The other day, I had a chat conversation about the word sommelier. One chat member had never heard it and went to look it up. Then the guy who introduced the term into the conversation confessed that he, too, had looked it up before using it in our chat. The subject of that chat was an upcoming Christmas potluck dinner and who would bring the wine.
Of course, a sommelier does more than deliver the bottle to the table. If asked, he (and it’s usually a man) will offer suggestions on the wine that would best match the food that’s been ordered. He may talk about wine as oily or mineral with notes of citrus or red berries. He might wax eloquent on the provenance, the exact grape sorts, the peculiar meteorological conditions of the terroir and the use (or not) of oak casks.
I listen to it all and nod wisely. But since I have almost no alcohol tolerance, neither the conversation nor the wine flows in my direction. My husband is the drinker, er, wine connoisseur. He taught me about sommeliers. Talking about the word made me realize how very far I am from home.
In my childhood home, we ate Chinese food 362 days of the year. On the other three days, my brothers and I celebrated our respective birthdays. For those special occasions, we were given the right to choose what to eat. That invariably ended at a McDonald’s for chicken nuggets with honey mustard sauce, large fries and a vanilla shake.
The rest of the time we used chopsticks. Even today, after a lifetime in Amsterdam, I can clack with the best of them. I may not be quick enough to catch a fly as Pat Morita did in The Karate Kid. But in the kitchen chopsticks are my go-to utensil for everything from grilling steaks to baking bread.
I distinctly remember the first time I used a fork and knife in public. It was Disneyland, Christmas 1972. I was thirteen years old. My classmates and I ate spaghetti somewhere outside of Frontierland. I suppose I acquitted myself alright because if I hadn’t, I’m sure I would have blocked the memory.
There’s a great scene in the film Pretty Woman where Hector Elizondo teaches Julia Roberts about forks and knives. She’s about to go on a dinner date with Richard Gere and is terrified of picking up the wrong one.
I know this feeling. When I was looking for a job in my third year of law school, the interview process was an all-day affair. Back-to-back questions about the law and my goals in life. Lunch was a continuation of that grilling but worse. That’s when you were also tested on your social skills. To engage in polite conversation, handle yourself with aplomb and use the right knife and fork.
That summer there was a story making the rounds. An applicant was taken for lunch to a Chinese restaurant. When the pancakes for the mu shu pork arrived, she mistook them for a hot towel to wipe the sweat from her face. Ha, I thought, at least I’ll never make that mistake.
My husband is pretty good with a knife and fork. Not so much with chopsticks. Whenever we eat Chinese food, whether at a restaurant or at home, you can always tell where he sat by the bits of food left orbiting his plate.
But he was no Hector Elizondo to my Julia Roberts. Instead, it was his mother who taught me what was what. She was a great cook in the classical French style. A dinner party at her home always consisted of a half dozen courses, each requiring its own fork, knife and/or spoon. As a young newlywed, I was eager to please and so I would offer to help set the table. She would lay one full setting and I would copy her work.
When she died earlier this year, my task was to inventory the contents of her home. Tables and chairs, lamps and books, kitchen utensils: all no problem. But when I got to her silver cabinet, I was stumped. There was a fork that looked like a miniature trident with a long twisted handle. Turns out you use that to fish for olives. There were spoons in all shapes and sizes, only one of which was proper for ginger in syrup. Who knew?
the silver cabinet
Now my mother-in-law’s silver cabinet sits in my dining room. Like her, I use it to store my forks and knives. While she made a bed of cotton for her silver, I’ve lined those drawers with green felt and little holders to keep each fork and knife in its place.
In case you’re wondering whether I’ve renounced my Chinese roots, have no fear. I’ve got fancy chopsticks, some in ivory with cloisonne handles and others in teak with silver tips. Special chopsticks holders I brought back from Japan and a beautiful set of china fit for a Chinese banquet that was given to me by my Mom. But these things have their own special place in my life and it’s not inside the silver cabinet.
From chopstick kid to the proud owner of a silver fork specially designed for cold cuts, I’ve come a long way, baby.