What's Cooking?

Article excerpt

BILL BRYSON [*]

GOING TO A RESTAURANT is generally a discouraging experience for me because I always manage somehow to antagonize the waitress. This, of course, is something you never want to do because waitresses are among the relatively small group of people who have the opportunity to sabotage items that you will shortly be putting into your mouth.

My particular problem is being unable to take in all the food options that are presented to me. If you order, say, a salad, the waitress reels off sixteen dressings, and I am not quick enough to take in that many concepts at once.

"Can you run those past me again?" I say with a simpleton smile of the sort that I hope will inspire compassion.

So the waitress sighs lightly and rolls her eyes a trifle, the way you would if you had to recite sixteen salad dressings over and over all day long for a succession of halfwits, and reels off the list again. This time I listen with the greatest gravity and attentiveness, nodding at each, and then unfailingly I choose one that she didn't mention.

"We don't do Thousand Island," she says flatly.

I can't possibly ask her to recite the list again, so I ask for the only one I can remember, which I am able to remember only because it sounded so awful -- Gruyere and goat's milk vinaigrette or something. Lately I have hit on the expedient of saying: "I'll have whichever one is pink and doesn't smell like the bottom of a gym bag." They can usually relate to that, I find.

In fancy restaurants it is even worse because the server has to take you through the evening's specials, which are described with a sumptuousness and panache that are seldom less than breathtaking and always incomprehensible. My wife and I went to a fancy restaurant in Vermont for our anniversary the other week and I swear I didn't understand a single thing the waiter described to us.

"Tonight," he began with enthusiasm, "we have a crepe galette of sea chortle and kelp in a rich mal de mer sauce, seasoned with disheveled herbs grown in our own herbarium. This is baked in an inverted Prussian helmet for seventeen minutes and four seconds precisely, then layered with steamed wattle and woozle leaves. Very delicious; very audacious. We are also offering this evening a double rack of Rio Rocho cutlets, tenderized at your table by our own flamenco dancers, then baked in a clay dong for twenty-seven minutes under a lattice of guava peel and sun-ripened stucco. For vegetarians this evening we have a medley of forest floor sweetmeats gathered from our very own woodland dell ...."

And so it goes for anything up to half an hour. My wife, who is more sophisticated than I, is not fazed by the ornate terminology. Her problem is trying to keep straight the bewilderment of options. She will listen carefully, then say: "I'm sorry, is it the squib that's pan-seared and presented on a bed of organic spoletto?"

"No, that's the baked donkling," says the serving person. "The squib comes as a quarter-cut hank, lightly rolled in payapaya, then tossed with oil of olay and calamine, and presented on a bed of chaff beans and snoose noodles."

I don't know why she bothers because, apart from being much too complicated to take in, none of the dishes sounds like anything you would want to eat anyway, except maybe on a bet after drinking way too much.

Now all this is of particular moment to me because I have just been reading the excellent Diversity of Life by the eminent Harvard naturalist Edward O. …