By Guest Writer: N. Jeanne Burns
He laughed. “That was one-hundred-year-old balsamic–$250 per ounce.”
Its velvety sweet flavor hinted at a heavy red wine, but with a subtly sharp vinegar taste in the background. I’d never tasted something so good or so expensive. I wanted more.
After that dinner, for very special times my partner Liz and I wanted to mark, we splurged at restaurants where haricots verts are slender green beans, charcuterie is a selection of shaved deli meats, coulis is a thin sauce. I never liked steak until I felt my first bite of filet mignon melting on my tongue. And you would never have seen me eat a parsnip until I had tasted pureed root vegetables at a local French restaurant.
I don’t tell mom about my food escapades because I’m certain she’d be offended at the amount of money we spend on a dinner for two and be worried about how I dressed. “You wore hose and a slip, I hope,” she’d say, the o in hope drawn out as if there were a u after it. She never wanted her social class to show and taught me to mimic people I judged to be a higher class than I, as she had.
When my mother told me she first used a napkin when she was fifteen, in 1960, I had a lot of questions. What did she use to wipe her mouth before 1960? (An arm or sleeve.) Did all her friends and school mates wipe their mouths with their sleeves? (Yes.) And, finally, how did she learn to use a napkin?
An upper-middle-class family had come into the hills seeking a live-in babysitter and found my mother. She moved away from her family for the first time to take this summer job. When mom was asked to set the table, she was told to set out napkins (she doesn’t remember whether they were cloth or paper). She watched the family members wipe their mouths. She mimicked their actions, inferring correctly that people in a class above hers use napkins.
My neighborhood housed firefighters, truck drivers, and janitors so I first encountered middle class people in college. Since then, I’ve observed and mimicked cultural mores many times. I have failed at the part of inference sometimes.
My first time in college, I saw lots of well-dressed pretty women wearing safety pins that had been decorated with variously colored short ribbons that seemed to match their clothes. I made a color-coordinated pin for each of my outfits and wore them until a woman who was offended that I would steal her sorority’s colors dressed me down. I never again trusted what I saw to be appropriate.
Still, I watched and learned.
I grew up with paper napkins. We kept them by our plates and picked them up to wipe our mouths. If we were eating something particularly messy, I would spread out the paper and tuck the tip into my shirt. The restaurants we went to growing up all provided paper napkins. Sometimes they gave us rectangular and thicker napkins than the Viva brand we used at home, but they were always paper.
The first time I used a cloth napkin was at prom, which was held at the Hotel duPont, the nicest hotel in town. But I kept it on the table.
I was in my late twenties before I noticed people around me putting their napkins on their laps. This didn’t make sense to me. The mess I make when I eat is on my face or on my shirt. I never get stains on my pants because the drips drop at the shelf on my chest. Why wouldn’t I want the napkin closer?
I asked a friend when I first noticed the napkin in the lap, and she laughed at me, saying only white trash tuck their napkins in their shirts. A napkin on my lap still doesn’t make sense to me, because after my friend laughed at me, I became afraid of asking about social class conventions.
Finally, at twenty-nine, I had my chance. My friend Nils presented artichokes to go with the baked chicken he’d just taken out of the oven.
“How about artichokes for our vegetable? Fresh from my garden.”
I nodded and smiled, hoping to see artichoke prep firsthand, but knowing I would have to pretend that I already knew how to cook and eat it.
“You start the chokes while I get the chicken out of the oven?”
“No, I’ll take the bird out. It’ll only be a minute.” I didn’t even want to touch the artichokes because they looked painful to handle.
He palmed the blooms and told me a story about getting kicked out of the kitchen of his Navy battleship because the cook thought he got in the way.
So the leaves don’t hurt, I thought.
“He also didn’t want me to get my officer’s uniform dirty.”
“I don’t want you to stain your clothes either. That’s why I’m dealing with the dirty bird!”
As I tented the chicken with foil, I watched him cut off most of the stem and place the thistles into a steamer. The pot’s top teetered on the tallest one, so he balanced it on one edge.
“Have you ever had artichokes cooked any other way?” I asked.
“Hearts in brine, but those are steamed too. Have you?”
“Oh, I thought since you’d traveled the world in the Navy, you’d have seen some unusual things.” I moved to the kitchen table and started folding napkins that he’d taken out of the dryer a few minutes before into rectangles, wanting to keep myself occupied so he wouldn’t ask me to check on the vegetable. Or ask me to turn the fabric squares into a bird.
“I’ve seen lots of strange things. Nothing with an artichoke. I think there’s only one way to cook and eat an artichoke. To eat any thistle.”
After carving the chicken he placed one bloom on each of our plates, and a bowl of what looked like mayonnaise between us. The green globe smelled most like steamed spinach. He ate his chicken before picking at his vegetable.
Then he plucked off each leaf, one by one, dipped it into the sauce he called “broccolati,” which I now know to be aioli–mayo with lemon and garlic–and scraped the tender flesh off each leaf with his teeth.
I followed his lead until I got to a hairy blob. I didn’t know what to do, so I took my napkin off my lap and placed it onto the table, which I’d learned the year before, was the signal that you are done with your meal.
“You’re not going to eat the heart? That’s the best part!”
I wanted to eat the heart, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself by not knowing what to do with the hairs.
“No, I’m full. You go ahead if you want.”
Nils scraped the hairy ball out of his artichoke heart with a spoon, being careful to get every fiber but none of the vegetable’s center, cut the heart in four, and ate them without any aioli. While he scraped at mine I asked him how he learned to eat an artichoke.
“I don’t remember. My mother cooked them for us, and I suppose I learned from her.”
These days the Internet and YouTube how-to videos can teach me just about anything. I can, for instance, mimic my partner’s very privileged family when we go to very fine restaurants to celebrate a birthday or anniversary without worrying that I’ll be judged as white trash. I’ll use the tiny spoon to sprinkle salt on my dinner like everyone else at the table, and will learn later about why petite bowls and spoons are better than a salt shaker, with the poet Pablo Neruda’s tenderhearted warrior always on my mind.
I’ve used online video searches to learn how to make a lamb balsamic reduction, how to sprinkle fleur de sel as a finishing salt on a delicate endive salad, and how to slice open a mango, all things my mother would find too strange for her liking.
Though I’m sure she’ll like that I now keep a small jar of bacon fat in my freezer, because in the twenty-some years I’ve been out of her house, I’ve not found a better fat in which to fry an egg. The next time I see her, I’ll make a dip with mayonnaise, crème fraîche (telling her it is sour cream), and white truffle oil (telling her it is made from mushrooms), and I’ll teach mom how to eat an artichoke.
Published in Class Lives: Stories from Across our Economic Divide, 2014, Cornell University Press