The Chittenden County of 2011 is replete with gourmet eateries. This was not always the case. When I landed here in the late ’70s, the people were fine, the lake was fine and the mountains were fine, but the dining was not. The hot spot was Carbur’s, in the downtown Burlington location currently occupied by American Flatbread. Carbur’s was truly a fun place to eat, known for its War and Peace-length menu — mostly sandwiches, and not for the faint of stomach. Let’s just say they didn’t skimp on the grease.
Of all the tony restaurants that have arisen since that bygone era, the restaurant at the Inn at Shelburne Farms may be the toniest. Picture a combination of Tony Bennett, Tony Orlando, Tony Danza, Tony Curtis, Toni Morrison and, for local flavor, Burlington icon Tony Pomerleau — that’s how tony the place is. The food is to die for; the ambience and service, likewise. Needless to say, such megatoniness does not come cheap.
So when a young couple — John and Lila, regular customers who I know are not rolling in dough — phoned me from the Inn for a pick-up, I was somewhat surprised.
“You did say, ‘the Inn at Shelburne Farms,’ right?” I double-checked. “Perched up on that hill down there on the farm?”
“You got it, Jernigan,” John replied with a chuckle. “What can I tell you? We got slim wallets but luxurious tastes. It’s actually our anniversary, man, so we splurged.”
It was nearing midnight when I pulled up to the broad wooden portico fronting the main entrance of the grand old house. Lila and John were waiting outside for me, both of them smiling ear to ear. As they climbed into the back seat of my taxi, John said, “You know what you’re like, man? You’re like that prince with the carriage that turns into the pumpkin … what the hell am I thinking of, honey?”
Laughing softly, Lila said, “You’re thinking of Cinderella at the ball.”
I laughed along, saying, “John, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but I do get the general idea. Hey, congratulations on your anniversary. Was your meal awesome?”
“Oh, yeah,” John replied. “I could say that the duck was overly salted, but that’s me nitpicking, really.”
“Yeah, I agree, John,” Lila chimed in. “It tasted like pulled pork to me. It wasn’t, like, real ducky. But I’m with you — it was really a great meal, a great night.”
It’s a beautiful thing when a couple is on the same page, I thought as I negotiated the winding dirt road leading off the property. When you’re happy and in love, nothing beats a fancy anniversary dinner.
I said, “You know, guys, I’m thinking that the only perfect duck is in heaven. I mean, that’s assuming there are meals in the afterlife, which I sure hope.”
As they chuckled at that thought, I added, “Didja ever hear the Chinese description of heaven and hell? In hell, all the folks are collected in this huge hall. Laid out on tables are big pots of delicious, perfectly cooked rice. But everyone in hell has long chopsticks affixed to their arms and extending out a couple feet. This makes feeding yourself impossible, so everybody is starving.”
I paused for dramatic effect, and Lila asked, “OK, so what’s heaven like?”
“Heaven is the same exact place, except n heaven, the people feed each other.”
I’ve related this parable a few times, but the telling never fails to choke me up. I could sense my customers were similarly moved.
“Wow, that is something,” Lila said. “It kind of brings up, like, what is our responsibility to each other. Like, what can each of us do to help.”
John didn’t add anything to his partner’s comment — unusual, in my experience, for a man, or maybe I’m just talking about myself. In the rear-view mirror, I could see him simply listening to her, a loving and thoughtful look on his face.
“It reminds me,” Lila continued, “of something that happened recently in my dad’s church. He’s a pastor up in Newport, and one of his congregants came to him and said that God was telling him to do something to assist a man in town who was suffering from liver failure. With my dad’s encouragement, the guy organized a bunch of people to go to the man’s house for a badly needed paint job. I think they also did some plumbing work and other stuff.”
“That’s a great story, Lila,” I said as we rolled north on Shelburne Road. “It says a lot about the community of Newport.”
“It’s not easy, though, is it?” Lila said. “I mean, how do you choose when and how to act? There’s so much need everywhere, even in Burlington.”
This woman made me want to smile. Perhaps her compassionate outlook was passed down from her father, like some moral DNA; maybe it was a quality of character that she came to on her own. Whatever the source, interacting with a caring soul like Lila is inspiring. It makes me want to do better in my own life, to walk the walk and not merely talk the talk. (More than once, I’ve been called a “great talker,” and not as a compliment.)
“I’ll tell you what, Lila,” I said. “I really don’t think there’s an easy answer to your question. Maybe all we can do is to hold on to the thought, and allow daily life to reveal when and where we can be of service.”
“You know what I like to do?” John finally said. “Every day I look for two situations where I can help somebody. It could just be, like, a mother with a toddler and bags of groceries struggling to load up her car.”
“I can dig it,” I said. “It’s like you set yourself a daily quota for kind acts. That is a great idea, John.”
The two were still aglow in the atmosphere of their big night out when I dropped them off at their home on Lakeview Terrace. To the west, the midsummer moon was a perfect, luminous disc suspended over the Adirondacks. A soft breeze rippled the big lake, generating glimmers of reflected moonlight.
As I drove off, it occurred to me that these are two people who will never go hungry. Long before they heard it from me, they understood the secret of Chinese heaven.