RECENTLY A friend, on hearing I had sat through that thoroughly unappetizing film "Alien," said, "But wasn't it fun?"
It was not fun. Not for a minute.
"Alien" intrudes here because the very same question is often put to me after I attend one or another of those extravaganzas billed as a "gastronomic feast" or a "gourmet banquet."
Usually they are not fun, either.
Overlong, over-ambitious affairs, all too often the banquet is tinged with pretention and tainted with inappropriate or underaged wine that has been donated or acquired on a "deal." But they can be very funny, or at least have some funny moments when things go wrong.
Here is the way such evenings once went, as reported by Andre L. Simon in the "Wine and Food Quarterly" of the International Wine and Food Society:
"November 8th (1937). We landed at 2 p.m. and Freddie Wildman entertained a score of friends that evening, at the Leash Club, East Fifty-Second, to a "Welcome" Dinner that was truly memorable. Neither cocktails nor sherry to begin with, but some cold Perrier-Jouet 1928, which tasted ever so good with the Jambon de Prague served at the same time. Then we passed into the dining room.Our dinner began with a petit marmite passee a la moelle and then some crabes moro a la mode de la Havane. These were black crabs from the West Indies which had arrived by air that same afternoon; they were delicious, and the somewhat spicy sauce served with them in no way damaged the wonderful bouquet and fine flavor of the Meursault-Perrieres 1929. After the crabmeat came some quenelles en vol-au-vent Cote d'Or, compounded and sent in - so I learnt later - by Chef Lugot of the Waldorf-Astoria. With the quenelles came in a majestic Imperiale, a 1920 Chateau Gruaud-Larose-Faure, which had the true St. Julien delicacy, charm of texture and bouquet; a fascinating wine. It led the way admirably to one of the peaks of modern clarets, a Chateau Margaux 1899, a great wine which has certainly crossed the Atlantic without suffering any ill effects; its background was a Scotch grouse brought over by the Queen Mary. Then came a foie gras de Strasbourg Truffe and a salade verte de saison, not that anybody was actually very hungry by this time, but at the best excuse which our generous host could think of to produce a fine bottle of burgundy and see whether it could stand its ground against the claret...with the fruits rafraichis au kirsch, which closed the cortege of courses, came the proudest Sauternes of the century, Chateau d'Yquem 1921. And with the coffee there was a truly remarkable Grande Fine Champagne Centenaire to uphold the fame of Cognac; an equally rare and wonderful Armagnac, called Tresor de famille (KEY OFF)(KEYWORD)nd, probably rarest of all, an 1864 Vallee d'Auge Calvados. Truly a memorable meal, and one that was fully appreciated by every one of Freddy's guests, all men of taste and knowledgeable as well as articulate."
The paragraph goes on nearly as long as the dinner did, but the various elements described - including the guests - are in nearly perfect counterpoint.
These days it is not always thus.
I recall one repast at a local hotel where trays containing puddles, rather than pieces, of cheese were presented as though a new fashion was being unveiled. In fact, the cheese had been forgotten in the refrigerator and, in an effort to compensate, thrust into an oven to remove the chill. A good idea for making toasted cheese sandwiches.
At another banquet, which I observed from the kitchen, the chef made the sort of mistake that leads a maitre d" to consider suicide or murder, or both. Using a pastry bag, the chef efficiently covered 30 cups of soup with whipped cream. Off they went. He relaxed, smiled and offered me a taste. "Strange," I said to myself, but go no further. The maitre d" came charging in, a cup of soup in hand. "Taste this!" he ordered. The chef did and smiled no more.
Rather than using a pastry bag filled with plain, lightly salted whipped cream, he had topped the soup with the heavily sugared whipped cream intended for the dessert.
The lesson, of course, is never to serve two dishes topped with whipped cream at a single meal. The moral of the story is less clear, however. Nearly half the gourmets who tasted the chef's aberration said they liked it.
Last year the famous chef Jean Troisgros prepared a luncheon at New York's Tavern on the Green. Only 50 guests, with the chef using American products rather than special ingredients brought from France. The meal was moving from minor triumph toward major triumph until the main course was presented. Troisgros, a man of considerable humor as well as talent, had tried to execute a spoof. He prepared a French version of chopped steak, but it was overcooked and dry. The three-star chef can work miracles with a truffle, but he would have flunked the course at McDonald's Hamburger U.
At another banquet, less touted but a banquet nonetheless, the high point was some crisp-cooked vegetables. Unfortunately they were preceded by a first course of terribly oversalted consomme, a second course of soggy fish and accompanied by stringy veal. And you couldn't even drown your sorrows with pleasure. The only wine was Lancer's rose.
Not to place myself above error, there was an embarrassing moment at a dinner I prepared some years ago for the wine group Les Amis du Vin. The feature of the main course was squab. After the dinner, several guests complained of underdone meat. Only then did I realize that one of the ovens - fortunately a small one - had failed. The nouvelle cuisine chefs hadn't yet made rare poultry chic, so a handful of unhappy guests became temporary vegetarians.
Even the great Escoffier, who shaped la grande cuisine and had a huge staff to execute and serve his creations, couldn't prevent mishaps. The worst, as he told Julian Street (in "Table Topics") was "...at the Carlton (in London) at supper on one of those fashionable Sunday nights we used to have, and it happened at a table where there were four couples, very smart. A young waiter was serving green peas to one of the ladies. Someone bumped his arm, and a helping of peas went down the front of her very low-cut gown.
"The poor devil of a waiter - he was just a youth - went all to pieces. Apologizing frantically in broken English, he began picking the peas from her decolletage. Whereupon, to complete the castastrophy, the lady's husband leaped to his feet and knocked the wretched boy down."
There is at least one twist on the theme of culinary mishaps. It involves another famous Frenchman, the diplomat Tallyrand.
Tallyrand was offered two magnificent turbots, but they were of such a size that only one was needed to serve his 12 dinner guests that day. The other fish wouldn't keep, but at the same time Tallyrand didn't want such a remarkable fish being served by one of his gastronomic rivals. He bought both.
At dinner a turbot was presented, carried on a silver dish by two footmen. No sooner had the guests expressed their admiration for the remarkable fish when the tray slipped from the grasp of one of the footmen and crashed to the floor.
Everyone was in anguish, except Tallyrand. "Bring in another," he commanded.
But the funniest remembrance of an error-filled gastronomic event I've heard is contained in a fictional toast. It was recited at the end of a banquet by Alber Barcilon, co-owner of Pierre-Alber, who took a graceful path to avoid mentioning some of the real-life flaws he experienced that evening. According to him:
"If the Chablis was as cold as the soup
And the soup as hot as the lady whose foot kept touching mine
And the lady as young as the Bordeaux
And the Burgundy as old as the pheasant
Then this would have been a marvelous meal." CAPTION: Illustration, no caption