My parents did their best. They took us everywhere, from restaurant to restaurant, cringing, no doubt, every time we insisted on steak hache (with ketchup, no less) and a “Coca.” They endured silently my gripes about cheesy butter, the seemingly endless amusement I took in advertisements for a popular soft drink of the time, Pschitt. “I want shit! I want shit!” They managed to ignore the eye-rolling and fidgeting when they spoke French, tried to encourage me to find something, anything, to enjoy.
And there came a time when, finally, they didn’t take the kids along. I remember it well, because it was such a slap in the face. It was a wake-up call that food could be important, a challenge to my natural belligerence. By being denied, a door opened.
The town’s name was Vienne. We’d driven miles and miles of road to get there. My brother and I were fresh out of Tintins and cranky as hell. The French countryside, with its graceful, tree-lined roads, hedgerows, tilled fields and picture-book villages provided little distraction. My folks had by now endured weeks of relentless complaining through many tense and increasingly unpleasant meals. They’d dutifully ordered our steak hache, crudites variees, sandwich au jambon and the like long enough. They’d put up with our grousing that the beds were too hard, the pillows too soft, the neck-rolls and toilets and plumbing too weird. They’d even allowed us a little watered wine, as it was clearly the French thing to do — but also, I think, to shut us up. They’d taken my brother and me, the two Ugliest Little Americans, everywhere.
Vienne was different.
They pulled the gleaming new Rover into the parking lot of a restaurant called, rather promisingly, La Pyramide, handed us what was apparently a hoarded stash of Tintins ... and then left us in the car!
It was a hard blow. Little brother and I were left in that car for over three hours, an eternity for two miserable kids already bored out of their minds. I had plenty of time to wonder: What could be so great inside those walls? They were eating in there. I knew that. And it was certainly a Big Deal; even at a witless age nine, I could recognize the nervous anticipation, the excitement, the near-reverence with which my beleaguered parents had approached this hour. And I had the Vichyssoise Incident still fresh in my mind. Food, it appeared, could be important. It could be an event. It had secrets.
I know now, of course, that La Pyramide, even in 1966, was the center of the culinary universe. Bocuse, Troisgros, everybody had done their time there, making their bones under the legendarily fearsome proprietor, Ferdinand Point. Point was the Grand Master of cuisine at the time, and La Pyramide was Mecca for foodies. This was a pilgrimage for my earnestly francophile parents. In some small way, I got that through my tiny, empty skull in the back of the sweltering parked car, even then. Things changed. I changed after that.
First of all, I was furious. Spite, always a great motivating force in my life, caused me to become suddenly adventurous where food was concerned. I decided then and there to outdo my foodie parents. At the same time, I could gross out my still uninitiated little brother. I’d show them who the gourmet was!