UNDERDONE DUCK

It always seems peculiar to me that when you walk into a restaurant packed with pretentious customers
(and by that I mean vibrantly self-aware folk posturing and talking very loudly about themselves, their
investments and their possessions, rather than, say, quietly discussing St. Augustine’s discourse on
humility), the staff is predictably even more arrogant than the clientele. Most of us with any experience
recognize what a great honor it is to be there among such people of course, and surrender to the fact
that we clearly do not belong. To be welcomed frostily, escorted to a place to sit, and waited upon by
our superiors is always a humbling experience. Still, there is something a little irksome about the
arrangement. By that I mean, we’re the ones who are paying.

So, my best friend, Dean had helped us move an unwieldy piece of furniture from the hotel to my wife’s
parents’ house in that fairyland county just above the Golden Gate Bridge, and to thank him we said “Is
there any place you’d like to go for dinner?” He named this place in Larkspur. So, we went there. The
place had a reputation for food, so I cast aside any unreasonable objections concerning all the Justins
and Jasons shouting about how many mansions they had recently acquired with no-down, interest-only
loans. They did not distract us from our goal. We weren’t there to impress anybody; we were there for
the food. I like food. My wife likes food. Dean likes food.

We waited a bit, as is usual in such a place—meekly as is proper—but were soon enough seated.

I could not tell you whether it was the Queen of Sweden or the Queen of France who waited on us,
such is my ignorance, but I hope we were appropriately obsequious; keeping our eyes to ourselves and
speaking in lowered apologetic tones. It would be a mistake to go up against such magnificence only to
embarrass ourselves by having to be put down in the midst of such lofty and critical company. So we
ordered respectfully, quietly, humbly.

My wife ordered ravioli. And it doesn’t matter what Dean ordered (though my wife would remember, I
don’t). For our purposes we’ll say he ordered sweetbreads—that sounds like something Dean would
order. When it was my turn, I ordered the duck and the Queen nodded, turned smartly, and started to
skittle away. I put an arm up in her path and she turned with a kind of overly-theatrical petulance.
“Please,” I said, “tell me, is the chef French?” She told me he was. And so I continued. “Please…I know
that what I am about to request will offend him…but can you ask him to please make the duck
overdone?”

See, I know something about French chefs, and I know that traditionally, as a matter of nationalistic and
gastronomic pride, they deliver all fowl well underdone.
“If you would be so kind, please,” I said quietly, “ask him to over-do the duck. I would like it to be over-
done. Please ask him to do that. That’s the way I, idiot that I am, would like it.” I knew of course that she
would enter the kitchen 17 seconds later, shout, “one rav, one sweetbread, one duck!” and that would
be the end of it…unless I was a trouble-maker.

I am not a trouble-maker,
but I like my duck done.

So, while we waited and while I pretended to carry on jovial conversation with my dear wife and my good
friend, I was deeply entangled in inner turmoil. When the grub arrived, as is usual for me, my wife’s
ravioli looked ravishing, and Dean’s sweetbreads looked nothing if not desirable, but the duck was
under-done. It had wilted grayish brown skin and, from there on inward, it was a kind of a vibrant 1950’s
lipstick yellowish pink throughout, even in that elegantly lowered lighting.
The queen was gone in a flash and it took me several minutes to flag her down and coax her back to
our table. (Which one is our waitress? The one with her back perpetually toward us.) When she arrived,
with the burden of martyrdom heavy upon her shoulders, I said, “Hi.”
She said…nothing.
I said, “Do you remember me asking for my duck to be over-done?”
She said that she did.
I said, “You know, really, honestly, I know that what I am asking is just terrible and crude and stupid and
brutish and maybe a little vulgar as well…” I was careful to be sure my tone told her that I was sorry for
conducting my life on such a low level, and especially in a forum where my betters might possibly be
unnecessarily exposed to it. “…but, could you please take this back and ask the chef to give it a good
scorching? Please. Tell him I apologize for offending him, but tell him that’s the way the idiot wants it.
Please.”

If coal miners only knew the tremendous labor this good woman then had to go through in order to
bend and pick up my plate, they would never complain about their joy-filled lives again.

And, even as she carried my plate away, I knew this: (I knew this). I knew it would either come back
burnt, or it would not come back at all until my wife and my best friend had finished dessert, or it would
come back—and this was my best hope—EXACTLY as it had been when taken away, only a little older,
a little drier, a little colder, a little more congealed. To test this theory I had, with the greatest sleight of
hand, placed a little indentation in the edge of a particular piece of the underdone duck with my knife
and arranged a brussel sprout in a particular way upon my plate. I encouraged…I started to
encourage… my wife and my good friend to dig in and ignore my plight, but encouragement along
these lines, though they both love me dearly, did not seem entirely necessary. And when the duck
returned—arriving only shortly after Dean had thrown down his napkin and pushed back from the table
and let his eyes roll back into his head—my wish had come true; it was not burned to a crisp. The
brussel sprout was in the very same location upon the plate, but colder now, and the duck still held the
tell-tale knife mark. That duck had sat in the kitchen waiting for a time when I might come to my senses
and accept it for what it was.

I did not eat it. Instead, I ate a couple of the overdone vegetables and stuffed myself with a variety of
good-lookin’ but near-tasteless, whole-grain bread.

My dear wife meanwhile had taken one bite out of one of the TWO very precious ravioli and found it
wanting. She investigated the other with hope and a fork, and though the fork remained, the hope did
not last. “Taste this…” she said to me quietly, and I did. It was a non-descript mosh of vegetable matter
with a hint of something sea-foodish. She couldn’t eat it. Hungry as I was, I couldn’t eat it either. Here’s
$42 worth of ravioli—though in what world two ravioli are worth $42 I don’t know—that could not be
eaten by either of two, slightly discerning, nearly-starving people.

So, the dessert was acceptable, though nothing special. The best thing in the place was the wine,
which had not come from their famous kitchen, but from Italy. So when the waitress came to deliver our
check, she said NOTHING about the fact that neither my wife nor I had touched anything on our plates.
Instead, she asked us if we would like to take it home. I didn’t understand the logic in that, and,
troublemaker that I am, I asked to speak with the manager.

So, the Queen of France or Sweden went away in a huff and after a few minutes I was escorted alone
into a small room where there was a big desk and paper-work and bills and cash laying around, and a
nicely dressed kid of the Justin and Jason generation stood up and asked me if I enjoyed my meal. The
Queen was there behind me with her arms crossed, tapping her foot and sucking on her teeth.
I said I didn’t.

As you know, there are two distinct types of managers in this world. There are those who believe that
the employees who work under them are always, always wrong, and there are those that believe it is
their job to viciously defend any employee who works under them against the unreasonable demands
of all of us useless damned customers. It became blisteringly clear, and very shortly, that this guy was
of the latter sort. He wasn’t apologetic about the fact that I was expected to pay more than $200 for a
meal I did not eat. And, he did not have the time to listen to my story. BUT… (let’s be fair) he did offer
to have the stuff wrapped up so that we could take it home. I soon realized that seating himself again
and returning to his accounting was a sign that my audience with him had come to an end.

To make a long story short, I believe it is much to my credit that I did not return to that place later that
night and wait for the dishwasher to finish his mopping-up and turn off all the lights and step outside,
closing and locking the door behind himself, and stroll away under the moonlit sky whistling a jaunty
little tune, before I burned that goddamned place right to the ground. I thought about it though, and
concluded that it might be a bit of an over-reaction on my part.
But, I maintain the dream.

And in that dream, I always toss a duck in there, amid the flames.