Friday, December 28, 2007

Tea is for Trouble

Last night I had occasion to lie awake on the kitchen floor (my billeting since Mum arrived and was awarded the sofa bed) and to consider the British reaction to trouble, which is:
• Remain calm
• Crack jokes
• Make tea

And it seems to me that during this Christmas period we’ve been getting through an awful lot of tea.

Tea is for Truncated Sleepovers:
The reason for my kitchen floor reflection (and for being awake in the dead of night) was having sped along the deserted freeways of Los Angeles in nightdress and sweat pants to rescue my son who was having an asthma attack, unbeknownst to his sleeping hosts. Many sleepovers have ended in this fashion; in fact, I wouldn’t recognize many of the parents from Josh’s school if they weren’t in their pajamas. Nor they me.

On the way home, my son turned a worried face to me: “I’m sorry, Mama,” he said, putting his hand on my wrist and using the name that fell into disuse at about the time he learned to fasten his own shoes.
“It’s not your fault you’re sick,” I smiled back at him, dismissing memories of the blessed hours I had spent in his borrowed bed before being summoned by his call. When we arrived home, Mum had put the futon in the kitchen and lined up two cups and a spoon. I put the nebulizer together, while Mum put the kettle on. Tea-making is the Brit’s instinctive response to crisis – so much so, that a nurse once told me there is a huge problem in England, where accident victims arrive at the hospital needing surgery, but have to wait to go under the knife because of all the cups of sweet tea they’ve ingested from kindly neighbors.

Tea is for Ticker:
The morning after my mum’s arrival, she sat in bed holding her left side. “I didn’t sleep a wink,” she said. “I can feel my heart thumping against my ribs.” If this wasn’t alarming enough, she then announced: “I was thinking during the night, if I go while I’m here, I’d like my ashes to be scattered in Huntington Gardens.”
“Don’t be silly, we’re not members anymore - we'd have to pay admission! You’ll be fine after a cup of tea.”

Tea is for Toilet:
The phone rings on Christmas morning. “It’s probably the family ringing from England,” says Mum, excited.
“Good morning, Luisa, it’s your neighbor.”
“Merry Christmas!”
“I’m afraid it’s not so merry; the drain outside your bathroom has popped its cap and there’s sewage everywhere.”
“Mum, English breakfast or Ceylon?”

Tea is for Terrible Food:
Since Mum bought her ticket back in August, I’ve been saving my pennies to celebrate Christmas in style with dinner at the Ritz Carlton, Huntington. The hotel offered its usual discrete Christmas cheer, the mellow glow of wooden paneling offset with red velvet bows and evergreen garlands, and sedate clusters of armchairs and leather sofas in recessed lounges. The waitress in the dining room was just friendly enough to remind us we were in America, but professional enough to remind us we were enjoying a Fine Dining Experience.

“Ooawwhh! I’m Minnie Moush!” came a loud male voice behind me. Uh-oh! Someone’s had too much to drink. I discretely turned my head under the pretext of adjusting my earring and saw a long-haired gentleman with a two-pointed folded napkin on his head. He half-rose from his chair as a party passed him on their way out of the restaurant: “Lovewly famahly! Lovewly!” The Maitre D hovered close by and whispered something in his ear. “They wan’ me to leaf!” the long-haired gentleman informed the dining room. “I’m a Cuban exile. Why’m I always have to leaf. The people in this country are not warm, not warm!” he complained to his partner, who sat transfixed with rapt adoration, or as a result of technical difficulties with his long white scarf, it was hard to tell which. The Cuban exile settled down, and we went back to enjoying The Ambiance, provided by a classical guitar player whose music continued even when he stopped to shake hands with a departing guest.

The amuse bouche arrived. Chilly vichyssoise in a martini glass. A mouthful of cream is not the way to amuse my bouche or even tantalize my taste buds, but the night is young… Josh was reading his book, which is how he passes time at Michelin star restaurants, so he missed the Cuban exile, who on his way back from the restroom had stopped in the entrance next to the guitar player and was doing a slow-motion Flamenco dance, and then bowed in “Nameste” salute to the rest of the diners, who, although not amused by the chef’s efforts were very much taken by his. The Maitre D hovered nervously in the general vicinity under the pretext of pouring my mother’s champagne, whipping the white napkin from around the bottle as if what he’d really like to do was wrap it round the Cuban’s neck.
“I didn’t realize we were going to have live entertainment,” said my mother archly.
“Madam, I do hope you are referring to the guitar player,” replied the deadpan Maitre D.

How could we have been so naive? Sweet Baby Shrimp Salad with Kumquats, Daikon Radish, Micro Greens with Avocado and Pepper Coulis turned out to be shrimp in seafood dressing. The only thing that was micro was the slice of avocado and if the shrimp had been any more baby, they would have been the subject of a Pro-Life campaign. This is what my mother used to prepare in the 1970s if my father unexpected brought home a colleague for dinner – hardly what we expected from an international chef. Fortunately, we had chosen not to go with the wine pairing, so I was spared the Chianti and was well into my glass of Byron Pinot Noir by the time our main course arrived: Roasted Beef Tenderloin and Braised Short Ribs in Yorkshire Crepes, Brussels Sprout Leaves and Bordelaise Sauce.
“Yes! Steak!” cried Josh, and tucked into the coin-sized tenderloin that sat forlornly between two miniscule deep-fried tubes filled with potato and peas. Short ribs? How short could they be? Of their existence there was no sign, nor of the Brussels sprouts, which appeared to have escaped after a short scuffle.

“I topped up your champagne,” said the kind waitress, and indeed we now both had half a glass before us. Just as well, as our calorific content was not going to be supplied by the food, or the bread rolls which would have been better employed down the barrel of a gun.

Warm Chocolate Cake with Liquid Center and Eggnog Ice Cream. Thank goodness! Someone had finally had the good sense to raid the freezer and treat us to something from a catering pack. As I paid the bill, bleeding every one of those $480 that would otherwise be going towards – what? A bed? A plumber? Asthma medication? – I detected movement to starboard. “Lovewly famahly!” breathed the Cuban in brandied fumes, “Lovewly.” My mother stared at him with the expression that has been known to wither supermarket managers, the entire staff and student body of Collingwood Boy's School, and even striking French farmers. The Cuban proved no less susceptible, and for the first time that evening, returned meekly to his table where he seated himself opposite his partner, who continued to gaze in starry-eyed admiration (or maybe the beginnings of an alcoholic coma).

Somewhat deflated ourselves, we took our time in the restrooms (we could at least recoup some of our costs in the unlimited use of functioning plumbing) and made our way to the hotel entrance. A waiter bearing aloft a tray with a silver coffee pot brushed past us. “They won’ releasth my keysth!” came a Cuban accent we had come to know well. A crowd of guests and valet parking attendants gathered around our fellow diner who was holding forth on the subject of keys, Cuba and his dislike of red-haired men, this last directed to the manager, who dismissed the waiter with the coffee after it became apparent that the Cuban would not be availing himself of this courtesy. “You look like Liza Minelli!” screeched the Cuban, to the irritation of the manager and the barely-concealed amusement of the staff.

The taxi driver added a fifty percent mark up to our fare on our way home, obviously basing our income on our point of origination, not our destination, and I was too disconsolate to complain.
“Never mind, Lou,” said my mother as we settled down for another night being serenaded by the refrigerator, “In the morning we’ll write a strong letter to the Ritz Carlton.” And that’s exactly what we did. Over a cup of tea, of course.

Copyright © Louise Godbold