Pardon My Hush Puppies
Author: Gael Greene
I won’t take you back to the invention of the fork. But you might like a voyeuristic visit to the innocence of dining in the late ’60s and early ’70s. It was the time of Schrafft’s and Oscar’s King of the Sea and Le Pavillon, when my guy and I belonged to a tiny subtribe of New Yorkers, early foodies before the word was invented. (By me, according to the American edition of The Official Foodie Handbook.) My friends and I took cooking classes. We shopped and braised and baked for days, competing to outdo each other at perfect little dinners.
Cafe Chauveron served its lamb rare (if you asked) with primeurs, “infant vegetables tasting as if they’d been grown in butter,” is how I described them in my 1969 review. But there was only parsley in the grocery. No microgreens, no sprouts. No doll’s-house baby beets. No fingerling potatoes. We never said “salumi.” We only knew salami. No one had ever heard of tiramisu. Some of us knew there were Japanese sushi bars in town but few of us dared. Eating insects and squid intestines had not yet became a distinguishing sign of macho, or, as now, fatuous and boring.
Dining out could be humiliating. If one wasn’t an Upper East Side regular, recognized by the terrible-tempered Henri Soulé, one might be denied entrance to a fancy French spot even when the dining room was a sea of white tablecloths. Where tolerated, we would follow the headwaiter meekly to the deepest Siberia. Menus written in untranslated French forced us to order “le steak” or possibly one of the specials, assuming the garçon deigned to deliver the news in English.
Captains might correct our pronunciation, but they definitely did not want to be our friend. Waiters weren’t expected to have a favorite dish. And they didn’t have a compulsive need to ask with each course if we had enjoyed it because it only mattered if Babe Paley or Mrs. Lytle Hull or Sol Hurok were happy.
Dining out was often intimate and decorous. We dressed for dinner. We wore stockings and garter belts. No flip-flops, no naked toes. We checked our coats lest we be instantly tagged as parvenu or, worse, nonvenu.
Only photographers took pictures in those days. No one carried a camera. Not even a tourist would dare pull out a Brownie at La Caravelle—that is, if any tourist could make it past the haughty guardians of the door. I could not imagine that one day, I would photograph each dish as it arrived, and so would everyone else at my table. And dishes would cool as flashes crisscrossed.
Cell phones had not been invented nor even thought of in my crowd. Couples with young children might leave the restaurant telephone number with the babysitter in case of emergency, but no one kept one eye on the quiche lorraine and the other on text messages. No one carried an iPhone with a camera connection to the baby crib. Restaurants were light enough to read the menu without a flashlight. Was there music? Not in any serious restaurant. Everyone over 50 did not suffer hearing loss, because disco dancing and superamplified rock concerts had just arrived to ravish our ears. Aerobics had not yet been heard of. No one was on the Scarsdale diet. Obesity was never a newspaper headline. Lunch at all the Le’s and La’s was $7.95, and women complained about the five cents’ extra charge for coffee. The Times critic Craig Claiborne knocked off stars because owner André Surmain strutted in Hush Puppies at Lutèce, with pencils in his pocket.
My husband might reach for my thigh under the tablecloth in the Pool Room of The Four Seasons because, unable to check on the ball game, he had nothing better to do. Flirtation, even with your mate, especially with your mate, or even with your best friend’s mate, thrived between courses or as the orange sherbet melted because there were no distractions. If your spoiled teenager was torturing the seven-year-old at home, you’d never know. And if the seven-year-old couldn’t find his iPad, he wouldn’t text you at dinner to ask where you put it. As you gazed about the room to see if anyone else was wearing a cheap Givenchy copy from Ohrbach’s, you didn’t see blue light illuminating Botoxed faces. Good God. There was no Botox.
You might think we suffered because people were crude but fish was never crudo. Ducks did not have livers that we were aware of. Foie gras came in cans. There was no polenta. We had spinach, watercress, romaine and iceberg. No kale. (Not that I minded that.) Really good bread was yet to arrive with Eli and Balthazar and Tom Cat. You might come upon a pied de cochon in a modest French bistro but you did not find pork belly on every menu. Indeed, I don’t think anyone ever said “belly.” We were often amused but there were no amuse-bouche.
There were no American chefs anyone knew by name except Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. But then Chef-No-Name was always in the kitchen. We had no Vietnamese food. No Thai. There was only one Mexican anyone had ever heard of, El Parador. It survives on East 34th Street. We did have some wonderful, modest mittel-European restaurants that have disappeared. And Lüchow’s. We had a stretch of Germantown on East 86th Street. All we knew of Italy was Mulberry Street. Chinatown was confined to a few blocks near City Hall, and no one went to Flushing except perhaps when lost on the way to LaGuardia. “We are just cooks,” I quoted André Soltner at Lutèce.
I suppose something has been gained that we can taste a dish, then load the photo on Instagram and tweet with ardor to the world. I wonder how much of the taste and texture gets blurred in that rat-a-tat of technology. I remember racing off to France in the ’60s, dizzy with the discovery of Fernand Point’s foie gras en brioche and Michel Guérard’s batons of sweetbread with matching truffle and ham sticks in cream. The thrill. The ecstasy. And we shivered with the shock of discovery at Chanterelle, Dodin-Bouffant, the Quilted Giraffe, where foodie couples just like us had opened restaurants with the ambition to be as French as possible. Bouley at Montrachet, Daniel Boulud at the Westbury. The nouvelle cuisine. We were not yet a nation of Yelpers, guzzling $16 cocktails with preposterous blendings, hounding after whatever is new. It was the beginning. Everything was new.