Photo by Heather SwaimA friend in London found an ingenious solution to the problem of lousy English food: he spends his weekends in Brussels.
He didn't have to explain why he would travel 200 miles for dinner. I grew up in an English home here in Orange County. My grandfather was the Englishman. I once discovered a dead sparrow in his garden. He took the bird carefully in his hands, prodded it gently with his index finger as if he might stroke it back to life, and declared it fit to eat. He baked it into a kind of pie.
The English think pie crust has magical properties. When it came time to learn the nursery rhyme "Sing a Song of Sixpence," my second-grade classmates objected that no one would bake four and twenty blackbirds into a pie. They had never eaten dinner with my family.
Fish heads and berries, marmalade and oxtails, the livers of almost anything mixed with raisins: dump offal and fruit into a pastry crust, and the English think you've got dinner. My mother inherited that impulse from her father. She thought nothing of mixing bone marrow, Cheez Whiz and last week's chili going bad into a pie tin and calling it food. Studying history in graduate school, I read panegyrics to the creativity of American slaves and Indians because these people let nothing edible go to waste. Where these historians saw the wellsprings of a deep spirituality, the great circle of life, an early form of curbside recycling, I saw 6 p.m. at the Mathews family dinner table. I wondered when Eugene Genovese would write a history of my mother's cooking.
Once, she burned spaghetti sauce from a can. I'm not saying it was black at the bottom. I'm saying it caught fire. With thick smoke filling the kitchen and fingerlike flames clawing their way toward the ceiling, I reached for the phone to call the fire department. My mother waved me off. "It's nothing," she said, "and they'll just want to stay for dinner." The idea that anyone, even hungry firemen, would eat my mother's cooking was ridiculous. That night, our family sat down to a dinner of burned spaghetti sauce over undercooked noodles. My father always ate the way prisoners in the Deep South break rocks, except that he didn't sing. That night, his chewing echoed through the silent house like a man walking on gravel. I couldn't eat at all. The following evening, I discovered my own leftovers, and my brothers', cooked into a pie.
Some cultures make a celebration out of meals. The Italians, the French with my own eyes I've seen them sit at a dinner table for half a day. In Florence one evening with friends, I sat in a restaurant for six hours. I fully expected my tablemates to eat, twist napkins and carry on life's more mundane functions until they died there.
In my mother's home, dinner lasted no more than seven minutes. If you ate quickly, I found, you hardly noticed the taste. My mother complained that it took her longer to cook than it did for the family to eat. We suggested she cook less. Early on, I understood Henny Youngman's claim that, at his house, they prayed after they ate. At my house, we prayed a lot before dinner too. That may explain why I turned to Buddhism. Now an adult, I still live with the vestigial fear that I'll be served seconds.
Milk was of little help in washing down these nearly inedible dinners. We were wealthy, but my mother bought something called "concentrated milk": you added two parts water to one part concentrate. The result was white and cold and went bad after a few days, but it was nothing a calf would recognize as milk. One night, trying to wash down a stew made from beef my mother had purchased on sale years earlier and then frozen against the threat of economic depression, I reached for my milk: cottage cheese had formed in it. I paused: it was choke on the beef lodged in my esophagus or wash it down with curds. I drank.
My friends say my childhood is like an industrial accident: some farm kids lose an arm in a hay baler; I lost my sense of taste in Mission Viejo. One night, my mother served spoiled shrimp cleverly hidden in a Jell-O mold the size of a car tire. The shrimp tasted like bait. "They're not spoiled," my mother said, "they were on sale." I waited a decent interval, excused myself, left the house, and looked around for a place to vomit. That's when I noticed water running high in the gutter. I knelt down at the street and drank deeply. Even that did not exorcise the taste. A neighbor saw me and warned, "You'll get dysentery and throw up." "Only if I'm lucky," I replied.
When I hear food critics use words like "disappointing," I think of my mother force-feeding me a plate of ham fat. No, "disappointing" is when your mother discovers oh, happy day that the grocery store butcher throws out old meat, and that you're now tall enough to reach inside the dumpster.
I grew up thinking that everybody ate this way. I looked upon fat people with awe. They were like sword swallowers. How could they make it through so much pie? Insulated from restaurants and bereft of friends, I believed I was a picky eater, discovering the truth only gradually, even now. Life for me is like life for a cancer survivor: each day a gift, they say. I wake up wondering, "What food have I always hated that today will reveal itself as delicious?"
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This week, it was crepes at Brussels Bistro in Laguna Beach. I started with a beer, because the Belgians know even more about brewing than they do about African colonization. Their best beers are those produced in monasteries. They're as thick as Aunt Jemima, dark and sweet, diabetes in a bottle, and the Bistro offers a fabulous selection. My wife would have gone for the extensive wine list, but she was already three martinis into a long evening.
The restaurant is in a well-lit basement on Forest Avenue, once the home of David Wilhelm's Southwestern café, Kachina. It looks like a European café small tables in primary colors packed close together, a jazz singer who seems to speak each line as if she's asking a question, a bar and well-dressed servers. The food is astonishing, a revelation, artistry. I had the crepes with Gruyére, ham and scallions. My wife ordered a stew with chuck so tender it reminded me again why we humans, some of us, eat meat. The Belgians are big on fries, so please order the pommes frites; when I say they'll remind you of burger joints near the beach, you'll understand that I mean that as high praise.
Brussels Bistro is the kind of place where you can linger, talk with the people at the next table, and then find yourself already gorged ordering dessert. We picked the sugar tart, a thin apple pie floating on a creamy sauce of indeterminate origin someplace sweet, clever and wonderful, maybe the witch's house in "Hansel and Gretel" and a chocolate soufflé that took 15 minutes to prepare. We waited gladly, chatting up the German architect next to us. He remarked over his pot of mussels that Brussels Bistro is topflight, even by the rigorous standards of European dining. I told him he had no idea, that you must perhaps experience a little bit of hell in order to truly appreciate heaven.?
BRUSSELS BISTRO, 222 FOREST AVE., LAGUNA BEACH, (949) 376-7955; WWW.BRUSSELSBISTRO.COM. CLOSED MON. CALL FOR HOURS. DINNER FOR TWO, $30-$50, EXCLUDING DRINKS.