It Seems To Me

The Second-Best Sauce

The joys of “home” cooking.

Illustration by William L. Brown

“There’s no sauce in the world like hunger.” You may think that your grandmother made that up, but actually it was Cervantes in Don Quixote, about 400 years ago. Neither I nor any of my friends are ever hungry except for a few hours on Yom Kippur, so I am unable to test Cervantes’ proposition. I will concede it to him, however.

I want to talk about the second-best sauce, which is “belonging.” Food tastes enormously better when it is eaten in a place where you are accepted as a special person, special for something other than the color of your credit card.

Iwas struck by this proposition about a month ago when I spent some time with my son in Los Angeles. In the space of two days, we ate four meals–lunch and dinner and then lunch and dinner again–in the same restaurant. My son thought the food was great; I thought it was only pretty good. He seemed disappointed that I did not share his appreciation of the food. A little later I realized what the problem was. The restaurant was a gathering place for people in “the business,” meaning the Hollywood movie-and-TV business. My son was one of them. When he came into the restaurant, people slapped him on the back and said, “Great show, Ben!” And he slapped someone else on the back and said, “Great show, Tom!” (or whoever). This was his club, and that made the food taste great. But it was not my club.

I can see many other examples of this in my eating history. The most obvious is the White House Mess. To eat there one had to be either a fairly high-ranking official of the administration or the guest of such a person. That is, eating there gave one a strong sense of special privilege. (When I was there we hadn’t yet learned that access to the privileges of the White House could be sold for cash.) And this sense of belonging made the food taste great. But the cooks there were not graduates of the Cordon Bleu. The pièces de résistance were the cheeseburger, the hot fudge sundae, and the Tex-Mex food on Thursdays. Objectively speaking, one could get better food at any of six restaurants within two blocks of the White House. But the judgment of the food in the White House Mess was not an objective judgment.

Illustration by William L. Brown

One doesn’t have to eat in “high-class” surroundings to get this delicious feeling of belonging. For some time after we were married I used to tell my wife about the great meals prepared by Freddie the Cook. That referred to my college days. I had been the dishwasher at a fraternity house. The waiters were all members of the fraternity and ate the same meals in the same dining room as the other members. But I was not a member, so I ate in the kitchen with the other kitchen help who were not students and who were all “colored,” as we used to say. We in the kitchen felt that we were getting the best of everything, better and fresher food than was served to the members upstairs. What it all was, I no longer remember, with one exception: For dessert I often had a quart brick of vanilla ice cream bathed in the wonderful syrup extracted from the sugar maples around Williamstown, Mass. But Freddie was really a mediocre cook.

There was a time, probably now past, when medium-price restaurants would advertise themselves as serving “home cooking.” They were trying to play upon the memory of home cooking as having been very good cooking. But the odds were against your mother having been a very good cook. It was mainly the feeling of having been part of the family that made the food there seem so good in retrospect.

Good restaurants exploit this feeling. They know that you will enjoy the food more if the headwaiter greets you as “Mr. Jones” without having to look in his book when you come in. That is, if your name is Jones. Otherwise, to be called “Jones” spoils the meal.

Ihave eaten in some three-star restaurants in my time–almost always on someone else’s expense account. Only one of those meals was memorable. That was in a restaurant off the Champs Élysées where I ordered ris de veau in the belief that it was veal with rice. Quelle horreur!

Surely there are exceptions to my general rule. There must be people with palates so fine that even blindfolded they could tell the difference between food from La Tour d’Argent and food from McDonald’s. And there probably is some food so good that even I, eating it in a strange place, would recognize its merit. But, in general, my rule holds. If you are not hungry, eat where you belong!