A Glass of Kir
A lesson about who we are.
We buried my mom’s cousin Anne Rodden and then retired for lunch to a dignified pub with a long bar and a separate dining room with starched white linen-covered tables. Anne had come from Ireland to Philadelphia with her friend Mary in 1923, and they found work as maids in the mansions out along the Main Line. They stuck together—you hired one, you hired the other—and never married. Anne and Mary were viewed as the well-off relatives, the ones in the family who had achieved a measure of social standing. They kept my mom’s family afloat during the Depression after her dad died when she was nine years old, leaving behind his sorely bereaved wife and seven children, one of whom was mentally disabled.
The pub and its dining room were crowded with relatives and Anne’s and Mary’s friends who could slip away from their positions at other Main Line mansions. My dad took drink orders around our table, and I accompanied him to the bar to help carry them back.
“What are you having?” my dad asked.
“A kir,” I said.
“A kir—it’s white wine with cassis.”
“You’re not having that here,” he snapped, a man who never snapped.
Kir was the fashionable drink that my wealthy boss’s women friends drank when they accompanied him to review restaurants for the publication his father had bought him after he graduated from Harvard. The drink was what I learned to like the few times he asked me to come with them. A light, pretty afternoon drink that I should have known would be inappropriate to ask for in an establishment that probably didn’t have a bottle of cassis in the house.
My dad left me and continued to angle his way toward the bar.
I was my boss’s only employee, at 23 a year older than him. When he wasn’t out eating, he sat at a desk lost under galley proofs, the hip magazines of the day, and the latest cookbooks. Business bills and the bankbook lay buried underneath. My smaller desk was on the opposite side of the room. Neatly contained file boxes, computer disks of subscribers, and edited manuscripts lined up orderly across the top. My husband and I lived on my salary of around $9,000, the bare minimum even back then.
Every morning at about 11:30, my boss’s friends, all recent Ivy League graduates, would arrive. None of them seemed to have jobs. They were polite but disinterested in their friend’s assistant. They left for their lunch at one of the new stylish restaurants an hour later. I finished the day’s work, ate my little bag lunch, and wandered out to poke around the boisterous city for an hour. My boss strolled back to the office around three, his friends dispersing along the way. He fell asleep at his desk and I read cookbooks and Gourmet magazine until he woke up and I told him I was going home.
On the rare occasions when he was a person short for lunch, he asked me to join them. It was clear I should be thrilled and couldn’t decline. A battalion of utensils and glasses I had never encountered before nor knew how to use crowded about the place settings. Lunch often consisted of sweetbreads doused in cream sauce, chicken breasts bathed in a reduced wine and caramelized shallot dressing, petite tuna burgers accompanied by french fries cooked in duck fat, Niçoise salad, grilled eel.
It was discomforting to sit among my boss’s friends and embarrassing to watch how easy it was for them to navigate through the meal. Chopsticks failed to slip from between their fingers; demitasse cups didn’t cause them to dribble. It was a relief that no one really talked to me because I had nothing to say or even relate to between their manners and the abundance of tastes. I grew up sitting at a table crowded with dishes meant to nourish and support the company of others, not to overwhelm. Their complexity rested on stories surrounding family recipes, of eating memories. And, yet, my boss’s lunches excited a desire to explore new flavors and techniques. They seemed a part of this strange life I found myself immersed in as a young wife in an ambitious city hard to find a place in. When my boss and I returned to the office, I studied the recipes in our books and magazines to explore later at home while my boss nodded and lightly snored at his desk.
The funeral lunch stretched on into the late afternoon until it was time for me to catch the train back to New York. By then, my mom had heard about the kir and the car ride was eloquently silent. My dad double-parked to walk me into the station.
When we got to the waiting area, he said, “whatever is happening up there with you, don’t forget you’re from Sansom Street.”
Sansom Street was a poor inner-city street where my dad had grown up one of eight motherless children, with a father who tried his best to keep them one step ahead of the landlord, and a grandfather working very hard to tend to them all. Sansom Street forged the family’s ingenuity and grit to overcome what might have been adversity to others. My mom and Anne and nearly everyone else at the funeral that day possessed it, too. It was important to my dad that he had found the means to go to college, to provide his children with a middle-class upbringing that afforded them a good education. Sansom Street was (and continues to be in the family) the code phrase used to remind us that he raised us to remember the ingenuity and grit lodged in our roots. A glass of kir and plates of fancy food had their place, could even be enjoyed, but never should they obscure my true lineage.
My dad accompanied me down to the tracks and hugged me before I stepped on the train. I bought a can of beer on the ride back to New York and have never ordered a kir again.