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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