August 29, 2010

Night of the Philistines


Back in Philly when I was writing about music, art, books, food, movies, and whatever other category might spring up along the way, I found myself receiving lots of invitations to things. I usually ended up attending at least one event a week, often more, for two basic reasons. First, I was always looking for something to write about. And second, these events often came complete with food and booze, and I was in need of both.

            Unfortunately, in those days my sense of decorum was what you might call “lacking.” I often arrived drunk, got drunker while I was there, stole a few bottles for later before leaving and—so I’m told—said terrible things to people. Personally, I don’t remember saying terrible things to anyone. All I know is that I was rarely invited back to future related events.

            I do remember one night, though, which surprises me. My friend and first editor Derek, who was there that night, remembers it too—which surprises him.

            Lord knows why, but we both received invitations to a wine tasting at a fancy new restaurant in town called Jack’s Firehouse. The Jack in question was a big name among local restaurateurs, who already had three or four well-regarded fancy eateries around Philly. I’d met him a few times, and he seemed like a nice fellow. This new place of his was located—as the name implies—in a former red brick firehouse, and specialized, I believe, in Cajun food.

            I’d never been to a wine tasting before, so both Derek and I decided we’d pay a visit. Why the hell not? Everything was gonna be free for us that night because we were with the press!

            It was a nice place, with a sparkly bar out front and a large, airy dining room in the back. We stopped in the bar first and I had a couple of free beers to clean my palate. It was clear fairly quickly that the crowd there that night was not like the usual crowds we ran into. They were dressed nicer than us, for one, and had that stink of sophistication about them.

            Three or four waitresses were circulating through the room with trays of oysters. I’d never eaten oysters before, so I snatched one from the tray of a passing waitress. After swallowing it, I quickly decided that I would never need to try oysters again (and I haven’t). I grabbed another free beer to wash the taste away.

            When they opened the doors to the dining room and let us all in, it was apparently as immediately evident to them as it was to us that we didn’t quite belong. We were quickly shunted off to a table by ourselves, some distance away from the others. That was okay with me—it meant we were closer to the serving table, where a young man in a chef costume wielding a very large knife stood at attention behind some great Roast Beast.

            There was a stack of plastic cups on each table, as well as a bucket. That was it. No silverware, no plates, no napkins. Derek and I looked at each other and shrugged. We didn’t know what the hell was going on, but figured we’d just play it by ear.

            Then the waiters started coming around with the bottles of wine. Burgundies, Zinfandels, Rieslings, ports.

            Only last week did Derek confess that he had no idea we were at a wine tasting. What he thought it was, or was supposed to be, is unclear: “I just thought, ‘Geez, these nice people are giving us all the wine we can drink. God bless!’”

            It’s true. I knew it was a wine tasting, but I felt the same way. Plus, we’d been seated so far away from the people who belonged there that I didn’t see them going through all their wine-tasting hoo-hah, culminating with the spitting out of the wine. What the hell? You invite us here, you give us all this great wine, but then you expect us to spit it out? Bullshit! I was living on six dollar magnums of cheap white at the time; no goddamn way I’m throwing away an opportunity to get stupid on the good stuff for free. Not only did Derek and I throw back everything the waiter brought around—we asked him to bring more.

            After a few, I decided that the kid in the chef costume was looking lonely. Nobody was asking for any of his Roast Beast. Besides, I was hungry—that oyster hadn’t filled me up at all. So I got up and wobbled over to the serving table.

            “I think I would like some Beast, please,” I said.

            “Some goat?” he asked hopefully.

            “So that’s what that is. A goat.”


            I considered the carcass before me, and thought of goats. “All right,” I said.

            He sliced off a tiny hunk, placed it on a dinner roll, and handed it to me.

            I returned to the table and ate it. It tasted about like what you’d expect a goat to taste like.

            More wine arrived like clockwork. I ate several more goat sandwiches. Derek and I laughed loudly about stupid things. We seemed to be having a much better time than anyone else.

            I don’t know how many different wines they brought around, or how many times we had demanded seconds, but once the dessert wines began making the rounds, we decided we should probably try to get home. We had not only successfully broken every God-inscribed rule of wine tastings, we’d broken every rule of wine drinking as well, mixing every kind of wine known to man, then pouring it on top of beer and goat.

            Leaning on each other and still laughing, we stumbled toward the wavering doorway, past all those wavering, spiteful glares from the sophisticates.

            Talking about it now, neither one of us can recall how we got home, or what was in the review that Derek wrote later that night.

            Given that most of my years in Philly are nothing but a spotty blur these days, that I remember that night at all is astonishing—but simple and dumb as it all was, it’s a night I’ll continue to remember as one of the very good ones.

            Neither of us was ever invited to another wine tasting.


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