Birthdays were a big deal when we were young. We got dressed up and mom and dad piled my brother, sister and I into the Impala for the ride into the city to a fancy restaurant. It was usually an old-line establishment with white linen napkins, more glasses than there were liquids and a confusing array of silverware that made me quite nervous. But that was the point. For my parents, especially my mother, it was an opportunity for a lesson in etiquette and manners.
We grew up Catholic in a small town, and we were active in our church. Our parish priests were family friends and familiar faces at our dinner table on most Sunday evenings. Priests were often stationed far from their families and birthplaces—some were French, most were Irish and all became family.
Marists priests Father Philip McArdle and Father Bill Collins and his brother Father Michael Collins, all from Ireland, were frequent guests at those birthday feasts. The good Fathers were not monks. They were proper Irishmen—irrepressibly buoyant, passionate, kind and while aware of worldly temptation, they were tolerant of human weaknesses. Good food and decent Scotch were an informal sacrament. They were smart, sophisticated and witty.
Commander’s Palace, T. Pittari’s and Maylie’s (my father was particularly fond of the turtle soup and the boiled beef brisket in the six-course table d’hote) restaurants were frequent destinations for our celebratory meals. The birthday celebrant got to pick the venue, and my choice was always Masson’s Beach House for their broiled lobster tails.
On one particular visit, the adults at the table had had a nip. My mother, a teetotaler, decided she liked the unusual glass into which the Chartreuse aperitif had been served. When the waiter departed and emboldened by a drink or three, Father Michael, quicker than you could say “Bless me Father,” decided he would casually pocket the tiny glass flute.
Like many fine dining establishments, the restaurant employed a team of wait staff and, unknown to the good padre, a wait captain was standing a few feet away, just out of sight. The captain calmly slipped along side the priest and whispered “That’ll be a dollar-fifty father.” I did not think it possible for an Irishman to be redder than his God-given color, but on that day, he turned magenta.
To recreate a restaurant experience at home, try my recipe for Citrus Chili Glazed Salmon.