A League of My Own A friend and I were eating at Restaurant Saul about two weeks ago?Saul is one of the relatively new restaurants that have established a bustling outer-borough way of epicureanism on Smith St. in Brooklyn's Boerum Hill?and it wasn't long after the food was all eaten (I'll be getting to the food, incidentally, in just a second) that we fell into The Talk.
I've never been anywhere near the Ivy League?unless confabbing and carousing with its graduates...oh...about 75 percent of my time counts as proximity. But my friend (MA, Yale) has. That's not really the point, however. I can't actually claim to have a complex about the Ivy League because, for me, the Ivy League is really a gigantic nonissue. Still, there we were, relaxing in the mellow afterglow of a fine dinner, sipping coffee, taking the joint (Saul) in and yakking about the fucking Ivy League. I won't get into the details. Suffice it to say that: 1) my friend has a friend; 2) the friend of my friend went...as the phrase goes, she went Ivy, and not for grad school, either; (3) she's making some of that Ivy hay here in the world center of the Ivy League media conspiracy.
Now, what happened as we mauled our dessert (a glorious warm chocolate cake) and had this talk, was that I began to bludgeon myself silently, because I had all but sworn on my dead dog's tin of ashes that I was never again going to get sucked into yet another one of these friggin' conversations about the Ivy motherfucking League.
But...well...okay, I did. I let it happen. And there it was, The Talk. Like a tumor, diagnosed. Growing. Malignant.
Don't get me wrong. The Ivy League is cool. I mean it. The truth is, I owe half my career to Brown University at this point, and the other half to Columbia, to their industrious alumni, to their generous tendencies toward feckless dirty hillbillies like me.
And because of all that, and perhaps as a result of that debt, I like to practice a certain impostor's elan?to defy the fact that, outwardly, I resemble a dark and twerpy little piece of crypto-Jewish Eurotrash. I like to instead focus on the jarring frisson induced by my hillbilly Confederate Bible Belt yesteryears. It consumes much psychic energy, this campaign, and much of it is sheer futility. No one gives a crap about the Southerner in New York anymore. The persona has lost its allure, especially in those circles that involve books and reading and other such theoretically literary pastimes. So I need to invent some new tricks.
And then it hit me, right there in Saul, right after I had eaten my good arctic char?if oxtails are the new lamb shank, the arctic char is clearly the new Chilean sea bass?and my friend had consumed her thick and obscenely juicy porkchop, the best porkchop in Brooklyn, maybe in the whole city. It hit me with the same sort of bravura that one expects from breakthroughs in psychotherapy and mindblowing orgasms, buck-buck-buck, holler. A solution. The trouble is that the solution has no reality. It's pure fantasy. The very business of considering it has shaken me up, so much so that I'm at this moment having a tough time remembering whether the waitress who dealt with our table (the prettiest waitress on Smith St., just so you know, short-cropped blonde hair and Aqua Velva blue eyes, the spitting image of Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby, post-coif) at one of the evening's junctures actually bowed from the waist and placed her forehead on my dinner companion's shoulder (I think she did). I usually remember stuff like that. (As I recall, it had something to do with being out of an entree?it was an apologetic gesture.)
So the gist of my epiphany: I wish I had been a fratboy.
It's important to understand that once, long ago, in the misty past, I attempted to become a fratboy. At Clemson, far south of the Mason-Dixon Line, I went through Greek rush the first semester of my freshman year. Greeks were fairly huge in that pastoral, football-mad, iridium-pastel-sunset-blessed, unambitiously erudite northwestern corner of South Carolina. So were leggy blonde Miss America aspirants, their ball-peen kneecaps, their huge mascaraed cornflower eyes. Other recollections of huge stuff from that particular time, that particular scene: dirty suede bucks on boys; loose Levi's 505s, never washed; luminously white Tretorns on the molasses-limbed and faintly clad sisters of Kappa Kappa Gamma; black students dressed sharp in hermetic clumps, plotting success, with no desire to say "Fuck Whitey" because it just ain't worth it no more. Buildings the color of faded paprika (because there's so much clay in the ground, red clay, down in that part of the world). That girl with the boots. That girl with the cape. The girl from Florida. And 3000 18-year-olds taut and sunburned, in possession of all that fresh untested pistoning equipment and the internal torments that come from loving Jesus Christ and having him morally dog their sizzling minds.
It's still hot as hell in upstate South Carolina in early autumn, and eerie after dark in ways only places that are still sparsely populated, fat with crickety countryside, can be. Humid and gothic, overwhelmingly natural, soggy. But it doesn't take long for a sort of vaguely Mediterranean climate to take over once the furnaces of summer have been shut down.
And so it was in such a climate that I struggled to pledge a frat. And failed bad.
And ever since then I've had a closeted fratboy sensibility and have indulged its vulgar expression?vulgarity tinged with propriety, of course. Through my brother this has come, through congress with the fine young men of Tau Kappa Epsilon. And I do mean fine young men. Fratboys get an unfair rap, and though at times it's deserved, I think it's exaggerated. Exaggerated by me, especially, when I was in school, drummed out of frat rush and wounded and determined to conduct a vindictive campaign against fraternities and sororities alike.
I had a bad attitude toward Greeks, one that had to be convincingly reversed by my brother's little adopted clan. Understand: these guys are gentlemen, these men are cooks, these men stick by each other and will drop everything to travel hundreds of miles to help out a brother in need. They're a lot like firemen, I think. They exhibit that commitment to sacrifice. And they've routinely waylaid friends of mine with their charm. Once, several years after my brother graduated from college and was living in a sort of early adult version of the frat house, my then-girlfriend and one of her pals and I paid a visit, and the girls were overwhelmed by Southern Man fratboy politesse and gentility. This was nothing new to me. The frats I knew about in school were nothing at all like the ones depicted in Animal House or Revenge of the Nerds. Sure, they were flawed, but they still dolled up for football games, clustered in their section with their dates and dressed well: blazers and ties and chinos. The rest of us looked like hell. The fratboys set a standard. And there was something admirable in that. Something I secretly envied.
So what I'm basically admitting here is that, for too many years, I unfairly slighted the fratboy. I was wrong. And now I wish I were one of them, and that's my path to redemption and my current scheme to escape from creeping Ivy envy. It would enhance my character.
This was where all that goddamn Ivy League banter at Saul led me: toward some sort of retroactive affirmation of my fratboy wannabe hillbilly manhood. It felt good. It felt like I had achieved a new level of personal clarity.
But the food at Saul was good, too, so maybe I'm complaining unnecessarily. Maybe I should forget about the humiliating 1985 autumn rush at Clemson University and its negative effect on my personality and dig instead into dinner at the marvelous Saul in winter of 2000. Saul is a terrific place. It's run by Saul Bolton, who has cooked at Bouley and Le Bernardin. Bolton's whole culinary philosophy?simple, robust dishes prepared in basic fashion but with a loving attention to core flavors?appeals to me immensely. He prepares the kind of food that almost never fails to win me over and bring me back.
The only real issue I have with Saul, where the room is lambent and there's a snug little bar at the back, is that my dinner companion and I had a reservation and were made to wait almost 20 minutes for our table. Saul made up for the slight by presenting us with a little amuse bouche, a portion of polenta, but given that we were parked at the bar for, well, too long, I felt they should have offered us at least a gratis glass of wine. I don't know. It's possible that this was an isolated slight, confined to that evening. I'm not going to kick Saul's ass for it.
The food, however, couldn't be faulted. As I indicated earlier, that porkchop they're making over there is about the best in town, served with a nice slab of potatoes on the side. My arctic char was perfectly good, delicate and flavorful and laid on a dusky puddle of lentils (very Zoe-style, I thought, not terribly original, but still an excellent way to serve a piece of fish, even one like arctic char, which has a kind of strange blubbery thing going on with the skin). Comparing the char to porkchop, however...well, no contest. The porkchop was about a dozen times more thrilling. If I return to Saul, I think I'll go for meat over fish. Furthermore, I'll order red wine by the glass rather than white. Neither the Sancerre nor the chardonnay my companion and I sampled was especially dazzling. In the end, I developed a serious syrah craving. I wanted some fire and some smoke and some peppery fruit to match up with the chop, to complement its thick, delicious sinew. (Because we all know what the problem with porkchops is: porkchops are frequently a dumb call at a restaurant because they arrive all dried out, tasting not like sweet fatty pork but more like bacon.)
Perhaps that jones for a hardy California syrah makes sense, given my urge to reimagine myself as a fratboy. Syrah strikes me as a fratboy kind of wine, a good-time red that might be a touch rowdy in its youth, but that grows up to be the viticultural equivalent of a country gentleman. A country gentleman dirty hillbilly wine snob in the big city. I could get completely into that pose. Could be the Ivy antidote. Could save me from ever stumbling into that conversation ever again.
At least that's what I'm telling myself this week.
Restaurant Saul, 140 Smith St., Brooklyn, 718-935-9844.