My choice was either to eat at home with the kids or have dinner with Julia Child in Washington. If I ate with kids I would have to cook. And that meant hamburger for me and grilled hot dogs for the kids. It is their favorite entree. "Dad," the 5-year-old had recently complimented me, "you make the best black hot dogs."
If I dined with Julia, the food would be better. But I would have to drive to Washington, about 40 miles away, in the teeth of evening rush hour.
The drive, however, didn't scare me, because I knew some secret shortcuts. I chose Julia.
I took my first shortcut when I reached the outskirts of Washington. Julia was going to appear at a Holiday Inn in downtown Washington. I could get to the hotel by driving straight down New York Avenue. But taking the straight route was for tourists.
I wanted to outflank the traffic. And, inspired by memo-ries of the Civil War epic I had recently watched on public television, I began my maneuvers. I got out off New York, wheeled on to Florida, and headed toward Rhode Island. In our nation's capital, all the shortcut streets -- Michigan, South Dakota, Missouri, North Carolina -- are named after states. The bad part is that the location of the streets has no relation to U.S. geography.
If, for example, you lived in Florida and wanted to get to Rhode Island, logic would dictate that you travel north. Logic doesn't work in Washington. I never did get to Rhode Island. Instead I got on a street that was leading me to the heart of a dangerous neighborhood, the U.S. Capitol at budget-making time.
An ugly mood of "deficit reduction" was in the air. I worried that if I stayed near the Capitol very long, some "revenue enhancer" would spot me. "A taxpayer!" the deal maker would yell. "Grab him and shake him for money!" I escaped before anyone got me.
After taking several other shortcuts, many of them impromptu, I arrived at the hotel for dinner with Julia. A few other people were already there, about 350.
The occasion was a fund-raiser for the American Institute of Wine Food, a non-profit organization founded by Julia. The dinner was put on by the World Capital Chef's Society, and chefs from 14 Washington area restaurants set up work stations around the edge of the hotel dining room. There chefs passed out platefuls of their specialties.
It was buffet-style service, but instead of getting in line for the food, I spotted some friends and sat down with them at one of the large round tables in the dining room. This turned out to be a good idea, for two reasons.
First, while there was plenty of food at the shindig, seating was tight. Every time somebody popped up from our table to get some food, somebody else would grab the chair and ask, "Is this seat taken?"
The other benefit of staying seated was that people brought me plates of marvelous food. I probably still looked tired and shaken after my shortcut laden journey.
A plate of red and yellow peppers stuffed with fontina cheese appeared in front of me. It was prepared by Roberto Donna, chef of Washington's Galileo restaurant.
Then came a plate of fresh pasta sauteed with shiitake mushrooms. It was the work of Jimmy Sneed, chef at Windows on Urbanna Creek restaurant in Urbanna, Va.
I ate and ate, and began to feel better.
The food was ferried to me by Ellen Brown, whose recent book, "Gourmet Gazelle" (Bantum 1989 $19.95), won a Tastemaker award for cookbooks. Even though her book won the prestigious award, I never had been able to figure out exactly what kind of critter a gourmet gazelle was. But judging by Ellen's behavior the other night, a gazelle is a creature that runs around fetching gourmet food for dog-tired travelers.
This gazelle behavior could also be called "mothering." "Eat your mushrooms," Ellen told me, when she spotted a bit of untouched shiitake on my plate. I obeyed.
I also ate some creamy roast corn custard prepared by Clive DuVal 3rd, chef at Tila's, some perfect lamb from the McPherson Grill where John Lenchner is the chef, and a seafood cake made with crab and lobster meat and then covered with a tangy pommery mustard sauce prepared by Will Greenwood, chef at the Jefferson Hotel.
For dessert I had fruit tart, ice cream and margarita truffles from Adirondacks restaurant where Gethen Thomas and Ricardo Jurado-Solares are chefs.
By then it was time for the speechifying. In his remarks on state of American cuisine, John Mariani, executive food and travel editor for Esquire magazine, said the nation's new concern with healthful eating was not a threat. Rather, he said, the only health threat posed by fine dining was gluttony. Going after gluttony got Mariani a big round of applause from the audience. But it scared me. Once the populace starts attacking any of the seven deadly sins, food writers are in trouble.
Julia spoke, saying that while chefs have long known that gastronomy is as important to leading a full life as art, medicine and the law, the rest of world has been slow to seize this truth. Her American Institute of Wine and Food is working to change the situation, she said.
Next, Julia was serenaded by Robert Dickson of Robert's restaurant in Charleston, S.C. Dickson, known as the singing chef, gave a stirring rendition of "Food, Glorious Food," from the Broadway musical "Oliver."
Before leaving, I stopped for some spoonfuls of real tapioca pudding, great big tapioca. That too came from Sneed's Urbanna Creek restaurant. It was outstanding stuff, unlike any tapioca I had ever eaten. Sneed said he sent jars of the tapioca to his friends as Christmas presents. I told him he should consider me his friend for life.
I happened to walk out of the hotel with Julia. We talked about hamburgers and the race for governor in Massachusetts. She and her husband Paul live near Boston.
When Julia makes hamburgers she tosses a tablespoon of sour cream, a pinch of thyme and a teaspoon of grated onion into the raw meat for each pattie. Her burgers, like Massachusetts politics, are zesty.