On one side the powerful Atlantic breakers pound the coast. On the other, just below the house here, a few remaining tourists stroll on the sheltered crescent beach of Cape Cod bay and a man, absorbed, flies a swept-wing kite.
The season is coming to an end: the houses that crowd the shore are locking up for the winter and few cars attend the innumerable hotels. Some tourists patrol the streets and boutiques of Provincetown, a pretty timbered resort built in the classic colonial style of New England. It is an orderly place, full of admonitory notices prohibiting this and that (Keep Off The Grass, Don’t Be A Litterbug, Do Treat Residents courteously). A small crowd watches a man in a shop operating a fudge-wrapping machine. A long snake of fudge is fed into jaws which cut it before it is wrapped. It is curiously soothing to observe it. Most of the spectators are eating something — ice cream, doughnuts, chilli. Americans are great grazers.
This is supremely the country of the service industry. The customer is accustomed to demand. In our New York hotel a couple of days ago we Brits were trying to catch the waiter’s eye by nods and smiles. Our American friends firmly and aggressively ping the table bell to summon him.
When you eat out in New York the service is rapid and professional. Iced water comes like magic. Your order is taken quickly. The food is beautifully presented and served even if the portions are of overwhelming size. But in New York if you can’t eat it all, the waiter removes the plate without comment. You are the customer. You are right.
In the country things revert to more familiar tendencies. In one of Provincetown’s leading fish restaurants the spirit of Basil Fawlty is alive and well. ”You want dinner?” says the waiter, apparently incredulous when our party arrives shortly after eight. Most of the tables are empty. He clearly wants to keep them that way. He and his colleagues are dressed, like naval officers, in white shirts with numerous pips. Maybe a little hint of authority has gone to his head. He evidently doubts our sanity but seats us and hands us the menu.
My stomach, curdled by jet travels and a lifetime of eating out in the service of my profession, rebels at the thought of the rich sauces in which every dish appears to come smothered. It is a sad truth that only in the very best restaurants do you find simplicity and a sympathetic respect for the ingredients. This is not one of them.
Cod and haddock are the fresh fish of the day, our waiter says. Would he do me a little haddock in a mornay sauce, I ask.
He is indignant. ”You don’t want it in walnut and honey?”
”So you want it grilled?”
”You don’t grill it if it’s in a mornay sauce — you poach it.”
Our relationship is developing symptoms of terminal decay. He is in a huff and shows
it, but coldly departs to the kitchen.
At least they have tried. The fish has been poached and it lies gray on the plate, its juices seeping out, a dod of cheese sauce lies to one side accompanied by one boiled potato. There is a pile of grated carrot topped with a few tired peas.
The fish is not too bad, a little tough in places where it is overcooked. Haddock is a delicate fish. Whereas sole benefits from a little delay, haddock must be eaten fresh and needs swift and deft cooking. I consume a little of it, together with the potato. I use the carrots to conceal my leavings and push the lot to the side of the plate. I ask for water.
”Water?” he says in amazement. ”You want water?”
Please. He brings it with much offended rattling of ice.
We settle down to make the best of things. The Pinot Grigio is drinking well. We exchange anecdotes and grow jolly. I am approaching the punchline of a favourite tale. I have the company hanging on every word (or so I imagine).
”Is everything all right here?” a voice screeches at my elbow. My story is ruined. He has his revenge.
He completes his victory as he removes my plate. He pokes around the grated carrot and discovers a large chunk of uneaten fish.
”You haven’t eaten your dinner,” he bawls. ”Was there something wrong?”
Delicious. Just off a jet. Not hungry, I mumble. I have reverted to type — the placatory and intimidated Brit in a restaurant. Don’t want to make a scene. I even give him a tip when we settle the bill.
On the British Airways direct flight from Glasgow to New York, I had overheard one of the stewards in conversation with an American woman returning from a Scottish holiday. She was complaining about the difficulty of getting enough ice in Scottish bars.
”I come from Glasgow myself,” said the steward rather pompously, ”and I am ashamed of the poor standards of service there. I sympathise.”
(He then proceeded to give me ice in my whisky, although I had specifically asked for none.)
He did his native city an injustice, I think. It is true that the service often lacks the swift professionalism that you find in New York or Paris. But most of our restaurants are friendly and welcoming; and I bet most Glasgow chefs would do me a pretty good off-the-menu haddock mornay if I asked for it.