Sunday, November 22, 2009

An Evening Among Gentlemen

After four days of almost constant rain and wind - the results of a gargantuan nor’easter off the Mid-Atlantic coast that developed when the remnants of Tropical Storm (formerly Hurricane) Ida passed through the Washington, DC area, the weekend finally brought a break in the bad weather. Well, at least it stopped raining, but what persisted in the storm’s wake was a boggy and muddy landscape. These otherwise potentially inimical conditions did not deter a hearty group of gentlemen from gathering around a lucullan fire pit to partake of a potpourri of wild game dishes. This was a very select group indeed - "No Women, Children or Green Vegetables" - although our number included a couple of rather young gentlemen. We faced no time limits and had nowhere else to go, and so when it was all over I thought I may have just died and gone to heaven. So allow me some moments of ambrosial reflection. The names and places have been changed, redacted, or otherwise obscured to protect the satiated and bleary eyed.

Upon invitation to join this blue-ribbon event, I began to contemplate how best to comport myself in such refined company and I was immediately reminded of the father of this great nation of ours. During his early teen years, George Washington undertook to compose a list of hard and fast "Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation." I figured, if these rules, which are based on similar caveats coined by French Jesuits, were good enough to guide young Washington to the acme of our national consciousness, then they should stead me well during this evening among gentlemen. As it turned out, Rule #56 would be key to my overall success in this endeavor. Associate yourself with men of good quality, if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company. Although I knew one of these gentlemen before that evening, I was quickly reminded that everyone in attendance was of the highest caliber. These were gentlemen with discriminating palates and a yen to savor the finest food and spirits.

Rule #93: Entertaining anyone at the table it is decent to present him with meat; undertake not to help others undesired by the master. This was the chief purpose of our carnal communion; to present and partake of various meats and their natural accouterment. The evening began with a very buttery textured paté d' foie gras. I know this is not the most politically correct culinary offering these days, but when you consider the rest of the evening’s menu, you can easily understand why it made its way to this company of gentlemen. While various dishes were cooking over open flame and glowing embers of the fire pit – roasted wild Muscovy duck and pheasants skewered on Argentinian meat forks, "French Rack" of wild boar, elk steaks, a troika of freshly slaughtered venison dishes (the "Fish" removed from the back-strap and cooked in a cherry reduction sauce, venison sausages, and, finally, sliced tenderloin wrapped with side meat and lanced with fresh rosemary) - we enjoyed other offerings simmering on the pit’s perimeter – bona fide Cowboy Chili, "Must-Have French Fries," risotto with porcini mushrooms, and artisanal garlic bread. It was hard not to hover, but I was reminded of Rule #91: Make no show of taking great delight in your victuals; feed not with greediness; cut your bread with a knife; lean not on the table; neither find fault with what you eat. No problem with the latter; who could find fault with anything being served up for our enjoyment? But the rest of his rule offered some gray area as it proved difficult not to devour the dishes as quickly as they were offered. Rule #92 was equally problematic: Take no salt, nor cut your bread with your knife greasy. What is wrong with salt in reasonable measure? And seldom did I bother with a knife, greasy or otherwise, to cut my bread. Rule #97: Put not another bit into your mouth till the former be swallowed. Let not your morsels be too big. OK, I guess this one makes sense. "One cannot savor what one eats too fast." George did not come up with that rule; that is one of my own, but I think it fits right in with the others. After all, there was plenty of food to go around . . . and then some! Rule #104: It belongs to the chiefest in company to unfold his napkin and fall to meat first, but he ought then to begin in time & to dispatch with dexterity that the slowest may have time allowed him. I think we respected that rule pretty well.

Along with the wonderful food, we enjoyed spiced, mulled wines heated with blazing pokers along with an offer of "Everything in the World to Drink." Well, we did not have quite everything, but surely more than enough to keep folks as well greased as they chose to be. There was plenty of beer and wine and a fine bourbon to take the nip out of the evening air. Rule # 99: Drink not too leisurely nor yet too hastily; before and after drinking wipe your lips; breath not then or ever with too great a noise, for it is uncivil. Looks good on paper, but it doesn’t always work that way. "If you gotta ‘breathe,’ you gotta breath." That’s another one of my own rules. How can one sit around a fire after good food and drink and not "breathe" occasionally?

As the evening progressed and we moved from one dish to the next, it suddenly became quite clear to me that these rules of civility and decent behavior did not fully apply to the circumstances in which we found ourselves. Rule #95: Put not your meat in your mouth with your knife in your hand; neither spit forth the stones of any fruit pie upon a dish nor cast anything under the table. Oh, come on! We were not even sitting at a table. One need not be so positioned in order to comport one’s self as a gentleman. Rule #96: It is unbecoming to stoop too much to one’s meat. Keep your fingers clean & when foul, wipe them on a corner of your table napkin. Nope, no napkins either. And why, within a community of gentleman, should one not eat his meat with a knife in hand? And is a napkin really necessary when one has a perfectly fine shirt and/or jacket sleeve or pant leg to remove any fouling of fingers? I don’t need no stinkin’ napkin! So, as we sat around the fire conversing and otherwise sharing in the delights of a cool autumn evening, I decided that other rules were clearly not applicable. Rule #9: Spit not in the fire, nor stoop low before it. Neither put your hands into the flames to warm them, nor set your feet upon the fire, especially if there be meat before it. Rule #90: Being set at meat, scratch not; neither spit, cough, or blow your nose, except if there is a necessity for it. I think George was getting just a little too high on his horse. I recall what Josiah Bartlet, my favorite, albeit fictional, president once commented upon reading young Washington’s rules. "What a tight-assed little priss he must have been."

Perhaps this is not fair. Perhaps I should cut George a little slack and take his Rule #105 to heart: Be not angry at table [even though we didn’t have one] whatever happens, and if you have reason to be so, show it not; put on a cheerful countenance especially if there be strangers, for good humour makes one dish of meat a feast. We laughed through the evening so perhaps George had most of it right. We certainly had more than one meat dish to savor, and the humor and good conversation among this company of respectable gentlemen made our communal feast all the more enjoyable. We finished off the evening with good Cuban cigars. Luckily, Washington had no particular rules for the civil and decent enjoyment of a good smoke. "Smoke em, if you got em" has always been my own rule of thumb.

The bewitching hour approached as the glowing embers of our once blazing pyre were graying to ash at the perimeter stones. My boots were caked with caramel-colored mud and my clothes were permeated with the sweet perfume of wood smoke and the heady aroma of a good cigar. It was finally time to think of home. I bid this company of gentlemen a fond farewell for I had miles to go before I slept.

NEXT: Wishing everyone a festive and happy Thanksgiving holiday!!


  1. The Gentlemen in question were honored to have you as a member of our august company, and your account of the evening puts a fine burnish to the reputation of The Gentlemen's Tasting Club. You are welcome to return to future events, & I extend the invitation to experience the wonders of the Sunshine Store for breakfast or lunch with me sometime in the near future.

  2. Steve--You really have the blog thing nailed down. Terrific work! And fun to read. Check out the dedication of Harrison's new book, The Farmer's Daughter.

    Have a great holiday!

    Bob DeMott