We didn’t eat out often; we didn’t have the money for it, and my dad ate out in barrooms every night during the week, so when he came back to Parkersburg he wanted home-cooked food. Even so, there were a few places we went to. My favorite, and where we went with regularity, was The Clam House on 7th street. We would always walk through the dimly-lit first floor dining area and head upstairs where there were booths and a colorful, bright jukebox. There was usually no one up there besides us, which my parents liked because my sister and I could walk around, play the jukebox and goof off while my mom and dad enjoyed their own company. Did they serve alcohol there? I can’t remember. If so, my dad would have been drinking a beer.
My sister and mom usually ordered the shrimp, I can’t remember what my dad ate, and I always had the frog’s legs, a delicacy that you don’t find in restaurants much these days. When I do locate it on a menu and order it, I don’t find it nearly as exotic or delicious as I did back then.
As I would eat my frog legs, my dad would sometimes tell stories of when he was a young man and worked during the summers in the Adirondack Mountains at a resort for wealthy vacationers. One of the unusual tasks assigned to him was to take the young ladies of the gentility out in little rowboats where they, the ladies, would sit in the front of the boat as he rowed them along the banks. When they spotted a bullfrog, the ladies would take shots at them with miniature, silver-plated BB guns. It was an image we always remarked on: silver BB guns! Who could imagine such a thing? Surely these must have been the richest people in the world. If they hit the frogs, Dad collected them and the catch was brought back to the kitchen and would be served later that evening to the huntresses for dinner. And isn’t that a vision of a world long gone?
It was at the Clam House that I had another of my revelations into the pain of being not believed by adults. The Clam House had a garden beside the restaurant, situated between the restaurant and another building about fifteen feet away. There was a small artificial stream that meandered along in a concrete gutter in this little garden. There were a few decorations, primarily a walking bridge over the concrete stream and a four-foot tall windmill of the type you might find at a miniature golf course. Were there goldfish in the stream? Probably not, but maybe. While waiting for our food to arrive, I would be allowed to go downstairs and walk around this mini-garden. One afternoon, I must have been six or seven, I came face to face with a “beaver” sitting on the little bridge. No one else was around. We locked eyes, boy and beaver. Surely this was a tame animal, brought in by Old Captain Doug to lend some realism to the garden? Would he (the beaver, not Captain Doug) dam the concrete stream with concrete logs and create his own pond right here next to the Clam House?
I approached the bridge where the little fellow was sitting up on his hind legs, staring at me. Maybe I could I pet him.
Suddenly he charged straight at me and before I could dodge the attack, he bit me savagely on the shin and ran off. I was stunned. I ran back upstairs, blurted out my story and showed my parents the two angry red beaver bite marks on my shin. There was no blood, but there were a couple of serious red dents. Everyone laughed at me. Beavers! they exclaimed, there are no beavers at the Clam House!
I was crushed. Mortified. When our dinner orders arrived my frog legs were as ashes in my mouth, and I was close to tears. Every once in awhile I checked my beaver bite. The two teeth marks, and the pain, slowly faded. But the humiliation remained.
On thinking back now I guess I had confronted a groundhog, not a beaver, but surely someone should have believed this small boy. But no, they did not, and one more black mark against unfair, disbelieving adults was chalked up on my growing list of grievances.
There may have been fancier restaurants in town, but we didn’t frequent them. I remember spaghetti joints and home-cooking places and barrooms that served food as well as beer.
My one experience of fine dining came courtesy of my band friend Bill Shattuck’s father. I’m not going to give him a fake name because I admired him so much. He was a tall (of course everyone was tall to me) handsome man who had a commanding air about him, which befitted his status as an executive at one of the chemical plants that lined the nearby Ohio River. Mr. Shattuck liked me, though I have no idea what he saw in this undersized, teenaged West Virginia rube. Maybe he thought of me as something of a “project,” in that I was a nice kid who didn’t have many opportunities of the type his son, my friend, enjoyed and that he would, graciously, give me some and pointers. Whatever reason, he was one of the kindest men I have known. He actually once took me along on a business trip to Chicago even though Bill decided he didn’t want to go. I’m sure I embarrassed him by standing on the broad avenues, slack-jawed, staring in wonder at the towering buildings around me. We flew in an airplane (I know, what else would we fly in?) to get to Chicago, obviously my first airplane ride. I remember it vividly. The plane was a DC-3, a plane that saw much service in WWII. If I had examined the fuselage I might have found patches indicating where the plane had been hit by flack while attempting a bombing run on some Nazi outpost. It had two prop engines and since the back wheel was much smaller than the front it sat back on its tail. You entered through a hatch toward the rear of the airplane and had to climb up what seemed like a fairly steep incline to get to your seat. The thing I remember most about this airplane was that there was a handrail that ran down the center of the aisle that you used to help haul yourself up. This handrail was made of a piece of pipe just like the ones in the basement of our house that carried the hot and cold water. It had regular pipe fittings at the ends and was attached by bolts at the bottom on the floor of the plane. Even to one as inexperienced as myself it seemed like a pretty crude solution to the problem of putting in a handrail. I had a moment’s worry when I saw this, wondering if that’s what I could see, what else was in this plane that I couldn’t see? Were the engines held on by 2×4’s hammered in with ten-penny nails? Anyway, it took off just fine and we made it to Chicago and back without trouble.
Around the time of my joining the band, my first year in high school, the Shattucks invited to me to dinner at the country club they belonged to. This was standard fare for Bill, but for me it was a special, and daunting occasion. We sat down at an elegant, to me, table with a white tablecloth, crystal clear drinking glasses and lots of silver implements. Of course I was in my best clothes, yes, that damned striped Sears and Roebuck clown coat. I was handed a menu the length and breadth of which I had never seen before. Once again I have to repeat, I wasn’t stupid, I had read a ton of books and seen plenty of movies where fancy people sat down in fancy restaurants and ordered fancy meals, it was just that I wasn’t one of those people. I could read, yes, make sense of the menu offerings, yes, but the etiquette challenges in this undertaking were a vast looming chasm, on the brink of which I precariously balanced. After I found the entrees — I wasn’t even going to think about the appetizer section – a quick search showed me they didn’t sell frogs legs, so there was not going to be an easy out for me. Wise Mr. Shattuck, sensing my stupidity and hesitation, suggested that the steak was very good there.
Steak! I knew what steak was! On rare, ceremonial occasions my dad would cook steaks at home, always T-bones. It was one of the few foods that he alone prepared, along with grilled hamburgers and hotdogs, baked banana bread and showing us how to eat sardines on crackers, which my mother loathed. We were only permitted to eat sardines after she had gone to bed on the weekend.
I found the steak section on the menu. My mind boggled at the prices. I decided that I would order ground steak, whatever that was, because it was the cheapest steak dish offered. Wasn’t this the way a good guest should behave?
When the waiter came to take my order, I ordered the ground steak, which came with green beans and a baked potato. I was on pretty solid ground with green beans and a potato. After I told the waiter my selection, Mr. Shattuck said, quietly, while pretending to scrutinize the menu, “I’m sure the ground steak is very good, Allen, but might I suggest that you try the rib steak? I’ve had it here many times, and I think you’ll like it.”
I understood he was tossing me a lifeline, so I grabbed it, nodding sagely to the waiter, agreeing to the rib steak, grateful to Mr. Shattuck for being a host who treated me with the utmost generosity, delicacy and tact. Gratitude washed over me.
When I cut into my thick, juicy, rare steak — my father taught me that we Appels always ordered our meat rare, our liquor straight, and our iced tea unsweetened — I suddenly understood that in the realms of the moneyed classes and in the larger world that existed beyond Maxwell Avenue, a steak was not just a steak. The T-bones my dad brought home were good, yes, but they were thin, poor relations to this beauty that sat on my plate, swimming in its ruby red juices. It was a marvel to me. Each bite was a new experience. I could have closed my eyes and wept.
But we are not yet done with this amazing meal.
We were all sawing away at our steaks except Bill’s mom, who was smoking a cigarette and drinking a martini. She was a tall, (dear reader, I’m sorry I always begin my physical descriptions with the word tall, but by now you know why) thin, elegant woman who I never saw eat anything. I think she was far more interested in the martini than the food. I had never seen a person in real life drink a martini.
I saw Bill, across the table from me, butter up his baked potato and slather on a thick white substance that was in a small bowl in front of us. “What’s that?” I asked.
“Sour cream,” Bill said, piling some more on. “Try it, it’s good.” If he was mystified at my ignorance, he didn’t show it. Maybe they had a pre-meal meeting where everyone discussed how to treat me, the ignorant simpleton dressed in his clown coat of many colors, without hurting my feelings. At any rate, no one laughed. I hesitantly spooned a dollop of sour cream on my potato.
Oh, God, it was delicious, the sour mixing with the sweet butter to flavor what was just an ordinary potato, lifting that simple vegetable onto a new, unknown to me, level of foodness.
As I sat there, eating my potato, I wondered how on earth something that was soured, this cream, could be so exquisite. Didn’t soured mean spoiled? Not for the first time, I wondered what else was out there in the wide world that I had absolutely no knowledge or experience of. Well, it turns out there was, and is, still a hell of a lot out there.
I have since eaten in some of the greatest restaurants in the world. My son is a chef in a three star Michelin restaurant, and he has cooked things for me that would astonish anyone.
But that simple potato, served to me back in Parkersburg, West Virginia, 55 years ago, remains the greatest food that I have ever eaten.