A challenge

Her name was Yen; and I first noticed her over clams on the half-shell.

I was dining alone in an old and gracious American hotel, on the last night of some private business. I had come, as I often do, book in hand, preparing to spend a leisurely hour; and the East Indian head waiter, reading my intention with practiced eye, led me to a quiet corner with its own lamp. But so richly detailed was the thirty-foot ceiling, and so elegant the gilded chandeliers, that my book lay unopened. This, I said to myself, was to be no mere meal; this would be an experience.

There are those who insist that moments of shattering insight come by mere chance. I disagree. I think they come when the mind is prepared to receive them. And so it proved to be that evening. I watched the silver-haired businessman nearby reading his magazine by candlelight, and the well-dressed parents who had just picked up their daughter from her boarding school, and the slightly overeager conversation of the happily self-conscious couple on a date. Between the chairs the black-uniformed waitresses moved with that unhurried efficiency so characteristic of Southern hospitality. And over it all, spilling through the railing of a balcony in one corner, floated the music of a harp.

The menu was in French, and spoke of caille and homard and quartier de chevreuil.

''What if,'' I quizzed the waitress when she returned, ''one were to order in French? Do you speak French?''

''No,'' she admitted with a smile, ''but we're taught to pick out the key words.'' I liked her: she was bright without being merely effervescent. Her name was Ann.

It was Ann's duty, apparently, to serve the main dishes. To Yen fell the task of clearing, of refilling the water goblet and bringing the rolls. It was the latter task, in fact, that brought her to table midway through the clams: a short Indochinese girl, her face impassive as she reached to set the tray of rolls among the china and carnations. And as she did so, something wholly simple and very strange happened. In that instant, she shot a look which, lasting but a fraction of a second, spoke volumes. She did not even look at me. All she did was glance at the plate of clams - a great bowl, really, on which a half-dozen small shells nestled in crushed ice.

Ordinarily, I suppose, such a look would pass unnoticed. Perhaps it should have: perhaps I was investing the entire evening with a significance it did not warrant. Yet it was a look of such indeterminate meaning, sent so many thousands of miles and years across the gulf between our cultures, that it froze itself onto my consciousness. To say that it conveyed an outright condemnation or even a formulated criticism would be far too strong. No, I thought after she left, she was merely checking to see whether to clear my place. Surely that was all. Surely I was only imagining that beyond those eyes lay a judgment at once too vague to articulate and too potent for words - a quiet reproach from the hungry races for those who spend their time in repast. Surely, I reasoned, it was nothing but heady symbolism to see in her a representative of all the earth's famines, the personified anguish of the boat-people of the world. Nor was I, who frequented restaurants of this sort but rarely, the representative of all the world's plenty.

But as salad gave way to entree, I found myself brooding over my very existence. Was I, then, a mere glutton? Surely not: the meal was, in fact, reasonable in scope. Was I, however, indulging an addiction to the opulent? Little had been spared, I had to confess, in the preparation of these surroundings. Then was I, like Daisy in Fitzgerald's novel, slowly enmeshing myself in the world of The Great Gatsby? Or was I, like Nick the narrator, seeing it all wide-eyed from a distance, eventually to retreat to the moral order of some private Midwest?

Yet even those questions, I discovered over a croissant, presupposed their own premise: that the world of the Green Room (as this grand salon was called) was, like that of Jay Gatsby's Long Island, shot through with its own inherent evil. And at that I rebelled - albeit quietly, and after first laying down my knife. At issue was an old dilemma I had never resolved. Could I claim that cooking was an art? Was its elegance something to be labored over, as the painter labors at his canvas? Or was it a merely useful task, something to be dispatched with a minimum of thought?

And over the dessert, haunted by Yen's inscrutable look, I saw that the larger problem centered upon the equity of affluence. On the one hand, her view - if indeed it was her view - had merit. In an age which has yet to erase poverty and famine, is there not a stark contradiction in the spectacle of a compassionate humanist eating in the Green Room? Is there no way to take that which is so richly served to so few and share it broadly with a wider world?

And yet, and yet: is there not an acme of human endeavor to be reached in all things? Should we, for want of more water pumps on the Indian subcontinent, put no more paintings on museum walls? Must everything be reduced to a grim and level mediocrity? Are we to tear down all the Green Rooms and replace them with soup kitchens? Or are we to allow excellence to flourish wherever it will - even among chefs and maitres d'hotel?

I have no answers. I only know that the next day at breakfast I greeted her with, ''Good morning, Yen.'' She did not know I knew her name; and her face broke into a quick and puzzled smile. And in that moment, the equity of affluence dawned on me. I saw that I had the means - even if only by my modest tip - to help her escape forever, as she probably already had, from the spectacle of an empty rice bowl. And I saw something much greater: that she had the means to help me escape from the complacency of unexamined consumption, to help me take thought.

Dear Reader, you too are a thinker. You too partake of meals; you too know the state of the world. And you too, I suspect, have seen both the vanity of the merely luxurious and the greatness of the truly fine. You know the middle ground of conscience that neither forswears elegance nor wallows in mindless gourmandizing. You know as well as I that what lifts the spirit is not the stuff on the plate but the habit of the mind.

So, too, you must know that a filling of the rice bowls - essential as that is - is only part of humanity's progress. The next great step belongs to Yen: to help the newly filled comprehend the act of eating - and every other human activity - so that they, lifting it from mere necessity into gentle grace, find and demand in all things the natural artistry of the mind.

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