Up in The Old Hotel.
In my career as a food writer, I often do restaurant reviews. When I began 7 years ago, I did this exclusively. Over the years I’ve grown a love/hate relationship with the activity, especially since moving to a small town. I’ve gotten to know the chefs, servers, hosts, and purveyors to such an extent that creating a scathing review of their place, the space they built, call home, and pour their heart and soul into renders me useless. It’s unthinkable. As of late, I’ve limited my so called “reviews” to dining experiences I consider extraordinary. I’d rather sing the praises of a place that imprinted itself on my heart for a time rather than slash and burn with my pen everything lying in my path just because the butter was served cold.
I’ve been re-reading my favorite nonfiction book, Up in the Old Hotel. It’s the complete collection of Joseph Mitchell’s essays published in The New Yorker from 1938 to 1992, as well as three short books and some short stories. In it he walks the streets, muses on the old speakeasys, hotel, markets, and saloons that are no longer there, and interviews all the characters that make up this great city including a Calypso singer, street preacher, gypsy, Mohawk iron worker, and fishmonger. Food plays a large part of his adventures, and even in his short stories it holds center stage. I love his meandering, masculine “reportage” style which has meat to it and grit, but lacks the annoying machismo of say Norman Mailer or Hemingway. Besides William Kennedy, Joseph Mitchell is my favorite author.
I’ve read this book three times over the 2 years I’ve owned it. No small feat considering it’s 700 pages. It’s that good. For some reason, the message inherent in his book Old Mr. Flood missed me entirely the first two times I read it. Not this time. Reading it again over the weekend, I stopped, put the book down, and immediately wanted to share it with the world. I present the passage here in its entirety without apology. It’s not wholly related to Charlottesville, but it is. And it’s hysterical. Even back in 1944 when it was written folks were arguing over the merits of restaurants and their critics. Some things never change.
In this passage Hugh Flood, Mr. Jack Murchison (a waiter at Libby’s Oyster House), the narrator, and Mr. Maggiani are sitting in Mr. Maggiani’s fishing boat chandlery near the old Fulton Fish Market, eating a bushel of black clams just discovered off Rhode Island:
Mr. Murchison lifted the tails of his overcoat and stood with his back to the stove for a few minutes. Then he sat down and sighed with satisfaction. “Hugh,” he said to Mr. Flood, “got something I want to show you.” He took his wallet from a hip pocket, drew out a newspaper clipping, and gave it to me to pass over to Mr. Flood, who was sitting on the other side of the stove. It was a clipping from Lucius Beebe’s column, “This New York,” in The Herald Tribune.
Mr. Flood glanced at it and said, “Oh, God, what’s this? Is he one of those ignorant fellows writes about restaurants in the papers, oh and ahs about everything they put before him? Every paper nowadays has a fellow writing about restaurants, an expert giving his opinion, a fellow that if he was out of a job and went to a restaurant to get one, this expert on cooking, this Mr. Know-it-all, the practical knowledge he has, why, they wouldn’t trust him to peel the potatoes for a stew.”
“This gentleman is a goormy,” said Mr. Murchison. “Go ahead and read what he says.”
Mr. Flood read a paragraph or two. Then he groaned and handed the clipping to me. “God defend us son,” he said. “Read this.”
In the column, Mr. Beebe described a dinner that had been “run up” for him and a friend by Edmond Berger, the chef de cuisine of The Colony Restaurant. He gave the menu in full. One item, the fish course, was “Fillet de Sole en Bateau Beebe.” “The sole, courteously created in the name of this department by Chef Berger for the occasion,” Mr. Beebe wrote, “was a delicate fillet superimposed on a half baked banana and a trick worth remembering.”
“Good God A’mighty!” said Mr. Flood.
“Sounds nice, don’t it?” asked Mr. Murchison. “A half baked bananny with a delicate piece of flounder superimposed on the top of it. While he was at it, why didn’t he tie a red ribbon around it?”
“Next they’ll be putting a cherry on boiled codfish,” said Mr. Flood. “How would that be, a delicate piece of codfish with a cherry superimposed on the top of it?”
The two old men cackled.
“Tell me the truth Hugh,” said Mr. Murchison, “what in the world do you think of a thing like that?”
“I tell you what I think,” said Mr. Flood. “I got my money in the Corn Exchange Bank. And if I was to go into some restaurant and see the president of the Corn Exchange Bank eating a thing like that, why, I would turn right around and walk out of there, and I’d hightail it over to the Corn Exchange Bank and draw out every red cent. It would destroy my confidence.”
“President, hell,” said Mr. Murchison. “If I was to see the janitor of the Corn Exchange Bank eating a thing like that, I’d draw my money out.”
“Of course,” said Mr. Flood. “you got to take into consideration this fellow is a gourmet. A thing like that is just messy enough to suit a gourmet. They got bellies like schoolgirls; they can eat anything, just so it’s messy.”
“We get a lot of goormies in Libby’s,” said Mr. Murchison. “I can spot a goormy right off. Moment he sits down he wants to know do we have any boolybooze.”
“Bouillabaisse,” said Mr. Flood.
“Yes,” said Mr. Murchison, “and I tell him, ‘Quit showing off! We don’t carry no boolybooze. Never did. There’s a time and a place for everything. If you was to go into a restaurant in France,’ I ask him, ‘would you call for some Daniel Webster fish chowder?’ I love a hearty eater, but I do despise a goormy. All they know is boolybooze and pompano and something that’s out of season, nothing else will do. And when they get through eating they don’t settle their check and go on about their business. No, they sit there and deliver you a lecture on what they et, how good it was, how it was almost as good as a piece of fish they had in the Caffy dee lah Pooty-doo in Paris, France, on January 16, 1928; they remember every meal they ever et, or make out they do. And every goormy I ever saw is an expert on herbs. Herbs, herbs, herbs! If you let one get started on the subject of herbs he’ll talk you deef, dumb, and blind. Way I feel about herbs, on any fish I ever saw, pepper and salt and a spoon of melted butter is herbs aplenty.”
“Let’s see that clipping again,” Mr. Flood said. He took the Beebe column and read it slowly from start to finish. Then he handed it back to me. “Burn a rag,” he said.