The other night I was on my best behavior. I was a guest at a gentlemen's dining club, the Cork and Fork Society.
I got dressed up. I rehearsed which fork to use to attack which morsel, and which wine glass to use. Then I got to the dinner and ate catfish with my fingers and drank beer.
The appetizer was Look Chin Bla with Nam Jim Tang Qua, a Thai dish that translates into catfish patties in cucumber sauce. It was quite good, and unlike some of the Thai dishes that followed, the catfish did not attempt to burn off the top two inches of the skin of my tongue.
The catfish patties and all the Thai dishes that followed were cooked by the members of the Cork and Fork Society. While the society has a distinguished name and many of the members wore tuxedos, basically this turned out to be a group of guys who get together to cook and sip. Not only did these fellows do all the cooking, they also helped with the dishes and rearranged the furniture.
The society got started about five years ago, when Paul N. Regester, vice president of Franciscan Vineyards Inc. of
Sykesville, was unable to sleep. The idea of starting a men's food and wine group was rolling around in his head. He knew similar gatherings were common in Europe, and Regester had recently cooked for a women's wine appreciation group, then called Women in Wine (now the Wine Association), which met at Government House in downtown Baltimore.
Regester was impressed with Government House. The 19th century mansion at 1129 Calvert St. was once the home of inventor William Painter, who perfected the first bottle cap. Restored to its 19th century grandeur, yet given a modern kitchen by the City of Baltimore's Neighborhood Progress Administration, Government House became a hospitality center for the city, and rents space for receptions and meetings.
So Regester got up in the middle of the night and wrote letters to his friends outlining his plans to form the club. It would convene once every six weeks or so at Government House. The 25 to 35 members would take turns cooking. Its mission would be to appreciate good food and drink. There would be no profits; the dues and fees for the dinner would cover the cost of the meals. Once a year there would be gala, a chef would be hired, spouses would be invited.
The letters went out, the recipients responded, the details were worked out and the Fork and Cork Society has been meeting ever since. Members come up with menu ideas and volunteer to cook.
The other night was Thai night. Leonard Homer, a local attorney, with some assistance from Richard Leitch, a printing and graphics design executive, Michael Jermann, a staffer at the Downtown Athletic Club, and a few other club members, cooked up a memorable six-course meal.
After the catfish patties in cucumber sauce came a terrific coconut chicken soup called Gai Dom Kah. Then came some tangy shrimp in yellow sauce, Goong Leang Sod. The real fireball of the night was Nue Gia Pao, or beef with mint. I didn't taste the mint, but I did taste the 40 serrano peppers that chef Homer reported were in the dish. The heat from these peppers was so intense it penetrated the rubber gloves Homer had put on to protect his hands.
Homer told me that the main dish, Pad Thai, or noodles with chicken and shrimp, also had peppers in it. But after the 40-pepper assault, my taste buds were unable to detect any new forms of fire.
There was not much "guy talk." After much prompting from the crowd, John Jandasek, a club member and proprietor of Broadway Liquors, did tell a few stories from his days as a paratrooper. But more important than that, he also brought the best beer of the night, Singha, a Thai.
The most talked-about book was not a new one, but a collection of essays published in 1949 called "Wine Journeys," written by Stuart Olivier. Al Spoler, a television producer and the presiding officer of Fork and Cork Society, had been reading the Olivier book. He concluded that when compared to quaffers of old, modern day drinkers sample a wider variety of wines.
There was considerable talk of wine. Regester along with Spoler and Fred Wilson of Elk Run winery discussed the wine selling practices of the Italians, the Spanish, the French and people from New Jesey. They found much to praise and vilify.
At the end of the meal, we retired to the library and sipped glasses of port. I had read novels that talked about people doing that. But I had never done it. It felt pretty good.
Just when I was beginning to settle into this gentlemen routine, it was time to go home. Before I left, I helped rearrange the furniture.