Uncle Al was lucky enough recently to be able to spend a week in Paris. Young proto-Uncle Al had worked there (on what was then the International Herald Tribune) for most of 1978, and an older but not-even-as-wise Uncle Al has returned a few times since, in part to retrace his many happy visits to pastry shops, and possibly in part to confirm that Paris isn’t where he left any of his funnels.
There are two anecdotes from the 1978 interlude that he inflicts on others with annoying frequency. Both center on the sandwich made with very ripe camembert on half a baguette.
When his kids and his niece visited him in Paris for a month in that long-ago year, that sandwich was their frequent lunch choice as they all wandered around the city before Uncle Al went to work on the newspaper’s night copy desk. The camembert sandwich was an easy choice, both because it was available on the terrace of virtually any of the many, many sidewalk cafes they would stroll past, and because everybody liked it.
His son David, then four, once asked if there was any of “that cheese” in the apartment. What cheese? “That cheese that smells like a diaper pail.” Budding food critic.
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The other story is a little longer, and among those with whom he has shared it are readers of his rantings in the Star Tribune in September 1986. He offers it again today, free of additional charge, because he’s pretty sure that there exist, among those who inexplicably find themselves reading this, several folks who weren’t reading his efforts in 1986. And, as for those who were so afflicted 30 years ago, Uncle Al shares one of his many life-lessons from the world of Vaudeville: “If they liked it once, they’ll love it twice.”
Besides, if you can’t steal from yourself, who can you steal from?
To fend off copyright attorneys (in case the answer to that question is “It is illegal to steal from yourself”), Uncle Al is retelling this fabulous tale in brand-new language, or as legal scholars would have it, ab ovo (which Uncle Al helpfully translates as “away from the omelet”).
So. Return with us now to the thrilling days of 1978, young Uncle Al in Paris, chestnuts in blossom, and everywhere the ripe-camembert sandwich. Uncle Al liked that sandwich so much that, for his dinner break most of the nights that he was at work, he would get one to go at the bar/cafe on the corner near the newspaper office and eat it while writing letters (this was before e-mail) to the woman who was to become his second ex-wife.
The barman would call the order to a cook in the tiny kitchen, who was easily seen from where Uncle Al stood at the bar nursing an espresso. The guy would take half a baguette, slice it open, slather the insides with butter and look around for the cheese. (Dinner time probably wasn’t when lots of people ordered a sandwich.) Once he had the sandwich assembled, he would take a long, slim waxed-paper bag from a nearby stack and — rather than whip it through the air as we might do to open it up for the sandwich — he inflated it by blowing into it.
The first time Uncle Al saw that last part of the deal, he was a little taken aback. But the guy did it every time, and as Uncle Al got used to things like the unrefrigerated meat at the open-air markets, and the basket of sliced bread on restaurant tables that wasn’t changed as the day’s parade of diners pawed through it, he got used to that too. (Americans, he was told once, are “obsessed with microbes.”)
One evening, however, there was a little hiccup in the sandwich process: The cook had finished making the sandwich, but when he reached for the slim bag, apparently there were none left. Uncle Al could see him looking around, and in a few seconds he came up with a loose crumpled bag about the size of the paper bag at an American supermarket. Way bigger than necessary, and Uncle Al thought briefly about trying to say that he didn’t really need a bag, but there didn’t seem much point in trying to stop him.
What Uncle Al failed to anticipate, cross-culturally open though he was trying to be, was the next step: Before the cook put the sandwich into the large, fully open bag, he stuck his head into it and blew.
Vive La France! And A Votre Santé! (To Your Health!)