Anything… except the Lobster

By Linda DeMers Hummel

Anything… except the Lobster

For part of 1932, my grandmother served oatmeal for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the only nourishment she could afford for her husband and young children. When the Great Depression lifted and she found herself living a more comfortable life again, she had a hard time relaxing. That’s the sweet way to say it. Really, she ran herself into the ground for the next thirty years making sure she’d always have meat in her freezer. She sewed all her own clothes, including suits. She stretched pea soup with just the promise of ham bone and used every scrap of paper on both sides. She and my grandfather walked two blocks to the bank at the end of every month to see how much interest they’d built up in their savings account. Even as the numbers grew steadily, nothing more than a cautious sigh ever slipped out of either of them.

It was no surprise then that she elicited a little gasp from everyone in the family when, in her 60s, she made an announcement at Sunday dinner that began, “I’ve decided to live a little.”

“A little” meant that she would still keep to her regimen of squeezing every penny out of her household budget, but one thing would change. She had made a list of every expensive, swanky restaurant she could think of in New York City and told our family that she intended to eat in every one.

“And I may even order a martini,” she added.

My grandfather didn’t think life got much better than a frozen dinner in front of the television on Saturday nights in their tiny apartment. So, at age 12, I became her designated dinner partner.

Two weeks later, I was dressed in my finest, watching her apply lipstick and blot it with a tissue. “Tonight we’re going to the The Four Seasons,” she said. When my face didn’t register the amazement she was looking for (I’d never heard of the place) she said, “When you grow up, you’ll remember this night.” She asked me if I’d had a big lunch, and I assured her I hadn’t, figuring that her rules for the “Clean Plate Club” would be in effect no matter how elegant the setting.

She brightened at the waiter’s suggestion of a cocktail, as if she’d just now thought of it. “I think I’ll have a beefeater martini with a twist.” My Shirley Temple arrived in a heavy etched goblet. She held her glass to mine in the air and said, “Here’s to living it up!”

I’d never seen so many forks for one person. The menu was loaded with words in other languages I couldn’t read. “Anything you want,” she winked, and then in a Hollywood whisper, “except the lobster.”

I ordered shrimp cocktail and was a bit deflated at all the shredded lettuce and the lemon wedge I assumed I’d have to conquer in order to move onto the next course. I was confused when she gently said, “Those are the garnish.” Not knowing what that word meant, my fork was still poised to finish it all until she added: “You don’t eat it. It’s just for show.”

Everything smelled good. The waiter treated us as if we were movie stars. That might have lent itself to my letting my imagination take over as we ate. By dessert, I whispered that I was pretty sure Cary Grant was sitting at the very next table. She turned and stared for what seemed minutes. “Nope,” she said, turning back, “Just a man with very good hair, but keep looking. He’s bound to show up in one of these places!”

My grandmother grew up poor and without a mother, taking up space in a childhood that never rose from dreary even when she would tell me her stories that were meant to be pleasant. She then raised her own children in tough times, with only her tenacity to lean on. Yet here she was in some place so fancy-schmantzy, as she would say, that a movie star might appear.

Because she never dreamed it would happen, she didn’t waste a moment. She’d point out art on the walls or remark on the freshness of the roses in the crystal vase. Whether we had to go or not, she’d insist on a trip to the ladies room just to rate the wallpaper and the quality of the hand towels. For seven years, we made the rounds. Name a famous New York restaurant in the 1960s, and chances are we were there. She, never taking the first table offered (“They’ll think we’re from Iowa”). Me, giving into adolescent embarrassment when she’d pull out her pad and pencil to calculate the tip to the penny. I learned the difference between prime rib and rib eye at Delmonico’s, and not to run in fear of escargot at the Brasserie. I had caviar for the first (and last) time at the 21 Club. I ordered Baked Alaska as often as it showed up on a menu. We never saw Cary Grant.

Tavern on the Green in Central Park was our last dinner together though we didn’t know it that night. I was home from college, on winter break. It had snowed. I listened to her decide between the salmon and the pork tenderloin. The trees bathed in their twinkly lights were just behind her, the dark wood beams just above.

“Isn’t this just the life?” she smiled, as she unfolded her napkin and took it all in. She looked over my shoulder, lost in thought. I was going to ask her what she was thinking just as her eyes came back to me. She smiled. And then with a wink, she said, “Remember now, anything…except the lobster.”

About this writer

  • Linda DeMers HummelLinda DeMers Hummel is a Baltimore-based writer who has recently completed a memoir, “I Haven’t Got All Day.” She spends a lot of time lately hoping to get good news from her agent.

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One Response to “Anything… except the Lobster”

  1. Steve Steigerwald says:

    What a lovely memory. I didn’t realize you had such a fancy-schmantzy upbringing. The only place I ever “ate out” at besides All-American Drive -In was Krisch’s.

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