Inside Columbia’s John Littell Recalls His First Bite Of Extravagance
I grew up in one of the richest towns in America. Unfortunately, we were the poorest family there. But there were certain advantages, my father insisted, especially during the holiday season when the local churches delivered food baskets to the destitute. We’re not talking ancient cans of creamed corn here, but smoked salmon, pâté de foie gras and endless bottles of Dom.
Naturally, all my friends were wealthy, and everything I know about fine dining I learned from them. I had nowhere else to turn. My mother cooked on a par with our financial status: strictly poverty row. Her idea of a gourmet treat was a Swanson TV dinner. What the hell is Salisbury steak, anyway? Does it come from an ibex or a yak? Personally, I’ve never seen a roving band of Salisburys galumphing across the Plains.
One of my favorite places to dine back then was at Billy Saunders’ house. His father was heir to a gigantic petrochemical fortune. They had money up the ying-yang, but as far as I knew there was no pool filled with gold, currency and jewels like the one belonging to Scrooge McDuck. Or at least, I never got to swim in it.
Billy had been my best friend since the second grade and we hung out all the time, shooting hoops, tossing a baseball around and playing full-contact football in our school clothes. His back lawn was about the size of England, which was only proper because the house itself might have been mistaken for Buckingham Palace.
On the first floor was what they called the “public rooms.” That’s where they entertained royalty, I guess, but Billy and I found that these enormous spaces were perfect for rainy day roller hockey. We must have wreaked havoc on the marble and polished teak floors.
The Saunders employed a chef, two kitchen maids and a butler to coordinate the lavish dinner parties Mr. Saunders threw on occasion. Neither Billy nor I were ever invited, so we could only imagine what went on.
“You wanna be a guinea pig tonight?” Billy asked me later that day.
That was a tricky question. The chef used Billy to perfect his recipes when Mr. Saunders was away. Sometimes, the food was fantastic … sometimes, not.
“I’m game,” I said. “If it’s not too weird.”
“I wish we could have burgers or hot dogs,” Billy said wistfully.
I got plenty of that stuff at home, so I was usually a willing test subject.
“Maybe it will be good,” I said tentatively. “No more of those Nelson Rockefeller clams, though.”
That was oysters Rockefeller, a dish created in New Orleans. Nelson was the governor of the state at the time.
We played acey-deucey for a half hour. When the dinner gong sounded, I owed Billy $7.4 million. Fortunately, he didn’t need the money and didn’t try to collect.
We made the arduous trek to the refectory, which is what they called the dining room. I usually called my dining room what it really was: the kitchen.
The refectory was aptly named because Mr. Saunders had purchased the entire contents of the room from a monastery in Italy. The walls were festooned with medieval tapestries that went from floor to ceiling and depicted religious and hunting scenes. I always felt sorry for the repossessed monks who had to sit on the cold stone floor to eat their meager meals.
The chairs were massive with embroidered backs that soared toward the vaulted ceiling. They were intimidating but comfortable enough I suppose, although it took all the butler’s efforts just to push them under the gargantuan, solid oak table that was about as long as a runway at LaGuardia Airport. If Billy and I had been seated at either end, we would barely have seen each other, let alone have carried on a conversation. Three-foot-tall white candles poking out of elaborate silver holders cast pools of light on the table and the perfectly polished silverware in front of us.
That room always made me shake my head in wonder. But lest you think I was totally unsophisticated, I have to admit I was an expert in utensil identification and usage. Although she was Julia Child’s evil twin, my mother was a stickler for table manners and choosing the correct fork. To make her point, she would produce the 27,000-piece silverware set she had inherited from some long-dead relative and line up sample place settings that would have baffled Emily Post. How many people, even then, could recognize a marrow spoon? I mean, she had special tools for devouring animals extinct for millennia.
Spin And Marty
The butler appeared with a huge tureen perched on a wheeled serving cart and ladled the contents into our waiting bowls. Quickly finding the right spoon from the vast array in front of me, I dug in. This was definitely not Campbell’s Chicken Noodle, but something on a much higher plane.
“Great,” I said. “What is it?”
“Turtle,” Billy said.
That was a shock. I didn’t know those cute little painted turtles you bought at the circus could be ground up into soup. I had to admit I liked it, but I also knew I’d have to apologize to my own turtles, Spin and Marty, who lounged around in a container adorned with a fake green plastic palm tree. I didn’t know how they’d take the news.
After a lady wearing a black maid’s uniform cleared the table, a similarly garbed woman brought the next course: cold smoked trout. I was dubious about this dish. I never liked fish of any kind, but this was pretty good because it tasted like smoke and not fish.
While Billy and I talked baseball, the table was cleared again and before long, the butler and the two maids marched out of the kitchen in a V-shaped formation. He was carrying an enormous silver tray with a domed lid, which he placed on the table next to Billy. Then, showman that he was, he removed the lid with flourish.
There, surrounded by greens and vegetables, was a circle of bones looking like a miniature Stonehenge.
“The crown rack of lamb,” the butler said, probably for my benefit. He knew a rube when he served one.
The butler carved off two chops for each of us, while the maids rushed around serving the accompanying vegetables and potatoes.
“What are those white paper things on the bones? Do you eat ‘em?” I asked Billy.
“They’re called panties,” he said with a giggle. “Just take ‘em off.”
“Excuse me while I pull off my panties,” I said, giggling myself.
Twelve-year-old boys are like that. I still am.
Baked Mont Sainte-Victoire
The lamb was redolent of rosemary, had a peppery crust and could be cut with a fork. It was absolutely delicious and I wanted more. But visions of Oliver Twist kept my mouth shut.
The lamb was followed by an endive salad with a tangy dressing that I later learned was Gorgonzola. Unlike most Americans, Europeans prefer their salads served after the main course. I happened to know that because my father followed that custom and created chaos in the middling restaurants we sometimes frequented. Some of the waitresses we encountered just couldn’t bear the change in their routine and would serve him a salad before and after the meal. That set him off like a hand grenade and was completely embarrassing.
Despite his French heritage, the chef produced a Baked Alaska for dessert. Or maybe he called it a Baked Mont Sainte-Victoire, but the result was the same: decadently delicious. I was practically licking my plate when the butler arrived carrying a white phone. He plugged it into a jack hidden under the table and handed the receiver to Billy.
“Your father, sir,” he said. “He’s calling from Iran.”
Billy grabbed the phone and asked his father when he was coming home. Not soon, I guessed, because he looked disappointed. But I was blown away. Who ever heard of phones capable of being moved from place to place? Ours were hard-wired to the walls and certainly weren’t white.
While no one was looking, I reached over, grabbed Billy’s uneaten portion of Baked Alaska, and immediately demolished it. He was too upset to finish; I was too greedy to let it go to waste.
As I mentioned, not all the meals I ate at Billy’s were top 10 with a bullet, but the variety was staggering.
“How was dinner?” my mother asked when I returned home one evening.
“Awful,” I said.
“Really? What did you have?”
“Some kind of black stuff that smelled gross and tasted fishy. Cavalier or something,” I said.
“I suppose so. Then we had this goose’s liver — yuck — with little brown things on it,” I said.
“Foie gras and truffles?”
“We also had Hairy Covairs, but I think they were really green beans. You know, I bet they don’t have a jar of Skippy peanut butter in the whole house,” I said. “That junk tonight makes your tuna casserole look good.”
“Thanks for the compliment,” she said.
“You’re welcome.” I was always a polite child, if not a gourmet.
Billy and I were playing stickball in my backyard one sweltering summer day, mostly because the butler refused to let us spray paint a black target on any of their vast garage doors. At my house, no one would notice until it was too late.
By the time we finished the 17th inning, it was getting dark. The score was 56 to 49, so we decided to finish the marathon game later.
“Let’s get a soda,” I said to Billy. Scoring 105 runs was thirsty work. We were relaxing in the kitchen when my 2-year-old sister Susie spotted Billy, shrieked, and made a beeline for him. She climbed up his leg like a clumsy koala and planted herself on his lap. “I give you kiss,” she announced, scaling her way to within striking distance of his face. Then she planted a wet, slobbery smooch on his cheek, clambered down, and tottered away, leaving him dumbfounded.
“Hi, Billy,” my mother said. “You invite John over all the time, would you like to stay for dinner tonight?”
“Don’t do it,” I whispered.
“That sounds like fun,” he said.
Assuming you think food poisoning is a barrel of laughs, I thought.
“What are we having?” I asked suspiciously.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “How about spaghetti and meatballs?”
That sounded reasonable, but you could never tell.
“I’ll need a few things from the grocery store,” she said.
That still sounded reasonable.
“Like what?” I asked.
“Let’s see … some tomato sauce.”
“OK,” I said. “Billy and me will ride our bikes to the store.”
“And some ground beef for meatballs,” she added.
“And something for dessert.”
“And some crusty Italian bread,” she said. “Do you like garlic bread?”
“Sure,” Billy said.
“Then I’ll need some garlic powder,” she said, adding, “What about a nice salad?”
“Then pick up some tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, radishes and whatever kind of dressing you like, and maybe some croutons,” she said.
“Is that all?” I asked, jotting down the oppressive number of items she had ordered so far.
“I think so,” Mom said.
“Good, we can’t carry any more,” I said.
“Oh, and one more thing,” she said as we were leaving.
“What?” I demanded. Would she ever finish?
“A box of spaghetti.”
That’s the way my mother planned meals, on the fly. What other cook in the world would suggest a meal for which she had absolutely no ingredients on hand?
Billy and I returned from the store, loaded down like pack mules.
“I’d better call my father to see if it’s OK,” Billy said. “Will you bring me a phone?”
“Sorry, all our phones are nailed down,” I said. “Use the one in the kitchen.”
He spoke softly for a moment, but when he hung up all the color had drained from his face.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I’ve got to go,” he said.
“Won’t your father let you stay?” I asked.
“He’s not home,” Billy said. “He flew to Eleuthera this morning.”
“Great,” I said, wishing my father would take a few days off and fly to Eleuthera, too, wherever that was. “Now you can stay late — if you survive dinner.”
“No,” he said. “He wants me home at night when he’s not here,” he said.
“Stay, Billy, pleeese,” Susie pleaded. But all her charm was not enough to sway him.
Visibly sagging, he slouched out the door, his head down, mumbling, “He didn’t even tell me.”
Table For One
That night we had soggy spaghetti, burnt meatballs, canned tomato sauce, a wilted salad and limp garlic bread. My father took the opportunity to put on a bad Italian accent, one that matched the meal, and sang to Susie the immortal lyrics: “In my gondola, my sweet raviola.” Then he leaned over and tickled her until she flipped out.
And wet her pants.
As she was led away from the table in disgrace, my father slapped his forehead with an open palm and said, “Mama mia.” Then he poured himself a large glass of some kind of red wine that came wrapped in a straw-covered bottle.
I laughed, but I couldn’t help thinking about Billy. He was probably dining on Lobster Thermidor and Cherries Jubilee. But no matter how fine the food, how expertly prepared and how graciously served in the most luxurious of surroundings, if you’re eating alone, you might as well be chomping down on the monstrous mystery meat carved from the legendary Salisbury.