Thursday, August 21, 2014

    Some years ago, in a small Midwestern city, a man (we’ll call him Hansen), owned a successful lumberyard.  Hansen was ordinary in almost every respect  --  or he was until while on a business trip to Chicago an affluent wholesaler of building supplies introduced him to fine dining.  The meal astonished Hansen.  He had no idea that food, which he had previously thought of as little more than fodder, could look so beautiful or taste so different, so grand.  Captivated, the following evening he returned to the restaurant on his own.  And the next night, as well. 

    Before long, Hansen was finding reason to visit Chicago on a fairly regular basis, trips that persisted until he’d sampled all the best dishes in all the best restaurants in town.  Then he drove to Minneapolis a few times and did the same thing there.  After that, he worked his way through every premium menu in St. Louis, Kansas City, and Detroit, although as his palate become gradually more sophisticated, the haute cuisine of the Midwest was no longer haute enough for his taste, and pickings became increasingly slim.  Moreover, these gourmet forays were expensive and he’d been neglecting his business. 

    Still, Hansen was a man obsessed.  He read gourmet magazines cover to cover, watched Julia Child on TV religiously, and when he learned of some especially great item at some reputedly great restaurant in Los Angeles or New York, why he just had to fly there and try it.  Fed up with his three-star appetite and his dead-star finances, his wife flew the coop.  He mourned for two weeks.  Then, mortgaging the lumberyard and his house, he turned his attention to Europe.

    At last, after numerous pilgrimages to France, Italy, Switzerland, and Spain, Hansen found himself living alone in a scruffy little mouse-chawed motel, boiling ramen noodles on a single-burner hot plate.  Ah, but he was content in the belief that he had tasted, at least once, every signature dish of every celebrated chef in the world.  There were no fabulous menus left to conquer, no legendary delicacy that had not rung at least once his gastronomic bell.

    Then he heard about Tibetan peach pie. 

    The reports were from impeccable  --  and independent  --  sources:  two internationally renowned gourmets who seldom agreed on anything yet were as harmonious as they were adamant in claiming Tibetan peach pie to be both the most rare and the most exquisite fare ever to light up their taste buds, their gullets, their very beings.  Galvanized by their rhapsodizing, Hansen simply could not be at peace, until he, too, had joined the epicurean elite, the exclusive company that had managed to savor what was alleged to be some sort of culinary nirvana, the end all be all of earthly delights.

    Hansen sold his hot plate, his bicycle, and his winter coat, and coaxed a small loan from his ex-brother-in-law, the one who’d wound up with the lumberyard.  Pooling the meager proceeds, he bought passage on a tramp freighter.  After a vexing month, during which he was persistently seasick, the ship deposited him at a port near the mouths of the Ganges.  From there he took a slow, sweltry, curry-stinking train (third-class all the way) to a remote village in the Himalayan foothills, where he bargained for the services of a cut-rate sherpa.

    Their ascent took days, the trail (what there was of a trail) growing steeper, more rugged, until the insufficiently paid guide had had enough.  Alone now, a savage snow-sequined wind ripping to tatters his thin jacket, Hansen continued up the mountain.  By the time the trail petered out altogether, he was clawing his way over ice and rocks that ripped the nails from his bloody fingers, reduced his shoes to their laces.  When finally he caught sight of the lamasery, he didn’t dash for it, he couldn’t.  Bleeding, frostbitten, half-blind, half-starved, and struggling to breathe, he traveled the final hundred yards on his hands and knees. 

    At the lamasery entrance, he was too weak to pull open the heavy door, but after an hour or so someone heard his whimpers, his moans, and let him in.  He then crawled to a table and pulled himself slowly, painfully up onto a rough wooden bench.  A lama came over.  In a barely audible voice, gasping as he spoke, Hansen croaked, “Tibetan . . . peach . . . pie.” 

    The lama shook his head.  “So sorry,” he said.  “We all out the peach pie.”

    Hansen did not miss a beat.  “Okay,” he said, with a bright little smile.  “Make it apple.”

     If you are unfamiliar with the term, traditionally a "shaggy dog story" is a long complicated joke in which the punchline is an anti-climax.