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Kickshaws of Conversation


Sacramento, California

The Ebner Hotel


Satirist Jonathan Swift once wrote, “He was a bold man who first ate an oyster.”


With an open journal on his lap and pencil in hand, Scott leaned against the headboard of his hotel room bed while emitting a burp that Johnny would call a stampede starter.


The pencil resumed its purpose.


Fortunately, Mrs. Stanford managed to overlook the slurping down of oysters this evening. I believe it was the only food not performing in the woman’s culinary circus.


Scott paused and reconsidered his description of Jane Stanford’s dinner engagement. Culinary circus sounded ungrateful when he honestly wasn’t. Hell, Scott had grown-up in a dinner-giving society that embraced multi-coursed consumption. Truth be told, he was quite flattered with all the thought and preparation Mrs. Stanford had given to the menu. However, after his return home from the war, he found the pomp and circumstance required for the simple act of eating ostentatiously ridiculous. Much to Scott’s approval, Murdoch Lancer didn’t need various forks and knives to carve up a good steak. The juggling act between ranch chores and gathering his family for supper was enough for the man.


There was one aspect of formal dining Scott did appreciate - extended hours for conversation, which when sitting across the table from a charming young lady, could be quite enjoyable. And when that charming young lady was the lovely Emily Browning… well, the more courses the better.


Culinary circus. Another burp pointed out Scott’s lack of digestive pacing. The pencil crossed out the word circus, replaced it with encounter and continued.


The kickshaws of veal, croquettes, sauces, breads, cheeses, fruits and, with a nod from Harlan Garrett, asparagus marched from the Stanford kitchen to our palettes. The rich food admirably paired with various wines inspired enlightening discussions to fulfill Mrs. Stanford’s prediction regarding the evening.


********


Course One: Stewed Eels complemented with a serving of Madeira


“They say eels are so plentiful in London the creatures simply leap out of the Thames all on their own.” Jane Stanford smiled as her spoon dipped into a thick parsley sea of green.


“Tell us, Mr. Lancer” - the teasing glints in Emily’s eyes danced with the flickers of candlelight. - “do eels simply leap out of the Massachusetts Bay?”


Scott grinned. “I’d say the eels are less enthusiastic in Boston. They prefer a Brahmin backstroke.” Which is exactly what the poor cut-up little bastards are currently doing in my soup bowl.


Arcade’s head chef slowly nodded. “Yes, but once they reach the west coast, they do the Sacramento slither.”


“Ho-ho!” Leland Stanford’s zealous laugh cascading down the length of the table caused the candle flames to step up their flicker to a jig. “Jane, your prediction rings true! This will certainly be a lively dinner party!”


Course Three: Red Mullet and Dressed Tomatoes complemented with a serving of Rhine


“Have you held a fishing rod in your hand, Scott?” Leland Stanford demonstrated his casting finesse with a butter knife serving as a pole.


“I have.”


The former governor’s simper foretold an upcoming joke. “I thought you might prefer a firearm out there on the ranch?”

“Only when I shoot them in a barrel, sir.”


Scott’s dry delivery received kudos from the hostess. “Leland, I do believe this young man is a worthy opponent in your race to the punchline.”


Course Five - Saddle of Mutton complemented with a serving of Shiraz


“Any black sheep in your family, Mr. Lancer?” Emily’s devilish grin accented the coy jest.


Responding to his dinner partner’s question, Scott placed an open palm on his chest with a dip of the chin. “Miss Browning, I will rely on the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination.”


Course Seven - Roasted Fowl complemented with a serving of Burgundy


Jane Stanford raised her wine glass, the latest of many. “As the hostess may I have the honor in announcing - ladies and gentlemen, it appears my goose is cooked.”


Course Nine: Conservative Pudding complemented with a serving of Port


“Would this dessert be a consideration for the Arcade Hotel’s progressive menu, Miss Browning?” The former governor vocalized his query as the remaining spoons at place settings were called upon.


Scott raised an eyebrow. Conservative Pudding - the sweet dish of biscuits soaked in brandy and cream. Its name had carried a stigma in some Boston circles during and after the war as polarized political views locked horns, promoting terms such as copperhead, sympathizer, conservative to be tossed about. Scott had laughed out loud the first time spying Conservative Pudding neatly penciled in on all the Union Club menus. His comment so this is how the North won was met with a Harlan Garrett chuckle.


Now, it appeared their host was fishing once again - this time in a lake of political opinions to see what he could hook?


“Why, yes, Mr. Stanford, on occasion the Arcade Hotel serves Conservative Pudding along with other offerings: Plum Duff, Blancmange, Apple Charlotte, Eton Mess…” Emily’s sweet smile reeled in her own catch. “And Lucy Stone’s favorite, Dead Man’s Leg.”


“Ho! Watch out, Scott.” Leland spoke out the side of his mouth with an ominous tone. “I believe a suffragist has infiltrated our camp.”


“I’m uncertain, sir, if infiltrated is the correct word. It would mean a man had closed his eyes and remained unaware of changes around him until, perhaps, it was too late.”


“And your eyes, Mr. Lancer?” Jane Stanford’s hand gestured toward her dinner guest. “Would you care to share if your eyes are open to women’s rights?”


Scott observed his hostess’ neutral expression akin to that of a Mississippi gambler holding a royal flush. She had asked a similar question during their first meeting over a billiards table. Now seated at a dining table, Mrs. Stanford posed the question again knowing his previous answer. The inquiry appeared to be a test of character from a woman who’d observed politicians change their views with the wind to gain the popular vote. Scott was never more grateful for his stand on an honest answer - give it the first time, every time. “I’m a firm believer that a woman's place should definitely be filled with opportunities.”


Wiping his mouth on a linen napkin, Leland stood. “Well, Scott, let’s you and I find a brandy, a cigar and some fresh air so these two ladies have the opportunity to discuss the latest Paris fashions.”


Amused by the two ladies’ dubious smiles, Scott knew not only had he passed the test, but the topic of female discussion tonight would not be the latest Paris fashions.


A lively dinner party, indeed. Rising to follow his host, Scott assumed Leland Stanford’s fishing pole would also be joining them.

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