Friday, August 19, 2011

The Dinner Party

Summer, 1961. San Diego, CA. (Pt. Loma actually.) I had been accepted to UC-Berkeley, as a candidate for a Ph.D. in Physics, and was spending my first summer making some money working with an electron linear accelerator group at General Atomic in La Jolla. We were making positrons which, as you know, are the holes left behind when you yank electrons out of empty space.

My wife stayed behind in Berkeley and I had been fortunate enough to find a place to stay with a friend in the guest house of a concrete block castle high on a cliff on the western slope of Pt. Loma overlooking the Pacific Ocean. (At no cost If I remember correctly.)

The castle was owned by an eccentric millionaire who had other homes in the area and was traveling most of the time. The castle was kind of a party place. It was a long low building parallel to the coast centered around a huge dining/living space. The highest level had a banquet table that could accommodate a couple dozen people and serving areas and lots of space to walk around. The rest of the room went downward toward the ocean in a series of steps. The next level was mostly open except for a thirty foot long couch built into the back wall so that it faced out toward the ocean view. The bottom step had a walk-in fireplace in the center of the wall and sliding window doors on each side opening out on to a large deck overlooking the ocean.

The furniture was an eclectic mix of Mexican pieces and dozens of faux medieval pieces picked up in and around the Paris flea markets. Pretty colorful. There were a couple little bedrooms and a bathroom on one end of the building and a tiny kitchen with a pantry on the other end.

The doors were always open and most of the time there were only a couple of us rattling around in this big empty place. One weekend afternoon when we were slowly working our way through a couple bottles of wine we were joined by Andre and his friend who you may have met in one of my previous stories “The Bench”.  Andre had fled the Russian revolution and was rumored to have strong connections in the semi-secret communities of such people that most of us are unaware of. He was marginally well to do and always bubbling over with creative energy looking for an outlet. After we had accumulated a couple more empty wine bottles the conversation drifted around to one of Andre’s favorite subjects. Apparently he had been conducting a “Gourmet Cooking School” in the area on a random schedule and it was about time to have another. There was general agreement that the castle would be an ideal location. The tiny kitchen was felt to be a drawback that could be overcome if all of us would agree to pitch in and help out.

So the news was leaked to responsible individuals in the surrounding affluent communities and planning got underway to hold the event in the castle in a month.

Here I should probably explain that the “Gourmet Cooking School” was actually a grand dinner party during which Andre would introduce each course with a few words on how it had been prepared and explain the motivation behind the choice of wine that was to accompany that course.

During the first week (while I was annihilating positrons and tuning gamma rays) Andre worked out the menu began to plan the kitchen choreography necessary to bring it off. It was agreed that the Planning Group would meet over the weekend and prepare a trial run version of the dinner just to see how things fit together and to be sure that the shopping list was complete. (In a castle in the forest there are no neighbors to go to if you run out of salt.)

The first time through it took us a couple hours to prepare the eight separate courses. There was a lot of getting in each others way in the cramped little kitchen. But finally we were on a roll and course after course flowed out onto the grand dinning table  for consumption. Of course, the fact that we were also eating the dinner slowed things down a little. The food was (mostly) great but suggestions were made (especially with regard to the wine list, which was found wanting) and somewhere around 2:00am the party finally wound down.

Before breaking up we agreed to meet the next weekend to repeat the process and tighten up the menu. Someone agreed to start thinking about the background music and someone else chose to look into an appropriate choice of linens, silver and china. Actually, there was a lot to do since we had found that the supply of pots and pans and serving dishes was inadequate. I remember one conversation where it was maintained that we could cut some corners if we kept the lighting low.

During the week I started working on a Bremsstrahlung target
for gamma ray production that involved multiple heats in a hydrogen atmosphere furnace. Beautiful work. During this same period Andre did some more shopping to prepare for the weekend.

When the weekend arrived we all got together and started right in without so much sitting around and discussing as before. People began to assign themselves to particular aspects of the process and to time their contributions into the intervals between the activities of the others so everything became smoother and more intense at the same time. As the food (and wine) flowed out onto the banquet table you could sense everyone's pride that it was starting to come together. So we all got to enjoy the evolving dinner menu for a second time and there was general agreement that it was improving. Some sauces could clearly benefit from a little attention and the wine list was still evolving. It was getting to be late in the game but the desert clearly was not working. I don’t remember what it was, but it was too elaborate to be sitting on top of the preceding seven courses. Andre wanted to skip it entirely and just go with a cheese course but saner heads prevailed.We decided to have a small sorbet (I knew a supplier who would make something special for us) embellished with two grapes and a grape sized honeydew melon ball in a couple spoonfuls of a champagne liqueur.

The next week at work was uneventful (except for a little Army project involving gamma ray food sterilization where some cans exploded) and I spent most of my time thinking about the coming weekend.

This was going to be our last practice (and associated meal) and there were still some loose ends. The menu was pretty well locked in and the kitchen coordination was awesome. (Better than some covert operations that I have subsequently participated in.) The table was set as it would be for the big event and the background music was playing (and we realized that we needed more candles). We even had a practice run through for the floral decorations. About half way through the meal we dimmed the lights and Andre switched to a white-tie tux to announce  the final course. It was enough to bring tears to your eyes. We were ready.

I had a tough time at work that week. I was almost holding my breath in anticipation of the weekend. But ,as usual, an interesting project came up where I had to design a rotating target exchange wheel that would rotate in sudden small increments. It turns out that something called a geneva mechanism (found in older movie projectors) is perfect for the job.

The big night went by in a blur. I remember sneaking a peek into the dunning room and seeing the happy crowd eating and drinking and chattering away and having a wonderful time. In the kitchen it was all serious business, with people checking their watches and tasting this and that to make last minute adjustments.

Then it was all over. The guests were gone in their limos and the support team turned on the lights, poured what was left of the wine and proceeded to debrief the evening’s events. Unknown to me there had been some (predictable) gaffs. A sauce that curdled. A dish that was not as warm as it should have been when served. Etc. In every case the team had covered beautifully and the guests never had a clue there was a problem. We just let it all sit and started the cleanup process the next day. By midweek there was almost no evidence that anything had happened (other than the fact that the place was unusually clean).

And I went back to the boring business of making positrons which, as you know, are the holes left behind when you yank electrons out of empty space.

No comments:

Post a Comment