taken from an article in The Gourmet magazine, September 2001


Famous for his New Yorker cartoons, William Hamilton also writes novels, plays, and magazine pieces. Some of his best writing for GOURMET describes defining childhood moments.

BACK DOWN THE CONE OF TIME to my fifth year you would find me outraged by what jellied consommé turned out to be. Such pretty words from our most glamorous and important great-aunt were enough to make my brother and me mind our manners punctiliously as courtiers for a whole day. A whole day at that early age is a substantial portion of your entire life. To behave for the complete daylight period at age five is proportionally equivalent to a hitch in the army or a bad marriage.

"If you children are very good, you will have Pong’s jellied consommé tonight. It is the best jellied consommé in the world," said our
Auntie Alec, sitting and smiling as adults do in the presence of visiting children, looking us in the eye. In her ears were black pearls the size of radio knobs. Her skin was whiter than her perfect teeth, which were the color of the paper of engraved invitations.

What a woman! Even then I suspected she was superior to the ordinary member of the human race. She was beautiful, rich, kind, and very stylish. Her automobiles were never ready-made, and she never drove them herself. The roof of one of those limousines was a pebbly leather that felt almost paternal against a young cheek.

"Jellied consommé" sounded exotic and delicious, like the way she lived. Offered as a prize for model behavior, the words became an invocation with biblical divinity and authority. Nevertheless, an entire day of good behavior is a fierce, demanding expedition, not unlike that of the Spanish conquistadores heading in a hot and dangerous direction for two years or more, with no idea of what was there beyond the hope of riches and saint-hood. Jellied consommé, Golconda, both glittered above and ahead of the sufferers present.

When I was five my brother was six and a half, an age I considered remote, powerful, and authoritative, but not as unsympathetic as, say, eight, twelve, thirty, and sixty-five. He had a policing relationship toward me. He told me we must not leave the pea gravel pathways of the garden, even when we were lured by the most fabulous-looking toad. He wouldn’t even permit gravel thrown at the thing, not on a day that might be crowned by jellied consommé.

Perhaps sympathetic to our excruciating good behavior, our adolescent cousin offered us a game of badminton. There may be children who can play badminton at five the way some can plunge through Beethoven in velvet suits at a grand piano in Carnegie Hall, but I was no such prodigy. The racket was light and strange. It was pleasant to press the webbing of strings against your hand, leaving a trace on your palm, but that’s the full use to which I was capable of putting the thing.

All we said to anyone, all day, was,:Please thank you," and we didn't even say that too loud. Spasmodically we remembered the dictum "Sit up straight," even before it could be issued. I didn't wet my pants. We shared and passed whatever was going around and didn't get cranky. Our mother and father lounged unmolested in the distance on the lawn furniture. The complex and fragile maze of the adult world was never more imposingly present for us than it was on that long, long day of good behavior.

"Time for your nap, boys," said my mother, like Zeus telling Hercules it was time to clean the Augean stables. We didn't even balk at this provocative command. I did turn my head when I felt it start to wince, so she wouldn't know that anything but cheerful obedience abounded in her son's breasts. We lay down like mummies under blue-gray cashmere afghans knitted in a wafflelike pattern. The shade was drawn. The door was closed. With the reader's permission I'll render our nap-time dialogue in contemporary language:

"Sandy, what the hell is jellied consommé?"
"Oh it's great, fabulous stuff. I love it," answered my brother, rolling on his side out from under his cover.
"Yeah, it's incredible."
"Did you ever taste it?"
"Are you kidding? All the time."
"When I'm out playing with eight-year-olds."
"What color is it?"
"All kinds. Sort of orange sometimes."
"Yeah, it's really great."

Chastened, I actually did nap a bit. You can guess my dreams: jellied consommé, a brilliant, delicious radiant orange color, as good as Jell-O, jelly, and orange sherbet ice cream, a sublime elastic substance served by Auntie Alec borne on ivory wings in the tender, gravity-free billows of heaven.

We dressed for dinner. The hairbrush bit harshly, knocking aside my head as my mother fine-tuned my appearence for the children's table. My brother got the same. It was a glass table, under an awning in the garden. The grown-ups were having drinks on a terrace far away.

"Jellied consommé?" my brother asked Pong.
"Yeah, yeah!" responded Pong, an elderly, pastel Chinese with many buttons. He laughed and rushed inside the house to get the magic stuff. My heart was beating, a family of quail ran across the lawn like spilled marbles, the French doors between us and jellied consommé rattled.

"Napkin in your lap!" shouted my brother just in time for me to get it there.
"Jellied consommé," laughed Pong, putting in front of us sinister vessels of silver filled with ice in which the most unsympathetic to children substance I'd ever seen glittered and quivered. Sight already told us both we'd been robbed, but, with Pong hanging there watching so urgently, we spooned into the slime. It tasted salty, bland, and creepy. We spit the outrageous stuff out in unison, and I burst into tears. It was useless to by crying, and my brother wasn't, so I didn't get beyond a few tears down hot cheeks. He stoically and majestically said, "No thank you," and the hideous apparatus were taken up and away into the house.

"Jellied consommé," he said, disgusted, andwe both began to make faces and laugh bitterly, knowing you can't take back an entire day of good behavior. "Jellied consommé," we shouted, laughing derisively until the grown people had to break off their cocktail hour a lawn away. "Jellied consommé" followed by a Bronx cheer was what we had worked up to by the time my enraged mother had to invoke paternal authority itself to come over and stop our rebellion.

"Hey, Bill," whispered my brother during the night after lights-out.
"Jellied consommé," I responded, correctly, starting us on piano duets of giggles.

Since then, many of my expectations have turned out like jellied consommé. I'm greatful to my late Auntie Alec for providing such an early reference for such experience, and to Pong for, as usual, preparing it so perfectly.