Pressed Duck, Racism and Family Traditions
Growing up in London, I pretty much don’t recall a single event of racism against me. I appreciate that I’m likely not a typically Londoner. Except, I was born in London, went to school in London, now live in walking distance from where my primary school is in London, work within walking distance of my secondary school and live walking distance from where my parents ran a travel agency for many years, near Portobello Road. I’ve lived almost my whole life in London apart from university. In that sense, I am very London.
The only racist incident I recall was when I was about 8 years old in summer camp (in London). The racist taunt skimmed me by. I was unbothered. The other boy was a sore loser at something and it was all he had left. However, the group of children around us rallied towards me and gave this other boy such a hard time and ostracized him to such a large extent that I felt I had to step in later and tell them I forgave him and we shouldn’t ruin his life. Unwittingly, I think my star burned even brighter for that, even though I think my impulse came through embarrassment.
Partly because of my childhood and where I’m from, I sit sometimes in quiet horror about what we are doing to each other in some of these cultural identity wars. Still I see identity continuing to be an even more fraught battle ground in the coming years (cf. Philosopher, Appiah)
One incident I do recall was in Paris, when I was 17. I didn’t even think of it as racist ts the time, but more of being an outsider, not let in (until I broke door). However, my father (who had experienced more racism in the 1960s and 1970s) noted it as racism.
The story has roots from a very long time ago.
When my father was 18 and had been accepted into Cambridge University, my grandfather took him to one of his favorite restaurants in Paris. My father had not been to Paris. They dined at the Tour d’Argent. My father would for many years after talk about the pressed duck he ate there.
When I was 17, I was accepted into Cambridge University. I had been on scholarships most of my life. We ate out but rarely at the starry restaurants that the rich can take for granted.
My father thought we should mark this occasion by echoing history and en famille we travelled to Paris to eat at the Tour d’Argent.
There are highlights I remember. Everyone was French. We were the only non-French. The menu didn’t have any prices on it. Only my father’s menu had prices. I remember the shock of seeing the prices.
The pressed duck - in deed – was amazing or, at least, my recall of it was it was amazing.
The service was precise, but cold. And here I should have picked up why the service was so cold to us. With hind sight I think, it was because the waiter could not place us as belonging to this place of old and rich French.
My father asked for a copy of the menu. The waiter denied the request. My father somewhat fumed at this. I’m not sure I made too much of it, but I thought it would have been a pleasant souvenir to have.
The owner of the Tour D’Argent, Claude Terrail, regularly are at his own restaurant. He would meet and greet his clientele.
When we were eating, he made his way to our table. He proffered a polite greeting in French and asked us about our experience.
Up to this point, we had been conversing in English. Quite a proper queen’s type of English.
When he asked his question, I turned to him and immediately blathered on in French.
The in the English school boy French accent, which one French girl had called unbearable cute years ago.
However, accent aside, my French at the time was pretty OK.
I, then proceeded to tell him the story of why we were here, of the time my grandfather took my father to eat here, and how lovely the duck was. My grandfather’s story included ships (as that was how travel often was then) and a meeting with Andre Terrail (as Claude’s father) and how astonishing a neat symmetry that all was. Only quell dommage, what a pity I couldn’t have a menu.
And as if by magic, not long after a menu all tied up with a lovely ribbon appeared.
Given to us by the waiter who seemed a different person.
Of course, it helped that Claude seemed quite overwhelmed by our story and launched into a story himself about Andre, which I’m unsure I fully comprehended at the time and it was all amazingly jolly.
I hardly let myself be too perturbed. I practice the art of falling upwards. I recall the experience as a great one.
My father was very pleased that the snooty waiter had arrived at a mild comeuppance. He was overly proud of his son being able to tell a story in French.
But I had broken down a door and that was worth something to my father, who had experienced racism.
I didn’t view it as such at the time. But now I wonder if it was. Or was it a case of being star shaped in a square hole.
Some notes and a video about a trip to Tour d’Argent:
According to wiki: “Duck, especially the pressed duck, is the specialty (Canard à la presse, Caneton à la presse, Caneton Tour d'Argent). The restaurant raises its ducks on its own farm. Diners who order the duck receive a postcard with the bird's serial number, now well over 1 million. (Serial number #112,151 went to U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, #203,728 went to Marlene Dietrich, and #253,652 went to Charlie Chaplin).
The restaurant's wine cellar, guarded around the clock, contains more than 450,000 bottles whose value was estimated in 2009 at 25 million euros (£22.5 million). Some 15,000 wines are offered to diners on a four-hundred page list. The dining room has an excellent view of the river Seine and Notre Dame.”