We took my mother out for dinner for her birthday. She protested but to no avail. She doesn't like ceremony when it comes to herself. We were a group of twelve in for an early dinner, early because two babies were in the party.
Mum doesn't 'get' restaurants. We sat down at the table and Mum pulls out a package from her bag and it's a plastic container of fresh strawberries and she starts handing around the container of strawberries, saying Have a strawberry, they're nice, Gerard sent them with a bunch of flowers from Interflora. Gerard is my brother in Alice Springs.
Ah, Mum? We are in a restaurant. See that man over there by the bar? If you ask him nicely, he will bring you some food. YOU DON'T HAVE TO BRING YOUR OWN!
Yeah, yeah, she says. She knows all about that, she says. Have a strawberry, she says. They won't mind. Of course they didn't mind. It's professional complainers they mind, not eccentric, smiling septuagenarians handing out strawberries as if they owned the place.
Mum ordered the vegetable risotto which was perfectly cooked and pink with a tinge of tomato sauce and dotted with colourful vegetables, a whisper of parmigiano shavings and fairy dust sprinkling of pepper. Of course, it was way too big. Mum eats like a bird, so she's pressing half the serving on everyone else. Come on, you can eat some, she says, those shanks won't fill you.
Won't fill you? The veal shanks were huge. They looked like they came off an elephant. Two lay on a wedge of mash about a foot high. The mash was creamy and swirled with an infusion of the gravy so you didn't know where the gravy ended and the mash started. I love it like that. The shanks were perfect. The meat fell away from the bone so you didn't have to wrestle and gnaw. You can do that at home but not out. The meat had the taste and aroma of the ingredients in which it was cooked; tomato, red pepper, garlic, rosemary, pepper, lemon, a touch of something else, maybe olive tapenade. It is quintessentially good cooking when one thing tastes of many other things. It's a kind of primeval pleasure, like cavemen cooking a woolly mammoth over sprigs of aromatic branches to make them forget that they were eating woolly mammoth. That's why people become vegetarian, because the primeval sleight-of-hand taste thing doesn't work for them and they still know they're eating the leg off a cow.
Meanwhile, the pizza chef was hauling massive pizzas out of the wood-fired oven on the big paddle thing and deftly flipping them onto plates. They were brought steaming to the table, thick-crusted and topped with fetta and anchovies and hot salami and roasted red pepper and fresh herbs and ricotta and smoked bacon and smoked salmon and roasted garlic and jalapenos. Not all at once. T. had a calzone, a huge folded over and enclosed thing that looked like a giant cornish pastie and she didn't leave me any like she usually does so it must have been good.
It was noisy and Amali stayed awake, jiggling on everyone's knee in turn but William fell asleep in his pram and didn't wake up even when we sang Happy Birthday. You walk down the hallway at home and a floorboard creaks and he's awake in a second yet he'll sleep through 93 decibels of restaurant noise.
Then we were finished and no sooner had the waiters cleared away the plates, Mum reaches down and drags another package out of somewhere. It was a large box of chocolates and she starts passing the chocolates around. Come on, have a chocolate! she says. She doesn't get restaurants. With asterisks around the 'get'.
The waiter still didn't mind. So I gave him an extra large tip.
Mum enjoyed her birthday. Of course, she prefers to entertain at home because she can force food on you as soon as you walk in the door. Now she's figured out how to do it in restaurants as well.