My grocery store has begun stocking soups by master chef and restaurateur Wolfgang Puck. Since my youngest just graduated from puréed baby food, when her taste becomes finicky I open a can of his chicken and egg noodle soup and am assured of a winner. The label's picture of a smiling Puck invariably takes me back.
In 1988, I moved reluctantly from Michigan to Los Angeles. My husband of four years had taken a job in a lab there. I wept to leave my home state, but off we went to one of the biggest cities in the United States.
When we pulled into L.A., I was agog. Smog, palm trees, lanes and lanes of traffic, and joggers looking like comic-book superheroes in their Lycra running outfits. It was another world from the farm where I'd grown up and the college towns where I'd spent the subsequent years. I kept murmuring, "Swimmin' pools ... Mooo-vie stars..." like the rube balladeer in TV's "The Beverly Hillbillies."
A series of things went wrong immediately: two huge parking tickets, our car getting bumped, and wretched heel blisters while apartment hunting. And everything was so expensive, a slap in the face after all the scrimping we'd done as students. Furthermore, L.A. seemed to be all about looks.
Even my husband's new co-workers were glamorous. They talked cool, looked cool, and had expensive hair. (My husband cut mine.) They were like no other scientists I'd met, but they were friendly. When one got a different job soon after we arrived, the group invited us to the farewell party.
Noelle informed me that they were going to take the honoree to Chinois, Wolfgang Puck and Barbara Lazaroff's new restaurant in Santa Monica. "I hear it's great," she said. "Sort of East meets West cuisine."
OK, fine, but where was Santa Monica, who was Wolfgang Puck, and what was she saying?
"Chin wah?" I said. "How do you spell that?"
"C-H-I-N-O-I-S. It's French for 'Chinese.' "
Oh. Of course.
Though glad to be included, I was dubious about the outing. I was in the habit of eating food, not cuisine. My skepticism took on alarm when my husband told me we should dress up and take $100. One hundred dollars! The most expensive restaurant meal I'd ever had was $8.
But he insisted it was the thing to do. He put on the suit he'd worn just once before, to our wedding. I ironed and put on my newest dress, a short-sleeved cotton number with a very full, calf-length skirt. It was white with black splashes and a wide black belt.
Once ready, I studied the inch-thick map book of L.A. It's right in downtown Santa Monica, Noelle had said. How could one tell "downtown" when it was all town? To me, towns were supposed to be distinct, with square miles of cornfields between them. But here there were no cornfields, no labeled water towers to give a clue.
We made it to the restaurant on time. The co-workers arrived late, but looking like stars. Renée had on a black velvet miniskirt with rhinestone buttons.
"It's my mom's," she giggled.
"What?" she said.
"Oh, nothing. My mom doesn't have anything like that in her wardrobe. That's all."
She looked smashing, but so did Noelle with her voluminous tangled curls and Wes who, of all things, had spiked his straight black hair with mousse.
In the restaurant, I was overwhelmed. The décor was unlikely bright sculpted curves, as though designed by a giant with an X-Acto knife. It was hard to see the room, so thick were the diners. Every woman was wearing clinging black. Black rayon, black linen, black silk. Oh, that the black splotches on my cotton dress would merge and blend!
The menu prices dumbfounded me, warned though I'd been. I declared myself not very hungry and chose the cheapest thing on the menu.
I remember snickering with my husband to find dandelion greens in our salad ("Back home, we call these weeds") and eating salmon eggs just like the ones Uncle John used as bait for steelhead. The food was undoubtedly good, but mostly I thought, "Another $2," with every bite. It was noisy and crowded, and I couldn't help thinking how Beverly Hillbillyish I looked.
As we stood to leave, a polite, smiling man in a white tunic greeted me and asked how I'd liked the meal. I thought him a rather forward busboy but said, "It was good. Thank you," before following my group.
On the sidewalk outside, Noelle turned to me, bursting. "Wolfgang Puck spoke to you!"
"Wolfgang Puck! It's his restaurant!"
The others gathered around and wanted to know what he'd said, what I'd said. My new friends were in ecstasies at my brush with fame, though it had been lost on me.
After that evening though, L.A. became a little more fun. My husband and I went to museums and parks and on hikes. We also saw many celebrities - great fodder for letters home. In our two years there, I never became more glamorous nor reconciled to the prices. But now when I open the pantry, hungry baby on my hip, and see Wolfgang Puck smiling from the shelf, I smile back, remembering his civility.
And at this stage of my life, I don't mind paying a bit extra for his chicken soup.