I can see it clearly, as if I am there.
The vision is awful, its edges crisp, every detail obvious. The emotions it summons are stark.
I’ve experienced it in dreams — nightmares, actually — but I can summon the vision from my past while awake. It is terrifying.
The large dining room is narrow and long, the walls and ceiling heavily paneled in ominous, dark wood.
Spanning the room, from side to side, are rows of long, heavy wood tables, with ten 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 tailor-made suits or sport coats. Some wear a school tie, black with red stripes. All wear a tie of some sort. Windsor only.
In the larger chair at the end of each table is seated a snooty older fink, replete with smirk and a pipe stuffed with cheap imported tobacco.
The large 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).
I was sent to one of these nasty institutions after proving I could not resist the temptations provided by my neer-do-well pals in the public education system. It was the era of hootenannies … what did they expect of me?
My parents’ hope was 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.
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 student body with extraordinary eats, wouldn’t you?
Not the case.
I bet prisoners 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, heatshield-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 hubris from the eater, with an effect more profound than saltpeter on a lust-crazed convict. Perhaps the menu was planned to desensitize the student, 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, the seat of the Inquisition.
I used to dread lunch. I spent most of each morning — following a chapel service that included a rousing rendition of “God, the Omnipotent” and a stultifying address by the headmaster — ignoring the entreaties of my teachers to support Barry Goldwater and the John Birch Society, working on schemes to escape the campus and find a decent meatball hero.
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 cheering the arrival of a culinary Genghis Khan.
Where 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 the Prussian hinterland. Maybe she was educated at the Borgia Academy.
However the old gal learned to destroy meat and produce, and take all joy from the act of eating … she learned it well.
She was an artist.
And I have Mrs. Peek’s unceasing artistry to thank for motivating 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 was unthinkable.
Everyone was happy but my parents. The school was cleansed of the 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 I don’t think any of us 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 stones in the ballast of 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, barging 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 stations.
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.
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?
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 some powdered sugar and some granulated sugar, to taste.
The peach poached in vanilla syrup is a joke. Find me an edible fresh peach, and we’ll talk. Yes, sadly, a canned peach half is called to duty. I’ll select the best possible.
On to a heap of Bavarian cream goes the peach and over it all, in a shallow lake, the cold, reduced peach nectar, the juice reduced with a bit of cinnamon stick added at the very end of the process and removed quickly to give the nectar 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 just hope I don’t have nightmares.