Memory or Dream?

Few Americans have combined such lively experience in the field of cookery and such ability to describe it as M. F. K. FISHER.She is now living in California.

IN SMALL towns in Switzerland the signs of public eating places say, instead of Restaurant, Restauration. I have always liked that. It is old-fashioned and therefore inelegant — and it means, quite simply, that a body can enter the room, sit down at a table, and literally restore himself, by the too common and unceasing miracle of bread and wine.

When the signs say Restauration à toute heure I feel more reassured, for I know that if, like most other human beings, I must suddenly, for no predictable reason, eat at eleven at night or eleven-fourteen in the morning, I can go to that kindly place and feed my quirkish hunger. There will be someone to serve me, perhaps the cook himself, and there will be a very simple thing to stay my pain: a bowl of potato soup or two fresh eggs cooked in butter or a slice of toasted mountain cheese on honest bread, and milk or coffee or rock-cool wine — all to restore me, at any hour.

Perhaps the nearest thing to such unfashionable hospices, in our country, are the hamburger heavens, the chili huts, and the chain-run hash houses owned by big packing companies and such.

They are, say, made to look like old railroad diners or whitewashed log cabins, and perforce as simple. They have plenty of windows, to let in the sun and at night, cheerily, to let out the warm blaze of light. They have no dangerous space where food can freeze or stagnate or die twice in steam tables, but instead a workable icebox and a kind of galley counter, behind which the cook flips his pancakes, fries his eggs, and broils his bacon neatly, fleetly. There is a coffee machine, which makes a brew almost unfailingly feeble, but fresh and nicely hot. There are a few discreetly low-walled booths.

There is, best of all for one man alone or for a couple, a curved counter with fixed stools. Inside it the cook copes with simple wishes. Outside it creatures sit — we sit — tired, lonely, empty of love or overfull of it, and above all hungry. We rest from whatever battles have been fought, and restore ourselves for the ones ahead.

Almost anyone has, in one way or another, stated his views on The Perfect Restaurant. A few men, like César Ritz of the Ritzes and Ernest Byfield of the Pump Room and Monsieur Point of La Pyramide and Fred Harvey of the Harvey Houses, have put their theories into practice and immobilized their dreams into their own variations of Ye Rite Spot.

Mr. Harvey has crisp-petticoated virgins, nubile but nice, who flick fresh baked apples and local trout onto the trim tables. Mr. Point has hot hors d’oeuvres, garden shade, and somewhat of the same pyrotechnic display of flaming entremets that Mr. Byfield puts on, even more flamboyantly, with his speared shashlik and his plumy blackamoors. Mr. Ritz, long ago and even now, serves forth his wines in Baccarat glass, glass wiped out with sun-sweet linen napery, not some cotton swab doused in gray water and a cheap detergent. All this makes for perfection, in any man’s lingo.

My own dream, composite of what I have heard-read-dreamed-thought, alternates in Cloud Cuckoo between what I most regret about the last public place I dined in, and what I remember of a certain one I never saw.

The little place I never saw but well remember had walls unadorned. Its proprietor, who was the cook, was small and thin and intrinsically well-adjusted to the demands of life. His liquors, seeing as how he was within a block of Aimee Semple McPherson’s Temple during prohibition, consisted of good milk, good strong hot coffee, and good plain tea made without tea bags. His scrambled eggs, thanks to two weeks spent swirling an omelet pan in the kitchen of La Mère Somebody-or-other at Mont-Saint-Michel and a childhood of soufflés made of everything from fresh shad roe to fresh field mushrooms, all bound around with fresh farm eggs and concocted in a shore kitchen in Delaware, were what countless people, truck drivers and penitents from the Temple and alcoholic authors, have told me were the best scrambled eggs in all the world.

My friend’s place, in a completely unfashionable district, was less the cramped result of his equally cramped financial backlog than of his long seasoning as an intelligent diner-out. He had eaten, and eaten well, in most of the fine restaurants of Western Europe and America — from the foyer to the furnace room of Foyot’s (he used to sneak down at dawn for café au lait with the concierge there, when it was a hotel as well as a great gastronomical meeting place); from the Presidential Suite at the Palace in San Francisco to Bookbinder’s sidewalk clam bins in Philadelphia; Boeuce’s in Milano. . . . And there he was, happy as an overworked cricket, running his own version finally of The Perfect Restaurant in a hypergodly neighborhood in Los Angeles, a tiny hash house by a bridge, with two tables, a counter around his galley, a seasoned egg pan, and a beautiful wife to make celestial waffles.

He had one little window on the street, and every day or so he would make a new decoration for it, of something to eat. The most popular, and the one that lured the most paying customers, was a strawberry waffle on a plain thick white plate, couched on, of all unseemly things in that locality, a rich bed of black velvet. There was a generous pitcher of crushed berries, it has been told me; three or four fat berries winked out here and there from the silky and seductive folds of cloth. The truckers who were his best patrons would stand spellbound before it, in clusters, and then come in and eat two or three orders and at 75 cents a throw, a ghastly price in those days.

And he charged 10 cents a cup for coffee, with no apology, when he was one of only three places in the great sprawling town that did so. He sold all he could make, and it meant staying up every night until almost dawn, cleaning the little pipes and pipettes of the coffee machine, because he did not trust anyone else to do it adequately for the kind of coffor that was worth 10 cents a cup in 5-cent days.

For a time he tried serving one dish a day, for each day in the week: codfish cakes on Friday, that sort of thing. It was a waste of energy. There was usually some left, to be discarded, for he abhorred disguised leftovers except for his dearest friends, with whom he could cook and eat without fear of unknown gastronomical prejudices. (Most people, and rightly, suspect restaurant dishes which are plainly made of others and yet others.)

He limited his menu, cut it almost to the bone: eggs always, and coffee; good bread and good butter, freshly toasted as desired; several kinds of waffles to order, and strong hot consommé; bacon and ham and little “breakfast" sausages, and a fine mixture of chopped beef and herbs and suchlike which he called hamburger just to get people to order it; the best ice cream he could buy, and homemade cakes and pies when he could get reliable women to make them. He always kept good salad stuff on hand, and things like baby radishes and green peppers and pink Italian onions, and would make a simple salad for anybody who wanted one enough to ask for it and then say what he wanted it made of.

The people who ate there were interesting. Local intellectuals “took it up" for a time, because of my friend’s literary liaisons. A great many hungry men went there to succor their inner beings with the sight of his wife and the sound of her sweet voice. In somewhat the same way many future missionaries, studying the art of soul-saving at Aimee’s Temple, went there for more immediate salvation of their bodies and for the sustaining impetus of my friend’s spirit, a truly rare one. And all of them, crazy with art or love or religion or just the heat, knew good honest simple food when they saw it.

For many, I feel sure, it was both the first and the last time they would ever know it, for such nourishment is hard to come by. The fact that they flocked to it, while it could be had, proves that every human being, given the chance, can recognize rightness, even though he has never recognized it before nor ever will again. There in the hole-in-the-wall, in a district at once shady and sanctimonious in a raw city, could be found warmth and protection, beauty if only vicariously shared, and food so simple and so good, untainted as it was by packaging and artful preservation past its natural prime, that twenty years later it is still remembered, by others than by me who never knew it.

I love good restaurants. I think of them often and deeply, for in whatever form they flourish, they are of necessity founded on the truth that men need food, just as they need shelter and love. When that truth is abused, or prostituted, I withdraw, shocked and repelled. When, as too rarely happens, that truth is respected and some man or woman runs a public eating place which does indeed restore (Restauration à toute heure), I feel comforted — as if for every creature who went in and sat down and ate well and drank deeply, I myself were given some small measure of inner sustenance, something to protect me, as well as the diner, from the myriad shameful restaurants built on shoddy decoration, on insolent warring waiters, on outrageous prices and pretentious wine and food lists, and above all on dishonesty in that wine and that food.

That is the crux: honesty. The snobbism of location does not matter. As long as the food is served with courteous interest by people who have a warm pride in their profession, and above all as long as it is honest food, it will restore anyone who asks for it, at any hour. And that, to my mind, is what a restaurant should do.