Lunching with finks at Trattoria Borgia


    I can see it clearly, as if I am there.

    The vision is awful, edges crisp, every detail amplified. The emotions it summons are stark.

    I’ve experienced this vision in dreams — nightmares, actually — but I can summon it from my past while awake. It is terrifying.

    The large dining room is narrow and long, the walls and ceiling heavily paneled and trimmed in ominous, dark wood.

    Spanning the room are rows of long, heavy wood tables, with six cumbersome chairs set on each side of each table. At the end of each table sits a larger chair.

    In the chairs at the sides of the tables are seated an array of snooty little finks clad in black blazers with a pretentious crest on the left breast pocket, or in tailored suits or sport coats. Some wear a regimental tie, black with red stripes. All wear a tie of some sort. Windsor required.

    In the larger chair at the end of each table is seated a snooty older fink, replete with smirk and a pipe stuffed with imported tobacco.

    The large wooden double doors at the end of the room swing open with a bang. Through the doors troop a succession of younger snooty finks, carrying trays. On the trays are bowls, platters. In the bowls and on the platters is what passes for food—— indistinct, pallid fare. Spartan gruel. Fuel for the next generation of bankers, politicians, doctors, lawyers. And one shiftless writer and painter.

    I get a knot in my stomach when I remember this place, these meals.

    It was the worst part of the worst punishment ever meted out to me (short of what happened at one district court date in the late ’60s).

    Private school.

    Boys’ prep school.

    I was sent to one of these nasty institutions after proving I could not resist the temptations provided by my ne’er-do-well pals in the public education system. It was the era of hootenannies, intoxication and radical ideas … what did they expect of me?

    My parents’ hope was that the new environment, crammed to bursting with money, pretense and lofty aspirations, would temper my unruly spirit, mould and smooth a praiseworthy fledgling patrician, propel a paragon of ruling class values on to the Ivy league.

    It didn’t.

    But, before I was able to make good my escape, I had to endure the finks and eat the food.

    You would think an Anglican institution that bills itself as ritzy and highbrow would provide the inmates with extraordinary eats, wouldn’t you?

    Not the case.

    Murderers incarcerated in the Colorado Department of Corrections ate better than we did.

    The “food” that rolled out of that kitchen was the most nondescript, unpalatable crud imaginable: pastas cooked to the consistency of paste; potatoes resembling spackle; meats transmogrified into space-age substances, heat shield-worthy material; vegetables rendered unrecognizable, all a uniform shade of grey. Bread as dry as shingles. Sauces absent spice.

    Maybe the diet was calculated to remove any vestige of rebellion from the eater, with an effect more profound than saltpeter on a lust-crazed inmate. Perhaps the menu was planned to desensitize the prepster, bludgeon him, sap his will to live, make him pliable, more susceptible to the ultra-conservative rants delivered in the classroom.

    The “Masters” who sat at the ends of the tables seemed to enjoy the gruel. To judge from their behavior, the fare, when indulged over several decades, stimulated ceaseless aggression and an arrogance that could blow open bomb shelter doors.

    Thank goodness this joint was a “Country Day School””— whatever that’s supposed to mean.

    What it meant to me was I had to endure only one meal a day at this place, this seat of the Inquisition.

    I dreaded lunch. I spent most of each morning — following a chapel service that included a rousing rendition of—“God, the Omnipotent” and an stultifying address by the headmaster, ignoring the entreaties of the masters to support Barry Goldwater and the John Birch Society, working on schemes to escape the campus and find a decent meatball hero for my lunch.

    No chance. The perimeter was under guard. There was no getting away from the cruelty of Mrs. Peek.

    Mrs. Peek was the cook. She and a staff of three were responsible for the torture at the noon hour. Periodically, Mrs. Peek and the staff made an appearance in the dining room and we were forced to applaud. It was like a resident of a doomed fortress cheering the arrival of Genghis Khan.

    Where and from whom Mrs. Peek, an otherwise likeable matron, learned to mangle food products was unknown. Perhaps she was trained during the war at a secret Gestapo camp located somewhere in Prussian hinterland. Maybe she was educated at the Borgia Academy.

    Regardless of how and where the old gal learned to destroy meat and produce, to take all joy from the act of eating … she learned it well.

    She was an artist in that respect.

    And I have Mrs. Peek’s unceasing artistry to thank for helping to motivate me to behave so terribly, to be so erratic, despicable and unmanageable that the school staff and administration put up with me for only slightly under two years. Once the extraordinarily high tuition was exhausted just before the end of my second year and  graduation, they cut me loose — a failed project, an unredeemable lout. The prospect of flunking me and having to take me back for another term was unthinkable.

    Everyone was happy but my parents. The school was cleansed of blight. I burned my ties and had a meatball hero for lunch.

    It is seldom I think back and remember my classmates. There were but eight or ten of us in my class and not one had the slightest urge to stay in touch. My only reason to communicate with any of them would be to elicit memories of the worst food in Western history.

    I intend to seek some of them out.

    I want details.

    Not so I can reproduce any of the glop that made its way to the gilded plate in that ominous dining room decades ago. No, I need the memories to function as bilge in the S.S. Gourmand, as a point of comparison in my unending search for great eats.

    If I wax nostalgic and reproduce any of the vaunted Peek’s dishes it will be what was fondly referred to as her “Mucous Delight.”

    I can see those little twerps in the lower grades in my mind’s eye, slinking out of the kitchen, their trays loaded with bowls of Mucous Delight, the concoction shimmering, pearlescent, as the bowls were passed from the master to each of us at our station.

    The dish was mundane: a puddle of vanilla pudding was plopped carelessly in a bowl. Half a canned peach was bedded in the gelatinous goo and the whole mess was covered with a sloppy, super-sweet slick of peach juice from the can.

    Dear heavens.

    There might be a way of turning the concept to a decent end, a palatable touchstone, as it were.

    How about a Bavarian cream with a half peach poached in vanilla syrup, the duo moistened with a reduced and mildly spiced peach nectar?

    Could work.

    I can whisk together a half-pound of sugar and seven or so egg yolks in a heavy pan, diluting slowly with three-quarters cup of boiled milk. The milk is flavored with vanilla and about a third ounce sheet of softened gelatin is added. This whole mess is heated, but not brought to a boil. It’s done when it coats the back of a spoon, then it’s strained and cooled, stirred now and then, and when it begins to thicken, three-quarters cup of whipped cream is folded in along with powdered sugar and granulated sugar to taste.

    The peach poached in vanilla syrup is a joke. Find me an edible fresh peach here in Siberia With a View, and we’ll talk. Yes, sadly, a canned peach half is called to duty. I’ll select the best available.

    On to a heap of Bavarian cream goes the peach and over it all, in a shallow lake, is poured cold, reduced peach nectar, the juice cooked down with a bit of cinnamon stick added at the very end of the process and removed quickly to give the nectar but a whisper of the spice.

    Proust had his Madeleine.

    I’ve got Mucous Delight.

    I’m going to try it, for old time’s sake.

    I hope I don’t have nightmares.