Friday, January 20, 2012

Boiled cabbage

We were going to what had been touted as the best Mexican restaurant in south-eastern Arizona, and my palate was set accordingly. But the Mexican place was fully booked; a local Aussie who scouted the scene reported that the parking lot looked like “a can of maggots.” The fall-back choice was described on the sign as Mexican- Greek. An unlikely combo, but I was willing to adjust my palate. I told my tongue it could roll either way, from mole to dolmades.
    Inside, the Mexican-Greek place was a kitchen from the 1950s, formica under unforgiving lights. My scout got in ahead of me, and was swigging a bottle of Negro Modelo while a capering waiter finished describing the special. “I’ll have it,” declared my friend. “What’s the special?” I inquired.  “Cabbage stuffed with meat, with mashed potatoes.”
     Boiled cabbage and mashed potatoes? In a Mexican, or even a Greek, restaurant?
     I was incredulous, and my taste buds were flashing emergency signals. “Do you have a menu?” The waiter shrugged. “You can look at the menu if you like. But the special is what’s fresh.”
    Now the reek of boiled cabbage is everywhere. Under a Soviet-era leaden sky, I smell it in the barracks-like apartments, in the offices of the newspaper where the censor outranks the editor, even in the lobby of the upscale building where my Polish apparatchik hosts reside. The Warsaw restaurant resembles a funeral parlor that has seen better days. No formica in sight, but rather heavy drapes and cabinets the size of caskets. Here the menu is set before me right away, but my hosts whisper for me to ignore it. “Have the special.” What is the special? “Duck with cabbage and potatoes.” I am not too keen on duck, or cabbage. I search the menu and ask for steak. No steak. The waiter speaks as if he is spitting. How about chicken? No chicken. Now his lip curls with contempt. “Have the special.” The push is stronger. But I won’t concede defeat. I’ll have pasta. No pasta.
     “I’ll have the special,” I agreed, and the Greek waiter smiled at his little victory, half a world and forty years away from Warsaw in 1972, when I was a young journalist visiting Eastern Europe for the first time.   
     The boiled cabbage dinner was wretched. I realized that I had agreed to it because, for a critical minute or two, I was catapulted from the implausible scene in a little Mexican-Greek restaurant in Arizona into a time and place where waiters were little Gods and you ate what you were told to eat.
     “Bloody bloke!” croaked the Greek waiter’s father. He had been to Sydney at the end of World War II.
      My dreadful dinner gave me a story. You don’t have a story (it's been said) unless something goes wrong. I’ll put up with just about anything so long as it has entertainment value.
      “Bloody bloke!”
     I concede that the boiled cabbage was more entertaining in hindsight than at the table.


Susan Morgan said...

What a funny story! I love it. You personified your palette:)

Donna K said...

Ah, synchronocity! Just finished the part in the Neil Gaiman / Terry Pratchett book "Good Omens" where the nice English lady who is doing watered-down Tarot readings explained for the readers that her clientele really "didn't want odd candles, scents, chants...", but "just enough of the Occult to season the simple fare of their lives", so she always put on a pan of Brussels Sprouts to boil before doing a reading. "Nothing is more reassuring, nothing is more true to the comfortable spirit of English occultism, than the smell of Brussels Sprouts cooking in the next room." And for me, nothing quite so Vile as the smell of boiling Brassicae!