November 10, 2011
One Unforgettable Meal
Maybe it was because I had been reading too many early 19th Century romantic novels (Jane Austen) that I decided, of all the choices on the menu, to order The Quail.The gentlemen in those novels are always going off shooting in the fall, and returning with all sorts of birds for the cook to roast over an open fire. Or, perhaps it was because, several years before, a family friend had arrived for a visit bringing with her a basket of tiny quail eggs which she pan-fried and served, four to a piece of toast, and they were so delicious that I thought the bird might be worth eating as well.
I was sharing an apartment with my sister and her husband, just off the colourful Commercial Drive in Vancouver. I was a student at UBC and living on a tight student loan budget. Eating out was a rare event, but one night my new boyfriend, my sister and her husband who was a masters student at UBC, and I decided to treat ourselves to a decent dinner at one of the Drive's many ethnic eateries. We chose a Mexican place with very plain decor - it looked like an office tacked up with cheap souvenir decorations - but with a reputation from at least one source for good food at reasonable prices.
I had eaten less than usual that day to make room for the Mexican feast and was starving by the time we arrived at the restaurant. Perhaps it was an off night for the cook because, while we all ordered our meals at the same time, we were each served at different times over the next hour and a half, with my boyfriend waiting ninety minutes for his meal. I cannot remember what the others ordered or if they enjoyed their food. Those details are eclipsed by the memory of the appearance of the small platter placed before me when The Quail finally arrived. I am not sure what I was expecting. Perhaps something like this dish described in Julia Child's wonderful book My Life in France:
The patron beautifully and swiftly carved off legs, wings, and breast, and served each person an entire bird, including the back, feet, head, and neck (when eating game, you nibble everything). He had placed the breast upon the canape, an oval-shaped slice of white bread browned in clarified butter, topped with the liver - which had been chopped fine with a little fresh bacon - then mixed with drops of port wine and seasonings before a brief run under the broiler. The sauce? A simple deglazing of the roasting juices with a little port and a swirl of butter. Delicious!
There was nothing gourmet about my serving of quail. Spread-eagled, beak up on a single, large piece of green lettuce, my poor little bird was charred to the bone like some kind of burn victim from the apocolypse. I looked down at my 'meal' and wondered what to do. In an effort to honour what I thought was some sort of Mexican delicacy, I took my fork and knife and attempted to scrape away some of the blackened flesh of which there was very little. I tasted it, and decided not to proceed. Still extremely hungry I picked at the lettuce and finished my beer.
We left the restaurant in a terrible mood, some of us still extremely hungry. I'm sure we went home and made some unromantic but satisfying toast and cheese. It was no accident that I spent the next phase of my life as an almost, very pretty nearly, vegetarian.
The other evening I assisted my pastry chef friend at her table at an annual event for local foodies. While my friend and I manned her table filled with hundreds of tiny blackberry buttercream macaroons and s'mores tarts (little graham cracker cups filled with chocolate ganache and topped with her famous homemade marshmallow which we toasted at some risk to ourselves using a butane blow-torch) her mother made the rounds to the other chefs' tables and brought us back tastes of everything. Over the course of the evening, we enjoyed chicken liver pate flavoured with brandy on rounds of sourdough baguette, tender rare bison, bocconcini skewers with cherry tomatoes, salmon tartare, various wines and flavoured mead. I was feeling adventurous by then and as I bit into a particularly foreign-looking canape I asked what it was. "Duck Confit with two kinds of duck!", said my friend.
"Ah", I said, and bravely finished my portion, washing it down with some lovely red wine. I think Julia Child would have approved of the duck confit, but I had to admit after tasting it that while I had made my peace with meat-birds long ago, I would never quite learn to appreciate anything more exotic than a plump, golden chicken or a wine-basted turkey.
Have a wonderful weekend, and if you go out for a meal try something new on the menu...or not.
Thank you Bill Watterson for the great comic from Calvin and Hobbes.