Vichyssoise

I don’t really remember the first time I ever ate in a restaurant, though I think I vaguely remember the place that my parents say it was. On the road to the town where my paternal grandmother lived, it was called King Neptune, and was as far away from the ocean as it’s possibly to be and still be in Connecticut. You know the type of place, which serves fried seafood, shrimp scampi and broiled flounder in an array of combinations and platters, along with a baked potato and a salad for some reasonable price ending in 95 cents. It was my dad’s favorite restaurant, and though it’s long defunct, he still can’t resist a heaping pile of fried clam bellies when given the option. Afterwards, he will jokingly clutch his chest and exclaim about his cholesterol, as if the effects of all that grease can be felt immediately, even though he’s been on Lipitor for ten years, and in fact has perfect levels and a wonderfully functional and healthy heart.

 So that was probably it, or Squires, the steakhouse in our town, where my parents didn’t eat steak. Who knows what they ate there. It was too dark to see anyway, but the burgers were great.

 I think the place I really learned about how to eat like a human in public was in Bermuda.

 In about the summer of 1986 I think, or maybe 1984, my parents and their friends, the Hirschs, the ones we had gone to Cape Cod with, finally figured out the secret to successful summer family vacations. Come now and lean close, I’ll share the secret…

 First of all- go someplace not too far away. What was (and is) so great about Bermuda, is that it’s a mere hour and a half flight from NYC. That’s less time than it takes to get to the Hamptons, particularly in July or August. In some traffic on the LIE, you could to Bermuda and back twice and still not be within sight of the Montauk Highway…  And in those days, you didn’t have to show up six hours before your flight took off…nor did you need a passport, I think. Just a government issued ID…

 Second of all- go someplace with JUST enough to do. In Bermuda, there was the beach and the pool and then there were things to do that did not involve going to the beach or the pool. And those things could be done in a very short period of time. There was, for example, a lovely small aquarium and zoo, which was such a favorite of mine, that many years later I nearly used it as a wedding venue. What a lovely continuity to get married next to the exact same Galapagos tortoises I saw having (very cumbersome) sex as a child! There was also an aged parrot fish in a tank, with barnacles growing on it, that I am convinced is the same too. Other local attractions include colonial ruins that are kind of fun, a perfume factory we never went to, and silly old-fashioned shops in the main city of Hamilton that you buy very old fashioned things at, like tea cozies and kilts, better suited for chilly Scottish nights, than temperate Bermuda ones. The joy of such outings, however, was always battling our exquisite impatience to get back to the beach or the pool…

 It also didn’t hurt that Bermuda was beautiful and different and civilized. It was like if you took the prettiest hilly village in the English countryside and deposited it, winding lanes, stone walls and all, in the middle of the tropics. Well, semi-tropics. In August, when we went, it was full of blooming hibiscus and coconut palms… the balmy air smelled like ocean and flowers and heaven. Everyone spoke and speaks English, and all the men wore charming knee length shorts. There was no crime at all, but most of all… most of ALL…

 Thirdly- Find the right hotel. I have no idea how the families discovered Ariel Sands, called so as a tribute to The Tempest, which takes place in Bermuda. It could not have been more a perfect place for us. It was small, quiet (except for us, I guess), and all-inclusive. The rooms, filled with wicker furniture and floral duvets, were large and comfortable but not fancy. We four girls shared one together after our first year, in an extended slumber party. Jerry would tell us crazy bedtime stories and we would giggle or fight ourselves to sleep.

 The small pool, up by the hotel’s veranda was a nice place to spend the afternoon, and the dads would hold the pole end of the cleaning net out over the deep end, and make us practice our dives from the edge. (My dad was a lifeguard as a young man, and swimming skills are still very important to him. Just today he asked me when an appropriate age for the baby that is currently a fetus is to learn to swim. I could hear the gears turning in his brain… planning next summer…Me, I’m just hoping for healthy!)

 The centerpiece of the place, at least for us non-golfers, was a perfect, small, pale pink sanded crescent beach that was sandy up until about four inches of water, after which one of the most stunning reefs I’ve ever experienced began, extending about 50 yards out, never much deeper than four feet. A golden statue of Ariel, perched on one foot, arms outstretched, marked the edge of the cove and the hotel’s property. Do you know how many hours a child trained to use a mask and snorkel can spend looking at things in the sand and on a reef? Hours upon hours. There, in the warm, crystalline water, were; tiny octopi hiding in broken conch shells, sea horses dangling at the ends of waving coral fronds, little striped sergeant major fish buzzing around coral high-rises like bees, aggressive and colorful parrot fish scraping their beaks along the coral, a garden of anemones in every color that would suddenly pucker shut if you ran the shadow of your hand over them, gliding purple, black and yellow tang, pretty angelfish and every other sort of fish and fauna common to Atlantic reefs. The first year we went, when we were still learning how to swim, the dads bought some inflatable rafts, and we laid across them sideways, their strong arms holding tight onto our little bodies, a little girl on each side, as we dipped our faces into the water and into a world that was magical to us. I’m glad and grateful I got to see such a place so alive in my lifetime, because now it lies abandoned and dead, like the lone shells of castles one sees dotting the Irish country side. You can imagine the glory that once lived and flourished there, the knights jousting and the ladies waving their sleeves, but you can’t really fathom it. It’s a lost world.

 Adjacent to the cove was a salt-water pool, which fronted and was fed directly by the foaming ocean, and was fascinatingly full of little fish, which either came in over the sides when the waves crashed at night, or through the little side inlets. It, strangely, had a slide, and when you went down and splashed into the warm water your eyes strung with the salt, and if you landed wrong, you could scrape yourself on the very rough bottom which was paved with the tiniest of snails and crabs in the millions and thousands of millions. The pool drained into another small inlet, where we would take our leftover breakfast toast and feed the fishes that were too large to enter the pool, creating a frenzy of flailing bodies and splashing water as the Sargent majors bombarded the parrotfish and chased them away…

 Late in the day, we would have strange black scabs made of tar, that we relished cleaning off with the turpentine in hidden boxes tacked to trees dotting the property. The crabs that lived near the roots darted sideways into their holes at our approach.

 The grown ups literally never had to think about a meal for us, except for lunch, but there was a free tea time, and we kids liked that a lot, consisting as it did of small cakes and cookies. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, better than sitting on a shady veranda in your damp bathing suit on a humid ninety degree day, dipping vanilla pound cake into a delicate china cup of hot sweet milky tea. How gracious!

 What there was NOT at Ariel Sands was great food in the way I think of great food now. Instead, because it was essentially, part of England, what we had was the most English food imaginable, for better (and yes! For better in some cases!) and for worse. And it was rather dated to boot, even for the 80’s. There wasn’t even pasta! (Oh, the days when pasta was the healthiest thing ever!)

 At breakfast, we kids watched carefully and skeptically as our dads assaulted their mouths with salty kippers, liberally dosed with hot sauce which may have been Tabasco, or more likely, Bermuda’s own Outerbridge Sherry Pepper Sauce. (Is it a secret qualification that an island must have its own proprietary hot sauce blend? No quarrels here!) Sherry pepper sauce is more tangy than spicy, being full as the name suggests, of sherry. (It’s great on a chowder, actually, and is made for Bermuda’s own fish chowder, which is highly spiced, burnished red with pepper, and wonderful. They never had it at Ariel Sands, I don’t think.) We munched on toast and screwed up our courage to have a taste of one of those kippers, and then, dabbing a small bit on our tongues, screwed up our faces at the sheer fishiness of them. 

 Once a week, there was a bar-b-q, out on the terrace by the pool. A steelband played and the mood was relaxed, as they bleated out “Bermuda is another world…” and we ate grilled fish and played. On those nights, we’d sometimes see brides in their finery pulled up in horse drawn carriages, and I dreamed…

 But most nights, we all sat down indoors, rather formally at a large round table in the glass encased but oddly heavy dining room, sometimes with our parents, sometimes at a smaller table of just kids. I am fairly sure there was a dress code; the men in button downs and blazers, the moms in dresses, us squirming, as our new sunburns rubbed against our itchy skirts. We were starving from running around all day, but also dying to get through the meal and outside, to revel the last ounces out of the evening, the moon sparkling on the sea, the freedom of being a child let loose on the soft night, chasing toads and crabs, and singing silly songs. At first we didn’t sit still, but we soon were trained to.

 The menu, which was like a time machine back to the middle of the century, was basically always the same with some revolving options; soup or salad, meat and two veg, dessert. The meat included a fish of the day, which was as fresh as fresh could be. I know this, because of the two very kind people that took care of us there. There was a waitress, whom I remember as being called “Dawn” but I could be wrong, who brooked no nonsense from any of us, not our parents, not us kids. She forced us to sit up, not fidget, look smart. She was the one who taught us how to be respectful. She wasn’t there to babysit us. Did we want to bother people who were there to have a good time? This was not a zoo. This was a place where people came to enjoy themselves. Who did we think we were? That’s right… we were kids. Polite, now tamped down kids. And we would behave, or something not good would happen. Oh, she scared us and we loved it. We wanted her to be impressed with us, to give us a warm but rare smile and ice cream in a small silver chalice. And she did! (I have a feeling her smiles were less rare than I recall.)

 There was also a maître d, who was our hero. George. We loved him so much. Every year, we looked forward to seeing him in the lobby the moment we arrived, hugs all around. The first year, on a particularly fidgety night, at Dawn’s instigation, he led us on a tour of the kitchen, and in the large walking fridge, showed us the enormous fresh groupers that had been caught that day. They were terrifying and clear eyed. We suddenly all realized that we were in a place where people were working. We settled down.

 The highlight of dinner for me was always the veg, which included a skinless boiled potato doused in butter. I loved it. But the debate every night was about what to get to start. There was usually a soup of the day, often a cold melon or fruit soup, and when that wasn’t it, there was frequently vichyssoise.

 Vichyssoise! Not sure what that is? To put things in perspective- popular belief (aka Wikipedia) has it that it was invented at the Ritz Carlton by the French chef there in that famous gastronomic age of 1917. That should tell you about the menu inspiration at Ariel Sands! It’s a cold soup made of leeks and potatoes and cream and stock all pureed together. When it’s good it’s very very good, and like all four of us little girls, when it’s bad, it’s horrid. It’s also a very sophisticated thing for a child to eat, because it’s bland in such a grownup, rich way, and slightly bitter from the leeks.

 For example, pastina is baby food. Rob had, I had it. It’s starchy and plain and there’s nothing to it. You can add honey (like my mom) or Parmesan (like Theresa) and lots of butter (like both of them) and it’ll go down easy either way, and sooth whatever is ailing you.

 Vichyssoise is full of fat. So while it looks like nothing… it’s really quite something. And even cold, it’s heavy for a tropical climate in the middle of the hot summer.

 The third option, I think, was some sort of wilted and sad salad. We all wanted vichyssoise. The romance of the name appealed to us, the exotic coldness of something we all knew by rights should be hot beckoned us, but we also knew what would happen if we ate it. Our stomachs would distend and become full as if with lead bullets. Instead of running out to join our sisters and friends in chasing giant toads across the short grass in the lovely summer night, or scouting for crabs on the beach, all to the music of tree frogs, we’d clunk along behind them, like rundown cars.

 All week it would arise as a possible option. And all week we would debate it. When we were older, and digestion was not quite as much an issue, I think I ordered it whenever it was there. I don’t even know if it was a good version, or a bad one, but it was the version I go to in my mind’s eye whenever I see it elsewhere, which is very very rarely. The sheer savory-ness of it was so opposed to the chilliness. Think about it- how many “chilled” foods are savory? Not many… most are sweet. The contrast was thrilling, and also left very little room for dinner, which is why I can’t remember what dinner might have been, except for potatoes and overcooked broccoli, until they finally updated the hotel and the menu in the late 1990’s, so that it was a boutique hotel, with trendy modular furniture and the coral began to bleach.  George had moved on to another venue, and then retired, his reputation as one of the Islands finest well intact. But there was a very nice lobster salad.

 And when I began to plan my own wedding, I learned that Ariel Sands had closed for good mere months before. It was selfish of me to want to get married there. Rob had no connection to it at all, not with me, except that he too loves the ocean and snorkeling and fish. I made it so that was enough. But I don’t think it was totally selfish, because those were the best days of childhood, and my wedding was part of what is bound to be, and has been, the best days of my adulthood. My mind made a bridge between the two. We did not serve vichyssoise, nor was there a horse drawn carriage, but there were a pink sand beach and ocean breezes and we ran around and danced free in the night, but we also sat down for dinner. The same steel band played, now grey, but sounding exactly the same.