A few days ago I had a very kind letter from Joan of for the love of a house - a response to Tuesday's post and whilst replying to her I began to think about my first visit to this country. You might think, and you'd be right, amongst the guiding forces behind my blog is nostalgia and love of home - the blog is not titled The Blue Remembered Hills for nothing.
It was not until the Bicentennial that I visited this country and rather than fly from Montreal where I was vacationing, I took a Greyhound bus to New York. It's hard to imagine now that the Greyhound bus had romance for a European but it did. Before I continue with that journey, equally grueling and exciting as it was, let me tell you how my love of this country began early in my life.
A neighbor, once the bride of a G.I (oversexed, overpaid and over here as American soldiers were referred to) serving in Britain, came back with her daughters to live in our home town and the two families became close, relatively speaking - god parents, best-men, that sort of thing. It was the friendship with them and their tales of life in Leroy, New York and Flint, Michigan that awakened in me a desire to see America, to experience it and to live in it. Was I totally convinced by what they were saying? Absolutely, but I couldn't let them see it. Something in what what I listened to made me curious, perhaps more than a little envious, and even more dissatisfied with a hidden inner life in a small town. A seed had been planted and it wasn't in the snows of Michigan or New York.
Much of what I remember from my early youth is in black and white - Eisenhower playing golf, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Sputnik, - images from the Saturday matinee Movietone Newsreels through which I could hardly contain myself waiting for Flash Gordon and Dale Arden to fight the wicked Emperor Ming once again, or Hopalong Cassidy was going to set the West to rights, or, if it was a very bad day, Roy Rogers and that bloody horse .... as a child I couldn't stand Roy Rogers.
The day I first saw Amos Burke draw up in his Rolls Royce to a Los Angeles cocktail lounge - a building of absolute banality surrounded by acres of parking, alongside a humdrum strip of city street, and enter a darkly glamorous interior where the criminal, the friendless, or both were drinking in the middle of the day - I was hooked. Forget Flint, to hell with Leroy, New York even - gimme that cocktail lounge! There was, of course, a certain suspension of belief - a millionaire chief of detectives driving around in a Rolls Royce - but that was not the point. The point was that the cocktail lounge as portrayed there was so exotic I just had to find one. Not an easy task, it transpired. It took me a while and when I did find one it was in New Jersey, but that did not diminish its glamor one jot. In fact, it only heightened it for didn't we all know that the Mob owned all the cocktail lounges in New Jersey and and probably the guy on the next barstool, or those two sitting in the shadows ..... ! This was America. This was deliciousness personified.
Yet it was not in a cocktail lounge that I had my first taste of America, in a culinary sense, but rather at a Greyhound bus stop in Saratoga Springs. I ordered onion rings and coffee. That day was my introduction to how bad coffee can be - but more importantly to how ambrosial slices of onion dipped in batter and oozing grease can be, and remain so to this day. Didn't America drink coffee when it wasn't drinking cocktails? Wasn't Maxwell House, as it was advertised in Britain, America's favorite coffee? Wasn't a burger and fries the quintessential American dish? A burger and fries seemed so, well, everyday, but onion rings - now that was special, that was American. This is the memory that came back when reading Joan's letter today. What I remember of Saratoga Springs beyond the bus stop is little except for an impression of white painted wood, flowers and greenery but those onion rings gleam in my memory.
That summer I stayed with a friend who lived in what he said had been a gatehouse on the Revson estate - a tiny house without air conditioning, and where I was served a cocktail containing bouillon which I found undrinkable but poured it down, nonetheless. That summer that same friend introduced me to the Village where on those summer nights it seemed like it had actually rained men, to Broadway and before the theatre to the Algonquin lobby - a space now sadly choking under cheap decorative tat, to Eudora Welty and the her recording of Why I Live at the P.O., to Florence Foster Jenkins; to lofts, to the Clam Broth House in Hoboken, New Jersey, to classical music public radio, and to the idea that finally the battle fought that brave night outside the Stonewall Inn only seven years before had brought relative freedom to a much despised minority - a freedom again under attack by politicos in Texas and Montana.
Vitae summa brevis, indeed.
Whilst I'm still waxing nostalgic let me say that the best breakfast I've eaten, probably anywhere and certainly over thirty years ago, was lobster with drawn butter, in a beachside cafe in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. No lobster or breakfast has since come close.