Tuesday, April 21, 2009

More Than Finger Lickin'

When my family lived in Southport, Connecticut, we would go on occasion to an Indian restaurant in Fairfield. I can still see in my mind's eye the dark green awning with white lettering that spelled . . . something. Or maybe I'm confusing the awning with a different Indian place; that's possible. Anyway, I can't remember the name of the restaurant, though probably my parents do. I'll have to ask them. I'm pretty sure that this was the only Indian cuisine available in Fairfield at that particular time (late 1980s), and it was lucky for us that the food was good. Quite good. The people who owned the restaurant were nice, too; the kind of people you wish to succeed. I have the feeling that the restaurant closed eventually, though—after my parents had already moved away and Fairfield in general turned into a consignment store haven. At the restaurant, we always ordered the same dishes, the ubiquitous items that have assimilated best into the American "ethnic" idea: paratha, nan, raita, chicken saag, lamb vindaloo or tandoori chicken, vegetable biryani. (We didn't order mango lassis, though now we can't go into an Indian restaurant and hope to avoid one, at least not if my son is with us.) This restaurant was fairly small, with maybe a dozen tables maximum. They dressed the tables with white cloths, served the food on nice white china. Going there was always a good experience. It was to this restaurant that we took my paternal grandmother for her first Indian meal when she came up from Florida to visit. She was very close to ninety if she hadn't passed that milestone already, and we all remember how adventurous she was in trying new flavors, new preparations. She loved the spicy heat of the food. But this is all beside the point, not the main memory that got me writing tonight. What I remember this evening is one particular dinner, probably during a weeknight and quite early; there were not many other customers in the restaurant at that time. My parents and I sat at a square table to the left of the dining room, one table away from the kitchen entrance. The table was situated in such a way that my mom's back was to the front door and windows that gave a view of a small side street; my father was opposite, facing the front of the restaurant, and I was between them. Behind my mom was also another occupied table, a three-top like ours, with two men and a woman enjoying their meal. It's not that we were eavesdropping, but every so often a snippet of their conversation would drift toward us. We gathered that they were academics of some sort; educated, anyway. They were all dressed fashionably, well groomed. They were generally the sort of unremarkable, socially acceptable, possibly even privileged people you'd expect to find in Fairfield County. Which is why, when one of the men lifted his empty plate level with his face and began to lick it clean, my dad and I were completely stunned. We looked at each other immediately, one of those "Did you see what I just saw?" looks. We would like to have had my mom's confirmation as well, but there was simply no discreet way that she could have turned to observe this otherwise well mannered (we'd thought) man, giving his dish a tongue bath. He absolutely covered the whole surface of the plate, very methodically, with gusto. To this day, I'm not sure my mom is convinced that we were not exaggerating in our report, or that the man was not doing this as a joke. But although it was completely outrageous, it was no joke. And the weirdest thing about it was the non-response of the man's dinner companions. It was as though doing this in a restaurant was the most customary manner of showing appreciation for a talented chef. We whispered under our breath, discussed it in greater detail once the party had paid their bill and left. And periodically, it has come up over the years as a funny "Remember when . . ." I wonder sometimes if I'd ever allow myself to do such a thing in public, in a relatively fine restaurant. The answer is a pretty firm no. In my own kitchen, sure—after all, there are the tempting cake batters and cookie doughs to clean out of the mixing bowls—but that's different. It's rooted in childhood, and it's personal. In the privacy of one's home, there is no one to offend. But no matter how lacking in social graces, I do have to marvel at this man, utterly without self-consciousness, enjoying his meal to the point of abandon. It was quite a sight.

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