Skip to content

Of Pancakes And Porridge

Denis Munro is a conundrum with a Sean Connery accent; a cuisine-phobic, teetotaling man-about-the-High Street decked in snappy sports jacket complete with neatly folded hanky. “The hanky is sewn into the pocket” he pointed out as I dropped him off for a ten-day Alaskan cruise departing San Francisco. He wanted to make sure I didn’t picture him meticulously folding one himself, thereby dismantling the image he’d been carefully constructing all week of an edge-dwelling man hell-bent on destruction. The week saw us tracking ample city miles, climbing both Telegraph and Russian Hills. Seeing my surroundings through Denis’s eyes lent new perspective to the old and tired. A graying, bearded homeless man on the Wharf, flipping off passers-by with a “Fuck Trump” sign and plastic jar filled with cash transformed from eyesore obstacle to novel entertainment as Denis pointed his lens and parted with carefully-minded dollars. The dour-faced waitress with ample caboose in my local eatery couldn’t stay close enough to our table as Denis peppered her with pleasant chit chat ( “I’m from Scotland and don’t eat a wide range of food; it’s my only fault” ) and repeatedly asked about her life ( “Do you live in San Francisco? ; How do you get to work?” ) Bringing Denis to a restaurant is like bringing LSD to a Quaker picnic. He’s content to sit and watch you eat, ordering only an “Americano” and settling for regular coffee. Food phobias are matched only by a fearlessness for polite conversation.

The week was divided by a Lake Tahoe sojourn, pausing at Auburn on the climb up. Auburn is a Gold Rush town, its history steeped in prospecting and Old West doings. These destinations have filled Denis’s cup of tea since first visiting America long ago. Back then he returned from state-crossing adventures with tales of asking a Colorado filling station attendant what they grew in the mountainous terrain. “Son,” the old man told him, “‘round here we don’t raise nothin’ but rhubarb and pregnant women ..” Denis preserved such quotes in his trusty notebook, tucked away for future telling. He wasn’t keying on some imagined part of the western frontier; these people and places exist today. They’re just waiting for a garlic-avoidant man in a snappy blue sports coat to drive through and draw them out. He enjoys bars despite abstaining from drink and can be found recording bits of Americana from the graffiti on lavatory walls. Bumper stickers are memorialized in Denis’s canon and in 1980’s Nevada “Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Fuckin’ Way” was preserved, suiting something distinctly American. After Auburn we pulled into Truckee, a river town along train tracks and just over the last mountain range from Tahoe. I’d mentioned the Pastime Club, a local dive featuring live music on weekends and where I once risked ruining expensive dental work by dancing with the girlfriend of a six foot five biker who looked like Willie Nelson. No such diversion this time as we arrived late-afternoon to a sparsely populated bar and profane bartender speaking of her “shit-headed girlfriend in Florida” who had decided to stick around for Hurricane Irma. I ordered a Corona, Denis a club soda, and we ambled back to the billiard table where he impressed me with his cue-handling skills. Then it was back on the road for the short scoot to the lake.

No place manages to impress upon first sight like Lake Tahoe and the sensation doesn’t abate with return visits. “Here we go,” Denis remarked catching first glimpse. Later I grilled two filet steaks on the deck with simple baked potatoes and salad. Denis ate every scrap, efficiently and quickly, causing me to consider whether this was because it was palatable or if he figured if he slowed down he’d be faced with the sobering reality that he was actually ingesting food that wasn’t pancakes or porridge. The latter is a Scottish staple (or at least it was sixty years ago) and as central to his existence as snow to an Eskimo. I may have become cocky after managing to prepare a meal he consumed fully that first night, but after that it was porridge with berries three dinners in a row. I’ve never seen someone hover so intently over the fruit and raw nuts section of a supermarket and he purchased enough whole foods to keep the Central Valley stocked for a week. As for pancakes, they were first introduced many visits back by my equally-Scottish mother whose natural charms had wooed Denis since he was a wee lad. She put the flapjack stack in front of him at the kitchen table and as he reluctantly tucked in he realized that he was experiencing the rarest of rare; a new menu item added to the Munro Repertoire. This and the soon to be discovered fact that coffee refills are free in America had Denis looking into job opportunities in San Francisco after a single visit.

I’m not a man of excess but traveling with Denis can make one feel like Hunter S. Thompson on an ether binge or Rosie O’Donnell stumbling upon the all you can eat buffet at Trump Tower. We watched several Coen Brothers films as I indulged in Kit Kat bars and single malt drams. Denis flossed filet bits from his teeth. I snuck out to the deck to watch through the window while firing up a Montecristo cigar. Where others might make you feel self-conscious about habits they don’t share, Denis is quick to defer, admire and compliment. He asked with interest how one knows that a potato is baked sufficiently and commented on “quite enjoying” the whiff of a good cigar despite not tolerating the smell of cigarettes. The following morning we set out for Reno and Virginia City, two reminders that Nevada, of all American states, is operating on its own set of rules. Denis fondly recounts the time in Reno when, at the Silver Legacy Casino, he threw caution to the wind and put a second quarter in a one-armed bandit and pulled the lever. I provided the thrills this time, quickly dispensing with ten bucks at video poker before we opted for brunch (“ahhh … pancakes!”) then set out for Virginia City. There we took in typical mining town attractions — the ‘Suicide Table’ at the ‘Bucket of Blood’ — after entering the main drag up a set of back stairs through the Silver Dollar Saloon. Denis was too enamored with Toby Keith blaring on the juke box to notice the hundreds of lady’s brassieres suspended above the bar or the curious glares from leather-clad local bikers as he ambled by in finely tailored felt.

He’s a good man and I don’t toss the words out lightly. His fondness for my mother would have sufficed in securing my long friendship but Denis’s charms go beyond this. We hiked down a steep hill to sit on a rocky perch above the glassy-still, deep blue Tahoe water on our last afternoon at elevation and out-drove the edge of an approaching mountain thunderstorm back to the cabin. Once more I grilled my dinner and Denis indulged in some plain crackers, unsalted nuts and main-course porridge. The skies opened up with a spectacular light show, rain, tall swaying pines and thunder that seemed to reverberate from Tahoe to Glasgow. An early exit the next morning and drive down to San Francisco featured Norm MacDonald on the Audi sound system and brunch (“ahhhhh .. pancakes!”) at the appropriately-named Denny’s south of Sacramento. Nothing exceeds like excess, but there is something to be said, too, for simple routine stacked with hard laughs and good memories.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *