Roger C. Parker -
Last Supper at Stoughton Pond, 1973
Eating has always been an important part of my life. Many of my favorite stories have revolved around meals. Meals typically include friends, and friends are particularly important to grown up single children. There's nothing like a table set for six or eight.
One meal was especially memorable because it was not only almost the end of me, but resulted in yet another trip to the local country hospital. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. . .
The meal in question happened twenty-five years ago in Vermont. (My wife, Betsy, and I celebrate our 25th anniversary this Sunday).
Betsy and I had gone for a "last picnic" at Stoughton Pond one evening in late September, about three and a half weeks after the lifeguards had departed. It was early evening. As usual, Stoughton Pond was beautiful and deserted. And, as always, it was cold. Freezing, in fact. Being spring-fed, Stoughton Pond was cold even during the hottest days of July and August. But, that night, with a fall wind blowing and the sun about to go behind the mountains, it was really cold.
The plan was for us to have a quick swim while supper cooked.
We had eaten very well that summer. There was a gourmet grocer about ten miles north of Perkinsville and we used to drive the Austin-Healey Sprite up there and get these wonderful beef cubes which we'd marinate all day with tomatoes, onions and green peppers in salad dressing. In the evening, we'd tightly wrap the meat/vegetables in aluminum foil and go to Stoughton Pond and toss the meal into the barbecue, right on the coals and go swimming. About an hour later, we're enjoy a truly great meal. Fresh air, no job, white wine (Pouilly Fuisse) and the innocence of youth. What a summer!
The meal almost turned out to be a "last supper" in more ways than one.
Betsy located a barbecue with a hot barbecue, requiring just some additional coals to bring it up to speed. Instead of waiting for her, I made a few mistakes. One was I decided to go swimming by myself. The second was I went out too far. Far too far, and the coldness of the water quickly got to me.
Now, for those of you who've met me, it may come as a complete surprise but I'm not really a triathlon swimmer! I'm more of a "survivalist" swimmer. I'm happiest when I can stand up and touch button and walk back to shore.
That evening, because the lifeguards had removed the floats and lines enclosing the swimming area, I didn't realize how far out I had gone. I was almost in the middle of the mile-wide pond. I was in way over my head, (probably about fifty feet over my head).
Realizing how cold and tired I was, I looked back to shore. And saw it was a long way away. And suddenly I felt cold. Very cold. Very, very cold. I thought: "Well, I've done it now!" I honestly thought I didn't have the strength to swim back.
At times like this--it happened on one other occasion--when death stares me in the face--my immediate reaction is to not embarrass myself by asking for help. But, it wouldn't have mattered: there was no one to help me! I felt really alone. I began to wonder if drowning was going to hurt.
To make things worse, I noticed that Betsy was jumping up and down on shore. I thought it was because she was calling me in, but such was not the case. In any event, I didn't have the strength to respond. Rather than sink like a stone, I turned over on my back and starting kicking. It took me about an hour to kick myself back to shore. When I got there, I heard crying.
I thought Betsy was concerned for my welfare, and was going to ask (i.e., complain) why she didn't come out and save me. Then I noticed that she had encountered difficulties of her own. While putting our supper into the hot coals of the barbecue, one of the hot coals had fallen onto the ground and she stepped on it. The pain made her kick her foot, which caused the hot coal to roll up the inside of her leg, almost to the knee! These were deep burns with the ashes from the coal still on the screen.
We packed up and, as so many of our outings did that summer, our "last picnic" (in my case, almost literally) ended up at in the emergency room at Springfield General Hospital.
After having the hospital bandage up her burns and provide a crutch, we returned to our supper, but some dogs had gotten to it first.
We left Vermont soon after for Seattle. (Where we discovered Crepe du Pare which had the most amazing raspberry crapes.)
Since then, we've had lots of memorable meals—including the time I twice spilled a bottle of wine on a friend while peeling off the label and another wonderful Thanksgiving when a guest dropped a huge punchbowl of home made cranberry sauce onto the table, inundating guests, floor, ceiling, dogs and stove with cranberry sauce. But no meal has ever been so cold!
Since Betsy was out of commission following her burns, and it suddenly got cold, we never returned to Stoughton Pond that fall...and winter arrived with a vengeance. With winter came snow, lots of snow, plus the end of unemployment benefits. Many days the Sprite was completely covered with snow. We found ourselves hitchhiking twelve miles back and forth to the nearest supermarket. The end came when the unemployment ran out.
Early next spring we moved to Seattle. As a result, we never, again, had supper at Stoughton Pond.
Hell and the DuBarry
About a decade and a half ago, my three primary friends and I were working for a highly-successful audio retailer and, if truth be told, we had more money than friends. As a result, we tended to eat out together once or twice a week at a small restaurant in Boston's Back Bay.
The DuBarry was startlingly informal. As I look back on those pre-Yuppie years, it probably had achieved a level of family-owned, rural French authenticity that was years ahead of its time. It had hand-made wooden booths, painted a light yellow and the owner and his family waited on everyone.
The DuBarry had several specialties, among them Chateaubriand (a rich cut of meat served with bernaise sauce—the kind that clogs my arteries just thinking about it), great wines (Chatneauf de Pape and Pouilly Fuisse) and fantastic, cooked at your table, flaming crapes suzette. They'd pour on the Grand Manier and light it, causing an instant conflagration that OSHA would probably have a fit if they knew about it. (I often wondered why so many waiters and waitresses there had short hair.)
One night, Joe, Nick and I were celebrating Joe's and my return from London. The wine was flowing. And Joe was celebrating his new Brooks Brother sports coat. Joe was telling about visiting Gilbert and Sullivan's house, I was talking about my adventures in SOHO. (Seems fair to me.)
For some reason that night, I kept peeling the label off the wine bottle. A deep rich Chateauneuf de Pape. I was fixated by it, talking about my European adventures while picking the label. Inevitably, my pudgy little hands slipped and the wine bottle went careening off like a drunken gyroscope, ricocheting towards Joe. It reached Joe's edge of the table and promptly toppled, emptying itself all over his sleeve.
Joe was a perfectionist and hated displays of emotion. Joe liked control. Joe really didn't like red wine being spilled on his coat. Especially when everyone else at the table found it so funny. So, Joe confined his reaction to a few well-chosen words like "barbarians" and "louts," and dipped his napkin into his water glass and tried to blot out the damage. The meal continued and another bottle of wine was served.
About ten minutes later, I found myself once again unconsciously peeling the label of the wine bottle. And, again, once again, losing control and staring horrified at the wine bottle as it hurtled towards Joe and tipped, emptying itself on his other sleeve.
Joe, still in control, threw some money on the table and left without a word. Unkindly, the three of us remaining found great humor in the situation.
Meanwhile, a family reunion was taking place at the next table, a round table seating six. Three generations of the non-smiling type of Boston Brahmins that takes great pleasure in dispossessing widows and orphans. Grandfather (no smile), father (no smile) and thoroughly-unhappy little boy who would rather be home dipping graham crackers into milk than eating steak with bernaise sauce. Sort of a meeting of the lemon-suckers club.
Little boy had smothered his laughter when the first bottle of wine spilled, but completely lost it when the second bottle did its deed. He began laughing and pointing. Father, didn't like this expression of emotion, and stood up to slap the boy.
Some background is necessary: the DuBarry served vegetables family style, i.e. the vegetable du jour was served in a large serving bowl, almost a soup tureen. The vegetable this night in question was creamed spinach.
Well, Father, finding that he couldn't slap across the table because of its width, put his left arm down for support as he leaned forward to slap the son. Unfortunately, Father, in his haste, miscalculated and placed his arm in the center of the serving bowl of creamed spinach.
Now, there's not much of a coefficient of friction between a bowl of creamed spinach, a linen tablecloth, and a wooden table. Father fell forward, flat on his face on the table, sending creamed spinach, wine, Shirley Temples and plates flying.
Now it was our time to laugh.
Then, floor-show over, before father could recover and revoke our mortgages, we forsook dessert and left.
Eating well in Vermont
The year that Betsy and I spent in Vermont with her Austin-Heavly Sprite convertible twenty-five years ago was, in many ways, the best in my life. We were in the position of eating well and not having to pay for it. In fact, the poorer we got, the better we ate!
Cash flow was our only problem. Our primary occupation, outside of my writing an occasional newsletter for an audio dealer, was cleaning and closing the local Laundromat. Twice a week, Tuesday and Saturday nights, we would show up at the Springfield Plaza Laundromat at closing time and make sure all machines were emptied, put the chairs up on the table, put all the unclaimed socks and other unidentified clothing in the lost and find box and, using those great wet mops with the pail on wheels, do the floor.
The key word above, of course, was Saturday. Sometimes, when we had tickets to Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts, we'd leave Boston after the performance, drive for three and a half hours, and have to clean the Laundromat in our good clothes.
For this work, Betsy and I received something like $7.00 a week each. And, we made it last.
But, sometimes the food ran out before the money.
We tried charging food at the local general store, Bob's General Store, but that was never satisfactory. The meat always had a slightly bluish tinge to it, and the only wine they sold was something along the lines of Cotillion Blush. Plus, we always felt that Bob was even broker than we were.
But, we came up with an elegant solution: restaurants at ski lodges!
You see, in the early 70's, credit card companies did not check your credit when you charged. Until you were seriously in arrears, you could charge your life away. (Which, unfortunately we did!)
In lieu of on-line credit card verification, in those innocent days they published this little pamphlet in four point type each month listing people who weren't paying anything on their balance. If you sent anything in towards your balance, they wouldn't include your number...which, really didn't matter, since most restaurants didn't check the pamphlet anyway.)
As a result, the broker we were, the better we ate.
Eating became a three-step process: First, we'd take our clothes to the cleaners and use the credit card to pay for them. Second, we'd charge gasoline for the Austin. Third, we'd head out to Stratton Mountain, to a year-around restaurant called the Post Horn.
The Post Horn had, as so many of our favorite restaurants tend to have, onion soup gratinee, chateaubriand, fine wines and crepes suzette. We'd feast…and not need to eat for the next few days. The cost of the meal didn't matter, of course, since we were charging it!
The paradox, of course, was the broker we got, the better we ate!
When we could pay cash for food, we would afford the Hamburger Helper and the ingredients needed to bake fresh bread and buy cold beer. Nothing beats the combination of fresh warm bread and cold beer! (The only problem with this combination, of course, was that living on top of the volunteer fire department, there would inevitably be a fire just when extreme lassitude set in, usually about midnight following a six pack.)
Of course, things turned a bit bleaker the next year, when I got a job in Seattle and was began to earn real money. We had to pay for all of the food we had eaten the previous year. It took us about a year to pay off our previous luxuries...it was worth it. Mortgages, taxes, children—and cars that started—soon made a dent in our carefree life style.
But, all in all, it was worth it!
Roger C. Parker, RCPCOM@aol.com