A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

What I Had for Lunch Today: Peter Rabbit Plate

I can't think of anything that fills me, as an adult, with the same sense of tingling anticipation as the Thursday evening excursions I made with my mother and younger sister when I was a child. Thursday was the night the stores were open late. We'd walk to Dickinson Street and take the bus downtown (my mother didn't drive). The destinations varied: Johnson's Bookstore, Peerless, Brigham's were frequent stops. The one place we never failed to visit was Forbes and Wallace, my mother's favorite department store.

Forbes and Wallace had eight floors. Cosmetics and notions were on the first floor, with its soaring columns and mezzanine; I especially loved the Charles of the Ritz counter, where face powders tinted every shade of the rainbow were custom-mixed by some chromatic wizardry into flesh tones. Then came the boring floors of ladies' undergarments and dresses, where we waited restlessly as our mother browsed, and children's clothes, even worse, where we squirmed in dressing rooms. Furniture we never bothered with; toys was the best, of course, even if we looked and didn't buy.

After we shopped, we'd eat supper at one of Forbes's two restaurants. The Meridian was a lunch counter in the basement, where off-price merchandise and the cheaper make-up was also housed. We'd eat a sandwich and twirl on the leatherette stools, but it was always a disappointment to head downwards. The real treat was to take the elevator all the way to the Top o' the Town, a proper restaurant with real linens and a view over the city. My menu choice was always the same: the Peter Rabbit plate.

I was discussing this with my sister, Leslie, some time ago. I could remember the sides of mashed potatoes, gravy, and peas quite distinctly, but I couldn't remember the main item at all.

"That was it!" Leslie told me gleefully. "That's why it was called the Peter Rabbit plate...it didn't have any meat! Just potatoes and peas!"

Well, I'm a vegetarian now, and a champion of meatless meals, but all I can say is, they could never get away with such a nutritionally unbalanced meal today. Probably not a gram of protein in the whole thing. Still, I loved it, and today I was under the weather and craving comfort food, so that's what I made.

Since this was vegan gravy, I added flavor with mushrooms, which the original Peter Rabbit plate didn't have. I sauté the mushrooms in butter (or margarine or olive oil) in one spider, and in another little spider I brown a spoon or two of flour till it's deep brown but not burned (a fine line, especially since the iron spider holds the heat so well; the flour doesn't stop browning when you take it off the flame). I remove the mushrooms and dump the flour into the fat, stirring it smooth. Then add water (or broth or milk or soymilk), and stir till it thickens. Also a couple of shakes of light soy sauce, in place of salt.

Browning the flour separately is what gives this gravy its proper color (along with the soy sauce, of course). Browning it also cooks the raw flour taste out of it, so that you don't have to cook it much at the end. Less likelihood of lumps, burning, or gravy sticking to the pan.

Somewhere I have a scoop, which would have facilitated a proper presentation of the mashed potatoes. The gravy shouldn't touch the peas, of course, and the mushrooms shouldn't even be there. I also eschewed the inevitable 1950s glass of milk. I'm a grownup and nobody is left alive who can make me drink milk any more.

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