It’s worth recalling the infamous “black dinner” from J-K Huysmanns’s Á Rebours, the so-called immoral book that the prosecution counsel insisted on reading lengthy passages from during Oscar Wilde’s trial for gross indecency. Ostensibly the cataloguing of the decadent aristo Des Esseintes’s weltschmerz, far from being particularly shocking what will probably strike the modern reader most is how funny the book is – that and how extensively Wilde stole from it for his The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Anyway, here’s the dinner thrown to celebrate “the most unmentionable of minor personal calamities”: the host’s impotence:
The dining-room was hung with black and looked out on a strangely metamorphosed garden, the walks being strewn with charcoal, the little basin in the middle of the lawn bordered with a rim of black basalt and filled with ink; and the ordinary shrubs superseded by cypresses and pines. The dinner itself was served on a black cloth, decorated with baskets of violets and scabiosae and illuminated by candelabra in which tall tapers flared.
While a concealed orchestra played funeral marches, the guests were waited on by naked negresses wearing shoes and stockings of cloth of silver besprinkled with tears.
The viands were served on black-bordered plates, – turtle soup, Russian black bread, ripe olives from Turkey, caviar, mule steaks, Frankfurt smoked sausages, game dished up in sauces coloured to resemble liquorice water and boot-blacking, truffles in jelly, chocolate-tinted creams, puddings, nectarines, fruit preserves, mulberries and cherries. The wines were drunk from darktinted glasses, – wines of the Limagne and Roussillon vintages, wines of Tenedos, the Val de Penas and Oporto. After the coffee and walnuts came other unusual beverages, kwas, porter and stout.
Personally, I had no idea a mule steak was – or is – black, but then what do I know? Standing on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica and looking at the crowns of the palms tossing against the inky dusk mounting over the Pacific, I said to Mac Guffin (aka the Happy Detective), “I’ve acquired all sorts of savage food intolerances – basically all I can eat is a bit of meat or fish, some salad leaves and potatoes for carb.” Mac chewed on his organic moustache – a genial soul from the backwoods of Minnesota, he was a staffer on the LA Times before Sam Zell took the title and ploughed it into the ground; now he works as a consulting shamus known the length of LA for his upbeat attitude to homicide. The fact that whenever he turns up people get dead never seems to faze him: “I guess it was their karma,” he’ll say, poking at a corpse with the toe of his Belvius Vintage canvas lace-ups.
To me he said, “I know just the right joint for us – it’s right up the street.” I hadn’t doubted he would. Santa Monica is the kind of place where you can throw a Vintage Belvius canvas lace-up and hit a wholesome restaurant: Planet Raw, the Kreation Kafe – they’re all here. We strolled to Tender Greens, which was just that: a long glassy frontage revealed a submissive decor of teal tables, olive chairs and hessian walls. The beige-clad clientele sat around under lamps with ecru shades and the most aggressive coloration was the turquoise light over the counter where young people, wrapped in eau-de-Nil linen dished up unbelievably healthy food.
“What do you think these guys earn?” I asked Mac as we picked up salt-and-pepper grilled chicken, Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and “a small simple salad”. “Oh, they’re on minimum wage, I guess,” he replied. So, I thought to myself, even at $8 an hour it’d still take you an hour and a half to get dinner. Still, this was blackhearted quibbling: the truth of the matter is that Tender Greens dishes up ethically sourced food relatively cheaply at eight outlets in LA and southern California. The basic format – fish, red meat, chicken, rice, bread and salad stuff – so exactly conforms to the profile of my modish intolerances that the establishment could’ve been conceived by some anti-Huysmanns in order to cater to dicky tummy.
Mac and I fatalistically forked our herbage – all around was the muted burble of environmentally friendly conversation: people drumming up support for tree-hugging jaunts, mass vasectomies, or cetacean de-strandings. It felt as if we were sitting in a biome that had been doctored to resemble a standard retail outlet. Mac dabbed his moustache with his hempen napkin while I told him about the Des Esseintes dinner. “Oh man,” he sighed, “that’s, like, unreal.” But later, strolling back to the Shangri-La Hotel where I was staying I wondered, was it actually any less veridical than Tender Greens?