Sunday, January 29, 2012

Moonshine and Beef Jerky

Sometimes, I think my life is one big giant sitcom. Maybe because I watched nothing but sitcoms growing up, and I continue to love them. One of my many exes actually arranged his house like the set of a sitcom, and when we would have conversations, he would wink and smile at the imaginary audience. And, people wonder why I have remained single for so long. 

Lucy Ricardo once said, "Some people are cut out for champagne and caviar. I'm more of the beer and pretzel type.” If that is the case, then I am “moonshine and beef jerky.”

Recently, a friend of mine invited me to a birthday dinner for his sister, which was being held at a restaurant I did not know. I had never met his sister or anyone else who would be there, but I was up for the challenge of hobnobbing with strangers in a fancy restaurant. Little did I know how fancy it would be!

I told Frank (you know my friend Frank who kept me from taking the shuttle to St. Elizabeth’s on moving day) where I was going, and he said, "You will need to wear a jacket and tie, or a tie, or a jacket." I panicked. Although I don’t wear jeans, I also don’t wear jackets and ties. My wardrobe is sort of dress casual even when I go to the supermarket. I decided to call the restaurant, and they told me it was business casual, but I couldn’t leave it at that.

“Do I need to wear a jacket?”


“Do I need to wear a tie?”


“Do I need to wear dress shoes?”

“They would be preferred.”

“Are kakis acceptable?”


“Can I wear them with this smart looking off-white mock turtleneck sweater I just bought on sale at Sears?”

“Yes … sir I am busy, and I need to go.”

She hung up so fast that I couldn’t ask if the brown and beige argyle sweater with the V-neck would be a better choice. I felt like Sally Rogers getting ready for a blind date when she asked, “Should I wear the dress with the low V neck or the one with the high slit in the skirt?” Buddy Sorrell said, “Wear the top of one and the bottom of the other.”

When she arrived for the date at Rob and Laura’s, with a mink stole on, she came in yelling, “Where is this tall, handsome, PRIEST you wanted me to meet?” Laura forgot to tell her that the man, a former beau, turned out to be a priest.

Rob, went to take her mink stole, and she screamed, “No.” So, we knew what dress she wore.

After getting some wardrobe clarification, I looked at the menu online. Oh my God! The lowest priced entrĂ©e was $48, and everything was ala carte. I wasn’t sure of protocol when being asked to a stranger’s birthday party, so the afternoon before the big event, I cashed in my 401K just in case I, the stranger who came to dinner, would have to pay his own check. Who needs a retirement, when you can eat prime rib and spinach soufflĂ© for close to $100?

Let me back up a bit. I like diners and dives – not the show, actual diners and dives. Over the years, I have found that some of the worst meals I ever ate were the most expensive, with a few exceptions, and some of the best at the greasy spoons and truck stops, with no exceptions.

My family was not known for fine dining, probably because in Newport News, Virginia, there was little of it when I lived there. The fanciest restaurant around was Nick’s Seafood Pavilion on the York River, which I believe closed in 2005. The waitresses would wear Greek influenced uniforms made entirely of bed linen. Bed linen makes for heavy costuming, so the waitresses were all built like East German women’s basketball players.

Going to Nick’s was considered a major treat. No reservations were allowed, you waited in line for some time to get in, and the lines were arranged by the number in your party. The food was expensive by Virginia Lower Peninsula standards, but it was good. And where else could you get an iceberg lettuce wedge salad with thousand island dressing for $10? The view of the river from the main dining room was magnificent. The place was filled with all kinds of authentic Greek art, and the dining room had heavy linens and fancy silverware and plates.

On one of our last visits there, I ordered a scallop dish. The portion was not that large, and my mother went on and one about how I didn’t know how to order in a fine restaurant. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I said, “How could I know how to eat in a fancy restaurant? The fanciest place we’ve ever eaten is Uncle Jimmy’s Pizza?” My father thought that was funny. Even funnier was that half of Uncle Jimmy’s was a Laundromat. Once when we ate at Uncle Jimmy’s, Nana got so excited because they were one of the last places to serve instant Sanka. Her favorite restaurant was the Hot Shoppe at Van Ness in Washington, DC.

I spent almost twenty years working in the restaurant business, and the fanciest place that ever employed me was the Rod & Gun in Delray Beach, Florida, where I got my first exposure to New York Jews, the stories of which would fill a blog and book of their own.

We had fancy linens and uniforms, a stellar wine list and French cuisine, but we also had an early bird menu with soup, salad, coffee or tea and dessert for $15.95. It was hardly five star.

I bought a present for the birthday girl based on her love of cooking and inability to settle on a favorite color and drove my 1983 AMC Eagle Wagon to eat, excuse me, dine the way the other half does.

Upon finding the restaurant, I saw they had valet parking, and I could just picture waiting at the end of the evening for the valet to try to start a car with a carburetor, so I decided to park in the garage next to the restaurant, which was also for the Ritz Carlton. I parked next to the most expensive BMW I could find. I love scaring people.

In spite of the hostess’s reluctance to help with me with my wardrobe, I wore the off-white sweater, kakis, dress shoes, and I topped it off with this olive blazer-coat combination I picked up when a big and tall shop went out of business years ago. It sort of looks like a blazer but doubles as a coat and it has shoulder pads like Joan Crawford's. And when in doubt, I ask, “What would Joan Crawford do?”

"In three months, I was one of the best waitresses there. I took tips and was glad to get them. And at home I baked pies for the restaurant." OK, not a sitcom, but Mildred Pierce is a great movie."

I arrived before my friend, so I waited near the hostess stand, and I am glad I did not take wardrobe advice from her. She was no older than twenty-five, but she was wearing a flower in her head as if she was the long lost White Pointer Sister. If I weren’t meeting a bunch of strangers, I would have called her over, yanked that flora from her head and fixed her hair. It took everything in me not to pull out my styling pick and Aquanet (I’m old school).

My friend arrived, and we were seated with the rest of the party. Introductions were made, and for the first time in a long time, I did not sit at the head of the table. You know from last week, I am a number eleven, and even strangers tend to put me at the head of the table. But I was a stranger in a strange land (subliminal Jewish reference), so I sucked it up and made a note to claim my rightful place at the table next time I ate with this group … if there would be a next time.

Now, you know I love my own family, but they are just trash.

In this group was a former high official in law enforcement, a high ranking congressional employee, an attorney, two real estate developers, and a man at the other head of the table who looked at me with suspicion. He was only six years older than I but looked to be twenty years older, so I knew he was straight. Poor straight men; they don’t age very well – probably because they live with straight women.

I looked in front of me, and there were two napkins – one black and one white. I asked my friend why, and he said the napkins are based on what you are wearing. I asked if they had gingham. There were three glasses in front of me, one for water, two for wine. I guessed red or white. I was correct. Thank God this wasn’t one of those places with seventeen forks. There is nothing worse than eating macaroni salad with a shrimp fork. I am the one who always gives up the incorrect fork to the waiter and then has to eat his steak with a soup spoon.

The birthday girl loved the gift I bought for her kitchen, and one of her friends asked where I got it because she wanted one. I said a boutique store near where I live. I didn’t know how to tell her it was Walmart. I made a note to get her a set next time I was there.

Then, we ordered cocktails. Someone ordered a Belvedere, which I thought was drink butlers enjoy. Apparently it is type of martini. I sipped it, and it was yummy! Other fancy drinks were ordered, and the waiter looked at me. I felt like Paula (played by Penny Marshall on the Mary Tyler Moore Show) out on a date with Lou and another couple, and after everyone ordered, she said in her best Penny Marshall voice, “A beer.”

I asked what they had on draft and ordered a Belgian beer, which was served room temperature. I commented that it was like the beer I drank in Belgium (might as well let the better half know I have travelled abroad), but the waiter informed me that something must be wrong with the tap as it was supposed to be cold. I decided I liked it like that, and he comped it anyway. I’ll bet it cost $30 a glass.

Dinner was lovely. I had the lamb chops, but you will be happy to know I did not pick up the bones and suck the meat off them, but it took everything in me not to!

I did learn one thing about the other half. No matter how fancy the environment, get a few drinks in them, and they get just as trashed and trashy as the rest of us. The nouveau riche, what can you do? People are people.

The birthday girl’s husband picked the check, so I was able to restore the funds to my 401K.

Afterward, my friend asked how I enjoyed the evening with his crazy family. Crazy? Oh honey, if that had been a meal with my family, someone would have cried, someone would have thrown a plate, and someone would have left in anger without paying. And that would have been dinner for two!

I always said dinner with my family was like a meal in a mental institution. My father used to laugh at that as well.

After eating a meal that cost twice as much as my mortgage, I returned the trailer park with personality! I also forgot to bring the lamb bones home for Esmeralda!

Next time.

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