The Road to Yountville; or, Confessions of a Common Eater

I love to eat. My eating is similar to Anne Fadiman’s love of reading, detailed in her wonderful Confessions of a Common Reader. I have dined exquisitely, lushly, extravagantly, in locales celebrated and obscure. But as Ms. Fadiman would read every word of a Toyota car manual if left alone in a room with nothing else, I will invariably consume whatever I am plated, be it a lightly poached As I Lay Dying or a deep-fried “Pointers on Your 1973 Pinto.” I still dream of the creamy, succulent mussels I ate in Normandy when I was a boy of thirteen. Smokey, salty, and rich—perhaps God’s perfect food cooked in Her perfect recipe. I also, though, sometimes dream of the bacon, egg, cheese, bean, and burger grilled monstrosity prepared by an army cook named Lance Antilla, who was assigned to my detachment in 1994. It came served on Wonder bread in its own puddle of grease with a side of heavily salted army fries and took three days to digest.

1999 was a particularly good year for my little family. My second daughter, Fiona, was born in February. By summer, work was progressing rapidly on my first novel. And I was home full time to tend to these things—baby daughter and novel (as well as the family cooking)—because my work as a freelance copy editor and proofreader had reached the self-sustaining point. “Our fairy godmother” is how my wife Brenda and I referred to the managing editor of Viking. One will never get rich in the land of grammar and punctuation, but the regular checks arriving from Manhattan were just enough to allow me to spend my days in our little northern Bucks County, Pennsylvania home.

In October of that year, as our eating turned away from summer’s hibachi and more toward roast chickens and thick, curried soups, a package arrived containing manuscript and galleys of a book by a writer named Michael Ruhlman. For much of the summer I had been tortured by the manuscript of a massive treatise on astrology, a job of mind-numbing tedium that refused to go away. This new book by Mr. Ruhlman was the managing editor’s reward to me for persevering; the name of Ruhlman’s book was The Soul of a Chef.

I hunched over my desk, red pencil in hand, and found it very difficult to concentrate. Never have I been so hungry. From the opening chapter detailing the Escoffier-based menus prepared for the Certified Master Chef examination at the Culinary Institute of America, to the book’s middle, where Michael Symon concocted magical tastes and textures in his kitchen at Cleveland’s Lola Bistro, my stomach grumbled and begged for days. It was fun reading, too—I nodded my head and laughed in recognition at the descriptions of kitchen life, remembering my own brief time in checked pants and cook whites. But mostly, I just salivated. The flavors flew about my head, Ruhlman’s prose pushing shrimp and cilantro and lime and cayenne and pork and cream off the page and into my poor, hollow, hungry head.

And then—it got worse.

Part three of the book. A mini-biography of Thomas Keller. His formative youth cooking rabbit in a small upstate New York kitchen. The lost years in Los Angeles. The redemption with the purchase of The French Laundry in remote Yountville, California. The descriptions—the amazing, detailed, passionate descriptions—of this man’s amazing, detailed, passionate food. I no longer welcomed Brenda at the door in the evening with a kiss and a hot meal. Now there was no home-cooked dinner. How could I attempt anything with my rough hands when my head was filled with visions of such perfection? Instead of a kiss, instead of conversation, she was greeted by me with manuscript pages in hand, reading aloud as if from some religious text, my voice raised and mad-prophet desperate, trying to explain to her the purity of Keller’s tomato soup, the absolute genius of his stocks, the brilliance in the simplicity of his haricot verts.

I went into a fever of hunger for a week, no satisfying it. I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat, I wouldn’t talk. I paced the confines of our cottage with my red pencil, mumbling about marrow and kidneys. I checked the atlas and confirmed that yes, Yountville, California was a long journey from Pipersville, Pennsylvania. I consulted our checkbook and reminded myself that three or four hundred dollars was without question more than we could ever afford to pay for one single meal, no matter the brilliance of it.

I love to eat, and I fortunately married a woman who—although she hides it well—suffers the same affliction. Oh, her standards are somewhat higher than mine; she’d probably go hungry before surrendering to Sergeant Antilla’s greasy, grilled mess. But we’re not so far apart.

On the fifth night of my French Laundry fever, Brenda called me away from proofreading (Ruhlman was describing Keller’s “Ice-Cream Cone” of shaved salmon topped with a single caviar) to come have some soup. I sat at the table, dazed, unable to eat.

“We’re going,” she said.

“Where?”

“You know,” she said, pointing toward the manuscript on my desk.

There. Yountville.”

Yountville?” I asked, incredulous.

“Yountville. In April.” She sipped her wine. “Happy thirtieth birthday,” she added.

“My birthday’s in June.”

“We’re going in April.”

I sat back and took it all in. Yountville. I smiled, one of the largest smiles I’ve ever smiled. I reached across the table and grabbed her hand.

“I love you,” I said.

“Eat your soup.”

*


The salad days of Fiona being an agreeable, complacent newborn were gone. We were flying to San Francisco with a one-year-old. Peace was made with our obvious madness, and we hoped for an understanding flight crew. Plane tickets were bought, schedules cleared. Our friend Melinda said she could put us up for the week. I made reservations at The French Laundry, and the whole thing almost crashed right there: Ruhlman’s book told me, and I confirmed, that reservations are taken two months ahead, to the day, beginning precisely at 10 a.m. Yountville time, 7 a.m. Pipersville. At 10:02 on a cold day in February, 2000, I picked up the phone and dialed. Busy. Dialed again. Busy. Dialed again. Somewhere in the distance my infant daughter was crying. 10:09. Busy. Dialed again. 10:22. I began sweating. Busy. 10:25. Panic set in. The date we had picked, two months from this day, was the only one on which Melinda could baby-sit for a full afternoon and evening—necessary for the long drive through Napa to Yountville. Dialed again. Busy. Finally, just before 10:30, the phone was answered. A pleasant young woman with no idea of the havoc she’d caused.

“I’m sorry, sir, our dining room is completely full that evening.”

I couldn’t get air into my lungs. She seemed to sense this, and followed with, “However we have a table for two left at our midday seating.”

Lunch? I wasn’t flying to California for lunch!

“It’s the same menu as our evening seating, sir. Many people prefer the midday seating; nine courses is sometimes easier in the afternoon.”

Done. We were going to Yountville. All the way to Yountville. To eat. Lunch.

Two days before the flight, baby Fiona got very sick, very suddenly. It was a weekend, and my twelve-year-old daughter, Kristina, was with us. She found me in the kitchen, dicing peppers.

“Um, Dad,” she said, with her usual drop-dead subtlety, “there’s a slight problem.”

Oh boy was there ever. Kristina had been playing with Fiona, and when the baby began crying, she tried to change her diaper. This is where the problem was discovered. A description of the problem would not be appropriate here; let it just be said that many, many diapers were changed over the next forty-eight hours. Many, many diapers.

What we didn’t know then, but learned soon enough, was that poor baby Fiona had a very specific agent causing her lower-intestinal distress: a beast called the Rota virus. At the time, the Rota virus vaccine—given in a series of three shots—was being recalled from the market. Fiona had received shots one and two before the recall. This was fortunate, because although she did indeed catch the bug, her immunity to it was higher than someone who’d never been vaccinated at all. Someone like, for instance, her parents.

The morning of our flight, Fiona was—fine. We’d not slept for two days, but it didn’t matter now. We were airborne, the darling baby was again healthy, I would get my birthday meal—the most perfect meal in America, to be found only in Yountville. I settled back into my window seat, reaching over to grab my wife’s hand and give it a squeeze. Brenda’s palm was cold, and she squeezed back too hard. I looked over; she was biting her lip. Seconds later she was out of her seat, making a dash for the latrine. Fiona giggled, burped, then threw her binky at me, hitting me right between the eyes. Before we’d crossed the Rockies my anxiety-driven stomach cramps had become the real, painful thing and Brenda and I spent the rest of the flight alternating our trips to the latrine. We crawled off the plane in San Francisco, sweaty and pale. Our friend Melinda got us in the car and then home to bed.

I lived in India for a year when I was a boy, so am well familiar with cramps and other even less savory symptoms of intestinal distress. But this was unlike anything I’d experienced. The pain was bad, yes. And setting up semipermanent camp in the bathroom, no fun. But what set this particular nasty bug apart from all others was its tenacity, its duration. When the Rota virus comes for a visit, it settles in and makes itself at home.

“Forty-eight hours,” I said to Melinda, remembering Fiona’s run with the bug days before. Out on the back step the April sun was clear and strong, the air warm and still, the view over Bernal Heights and the Noe Valley magnificent; one of the most beautiful spring days I’d ever seen in San Francisco, and it would stay this way for the entire week. Perfect, gorgeous, beautiful weather, for a whole week. “Forty-eight hours and we’ll be fine,” I said, then clutched my stomach and ran to base camp at the toilet down the hall. Perfect weather for a whole week, and Brenda and I would miss all of it.

Day One was a washout. Melinda and Joey the very big dog took Fiona took to the park; Brenda and I never left camp. Day Two we managed to get some sun on our face in the yard, but really no improvement; the cramps came on an hourly basis and one couldn’t stray far from headquarters. The morning of Day Three held some promise; I got a cup of Melinda’s excellent coffee down and didn’t explode. Feeling dangerous, we called Firecracker, an old favorite of ours, and asked if they did take-out for lunch. Brenda smiled. Fiona laughed. Birds chirped. Melinda fired up her motorcycle and roared off to get our meal. By the time she got back I was in the bathroom, Brenda was crying, and Joey the very big dog ate most of our Yin Yang prawns and crab rolls.

Day Four: same thing, just substitute the Slanted Door’s papaya salad and grilled tuna. Joey the very big dog was getting fat. Melinda began looking at her watch more often. Fiona was wondering why we’d gone on vacation in a cave. Brenda and I, when we could stand to lift our eyes and look at one another, just shook our heads at the ridiculousness of it all. No one expects to be sick for a week, especially not with a stomach ailment. If forty-eight hours pass and you’ve still got a stomach bug, people look at you funny, as if you were a malingerer. Especially in northern California. What was sympathy on Monday becomes outright suspicion by Wednesday.

“Perhaps some ginko root and a brisk walk,” one of Melinda’s friends suggested, eyeing us dubiously. Brenda and I groaned in unison and rushed from the room.

Day Five dawned clear with a slight chill to the air. The paper promised 70 degrees by noon. I found Brenda in the kitchen, head down on the table.

“How do you feel?”

“Terrible,” she said. “You?”

“Terrible.”

“This is impossible,” she said. “No one stays sick for a week.”

“No one but us.”

“I can’t believe we flew all the way to California for one lousy meal and now we’re not going to get the meal.”

“We’re going,” I said.

“Where? Home?”

“No,” I said. “Yountville.”

Yountville. I said the word like Melinda’s friend said “ginko root”—a mystical thing with healing properties, sure to lift you from your lethargy and stupor, guaranteed to raise you from the depths of your physical pain and discomfort.

“Yountville,” Brenda repeated, somewhat cautiously. “Do you think it’s a good idea?”

“We came all the way to California. I’ve got a reservation. By God we’re going to Yountville.”

She nodded, slowly but surely; the idea taking hold.

“How long a drive is it?”

“Two hours.”

She bit her lip.

“Are there bathrooms along the way?”

Melinda padded in, yawning and stretching in her pajamas. She looked at us and shook her head.

“Hey guys, I’m sorry it didn’t work out with that restaurant and all. Maybe next time—”

“We’re going,” Brenda said.

“Going where?”

“Yountville,” she said. Then ran down the hall toward the toilet.

*

Set in a low place in the land, way the hell up there in Napa, Yountville is a flat little fat space in the road, two parallel thoroughfares with connecting streets carving the town into tidy blocks of shaded stucco and wood homes. It’s a farming town, or was, and its main attractions to an outsider are a general store and vegetable stand at the one end of Washington Street, and The French Laundry at the other.

I rolled the window down as we pulled into town. It was just warm enough, the air sweet and dry.

“Yountville,” I whispered. “I am here.”

Brenda looked at me with an eyebrow up, opened her mouth to say something, then decided to keep it to herself. I didn’t ask.

In a small, tidy brown building once a bordello and a laundry resides Keller’s restaurant. Through perfect green herb gardens and a manicured lawn, over wet, dark pebbles, then inside the door, into the heart of the Yountville quest. Our stomachs are edgy, our limbs are weak, but we are here.

The waitress asks, “Did you come far?”

I smile and nod and leave it at that.

And so it begins. The Chef’s Tasting Menu is nine courses. Keller’s “Peas and Carrots,” tiny little vegetable shoots with poached Maine lobster. The “Oysters and Pearls,” oysters and caviar in creamy tapioca. The braised pork belly with spring pole beans he calls “Pork and Beans.” These exquisite, miniature works of art. We eat—carefully, thoughtfully, methodically. And when not eating—between courses, between the perfectly choreographed dance of servers bringing more plates—we sit and we don’t talk and we concentrate on forcing our sick intestines to behave.

The waitress comes by.

“Is everything to your liking?” she asked sweetly.

Just at that moment a cramp stronger than any I’d felt all day ripped through my stomach and guts. My mouth already opening to answer her, I actually groaned aloud, desperately keeping a smile pinned to my face.

“That good, huh?” she said, a huge, innocent, clueless grin crossing her features. She walked back to the kitchen, safe in the assumption of an ecstatic customer.

I gripped the edge of the table, white-knuckled, and Brenda put her hand over mine.

“It’s amazing,” I whispered.

“The pain?”

“No, the food.”

She smiled at me then, through her own discomfort, and we both laughed.

“I love you,” I said.

“Eat your soup.”

Servers came, servers went. Courses arrived, were marveled over and devoured, the plates whisked away. My body, mostly patient to this point, started a nervous rebellion as we passed from meal into the land of dessert and coffee. Twinges and twitches became outright pain. Looking at Brenda, I saw she was in the same shape. We had scaled our own culinary Everest, but the Rota virus would not let our victory last.

The waitress arrived tableside for her final visit: “Was your meal completely satisfactory?”

I sat back. I wanted to get this right. It was important, an important moment for me. I had one very important sentence to say, and it was necessary to me that this woman—this representative of all things French Laundry, all things Yountville—understand the full truth of my words.

“That was,” I said, one careful word at a time, “the single finest meal I have ever eaten, or will ever eat.”

She smiled, and started to reply. I held up my hand to cut her off, straining to keep myself together.

“Please, I’m sorry—could you point me toward the bathroom?”

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