After a short session of photographing black truffles, sprucing them up to look their very best (you can’t imaging how challenging it is to make a shaving look intoxicatingly appetizing), we were invited by the owner to sit down and have lunch. Trying to look as elegant as possible while dragging a suitcase and light box, I followed him through the gilded dining room to a table set for two. A composed man, he had that wonderful quality of appearing dignified and regal while at the same time making us feel absolutely at home.
We settled in at the table as he offered to choose a bottle of wine for us. After sufficient swirling, swishing and appreciative hums of pleasure, the owner suggested that we begin with the specialty, Risotto with Truffles. We agreed whole-heartedly. Being a vegetarian in France presents somewhat of a challenge, since most dishes are either meat based or at least include ingredients from the carnivorous side of things. I always feel a bit awkward, as a guest, maneuvering the meat issue. It is not that I am opposed to meat on principle, it’s that I truly dislike it. Under duress I can stomach it if it is well disguised, in a lasagna, for example or a bolognaise sauce. I was recently a guest at someone’s house and even managed to swallow a few forkfuls of grilled steak. That was a challenge. I’ve traveled all over the world, and facing the Meat Question has never been as much of a challenge as in France. I was relieved and looking forward to the specialty of Risotto with Truffles.
Which is why I was quite surprised when the owner proudly placed two plates of, what appeared to be, raw meat, in front of us. Steak Tartare with Shaved Truffles, He was beaming with pride. I managed a smile, wondering what in the world I would possibly do with this pile of raw meat. My “eat around it” method would be of no use here. No vegetables, no garnishes, not even a lone sprig of parsley. I looked over at Clay who had a panic stricken look on his face. “Just don’t eat it,” I suggested.” They will understand”.
His face contorted in anguish, “I can’t NOT eat it! I just photographed them! What will they think? I’m going to come back here to do more photos. I can’t just LEAVE this here!”
He grabbed a dinner roll and started stuffing the meat into the center. I looked on in disbelief as he then placed the roll inside one of his camera lens cases. “What are you doing?!” I cried.
As soon as Clay left the table, the owner reappeared, ready to check on us and clear our plates. His face fell as he looked at my untouched pile of meat. “I don’t eat meat,” I apologized quickly, “I’m sorry…”
“No, it is I who am sorry,” he immediately interjected. “I apologize greatly. It is the specialty of the region!” then he asked incredulously, “You don’t eat ANY meat?” He looked at me as if I had just told him that I subsist solely on carrot sticks. He cleared the plates, shaking his head in commiseration for the poor misguided American.
Clay returned, empty lens case in hand, “I tried to throw it away but there is no wastebasket. Just a basket for soiled linen napkins so I stuffed it at the bottom of the pile. I had to wait for someone to leave and keep a watch out for anyone coming,” I was feeling more like a secret agent by the minute.
Noticing that the plates had been cleared, “So what did you say?”
“I told him we were vegetarian.”
“You told him WHAT?” Clay nearly ricocheted out of his seat. “If someone finds what I hid in the linen basket they will know its me!”
He grabbed his lens case and jumped up “I’m going back to get it!”
I sat and watched the two large family groups enjoying their Sunday dinner. I wondered if anyone noticed the American photographer making numerous trips to the Restroom and if that would create any questions of food quality. Five minutes later Clay returned, full lens case in hand.
He leaned in conspiratorially, “I got it. There was someone in there so I had to be sneaky, but I slipped in when they weren’t’ looking and retrieved it.” He pointed to the lens case, “It’s in here” He stuffed the case inside the camera bag.
“OK, Columbo, what are you going to do now?”
“I think I’m just going to have to take it with me. I can’t leave it here.”
I wondered whether the restaurant would notice the missing napkin and what they would think had happened to it. Clearly Clay was not concerned about being connected with the Mystery of The Missing Napkin, only with the Raw Meat.
We sat back and sipped the remains of our wine, able to relax now that the Mystery of the Raw Meat was bound to remain our secret. I glanced around the room, taking in the large French doors, the gilded frames and lovely old paintings. An air of well being settled upon the room as guests finished their cafes and settled into their chairs, relaxing at the end of Sunday lunch.
Just as we were languidly sipping our last bits of café, I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a large furry creature moving about the room. I know this is common practice in France, but here? No, it couldn’t be.
The owner’s golden retriever was making his way around the room with the air of a well to do proprietor who has benevolently allowed the public to enjoy his estate. I watched as the dog sauntered from table to table, sniffing, nodding, and receiving a patting here and there. I looked across at Clay’s shocked expression and we both glanced down at the camera bag. Oh please, do not come over here I silently prayed as the dog sauntered in our direction.
“Yep, I think it’s time to go.” In a minute we were out the door and had the car trunk open, quickly shoving the camera bag in it and locking it.
We drove directly to the airport to make our flight. As we boarded the plane I asked Clay where he had finally thrown away the Uneaten Meat.
He looked at me in surprise, “Uh oh”.
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