Can I Have a Tuna Fish Sandwich, Please?
My mother and father met each other in a chair-lift line at Belleyare Mountain in the Catskills. My dad was a dashing figure in his Ski Patrol uniform, which I am sure added to the romance. They soon married and when I came along, skiing was just part of what we did; it was as natural as breathing. By then my dad was a Ski Instructor, and every weekend from about Thanksgiving through mid-March, we headed up the NY Thruway to the Kingston exit, hung a left and took our break from Manhattan life. I was on skis while I was still in diapers, and while I have pictures to prove it, I don’t want to distract you from the culinary aspects of this story.
I don’t remember that much of the early diaper-clad years, but by the time I was in grade school, it became apparent that my Belleyare life was very separate from my weekday life, back in New York City. Back there I went to school, had school friends, did after school activities and attended to homework everyday. On the weekends I ran free, unsupervised, all over the mountain with the same bunch of kids, year after year. We only came together on weekends and school holidays, but we formed a tight pack, and although some new kids filtered in, and a few others fell away, a core group of us became quite close.
It was like having a second life, and one that afforded a lot of freedom. We would arrive at the mountain by 8am and for the whole day we were free to do what we wanted. For a throng of 12 to 18 year olds, this was nirvana. There was a larger number of boys, but it didn’t matter. Everyone in the pack felt like an equal. We would take turns deciding which trail to ski down, where to build jumps, whom to ride the chairlift with this time, whom would be next and what have you. I was insanely jealous of the boys who could ski to the side of the slope and discretely relieve themselves, while I, of the smallest bladder in the world, would have to ski down to the lodge, take off my skis, take off my mittens and clomp through the lodge, all the way downstairs, in those uncomfortable boots, for a 10 second pee. But I digress. While there was equality on the slopes (urination needs notwithstanding), lunchtime was a different story.
Around noon we would head for the lodge and disband. This is because, with not much verbal explanation necessary, it was understood that our families wanted to have their meal with each of us. And seeing that we were from many different families, that meant we scattered about the lodge for the time being.
It was always interesting to me how each family had their lunch ritual, which rarely varied from year to year. There were three basic approaches. Approach number one had you equipped with pocket money to go to the cafeteria. Choices were limited but the chili with kidney beans was popular as was the watery hot cocoa. Burgers, a mere ¼-inch thick and gray in color, and somewhat soggy fries were another option. Approach number two was homemade sandwiches. These were brought by the Moms and were almost exclusively either peanut butter and jelly or tuna fish. Both on white bread, cut in half, not on the diagonal, wrapped in foil or plastic wrap. Perhaps you got to have a purchased soda with that. Number three. Oh boy. I was relegated to the world of approach number three and I was not happy about it.
First, some back-story. My father had a European background, having been married to a Frenchwoman before my mother and having lived in Paris for over a decade. He spoke impeccable French, with no accent whatsoever, and in fact, this is one of the reasons he was hand picked by the OSS way back when. His Francophile ways extended to his love of food and this meant, when there was a casual lunch to be had, that it was going to include the finest charcuterie, exotic cheese, ripened just so, fancy mustards, cornichon pickles, crunchy baguettes and of course a hearty red wine. Now in my parent’s defense, I must mention that this was not presented in a bubble. Indeed, there was a group of Frenchman who frequented the ski resort and in fact the chalet (yes, a chalet) we rented every year was part of L’Auberge des Quatre Saisons, and was owned by a French chef. So there was a group of us that would haul out smooth truffled duck pâté, rough country pâté with whole peppercorns, garlicky pork saucisson, gelatinous head cheese, mortadella with chunks of creamy white fat and flecks of pale green pistachios, blood red hard sausages, the occasional hunk of foie gras, runny room temperature brie, triple crème cheeses, authentic Gruyere and all manner of weird food. Not that it was weird to me. It wasn’t. I ate like this with my family all the time. We had Balducci’s down the street at home and, living with globe trotting parents, I was exposed to all sorts of authentic foods, as unusual as that was for the 1960’s. But to my ski friends this was weird. It was snobbish and odd and alienating. Not that they ever said anything to me, but this is how I felt.
I would beg my Mom to let me occasionally buy a cup of chili, and she would comply. But the simple sandwich remained out of reach. Its not that I craved PB&J or tuna sandwiches at home, and indeed I had one every now and then, but here, having an assortment of charcuterie alienated me. A tuna fish sandwich would have meant I belonged to the crowd, something most teenagers yearn for. Oh well, I got through it, and even had a cup of hot cocoa now and then. Looking back, these were some of the best times of my life. The freedom of the slopes, the exhilaration of racing down the hill as fast as possible, getting to sit next to the cute boys on the chair lift, and yes, I admit it, these days were also when I developed my love of pâté. Rough or smooth, bring them on.