California Gov. Gavin Newsom apologized on Friday for attending a dinner party last week at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley, noting that
he “should have modeled better behavior.”
On a sunny afternoon in the fall of 2001 I did the same thing: I went to The French Laundry when I “should have modeled better behavior.” For one thing, there was no way we could afford it. More to the point: I was newly pregnant.
Soon after I finished writing my first book I ran into an old friend who introduced me to his agent who loved it enough to sign me on as a client.
And then I got pregnant. Perhaps for most women this wouldn’t have been so momentous, but I was 40 years old and had recently suffered a first-trimester miscarriage.
Which is why, when my husband Victor suggested we celebrate our plenteous good fortune by splurging for lunch at The French Laundry, I hesitated.
“You know I have to be way careful with what I eat,” I whined, imagining being served unpasteurized French cheeses shot-through with listeria. Mercury-laden fish. Bivalves swimming with fetus-killing bacteria. “Plus, we can’t afford it.” Between Victor’s public school teacher’s salary and my non-existent earnings, we were barely scraping by. A splurge for us usually amounted to going out to The Willo Steakhouse on Highway 49 and not paying extra to be able to cook our own steaks.
Victor’s college friend Jeff happened to be in Napa for a wedding and asked if he could join us. Jeff was a bigwig at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory with a bigwig salary to boot. Maybe, I thought as we hugged hello before sitting down, he’d offer to foot the bill.
As a waiter placed the linen napkin on my lap he remarked, “Chelsea Clinton sat in this very chair just yesterday. She was celebrating her graduation from Stanford.”
“That’s cool. We’re celebrating too.”
“Oh? What are you celebrating?” he asked, slapping away a non-existent hair from the back of my chair.
Before I could answer, Jeff said, “A book and a baby! They’ve got both on the way!”
We were giddy, oh yes, were we ever: so when the waiter came back and said, “Thomas [as in the Thomas Keller] would like to prepare a special menu with wine pairings for you today if you don’t mind,” we said, “Of course!”
I quietly reminded the waiter that I was pregnant and would take merely a sip or two with each course so half bottles would probably do just fine.
Oh, and no innards like liver or foie gras, I added before he left. Not good for the baby.
And could he perhaps mention to Chef that I cannot eat unpasteurized cheeses I subtly mentioned when he returned with the first bottle of wine.
We had white truffle soufflé served in a delicate egg shell (was it okay to eat pig-sniffed fungi?); lamb done three ways; peas prepared in some spectacular guise. On it went, course after course, me alternately fretting and feasting. I cannot remember much more of what we ate because, honestly, two sips of wine multiplied almost a dozen times make for a pretty tipsy pregnant chick.
Four hours later the waiter brought the check.
I opened the brown leather packet.
And almost fell out of my chair.
I won’t divulge how much the bill was (and no; Jeff did not offer to pay), but it was more than we presently spend on our groceries for an entire month. Sure, the food was delicious and the service impeccable, but for weeks after that meal, all I did was worry that I/we screwed up. That something I ate was doing harm to my growing fetus. That I shouldn’t have taken even one sip of wine. That the money we spent was irrevocably reckless.
But…a month later a slew of New York editors read my book and fought over it, Hyperion offering me a 6-figure advance for a two-book deal. Four months after that I gave birth to a healthy baby girl.
It’s a shame that Governor Newsom’s memory of that inimitable meal at The French Laundry will be forever stained, like my own was, by the worrisome fallout that followed. He never should have disregarded his own edict in the face of this pandemic. I never should have taken a chance on eating anything beyond whole clean healthy foods in the midst of a precarious pregnancy.
But sometimes we humans forget that our behaviors have the capacity to change others’ lives. That how we act, whether we are public figures or private citizens, can change the course of history—writ large or small.
Which is why it’s more important than ever to model better behavior.
Why it’s a good idea to maintain a distance of 6 feet.
Why it’s imperative , above all else, to wear a mask.