I had arrived home late after a hard day at the office. My family was asleep, so I fixed myself dinner: a mozzarella-and-meatball Lean Pocket that I smothered in horseradish and mango chutney and washed down with a liter of cream soda.
This was not a good idea, for later that night as I tossed and turned in bed, strange dreams unspooled in my head.
I only remember one of them, one of those nightmares where you've been plopped down somewhere unexpected -- a college classroom, a Broadway stage -- and you fear you'll be revealed as a fraud. I appeared to be seated at a dining room table in an upscale house. The walls were tastefully decorated with Old Master prints and the odd Brancusi. A chandelier shone with a warm glow.
The table was laid as if for a feast. Directly in front of me was a fine bone china plate, on either side of which bristled all manner of knives, forks and spoons. There were olive forks and oyster forks and shrimp forks. There were steak knives and fish knives and endive knives. There were sherbet spoons and sorbet spoons.
We were apparently equipped to eat anything that could be sauteed, grilled, baked, poached, boiled, parboiled, simmered, stewed, frozen or fried. All that was missing was a bendy soda straw.
But it didn't look like we'd be drinking soda. Each place at the table was set with three different crystal wine glasses -- champagne, red wine and white wine -- as well as a simple earthenware cup I immediately recognized as being a traditional Mongolian yak-blood snifter.
Just then there was a commotion from outside the room. The French doors were thrown open and in strode American University President Benjamin Ladner, wearing a stylish bespoke suit and diamond-encrusted Bally loafers that scratched the long leaf heart-pine floor as he walked.
So, that's where I was! At one of the Ladners' famed 13-course meals!
"I'm so glad all of you could make it," said President Ladner as the other dinner guests wandered in and found their seats at the table. "We are gathered here to celebrate my ability to throw a 13-course dinner party and get my boss to pay for it. But before we do, a toast: To the groves of academe -- long may money grow on their trees."
We raised our champagne glasses and proclaimed a hearty "Hear, hear!"
White-coated waiters brought in the first course: White Truffle & Porcini Egg Custard & American Sturgeon Caviar served in the egg shell. How they cracked those tiny little fish egg shells, I'll never know.
I found the caviar fork in the armamentarium in front of me and set to work. I noticed that the gentleman seated directly across from me was having a tough time of it. The sleeves of his blue sport coat were so long they hung down like elephant trunks. His hands were completely covered in fabric, and he kept dropping his fork.
I turned to the woman beside me and asked sotto voce who the man was.
"Him?" she answered. "That's my husband. Perhaps you've heard of him? He builds townhouse developments in Clarksburg. Poor thing. His sleeve size is 35 inches, but for some reason he insists on getting sleeves that are 45 inches long!"
After the caviar we moved on to more caviar, this time served with cauliflower soup and creme fraiche, then clams and oysters and lobster. I was startled to see Marion Barry at the other end of the table. He didn't seem to be enjoying his meal, though. He just kept pushing his food around on his plate, muttering, "IRS set me up, IRS set me up."
Several steaming trays were brought in. President Ladner motioned to the butler and said, "James, uncork another bottle of Chateau d'Etudiant Appauvri."
"Oooh," said Mrs. Ladner, clapping her hands together expectantly. "The panda course."
The Ladners' butler cleared his throat and read from a handwritten index card: "Ahem. Our next course is what chef calls 'Panda Three Ways': Peppercorn Encrusted Panda, Panda Paw & Drawn Butter and General Tso's Panda. Bon appetit!"
The panda was divine. Like chicken, but with an undercurrent of bamboo and a slight hint of tapioca.
I lost track of all the other courses. There was cod and duck and rack of lamb. There were confits and melanges and reductions. I heard the word "drizzled" more than once.
Through it all, President Ladner played the gracious host, lighting people's cigars with $100 bills and telling stories from the Bible. (There was one about a camel and the eye of the needle, but I didn't hear how it ended.)
We had just finished a course called the "Cheese Teaser" (I didn't partake; my mother taught me that it's rude to tease cheese) when there was a deafening a-ooga! a-ooga! as a loud klaxon sounded somewhere.
As the klaxon got louder and louder, the final course was brought in: a dessert called Tularemia Tiramisu.
"Chef knows this wonderful little shop in Annandale that sells only the freshest tularemia," shouted Mrs. Ladner. "We don't have it very often because that darn siren always goes off."
A-ooga! A-ooga! As the siren seemed to get closer and closer, the room began to spin. I grabbed the tablecloth and then realized I was holding the edge of my bed sheets. I groggily turned off the alarm clock.
Time to get up.
And time for my weekly online chat. It's at 1 p.m. today. Go to www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.