Thursday, August 19, 2010


Yesterday the husband surprised me with a date night at an expensive gourmet farm-to-table restaurant. Which is a pretty big deal for us for a number of reasons:
1. We have those four pesky kids
2. One of them is special needs
3. And mostly because the husband hates spending money. His idea of a decadently extravagant dinner is buying it all in the frozen-foods aisle at Trader Joe's. So, for him, going to a restaurant where you'll pay $100 for dinner for two is a BIG STINKIN DEAL and it damn well better be transcendent. And since it had been rated as one of the top 100 farm-to-table restaurants in the U.S. by Gourmet Magazine, he was primed for Heaven on a plate.

So, of course, it wasn't. I knew things were not going to go well when the husband, who can't drink, asked if they had anything like lemonade. All they had was booze and soda pop. When the food came it was in those stupid skinny stacks (seriously, who stacks their food?) on huge, mostly empty, white plates decorated with nouvelle cuisine dots and squiggles of sauce. Excuse me, but I do not like my food skinnier or prettier than me, and I like enough sauce so that I can mop it up with bread from the generous bread basket. Which there also wasn't. The final insult (for the husband, who is a crazed foodie) was that the meyer-lemon tart had a soggy (shudder) crust! It was a major case of hoping for lemonade and getting a big fat sour bunch of lemons. Seriously, the poor boy was devastated. He's sensitive that way.

So after our nouvelle d├ęsastre I suggested we go for a walk around beautiful (by which I mean impoverished and decaying) downtown Sharpsburg, PA, where said restaurant was situated. Now kids, small-town Western Pennsylvania is not a scenic wonderland but we had the babysitter so....

For a few blocks things went from bad to worse. We saw a mother pull over her speeding minivan, smack her screaming kid hard, then screech off with the poor kid wailing like a siren. And as we strolled along, the natives stared at us because, I assume, we didn't have tattoos and bleached-blond mullets (not a good look for me).

Then, just as we were about to trudge dejectedly home, I saw a glimmer of water. From a river. That you could walk to. Which is unusual here even though we are literally surrounded by rivers. Because of Pittsburgh's industrial past, the waterfront is mostly blocked off by (abandoned and decaying) industrial sites. It is almost impossible to actually walk to a river anywhere in town. But there was the river, and there was the path to it, and so we walked.

We went through a long dark tunnel and emerged into a magical place.

We strolled over and dabbled our fingers in the miraculously touchable river. Amazing. Then we sat by it and just breathed it all in. People were fishing, feeding the ducks, or just sitting, talking, being there, like us. It was a perfect mild evening. The sun was setting, and everyone around us exuded that special peace that you get near a body of water. There were all classes and races of people, all just so happy to be exactly where they were.

After a while I started chatting with people, as I do. The guy next to us, with the tattoos, the blond mullet and the Lynard Skynard bandana said he was catching small fish, mainly crappies (or maybe he meant that he was just catching small crappy fish!), but added that "I really just came here for the peace." The black woman next to us with the akita and the toy poodle offered me bread to feed the ducks with. As we watched the ducks squabble, a friend of hers told me about taking his granddaughter ice fishing in Minnesota. It was the nicest evening I've had in a long long time.

On the drive home, I thought about lemons and lemonade and how happy I was that my husband and I are generally able to take the lemons we have been given in our life together, some of them pretty seriously sour and, one way or another, made some pretty nice lemonade out of it all. And next time we go to Sharpsburg, we'll skip the fancy exclusive restaurant altogether and take our lemonade - literal and metaphorical - and some sandwiches right to the river and share it all, which, for me, makes everything so much sweeter.


Miss Janey said...

It does sound pretty dang close to perfect despite the rip-off meal.


I'm either crazy or.........I'm crazy. But I swear I've read this before..

jason said...

The sight of water at sunset can redeem anything, I think.

And I hear you on the skinny food, sister.

Eartha Kitsch said...

No bread basket?? That's downright unwelcoming!

I'm glad that you kids found the river. After the beginning of the story, I was afraid of what you might find there - but it turned out so nice!

That date night was a pretty great thing by the way. Very sweet of him!

The Justified Sinner said...

$100 for a dinner for two sounds like a bit of a bargain. My favourite restaurant in Glasgow would charge that for one! At least the food is decent there, however, and the service is impeccable.

I'm glad that your special evening wasn't a total washout, though. Sometimes these spontaneous things are the best and you'll remember the pond and the people for a lot longer than the meal would have been remembered.

Elizabeth said...

Miss Janey - It turned out to be delightful, and probably all the more so for the disappointing restaurant in the beginning.

granny - Hmmm... maybe it's just that a lot of life is like this?

Jason - You're right. It's a magical combination. And as for skinny nouvelle food, seriously, was there EVER a culture in the entire span of human history that stacked their food into tall, precarious, and difficult to eat towers?

Eartha - I know! First no lemonade and then no bread basket! I call that stingy.

Sinner - Pittsburgh is a large city but not a "Big city." In a true big city - New York, LA, Chicago - any kind of upscale meal for $100 for two would be a bargain. But luckily for us, we have some truly excellent and unpretentious local-food restaurants and, since the prices here are reasonable, we can actually afford them!

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Sweet post. Thanks for sharing.

Peter said...

liz -- wonderful note, as all these are, even if some of them elicit sad thoughts, and memories. but thank you so much for sharing all this -- even if kirk and the kids don't listen to you uncomplainingly now, i'm willing to bet that there will come a day when they marvel in your creativity, your insights, your sense of the world around us.

Anne Watkins said...

Yeah. C'mon up to NYC and we will get rice and beans and ceviche from Anna's cart and toss rice to the catbirds beside the mighty Hudson.
This is a jewel of a piece. I think your work must be going well.....the rewards are ready to swim to you.
much love, A

Elizabeth said...

Peter - Thanks for stopping by and for the sweet comment. And as for the not listening, well, I do dramatize just a wee bit. Poor guys, they put up with a lot from me, especially Kirk who is the patient and occasionally even amused straight man to my constant ribbing.

Anne - Now THAT'S my kind of dinner date! Let's make a pact that one of these days we'll make it happen.

And actually, the writing is going really well just now! For some reason it's coming easily, without sturm, drang, or excessive snacking!

a thousand shades of twilight said...

What a lovely piece! I read the first half anxiously, and was so relieved that your evening turned out so well!

I HATE STACKS ON LARGE WHITE PLATES TOO! I was actually just saying to someone last night that with me, it's more about quantity than quality when it comes to eating..and soggy crust? Isn't this why we pay people to make our tarts? Grrr.

The river looks and sounds lovely.