from “Comfort”

A two-star colleague had helped me import a rye from a small French village with the rather apt name of Pont-Saint-Esprit. Because opium had been banned under the Opium Act in 1928 and no other hard drugs were available from the wholesalers, enthusiasts are forced to find devious ways of getting hold of their stimulants. In previous centuries practically everybody got a regular and considerable dose of mind expansion because practically everybody ate rye bread. Sometimes, rye hosts a small, parasitic fungus—ergot—which contains the tiniest amount of the active ingredient in LSD. Removing the fungus from the rye before milling was laborious, expensive and virtually impossible—and why should they? So the stuff just ended up in the flour. OK, so it might have created a few complications, like mass psychosis and other effects of frequent drug abuse—biohistorians can pinpoint ergot infestations based on an increase in witch burning—but when, halfway through the last century, a couple of people died from a rye overdose, the French government started the most fanatical campaign since the invention of DDT to wipe out ergot. The fungus is now as good as extinct in the whole of France. The whole of France? No, there is still the odd farmer growing rye semi-legally, rye on which ergot enjoys its parasitic life just like the good old days. Last year I managed to get my hands on a bale from one of these farmers, and ground it into flour. I made bread and biscuits from it, and I also used it to thicken fillings and sauces. As one of the final courses to my Christmas dinner I served an old-fashioned Christmas rye loaf, accompanied by a vanilla sauce thickened with rye flour.

Drum roll. Christmas rushing toward its apotheosis. I've cooked a lot of Christmas dinners in my time but I don't think I'll ever experience another Christmas like the last one. For purely monetary reasons, the restaurants of many of my lesser competitors have two seatings at Christmas, but I won't hear of it. I don't want my guests feeling they have to wrap it up by 8:30 pm. It was 8:15 pm and we were up and running. The restaurant was completely booked; some of the guests had already arrived and were seated. Everything was ready in my kitchen, everything: the champagne was on ice, the candles were lit, the shelves were stocked; everything was under control, everything—and that's a collective achievement incomprehensible to the layman. The stress in the crisis center beneath the Ministry of Home Affairs as the authorities, corps commanders, military men and psychologists negotiate with tense terrorists who have kidnapped Queen Beatrix and are about to let off an atom bomb in the center of Amsterdam, would be nothing compared to the stress in a kitchen working flat out.

Although most days I remain at my stove, that Christmas I felt it was important to welcome my guests personally, after which my French maître d', Henri, proffered glasses of champagne with a splash of fresh pear juice and led them to their table or their fireside seats. I could leave the kitchen with a fairly easy conscience: Bruna was in charge of the trenches and the platoon was about to give the enemy a thorough whipping.

And then.

One of our regular guests, a distinguished middle-aged widow, came in with her three student sons. The four of them had a chilly air.

"Do you realize we were harassed by demonstrators outside," said the woman. "I just thought you might like to know, because they are behaving rather unpleasantly."

"Scum," said one of the boys.

"Crunchies," said another.

I don't think what she'd said really dawned on me right away; either that or I didn't take it seriously, so I asked Henri to take a quick look outside while I personally showed the woman and her sons to their table.

Back at the front door, I found my maître d' in a state of considerable agitation. Henri explained that the animal rights group Animal Friends' Action was picketing the front of my restaurant because we were serving foie gras d'oie. He was incredulous: what on earth could be wrong with goose liver?

"Zey want us to take ze deeshes wiz leever in zem off ze menu,' he said, astounded. "It 'as to be a joke …"

"Good gracious," I said, going over to the window to have a look at the demonstrators.

There were, indeed, about thirty colorfully-dressed, blue-jeaned do-gooders carrying signs and banners. In among them, I spotted a few dazed regulars in a Watership Down moment, frozen like rabbits in the headlights. My customers were being overwhelmed by the activists, who were chanting "Animal holocaust! Animal holocaust!" Not exactly the best start to an unforgettable dinner. Henri stood staring, openmouthed. He was already deeply unimpressed by the rude behavior of the Dutch, but to disrupt a Christmas dinner because of … foie gras, well, that was quite beyond him. Accompanied by one of the waiters, he stormed out to rescue our diners. They were greeted by jeers. I spotted some more guests arriving from the parking lot.

Despite the freezing cold, the campaigners were handing out flyers and some were displaying placards saying, FOIE GRAS IS TERMINALLY ILL LIVER. Others were holding up posters showing blow-ups of force-fed geese.

"It is not credible," Henri said to me, taking the coats of the guests he had rescued from the claws of Animal Friends' Action. "Even ze television is 'ere!"

I put a tray of champagne flutes on the bar (a few shocked guests downed the welcome aperitifs in one gulp) and glanced out the window again. I could see a couple of newspaper reporters and two TV crews. All in all, it wasn't such a cozy Christmas ambiance. Bruna ran up with a few choice Italian expletives.

"There are people running around outside the restaurant," she said angrily. "They're shouting things at the chefs. What's going on? The chefs are losing their concentration."

"Not good," said Henri, who suggested phoning the police. That, however, seemed to me to be playing into the activists' hands. I quickly brought Bruna up to speed and begged her to keep the chefs under control. We couldn't let it turn into a massive brawl, so I decided to go outside myself and talk to our besiegers. After all, it was Christmas; they must want peace on earth, too; surely Jesus hadn't been born for nothing?

As soon as I set foot outside the door, there was a chorus of boos. It was so cold that a cloud of disapproving condensation rose from the shouting mouths.

"Comfort, murderer! Comfort, murderer!" shouted some of the demonstrators.

"Gentlemen!" I cried, immediately branding myself as a reactionary male chauvinist pig, as more than half the shouters were women with crew cuts, who quite honestly didn't look as if they enjoyed good food.

"Hey, Comfort!" shouted someone in a voice full of hatred. I turned round; the voice came from a green-jacketed man whose humorless environmental-activist face was distorted in disgust. A moldy gherkin. Mature cheese melted into cadaverine. I noticed the camera crew spring into action. The news team was standing no more than a meter away and the cameraman from SBS6 had fetched himself a chair from the terrace for a nice overhead shot.

"We demand you take the goose and duck liver dishes off the menu! The production of foie gras is banned in the Netherlands. We're campaigning against restaurants still illegally serving this torture product of animal violation," said the environmental activist. "And if you won't comply with our demands," he added threateningly, "we'll stay here all night, shouting and disturbing your nice cozy Christmas dinner."

He pronounced the words "nice cozy Christmas dinner" with disgust.

"You demand?" I replied, genuinely trying to remain as polite and friendly as possible. "Now, demand doesn't seem quite the right word. Importing foie gras is not prohibited by law, you know; we live in a free country. I see no reason to take anything off the menu simply because you demand it, and certainly not this evening. Traditionally, Christmas is the time when goose liver is eaten."

Some of the demonstrators immediately resumed their chant of "murderer, murderer." Well, what can you do in a situation like that? I attempted to remain reasonable and to start up a conversation, explaining that my foies gras were raised in heated sheds and listened to Schubert before ending up in my polonaise of entrées, but they were evidently not interested in listening. I retreated back into the restaurant under a barrage of catcalls.

***

Half an hour after the demonstration had begun, all the guests were inside. My clientele had saved up for an epicurean extravaganza and, above all, my clientele was hungry. In the meantime, Bruna had started handing out the amuses: three edible gold and silver Christmas baubles filled with juniper berry jelly, asparagus mousse and lobster fondant; and a shotglass of cauliflower liniment. What could be simpler—and, aesthetically, more unappetizing—than a dollop of pureed cauliflower in a glass? Still, apparently 10cc of fortified substance can bring smiles to a few faces.

After the amuse bouche Bruna sent out the first course, despite the racket from the demonstrators, who were now banging on the windows. Henri still thought we ought to call the police but I hoped the cold would get too much for the campaigners—in vain, they carried on gaily demonstrating. Many of my guests declared solidarity with us; someone suggested charging them; all three of the widow's student sons wanted to launch an attack and make short work of the crunchies; but most of the guests stayed calm. No one at all refused the foie gras dishes; on the contrary, there was even an increased demand for them.

"I hope those geese have been well and truly holocausted," said one gentlemen, to which his shocked wife countered that he was only joking.

We dubbed it "the Siege of Comfort," which gave a real Christmassy feeling of solidarity. I climbed onto a chair in the middle of my restaurant to explain things and apologize for the inconvenience.

"There's a nice story about Charles Dickens—you know, the man who wrote that wonderfully moralistic book A Christmas Carol," I concluded. "As the story goes, on Christmas Eve, he hired a couple of tramps to stand under the window of his dining room, shouting 'We're hungry! We're hungry!', so that Dickens could enjoy the copious meal even more. Well, we didn't hire any tramps this evening; they came for free."

Top-level consultations went on in the kitchen. Henri wanted to form an assault group of chefs and waiters to throw the demonstrators off the premises. Now that might be extremely good publicity for a restaurant in France, but not in the Netherlands. I was still hoping the campaigners would go away by themselves, like an irritating spot on your chin. Henri went off to the dining room shaking his head.

And then Bruna had a brilliant idea.

"Testicolo!" she cried, with a look of divine inspiration. "Chef! Remember I was experimenting with making that 'special rye bread'?"

She was referring to our old-fashioned Christmas rye loaf, with a vanilla sauce thickened with rye flour.

"Yes?" I replied hesitantly.

"Well, the first time I put too much of the flour in it," she said, "so, even though it still looks like rye bread, we can't serve it to the customers."

"Er, yes?" I said, even more hesitantly.

"Well, the thing is, I didn't throw away the first loaves . . . I was thinking . . . well . . . maybe for our own consumption, or something."

We looked at each other for a moment.

"Go and get them!" I cried. Bruna ran off and I cleared an oven to warm up the bread. Anyway, to make a long Christmas story short, fifteen minutes later Bruna and I walked out with a couple of big platters. We had spread the steaming Christmas bread with butter and, I must say, it would have been a hard rabble-rouser indeed whose mouth failed to water at the sight of it.

Once again, we were greeted with booing. At first, our gesture only angered the demonstrators.

"We're not going to be bribed!" shouted the guy with the fanatical gherkin face, but we could see the rest of them looking at our platters and licking their lips.

"This Christmas rye bread is entirely organic and untreated! It's a small gesture on our part because it's Christmas for you, too," I announced, into the eyes of the cameras. "The rye comes from a small, independent farmer in France and the butter from a small farmer here in the area."

The words "organic" and "untreated" had the intended soothing effect. After a brief consultation of their politburo, the demonstrators decided to accept the hand we were extending and tuck into the bread. Bruna and I made sure they all got a piece and returned from the freezing cold.

To round off the story with a happy ending: it was amazing how quickly the ergot had an effect on the behavior of these socially-committed young people. Within a few minutes their war cries were stilled. Along with our guests we looked on in astonishment as, instead of keeping us from our meals, the demonstrators suddenly began running around, turning somersaults, imitating airplanes, and making funny faces. Justifiably, in the words of Nietzsche, it was "an ecstatic fury of joyfulness and dismay, a meaningless chaos." We were witnessing perhaps the greatest communal LSD trip our country has ever known. Later that evening, the footage was shown on the news and I can't imagine it did much for the cause of Animal Friends' Action.

From Troost (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Podium, 2005). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2008 by Michele Hutchison. All rights reserved.