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An Education, Bite by Bite

Lissa Townsend Rogers
Photo courtesy of Lissa Townsend Rogers
Photo courtesy of Lissa Townsend Rogers

With every filet mignon and flaming meringue, my father was teaching me to eat well — and live grandly

My mother, my grandmother, a few roommates, and a half-dozen books taught me how to cook. My father taught me how to eat. When I remember him, it’s at a table, a plate of steak or scallops in front of him, a glass of single-batch bourbon or seasonal microbrew at his elbow, friends and family on either side, and a wide grin on his face. He liked to eat and to listen, which is how he wound up married to a woman who could cook a five-course gourmet meal and keep the conversation going all the way through it. (Sometimes single-handedly.) 

When I was about 6, my parents began training my brother and me at home for “fancy dinners”: having us dress up, practice our manners and our table conversation. My mother had grown up in the Hudson Valley. Her father was an engineer; she’d gone to one of those ’50s “women’s colleges.” Ask me where my father Henry’s family comes from, and my short answer is “10 minutes from where they shot The Deer Hunter.” He developed his appreciation of single-malt Scotch and oysters Rockefeller, Miles Davis and David McCullough the same way he earned academic awards and football trophies: He went out and did it himself.

The training made sense when my parents took me to New Orleans. After a long day as an executive at IBM, my father helped run the local credit union (yes, he was the kind of guy who took on massive fiduciary duties as a hobby). He got to go to banking conventions several times a year, bringing my mom and either my brother or me along. We flew south on one of those old Boeing 747s where first-class had its own private cocktail lounge, reached by a whirly little spiral staircase. I was eight years old, wore a tiny houndstooth suit, swilled Shirley Temples, and chirped at businessmen about what I’d learned from reading all the books about New Orleans in our school library twice.

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The highlight was dinner at the legendary Antoine’s restaurant. We sat in a high-ceilinged room whose glossy white gingerbread cornices glowed under gas lamps. I ate filet mignon, marveling at this perfect little steak I could cut myself. The pinnacle of the evening was when the waiter approached our table bearing something called baked Alaska, a flaming meringue with the legend “Antoine’s 1868” scrolled across in it icing. I was enthralled. I understood why a dinner was worth traveling for, worth dressing up for, worth spending money on. I realized that food didn’t just fill your stomach, but could feed some other part of you. (For the next several years, I demanded baked Alaska for my birthday cake, much to the chagrin of the mothers of little girls who went home from my parties and, in turn, demanded baked Alaska.)

When I turned 16, I didn’t want a party: I wanted dinner at Le Pavillon, an old-school, big-occasion French restaurant located in a countryside mansion. I still ordered filet mignon, but also escargot because it was sophisticated. When I graduated high school — again, no party: I wanted dinner at the Culinary Institute of America. Not the classic French Bocuse Room, but the American Bounty, then a fresh example of new American cuisine and an early groping toward farm-to-table in the era of artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes. (I wore a tuxedo my dad’s tailor had altered; my mother still teases me about how all the CIA sophomore busboys tripped over themselves refilling teenaged Marlene Dietrich’s water glass.)

My tenure in New York City (first at NYU and then at a range of now-defunct magazines and websites) became an extended tour of the city’s best steakhouses. We ate at Peter Luger’s, the Brooklyn temple to surly waiters and minimalist menus — steak for one, steak for two, steak for four, everything doused in Luger’s steak sauce or dollops of schlag. (My father’s Peter Luger credit card was the only sliver of plastic in his crammed wallet that he felt carried any real prestige.) At Sparks Steakhouse, wise guys with cellphones the size of shoeboxes gave me a once-over and nodded respectfully in dad’s direction, and I switched from medium to medium-rare, from filet mignon to sirloin. We joined the Knicks’ pre-game crowd at Keens Steakhouse, where “Big Henry” blended in with the other former athletes, now graying, in custom sports coats. We’d get a shellfish platter to start, Courvoisier to finish, and Chateaubriand somewhere in the middle.

It wasn’t all red meat. We’d go to Calle Ocho, a Latin fusion restaurant with Beetlejuice decor, hipster bistros like Café Luxembourg or Balthazar, eat roasted salmon from Beacon’s wood-fired oven. When I moved to Las Vegas, dad was unhappy that we’d no longer have visits on weekends, but: Vegas! When I was a kid, he’d often told us of his business trips here in the ’80s, all Bacchanal buffets and Siegfried & Roy making tigers disappear.

The Golden Steer became his designated steakhouse (or, as he called it, “the Purple Cow”), and Dean Martin’s booth was our usual seat. He’d get a porterhouse, mom the filet. I’d have to divide six months’ worth of what I’d been up to over several nights’ dinner conversation, so I was always grateful when the waiters rolled up their carts and allowed us to be an appreciative audience for the tableside Caesar salad or Bananas Foster. Dad dug the golf-course views, heaps of shellfish, and Dixieland combos at the Wynn Country Club’s brunch (once we had a table next to Paul Anka and Steve Wynn, who were accompanied by a squad of statuesque women on stilettos).

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My father’s favorite spot was likely Sinatra at Encore. Cioppino and tiramisu were two of his favorite dishes anywhere, and he loved the timeless versions served there. The atmosphere and soundtrack also met with his approval; even the most jaded of my New York journalist friends described him as “like the last of the Rat Pack.” (When we went to Frank’s favorite Palm Springs steakhouse, the owner wound up coming out to talk Sinatra and Steelers with my dad until closing; when we spent one Thanksgiving dining with a few retired burlesque queens from Frank’s Vegas years, they cooed over my father like he was at least Dean. My mother just smiled benignly.)

When he passed away, a month before my birthday, my father was speculating on where we should go to celebrate — Sinatra, “the Cow,” somewhere new. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to make the trip, but he was thumbing through the most recent Las Vegas restaurant guide just the same.

My mother has been packing up the house in New York where she and my father lived for 44 years, the appeal of being nearer to my brother and the grandbaby and living without stairs having grown too great to resist. Over the holidays, we went to Schuler’s, a restaurant near the new home in Michigan and, by way of coincidence, the site of my father’s first fine-dining experience. It was back in the late 1950s, when he was going to Wabash College on scholarship: His coach knew the owner of Schuler’s and took the team there after games. I imagine my father taking it all in, the white tablecloths and the dark-paneled walls, the shrimp cocktails and thick steaks, and deciding that this was something special, something worth traveling for, worth dressing up for, worth working for … and worth sharing.

I have a number of things to remember my father by: a cat, cufflinks, two pocket watches, half a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue, and a collection of vintage vinyl that would make any DJ’s fingers itch. But, more than that, he’s left me hundreds of memorable dinners — and an appreciation of the sheer occasion of sitting down to eat.