Happy April Fools’ Day, dear Betty!
Betty lived just across from our first restaurant, in a new, rather swishy-looking residential complex. Still in her 40s, she was a dead ringer for Sally Field, the famous actress who portrayed the flying nun in the TV show of the same name that aired sometime around 1967-68.
I can still remember Betty’s first visit. She stepped into the restaurant rather tentatively, and like a member of the family, she left only to come back the very next day. These visits became daily occurrences. Straight away, Betty had become a regular.
Stationed behind the counter in front of her, I listened in detail, pouring one coffee after another, as she recounted her life’s story. Love at first sight, her husband’s climb up the career ladder, teens who asked “where’s Dad?” And finally, the “Honey, I don’t love you anymore” that fell on her like a ton of bricks. Betty, who was one of the nicest women you could meet, for whom I often shed sympathetic tears in my own heart. She was so affable, so sweet and shy, with a deadpan sense of humour at times.
Once the King (as she nicknamed him) left home, she was forced to work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week in a drugstore located two blocks from the restaurant. She stopped by around 11 a.m. on the days we were open for a “big tasty breakfast,” as she liked to say. A meal that would keep her going until the evening. Betty would sometimes pause in front of the board announcing the dish of the day and “cheat,” giving into a temptation occasioned by a chicken vol-au-vent or meatloaf with tomato sauce. You see, Betty was simply crazy for our breakfasts, whether our Spinach-cheddar or Western omelettes, “perfectly accompanied” egg dishes or three big crêpes on a plate with a mountain of always fresh fruit, beautifully cut and arranged.
It was one of those middays for “cheating” when Betty’s story takes a surprising turn. The date was April 1, 1989, and being my usual quirky self, I had purchased a few small goldfish the night before, which I was keeping under the counter in soup bowls full of fresh water.
As usual, Betty stopped by around 11 a.m., sat down at the counter and began to mull over her options. I had just written the dish of the day on the board: spinach and ricotta cheese lasagne.
Catching my eye, Betty asked me about the soup.
- “A Maritime consommé,” I replied.
- “I’m cheating,” she proclaimed.
At which point I placed in front of her a soup bowl containing one of the goldfish, going around and around in search of its mother.
Betty, glancing down at the soup, threw her arms in the air and shouted out my name, nearly falling off her stool. Looking at me as if I were a crazy person fit to be tied, she exclaimed, “Honestly, Cora, this is too much!”
Of course I was only having fun, and all the diner’s customers were roaring with laughter. Our favourite divorcee laughed just as hard in the end, making me promise to do her a big favour someday to make up for her traumatizing maritime experience.
The following day, as Betty approached the counter, I took the lead and declared:
- “Tell me whatever you want and I’ll make it for you!”
- “Umm,” she hesitated. “I’m not sure, Cora. I want to eat crêpes with fruit, but I don’t think it’s exciting or spectacular enough to make up for the little fun you had with the live fish.”
- “Could you put the fruit in a big, big crêpe with whipped cream or with some vanilla cream like my Italian neighbour served me?”
- “My dear Betty, just give me a few days.”
Instead of making the usual three crêpes topped with fruit, I ladled a big thin crêpe onto the griddle and allowed it to cook before flipping it. I covered it with fruit and folded two crispy sides towards the middle to cover up the sweet garnish. I then transferred this new treat to a large oval plate. Bedecked with real whipped cream buds and dusted with icing sugar, it set off little tremors in my mind even before Betty had tasted her first forkful.
It’s remarkable really, how each one of the star dishes on our menu came to us as a delicious kernel from a customer’s lips. Betty expressed her delight as she took a bite of her new crêpe and quickly swore that she would happily swallow goldfish every day if, the next day, I would serve her such fabulous creations.
From the bottom of my heart, a thousand thank-yous to all the Bettys who helped me, in one way or another, to create the most impressive breakfast menu in North America. Whether by sharing an unusual recipe, bringing in an old cookbook, suggesting a dish discovered on a trip or by simply describing an indelible childhood memory.