WAKEFIELD, DAN

From Catfish to Coq au Vin

by Dan Wakefield

Going from Indianapolis to college at Columbia was a shock to all my senses, and taste was one of the first to be altered.

My new fellow students led me to lunch at a drugstore counter across the campus on the corner of 116th and Amsterdam. Dizzy from the new sights and smells and sounds of the city, I figured I would find comfort in my old favorite Indiana special, the tenderloin sandwich.

My mouth watered from anticipation of one of those breaded monsters that stick out a mile from the bun in all directions, enhanced with pickles and mustard and washed down with an icy cold Coke. Instead of that satisfying delight, a plate with a small, pristine bun was placed before me. I lifted the top to look upon a small, flat piece of naked, plain brown meat that seemed shriveled to about the size of a half-dollar. I had already been asked to repeat my words that New Yorkers found hard to understand (they said I had an “accent!”) and I thought the waiter must not have understood me.

“I wanted a tenderloin,” I explained, and the waiter, as well as a student on the next stool, assured me that’s what I got. Realizing nothing better was coming, I swallowed the tidbit in two bites and went hungry the rest of the day.

I’m happy to say the V&T Pizzeria a few blocks up on Amsterdam atoned for the tenderloin travesty with my new life staple—lasagna, a stomach-filling treat composed of fat layers of pasta, tomatoes, cheese and ground beef, loaded with marinara sauce and spices unheard of in the hopefully-named “Italian Village” of Indianapolis.

The V&T owner-waiters were George and Lennie, men with monster smiles and stomachs who were heroes to generations of starving students. Their pizza dripped with high drifts of melting cheese and marinara, sausage, mushrooms, onions, peppers, and anything else you dreamed about, delivered with hearty panache.

A sudden shift in my collegiate culinary experience came with the arrival of an “ambassador” from Indian-apolis, appointed by my parents to take me for a good meal while he was in New York on a business trip. Their chosen representative was Otto Mahrdt, father of my friend from Boy Scout Troop #90, Johnny Mahrdt ’52.

Ambassador Mahrdt enhanced his mission from home by taking me first to hear the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale preach his popular message of “The Power of Posi-tive Thinking” at Marble Collegiate Church. In the noble effort to save both my body and my soul, I was then escorted to lunch at Luchow’s German restaurant for massive doses of sauerbraten-schnitzel stuff with dark beer and topped off with Black Forest cake, all to the music of an oompah-pah-pah band that puffed among the tables. Later that afternoon I expelled the rich food along with the positive thinking in the bathroom of the dorm. (Luchow’s formerly famous eatery closed in the ’80s after America came to cardiac awareness.)

Once on our own in New York with no money from home, my friends and I—all fresh out of college or the Army—foraged together for food and shelter. Five of us somehow squeezed into a one-bedroom apartment over the Happy Time Kindergarten at 312 W. 92nd Street, living for a year on mush, pasta, and wine (supplemented in starving moments with Ritz crackers).

Our unbalanced diet did not deter us from our dreams. Paul Lancaster, later the page one editor of the Wall Street Journal, fried our cornmeal mush in the morning, topped with butter and syrup, that got us through till nighttime, when Ted “The Horse” Steeg ’52 out of Indianapolis via Wabash and Korea served up platters of spaghetti with tomato sauce. (He went on to become a director/producer of business and documentary films.) The Horse’s spaghetti was accompanied by the 99-cent bottles of Chianti supplied by Bill Chapman (future Washington Post correspondent in Tokyo,) Charlie Rinehart (founder of The American Dance Festival), and me, who writes books.

Our big treat every week or so was an invitation to dinner at the apartment of “The Girls” around the block on West End Avenue, all four fresh out of Wells College in Aurora, NY. (Two of the four went on to marry two of our five, and those blessed couples lived lives devoid of divorce.) Dinner with “The Girls” meant the staple of out-of-town youth in New York, the tuna noodle casserole, a treat we loved (a welcome respite from spaghetti and mush). But due to the “girl’s portions” they served, we required pre-dinner consumption of Ritz crackers in order to avoid fainting from hunger before we got home.

In a fit of nostalgia a few months ago, I cooked the tuna noodle casserole for myself, and like Proust’s madeleine, it took me back to what now seems my childhood, in New York, in the ’50s.

The great revelation, though, came when I sold my first article to The Nation magazine (as Calvin Trillin likes to say, they paid in “the low two figures”) and was able to take a date to the Café Brittany, known not only for reliably good French food but also for affordability. (One of the original French bistros in New York, it closed like the others in the ’70s.) The only “French” food familiar to me were the fries, but a sophisticated friend suggested beforehand that I order the coq au vin, assuring me the chicken in wine sauce would not be too challenging to my Hoosier palate. Bolstered by a glass of Beaujolais, I had no problem with the chicken (though it wasn’t fried). It was the side dish that blew my mind.

“My God,” I said, after taking a bite. “The green beans have a taste.”

“Aren’t they supposed to?” my date asked. She was a graduate of Vassar and grew up in the high realms of Riverdale, where social graces (including culinary) were instilled at birth.

“They never did—I mean, at home.”

Until that moment I had managed to avoid any vegetables during my New York life. Growing up on the banks of the Canal in Broad Ripple, I assumed all vegetables were boiled until limp, just as all meat was to be cooked until it was sure to be dead and thus no longer dangerous. (When the Sunday roast was carved, it was so dry that flecks like sawdust flew out.) In the ensuing years I learned that vegetables have a taste, and meat that was pink inside would not poison me.

My greatest challenge was seafood. By definition, we had no such stuff in Indiana, which was not on any sea. We proudly learned at School #80 that “Indianapolis is the largest city in the world that is not on a navigable waterway.” (In later years Kurt Vonnegut told me he learned the same thing at School #43 and said, “That explained a lot—there was no news coming in and none going out.”) The only fish I had eaten before New York was catfish, which Cousin Junior sometimes caught in the Canal, or when we drove to Carmel, for what was back then its most famous feature—a restaurant that only served catfish, cooked any way you liked.

I had my first clams (safely fried) at The Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, but didn’t get up the nerve to eat one raw until three or four years later when I had my first cherrystones at the Blue Mill, a great bargain boite in The Village. I’d seen so many friends order clams as an appetizer that I finally felt I’d come to know them. Frankly, I feared they might come alive when I tried to swallow, but I also feared looking like a hick when I kept ordering “safe” hors d’oeuvres as my hip friends and dates downed fresh clams and oysters (I never got that far) with seeming delight.

To this day, I feel a sense of smugness when I order littlenecks or cherrystones before dinner. It’s the feeling of the true hick that he has “come a long way, baby” from the limited, but loving, menu of his mother’s table, back home in Indiana. Still, I have never found a dessert so fully satisfying as my grandma’s persimmon pudding, which she used to send wrapped in tinfoil to my dorm at Columbia, mashed by the U.S. Post Office, but maintaining its peculiar heartland power.

I mainlined the stuff when no one was looking.

Dan Wakefield’s books include the memoir New York in the Fifties and Under the Apple Tree: A Novel of the Homefront, now an ebook.