Bob promised to show me the ropes, and as the weeks passed, I picked up tips I surely wouldn’t have gathered on my own. For example, when a couple is on a romantic date, it’s a good idea for the manager to pull a chair up to their table and talk to them for a solid twenty minutes. The couple will love it—or so Bob assured me.
Also, disappearing in the basement to “check on the walk-in” every half hour is totally normal – nay, expected. I had so much to learn.
A month or two into my waitressing stint, a new waitress named Beth joined the team. She had fiery red hair and had waitressed for many years at another restaurant down the street. Beth took grief from no one. To her, my naiveté must have been painful.
One night, as we rushed to flip the tables for our next set of reservations, Beth looked up at me.
“Where the hell is Bob?” she asked.
“He’s checking on the walk-in.” I paused. “He kind of does that a lot.”
Beth chuckled. “Yeah, and I’m sure he comes back with a lot more energy, right?”
Come to think of it, Bob did always come back with a little more lift in his step after his trips to the basement. I knew he smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. Maybe it was a nicotine high?
Beth cackled at my ignorance. She tapped on her nose with the tip of her finger and sniffed loudly. “I think we’re dealing with a different chemical here.”
Wait—Bob did cocaine? Could this be true? I considered it. A drug addiction would explain his chattiness with customers and his frequent disappearances. It would also probably explain why I came in one Monday to find that Bob, on a whim, had spent the previous day buffing the copper siding of the bar, alone, just for fun.
As I let this information sink in, Bob emerged from the basement, his lips and nose caked in white powder. My eyes widened. It was true: Bob was doing drugs.
I realized then how naïve I was—how college had broadened my horizons intellectually but had done little to prepare me for the realities of life outside the ivory tower. Sure, I had friends who’d dabbled in illegal substances here and there, but I’d never known an addict. For me, those people existed only in movies and books and after-school specials. But this wasn’t some juicy story in Kitchen Confidential. Bob was real, and so were his problems. I had even more to learn than I thought.
Beth smirked and shook her head as she watched my innocence melt away before her eyes.
“Welcome to the real world, honey,” she said. “It’s one hell of a ride.”