One of the first times I was invited to Europe as a guest of honor was from Oriflamme, at that time the French publisher of RuneQuest and Pendragon. The company had three principles, Jean Marc, 2, and 3. It’s a long flight to Frankfurt airport where my hosts met me, and then a seemingly long drive to Metz where Oriflamme was headquartered. I was kind of out of it from lack of sleep and jet lag, but game for anything.
“We will take you to some great French cooking tonight,” sad Jean Marc. He did not over inflate the “great” part. We went to a really, really high class restaurant with a three-star rating (best possible). We each had our own waiter who stood behind to the right and who was awesomely helpful to keep water and wine grasses filled. When a new course was served a cart would be wheeled in, the waiters would all get their dish, and at a signal from the maitre d they all placed the plate in front of jus at the same moment. When the course was done they took the dishes promptly away.
“What is this dish?” I asked one time.
One of my hosts said, “Better to eat, then ask.” I’ve since developed that as a survival trait in foreign lands—eat first, ask after. So I chowed down on whatever it was, some small squarish lumps in a rich cream sauce.
“Not bad. What was it?”
“Lamb thyroid,” they said. They were not fooling either. Ew, I ate organ meat! I probably had a few more courses of it at this extravaganza meal. They changed wines with each dish. One time we got a fish and I took a bite and turned to my host next to me.
“Wow, that tastes strong,” I said, not as criticism but because it was strong.
“Yes,” said my host. I sort of liked it, but got only one forkful before the waiter grabbed the plate and whisked it away. What just happened? The owner of the restaurant came fretting and worried.
“I am so sorry,” she said, “We will have a new fish dish for you two in a few minutes. Pierre, fillhis wine glass.” The second dish was good, but not strong. Some ordinary whitefish in, as usual, a creamy French sauce.
When the courses were all finished the waiters had these scraper-like things that the used to sweep up all the crumbs and debris we had dropped on the table, because by this time even the Frenchmen were half reeling in their seats from all the wine. I don’t remember exactly how many courses there were, maybe six or eight. Jet lagged, I felt like I was melting in my chair from both pleasure at the scrumptious meal and fatigue. For desert we had some pastry or another—I don’t recall what. I am lucky to recall anything by that time.
When done we left, Jean March installed me into his daughter's bed and I crashed and burned. The next day I got up in a doll-filled room with pink walls and super frilly curtains. A bit hung over. Well, even in those days I brought my own Advil for this event. Over breakfast and lunch Jean Marc and his wife Patricia were superlative hosts considering that they were probably as hung over as I was. We didn’t do anything that day but talk about games, or respective nations, and so on.
“Tonight,” said Jean Marc, “We will take you out for some regional cuisine. Last night it was French cooking. This night it will be Lorraine cuisine.”
We went to an old abbey that had been transformed into a restaurant. All my hosts were there, two with wives; and there must have teen or fifteen other people who were, I gathered, employees or freelancers. This was the first time I encountered that French custom of not allowing children into the restaurants, but dogs are OK. They lay under the table, probably snacking on bits that fell or were placed there. Occasionally a brief dogfight would break out as a new customer was led to his table, but noting too serious. I suppose that was supposed to be better than a baby wailing or a mother shushing her loved ones.
“We will order,” I was told, “please excuse us as we discuss the wine.” Wine lists were passed around and perused, then a discussion followed for about five minutes as each person pointed out the advantage of this wine or that one, occasionally a bit heated and scornful, sometimes with a laugh. At last it was decided and they returned to normal conversation and cut me in on the talk.
This wine selection happened at every restaurant lunch and dinner I have ever eaten with the French. I am only exaggerating slightly—one time we missed lunch hour and had to have sandwiches, which my friends thought was a huge affront and scolded each other for causing this insult. I thought it was a pretty good sandwich.
They got their bottles, filled my glass, and got on with getting me drunk again. I didn’t mind. It was pretty common those days. Then they brought out the French cuisine—heaping platters of sausage and ham hocks accompanied by sauerkraut and steamed potatoes. It was delicious. Towards the end of dinner my host asked me, “So, how do you like our French cuisine?”
Risking alienating my new friends I told the truth.
“To tell the truth,” I said, “I would have thought this was German food.” He looked shocked, as did everyone else at the table.
“But everyone knows you drink beer with German food. Do you see any beer at this table?” Then he, and everyone else at the table, burst into laughter. Me too. I realized I’d been set up just for this. Since I never saw the ten or fifteen people again I figure they were imported for the dinner to lend suitable shock and laughter to the event.
I realized, without being told, that this was Lorraine which has spent half of history as part of France, the other half as part of Germany. This dichotomy came up several times during my trips there but I’ll save those stories for another time.
Since then I have eaten several meals where we each had our own waiter, drunk many, many bottles of French wine with my French friends—for friends they became. I have not, however, eaten French sauerkraut and sausage.