THE FIRST FANCY PLACE
I am starched, white gloved and frilled. Neatly tied into a dress with bows, anklet socks precisely turned, Mary Jane’s patented and shining. Lifted to my seat in the restaurant I am perched on a pedestal of telephone books. A tiny empress, surveying the gleaming forks and knives and spoons. What is the right thing to do? I have no idea. Terrified, I sit so still.
A single question, “Do I like tuna fish?” I nod carefully. Is “yes” the right answer? Lunch is ordered. In a blur a black jacketed waiter flourishes a plate in front of me with the insouciant panache of a bullfighter flicking his red cape. Is this my lunch? My sandwich is sliced into into beautiful little triangles and stacked three stories high on a mountain of potato chips. Do I eat it or stare at it? I don’t know. Then I spot it at the edge of the plate. A tiny paper cup filled with mashed potatoes. At last, something I recognize! In a rush all at once I squeeze the whole thing into my mouth.
And my eyes brim with tears.
Growing up in the Motor City one’s life is simply guided by cars. We Motor City folk cruise Woodward, glide up and down the hills of Maple, bump over the potholes of Orchard Lake. We don’t just drive to get places. We drive to drive. We drive the rippling highways and byways of our state, The Big Mitten, but in truth we are always dreaming of skimming by the shore. It’s not hard to do. Wherever you are in Michigan you are no more than six miles from a lake and no more than 85 miles from one of the Great Ones. We Michiganders are happily waterlogged.
If the salty Atlantic imparts a certain tang to Eastern Clam Chowder than I’ll argue that being squeezed between Lakes Michigan, Huron, Ontario, Erie and Superior impart a certain freshness to our foodstuffs.
So after lazy Sunday afternoon car rides we invariably would end at Mitch’s on the lake. Which lake? I never knew. But my Dad would slide the gigantic Oldsmobile into parking lot, crank down the windows for those of us sweltering in the back seat, and then disappear into the vast and bustling restaurant. After a few minutes he would emerge with a wonderfully greasy bag of Mitch’s special soft breadsticks, hot from the oven, dripping with butter, sprinkled liberally with salt. They were gone by the time we reached our front door. At the table we ate plate after plate of Mitch’s special salad. The recipe for the dressing is still a mystery. But no matter.
Seven o’clock and time for The Wonderful World of Disney!
Skip breakfast. Skip lunch. Skip dinner.
Crowd into the hand me down Pinto, the Gremlin, or the Opal Manta. Careen down Lone Pine on the way to the corner of Telegraph and Maple. Spot that gleaming orange roof from a mile away!
Scoot into a booth. Squeeze in tight. The waitress taps her pencil on her pad. “What’ll it be?”
“FUDGE RIPPLE with strawberry sauce, extra whipped cream!”
“BUTTERCRUNCH with butterscotch topping, marshmallow, double cherries!”
“PEPPERMINT with hot fudge, pistachios, pineapple and sprinkles!”
Enormous goblets filled with ice cream and sauce overflowing are placed before each of us. A conspiratorial click of silver spoons and we begin!
Afterwards a plate (or two) of french fries, the perfect palate cleanser, for all to share.
Really it’s little more than a slice of a place. Just enough room to squeeze through the door and pull yourself up to a red counter stool. Twirl meditatively while checking the menu but really for naught. The order is always going to be the same.
“Cheese and bean sprout omelet, please.”
The order is taken with a swift nod. Then the counterman swirls the eggs in a bowl and gently spreads them on the grill. A shovel of hash browns fills the whole of an oblong platter and with a few quick flicks of his wrist the omelet is filled then folded with an origami like precision and placed delicately on top.
Since nothing could possibly ever match this for perfection, no need to eat for a week.
You could almost eat the smell. But that isn’t nearly enough. Walking down the streets of Carroll Gardens, if you are lucky enough to catch the scent, your nose starts twitching like a pup who had caught the aroma of a grilled steak. Breathe and breathe in deep. It is invigorating, exhilarating, blissful. I am swept along the streets of Brooklyn bleary and floating, then joyously flying through air like a girl in a Chagall. And suddenly I am there. Right on Henry Street at the window of Cammerari’s Bakery.
I press my nose to the glass. Living paycheck to paycheck, I have only two dollars. But here at Cammerari’s that’s more than enough. In a moment, crinkled bills are on the counter and soon a whole loaf of warm bread is cradled in my arms.
I sigh happily. Once again, I will be full.
The memory of these—and so many other—wonderful places are still sweet and rich on my tongue. I savor them. With love especially to all who’ve broken bread or shared a scoop with me.
photograph copyright Edible East Bay Magazine