Sometime in the mid 70s, I celebrated a party with friends at a then-landmark French restaurant in Chicago—the first of the “nouvelle”—called Le Perroquet. (There I tasted my first “mesclun” salad.) As we talked and dined I discerned, through the wine haze, that the place was utterly unique. Outside New Orleans, New York or San Francisco, no place like it existed, since fish was the focus. Thirty years ago, old line French restaurants served dishes like Chateaubriand for two with heavy sauces and peas with pearl onions, such as “Frog 1 and 2” enjoyed famously in ‘The French Connection’, while Popeye stamped his feet in the cold outside. Le Perroquet had no Chateaubriand—rather, they excelled in poached and grilled fish of all kind, especially red snapper. It was among the first of the new generation of fish restaurants, of which there are now thousands across the nation.Once “fish” meant Mrs. Paul’s Friday night fish sticks—breaded, fried and frozen. I loved them. Then, once a year, the parents took us to The Blackhawk in Chicago, where I’d get my photograph taken at the table, everyone staring at me gorging on frog’s legs. The babysitters would occasionally vary the Friday night routine (my folks traveled on business) by making salmon casserole—with its celery slice geometry lessons—and, rarest of rare, frozen shrimp. Ugh. No wonder my mother hated it. But fresh grilled or poached fish? Never. Later, as we matured, Fridays weren’t family dinner affairs anymore, and we stopped eating fish altogether.
Fast forward to the early 80s, as Reagan’s morning in America dawned over hundreds of “fish grills” and similar expense-account-themed restaurants across the country. My older brother took me to dinner and announced his “new idea”, The Red Lobster Effect. This, he explained, holds that every rare, exotic, heirloom, bespoke, etc., fish restaurant owes its existence to The Red Lobster for, in effect, breaking America in to a steady diet of fish and crustaceans. It was an original idea. According to my brother, Red Lobster’s 25 years of missionary work in the hinterlands of America resulted in today’s thousands of yuppies chowing on Chilean sea bass, bouillabaisse and even sushi. “It all started with Red Lobster!”, he enthused. I thought of another “effect”. President Kennedy’s Council on Physical Fitness, a tiny government program—that cost almost nothing—led to the “health club” movement, and then to millions of joggers. Similarly, Red Lobster sparked the current interest in eating fish as a regular habit, and less red meat. Good for them. Thank you, Red Lobster.
I often think of the “Red Lobster Effect” when I read our sales reports. There’s no doubt that, by making gardening fun and exciting to novices, Burpee is creating an interest in seeds and plants that matures into a true and lasting enthusiasm for gardening and, by extension, such rare and unusual cultivars as are offered by Heronswood. Burpee is a sort of “Red Lobster” and Heronswood’s a “Manhattan Ocean Club”.
I must add that I like Red Lobster, though I never ate an actual lobster there—or anywhere—until I was in my mid 30s, at the old Bookbinder’s in Philly, after a long day of selling impatiens and petunia seed to, of all companies, Burpee. The legendary seedsman Bill Scott and I drank about 5 martinis each (those days are over), since the hotel was across the street. So, I don’t even recall what the lobster tasted like. I remember only laughing at our silly bibs!
Thanks again, Red lobster, and President Kennedy too. I’ll hit 80 at least, as a result of his raising my consciousness.