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An Ahwahnee Anniversary

By Dan Schaeffer

I have been told by those who claim to know (my wife, for example) that I am a little deficient in the romantic department. I guess after 20 years of marriage she ought to know. Maybe it springs from the fact that I proposed to her leaning against a dusty Honda Accord in the carport of my apartment complex. She has brought that up more than once.

I admit that I might not be considered romantic in the strict sense of the word, but it really annoys me when we are talking with other couples and the husband shares how he took his wife on a balloon ride and proposed to her 1,000 feet in the air. My wife may get dreamy eyed over this, but she and I both know that if I took her 1,000 feet in the air in a balloon she would puke.

I have a problem with planning too far ahead in life, which really limits the romantic thing. I really do have great plans, but they normally extend no more than three or four hours into the future--any more than that and I start getting dizzy. But I also really love my wife and since we hadn’t really done anything special for our last anniversary I thought it was time I broke out of my comfort zone and took her somewhere special. Considering this would be our 17th anniversary and I also hadn’t planned anything really special on those anniversaries that landed between 1 and 16, I thought, what the heck?

And I knew exactly where to take her, Yosemite National Park. We had actually honeymooned in cabins within Yosemite and fell in love with the park. We had gone camping in Yosemite every year since, first alone, then with our kids. So naturally, what would be more surprising and romantic than spending our 17th anniversary in Yosemite under the shadow of Half Dome? She would be so surprised!

Any woman who can put up with a romantic zero like myself deserves the best money can buy on her 17th anniversary. And the moment I found out that they were offering a deal--we were there. Before you think I’m a real cheap boring guy, let me hasten to add that I didn’t plan to take her camping. For years my wife and I had strolled along the beautiful paths throughout the valley, inevitably ending up in the regal, rustic, Ahwahnee Hotel.

It is a landmark in the Yosemite Valley. People go there to take pictures, buy postcards, stroll around its beautiful hallways, lounge on its comfortable patio veranda, and escape smelly campers. It doesn’t really fit in the scheme of the valley, what with most of the dwelling places consisting of small plots of dirt with well worn wooden lunch tables attached to the earth by heavy metal chains. It was built in 1924, presumably by men whose wives got tired of camping.

It is an architectural wonder that stands as a proud bastion and symbol of all that camping can’t provide, namely, clean bathrooms and stall doors that don’t have potty poems scratched on them. Though we made sure we always set up our tent close to the bathrooms, we would stubbornly hold it for hours until we finally made it to the Ahwahnee.

Upon our arrival we would stroll casually through the lobby as if we were fascinated by the architecture, pointing out this picture and that beam, all the while creeping closer and closer to the holy Mecca—the bathroom. Inside we would find thirty other smelly campers staring glassy eyed at soap dispensers and spotless tile floors.

But once we were in the hotel, we couldn’t help but be enchanted by its history and unique architectural design. My wife had commented several times that just once she would like to come to Yosemite and stay at the Ahwahnee Hotel, rather than camping on the hard ground. I couldn’t help but notice that she had commented on it in my general direction.

On one of our trips I had noticed that they offered what they called “Chefs’ Holidays.” This was an opportunity to come to the Ahwahnee Hotel, stay in palatial grandeur for a king’s ransom, and then be exposed to some of the finest California chefs offering cooking classes. The culmination of the holiday was the opportunity to dine at the Chefs’ Banquet, where these same chefs would provide a five course meal in the elegant dining hall.

My wife is an excellent cook with a degree in Home Economics so I knew this would be right up her alley. After all, what could be more romantic than going to the Ahwahnee Hotel in the dead of winter to take cooking lessons and stuff your face? I surprised her with the gift at Christmas.

She was beside herself with excitement and hugged and kissed me repeatedly. OK, maybe she didn’t do that exactly, but she was pleased and surprised. She hadn’t thought I was capable of planning several months ahead. For my part, however, the nearer the event came the more nervous I got.

I always felt that the Ahwahnee Hotel was frequented by people who don’t do things like camping, hiking, working for a living, or much else for that matter. I assumed this was the playground for the rich and famous. The normal Ahwahnee guest wasn’t trying to save a few bucks by buying a fourteen dollar a night camping space. They drive up in BMW’s and Mercedes and wear polo shirts and slacks in the lobby, which by all appearances, they never leave. They were the only ones in Yosemite Valley that brought their tennis racquets.

When I had strolled through the Ahwahnee all those years I had inevitably been wearing dirty pants, a dirty shirt, and I hadn’t had a shower in several days. Under my fingernails lay the dirt of the valley and some PowerBait from last night’s fishing expedition. What passed for a nice tan was actually a light covering of valley dust. I could never shake the feeling that the paying guests were staring at me. They knew as well as I did that I didn’t belong. I was tent trash checking out how the other half lived. But now I was going to be a guest.

We packed all our best clothes and a suitcase full of money and drove to the Ahwahnee Hotel in January. For years I had been promising Annette that one day I would take her to Yosemite in the winter so she could see how beautiful the valley looks covered with snow. We arrived in the valley in the rain. The beautiful meadows were an exquisite shade of mud. Imagination is an invaluable resource in times like this I reminded her.

But she didn’t seem to care. We got registered and taken to our room. It was in the main part of the hotel on the fifth floor. We had a beautiful view, a king size bed, and the room, though old, was grand. While it was cold outside, we were warm. Even the tile on the bathroom floor was warm. There was no tent to put up, no sleeping bags to lay out, and no air mattresses to blow up. Annette was sure she had died and gone to heaven. We went to dinner that evening and Annette didn’t even have to do the dishes. I was scoring some serious romantic points.

The next day we began to attend some of the cooking classes where they taught you to make things like “Burnt Custard Pear Tart with Lemon-Cornmeal Crust and Noir Cherry Sauce,” and “Algerian inspired Short Ribs and Bittersweet Chocolate Pate with Zinfandel and Berries Sweets and Roses.”

The classes were held in a large hall with floor to ceiling windows all around and a fireplace big enough to park our minivan in. In various comfortable chairs and couches strewn about the great hall, guests were napping and drooling on the furniture. Apparently the chef with the microphone didn’t bother them, or they were about as interested in cooking classes as I was.

Undaunted, the chef was up front energetically explaining how to make soups and side dishes, with a large mirror mounted above him so you could see what he was doing from a distance. Annette soon became enthralled with the whole experience. All the herbs, spices, cooking methods, clever techniques, and sauces had her riveted. I was wondering when they were going to hand out the beer nuts.

After each demonstration the guests were then invited to partake of the chef’s culinary creations. This was the part I could get into. My wife struggled to keep up as I raced to the room where they kept the food. All cooking and no eating bordered on the sacrilegious. Much to my disappointment, however, the food was dispensed in small portions. I was tempted to take several small portions, but I knew I would be considered vulgar and uncouth. So as my wife chatted amiably with another guest about sauces, I licked my plate.

The next day we went on a tour of the famous Ahwahnee hotel kitchen. We were able to see up close and personal how a hotel kitchen worked. My wife was having a great time as the host explained all the different foods being prepared and how they prepared them. I worked hard to look as interested in the tour of a large kitchen as I possibly could. It was no trout hatchery, but sacrifices are made in the quest to be a romantic guy.

That evening, my wife dressed in her beautiful evening gown, and I, well attired in my suit and tie, entered the dining hall as guests, something we had never done before. It was time for the piece de resistance, the Chef’s Banquet, the Super Bowl of dinners.

The banquet began, predictably, with soup. But this was no ordinary soup, it was called “Lobster and Lemon Grass Consomme with Dungeness Crab Tortellini.” It was explained to me that this was a concentrated soup that had taken hours to create. I tasted it delicately, befitting a man pretending to have class. I was surprised to discover that it tasted familiar.

The soup tasted exactly like, and I am not kidding, heated Lysol. When I mentioned this to my wife she almost blew the soup out of her nose in laughter. She agreed, though discretely.

The next course was Poached Norwegian Salmon with Julienne of Vegetable and Soy Butter. Yeah. Fish. It was decent. The next course involved something I had never eaten before, called Squab (“Roast Squab Breast Salad, Wild Mushrooms, Root Vegetable Chips, and Truffle Vinaigrette” to be precise). Our server appeared to be an ordinary Joe, so I asked him what Squab was. He looked around carefully, making sure no one was listening, and then said with a quiet laugh, “Pigeon.” I pay seventy five bucks a plate and they’re feeding me hot Lysol and pigeon? Having already paid for the banquet, I reluctantly ate the squab, which tasted, indeed, like pigeon.

I also noticed that before and after every course, a wine steward mysteriously appeared, apparently on commission, offering a wine that had been “carefully selected to complement” the particular course you were being offered. I couldn’t imagine what wine would complement hot Lysol or cooked pigeon. But several nearby tables were filled with boisterous guests, apparently drowning the taste of hot Lysol and pigeon in gallons of expensive Sonoma-Cutter Chardonnay, 1997 Russian River.

The next course, and the main meal, was “Roasted Crusted Fillet of Beef with Mushrooms, Bread Crumbs and a Yukon Gold Caramelized Mashed Potatoes.” This was red meat, something a guy like me could identify with. And with a name that long, maybe I would finally get an adult’s portion. But I was tentative; the taste of hot Lysol still lingering in my palate. When it arrived, the meat was entirely covered with bread crumbs. Covering a meat up so you can’t even see it wasn’t a good sign in my book.

Hesitantly, I took a bite. It melted in my mouth. Tears sprang to my eyes. That one bite was worth the whole seventy-five bucks. I had never tasted a piece of meat cooked so perfectly. More importantly, I no longer felt like a sucker. The Yukon Gold Caramelized Mashed Potatoes had been ladled out with a baby spoon by the looks of it, but the fillet was so good I didn’t care. My filet was perfect, my wife looked beautiful, and we were dining in a romantic hall surrounded by the grandeur of nature. We could only want for one thing—dessert.

When I saw the title I was a little disappointed. “Chocolate Caramel Pecan Pyramid with Creme Anglaise,” was the official title. I don’t particularly like mixing my chocolate with pecans, but I decided to take a walk on the wild side. When the dessert arrived it was in the form of a small dark chocolate pyramid. As Annette and I took our first bite, we both moaned in delight. This dessert removed all memory of hot Lysol and pigeon meat. It was light, moist, and hit the spot. It had been close there for awhile, but the banquet had been a decided success.

The dinner, the food, the atmosphere, my beautiful wife, everything had been terribly romantic. Even my wife had to admit it. I had pulled it off. Furthermore, I had mingled with the elite haute cuisine crowd without embarrassing my wife or revealing myself as the yokel I really am. For a brief period in history, the slobs and the snobs had mingled freely in the venerable Ahwahnee. World peace could not be far off.

The next morning, my wife and I awoke to snow covering the ground. The park looked truly enchanted. Thomas Kinkaid couldn’t have improved on it. My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and our anniversary was a stellar success. I now have something to point to that proves I am romantic. In addition, we have romantic memories of our anniversary in the Ahwahnee to last us for years, or until we finish paying it off, whichever comes first. I heartily recommend the experience to any and all. It made a romantic man out of me. Only--a word to the wise--pass on the Lobster Consumme.

Ahwahnee hotel


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