We all remember our parents trying to teach us some manners. And i think most of us can recall realizing even at the height of our rebelliousness that there was some good common sense behind the manners. I mean, how stupid does a kid have to be not to understand that a nice thank-you note for a gift not only fulfills the etiquette requirement and keeps your mother happy but also might very well maintain the foundation for future gifts.
Pretty basic, really, and i had that one down early. On the other hand, there were some social conventions that simply didn’t come up for a middle-class kid in the oil fields of West Texas in the fifties. And one of these marked a major turning point in my life.
Sometimes as a child you were invited to eat a meal with the family of one of your friends, and the first time this occurred, your mother sat you down and made it clear that you would eat everything you were served and you would either like it or very convincingly pretend that you liked it. Furthermore, you would be using your very best table manners and at the end of the meal you would tell tell the hostess how delicious everything was and you would thank both host and hostess for inviting you. Any violation of this policy would be punished by immediate and permanent banishment. No no, from your house.
So we followed these rules, and they served us well. What they did not do is prepare us for contact with the upper classes.
In the spring of 1970 i was living in Cincinnati. At that point i was still desperately trying to make myself straight, and i’d dated a young woman named Ann a few times and remained friends with her after we broke up and she took up with a man named Ethan. I socialized with them some, as i was a budding foodie and Ethan was deeply involved since his parents were John and Marion Becker. Yes, that Marion Becker, Marion Rombauer Becker, author of Joy of Cooking.
And then Mrs. Becker invited Ethan and Ann to dinner and suggested they might bring a friend.
I accepted with alacrity.
I should have realized i was getting in over my head when Ethan drove us out to a suburban part of greater Cincinnati i’d never seen and pulled off the road onto a gravel drive that wound through what looked like an immaculately groomed botanical garden until we crunched to a stop in front of a Bauhaus jewel. As we walked to the door, i heard someone playing a Haydn sonata on the piano, not professionally but competently. Turns out, it was his father, an architect who had designed the house and who was not at all displeased when i asked if it hadn’t been Haydn he’d been playing.
Ethan’s mother was equally charming, and i just loved them both instantly.
Before dinner Mrs. Becker led me from the kitchen through French doors to the herb garden, where she identified everything for me and encouraged me to pinch off leaves to smell them. Up to then, the only herb i’d ever seen alive was mint, and all those i’d cooked with had come from bottles.
Dinner was simple, focused on a baked chicken breast dish from the cookbook, and as it progressed, i grew to like the Beckers more and more. After dinner, they proposed that we play a word game that had been invented by a friend of theirs about the same time as Scrabble and involved making words out of randomly drawn letters but, unlike Scrabble, had never gone into full production.
Nor did it involve building words off of existing words, so it was really only a test of vocabulary at which i naturally crushed them all. It was a splendid evening, and not just for me.
Two days later in my morning mail there was a note from Mrs. Becker saying that they’d found me delightful and looked forward to seeing me again.
I sat there stunned. I had known to write a thank-you note, but i had not realized that it needed to be done the next morning so that it would cross in the mail any note from the host. That my host might write me was not a consideration that my mother had prepared me for.
By not acting quickly, i’d exposed myself as either a worthless ingrate or someone of insurmountably miserable upbringing. Racing out to the post office with a thank-you note was not an option i could imagine, since it would be obvious that i’d already received Mrs. Becker’s note.
There were no good options.
Lacking the courage to commit seppuku and being too distraught to stay in town and face friends or even tell anyone about my disgrace, i jumped in my car and drove off to see my friend Peter in St. Louis, who was gracious about my imprompu visit even though i never told him what had sparked it. Sorry it took me over forty years to own up, Peter.
Not too long after that, i left Cincinnati, thrashing around desperately and sending out resumes while it gradually became clear that the window of opportunity for community college jobs had slammed shut owing to there now being a surplus of folks like me who wanted to teach in them. Missed it by one year.
And as that horror sank in i realized that if i had had the sense to properly cultivate the Beckers, i might have somehow with their help been able to make a career in culinary writing. But i had slammed that window on my own fingers.
On the other hand, it taught me a lesson. And i probably would never have made anything of myself anyhow.
And yes, of course i understand that my change-direction-and-try-something-else syndrome when i’ve done something stupid sure has stopped me all my life from salvaging partial successes.