GREENBROOK, Ill., March 3, 1979—In this day and age, it’s easy to become jaded about alleged new developments in cuisine. Everyone promises the next palate-exploding blockbuster, but it seems that each time, these promises dissolve with a bitter fizzle. One day it is endive, the next it is radicchio, and I doubt any of us will soon forget the year of the Mexican turnip, when a root vegetable showed up in everything from the simplest omelets to the most delicate reduction sauces. So much hope was crushed under the weight of too-great expectations as we came to recognize that that exotic-seeming turnip was just a yam that tasted like cactus.
The hype surrounding the chefs du jour is overblown as well. Seemingly daily, young turks emerge from culinary school, launch namesake restaurants, and promise to turn the world of food preparation upside down, only to find themselves manning the salad line at Bennigan’s inside of six months, their dreams dissolving under the weight of pretentious entrees and brutal wait service.
It is a dark time for those of us who seek new culinary adventures, and I’d just about given up on the idea that we could still be surprised by food, at least until I was tipped off to what was going on inside Elaine Hirsch’s third-grade classroom at Greenbrook Elementary School.
Greenbrook is like any other suburban school, a low-slung brick structure stretching for a block and a half, with the tell-tale gymnasium and auditorium bulges at either end. At recess, the children play kickball. In music class, the choir sings enthusiastically, but out of tune, about a bus with wheels that go round. At lunch, bologna or peanut butter sandwiches are shoved into dirty maws, mandibles mashing at the Wonder bread casements. Hawaiian Punch the color of a radioactive isotope and lukewarm 2% milk are the beverages of choice.
Indeed, there is nothing remarkable about Greenbrook Elementary; that is, until you step inside Room 206 during arts and crafts time. Here, in a corner, working quietly and alone, is the next great figure in international cuisine.
Genius comes in all shapes and sizes; this time it is about three feet tall, with an unkempt mop of dirty blond hair, and one untied shoe. His name is John Warner.
As I approach, I see he is working with what will surely become known as his signature ingredient, as he finishes a diorama of Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre.
“It’s paste,” he says, not even looking up from his task. “And it tastes good.”
He dips the applicator top and stick down into the tub and offers me a small glob. I heartily accept.
It will be a long time before you see paste proudly displayed on the menus of hip brasseries downtown, and in fact even now, eating paste must be kept secret for many reasons, not the least of which is that if Mrs. Hirsch sees us, she will yell at us and snatch the paste away and make us sit on our hands, or worse: Write on the board how it is wrong to eat paste and that we will never do it again.
The paste is initially clammy on the taste buds, but quickly warms as I roll it to the back and sides of my tongue. There is commotion all around us, children clamoring for scissors, or to go to the bathroom, but the cacophony is soon drowned out as the flavor of the paste overtakes me. There is a slight saltiness that ebbs and flows, but never overpowers, and just a hint of a sweet finish, nutty, but not herbal. Just as the mass threatens to melt away entirely, it slides past the epiglottis and into my throat, feeling like the very finest of oysters on the way down.
“Wow,” I say.
If loving paste is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
Young Mr. Warner smiles and looks both ways before taking a little dab for himself and then slathering some on President Lincoln’s construction paper stovepipe hat, which has been smeared with red marker to simulate blood. “It’s sticky, too,” he says.
At Mr. Warner’s home, we go up to his room to play before dinner. The Warner house is a two-story colonial, four bedrooms, Mr. Warner’s above the garage. The slight tang of turpentine seems to waft through the floorboards. The room is decorated in a Snoopy theme, a bedspread and matching curtains with the well-loved beagle snoozing atop his dog house. A stuffed Snoopy doll rests on the pillow next to a hand-puppet Woodstock. When I ask him who his favorite Peanuts character is, Mr. Warner shoots me a withering glance. “I like Snoopy,” he says. Like most bon vivants, he does not suffer fools gladly.
The numerous bookshelves are stuffed to overflowing, demonstrating the boy’s inquisitiveness and intellect and a particularly strong penchant for mini-biographies of popular sports figures. (Bobby Orr is a favorite.) There is not a single cooking or food title to be found, an indicator that the boy’s talent is God-given and sui generis.
“I thought I was going to have to tape oven mitts to his hands to keep him away from paste. So now, in this house, we only use glue.”In the corner is a Play-Doh Fuzzy Pumper Barber Shop. “Sometimes,” he says, “I eat the hair.”
It is clear that here, in the solace of his private space, away from the prying eyes of Mrs. Hirsch, and the judgments of his classmates, who have bought into the system propaganda that paste isn’t for eating, Mr. Warner is most comfortable. He opens up about his discovery.
“I’ve been eating paste since kindergarten,” he says. “It smelled good, and so I tasted it.”
And here, in a nutshell, is Mr. Warner’s genius, his willingness to simply try, to experience. Where others say “office supply,” Mr. Warner says, “Yes, maybe, quite possibly, that could be food,” and he eats it. Too many young chefs waste time hunting for the exotic when it is the mundane item moldering at the bottom of the art room supply bin that may be the next breakthrough.
Paste led Mr. Warner to other inspired stabs at expanding his gustatory repertoire.
Next were pencil erasers. (“Yucky,” according to Mr. Warner.) He was also the first to bite into the tip of those colored markers that smell really good. (“They smell better than they taste.”) Glue sticks and his own fingernails both had moments in the sun, but in the end, he kept coming back to paste.
As he says, “Paste is good.”
I ask him about rival third-grader Robby Wurster, who claims rubber cement is superior both as foodstuff and as adhesive agent.
Mr. Warner scoffs: “Rubber cement is good for making fake boogers, but not for eating. Real boogers, though, are pretty good.”
“But not like paste,” I reply.
Mr. Warner smiles as though he’s going to share a secret, but we are interrupted by his mother.
“John, time for you and your food critic friend to come down for dinner.”
Whatever the secret is, it will have to wait.
Dinner is traditional meat-and-potatoes-with-green-vegetable meal, with an apple crisp for desert. The food is pedestrian, but solid and satisfying. Mr. Warner is not a hearty eater, picking at the pot roast and refusing the crisp entirely—perhaps he is just full of paste. As good as the food may be, there’s nothing that indicates Mr. Warner’s adventurous palate is hereditary. In fact, his mother, Sue Warner, is not enthusiastic about his penchant for his favorite item.
“I thought I was going to have to tape oven mitts to his hands to keep him away from paste,” she comments over a post-dinner cup of Brim. “At first I thought he was just messy because the stuff was disappearing so fast, but then one day I saw it smeared all over his lips. He didn’t seem to listen to ‘no,’ so now, in this house, we only use glue.”
Later, relaxing in front of the television, watching an episode of the popular police serial CHiPs, I ask Mr. Warner about glue.
“Actually, if you put it on your fingers and let it dry, it’s not bad.”
I wish to ask so much more, but Mr. Warner silences me. “This is the best part,” he says.
On the screen, Ponch and Jon chase a car thief until the thief’s car flies off of a car carrier that has its ramp down in the middle of the highway. The thief is dragged from his car by Ponch, and Ponch and Jon exchange high fives. A perfect ending. Mr. Warner nods at the screen. “They always catch the bad guys,” he says.
The breadths of his insights surprise at every turn. I just wish that it wasn’t 8:30 and therefore time to get ready for bed. Perhaps Mr. Warner will be eager to stay up talking with flashlights underneath the sleeping bags for illumination.
Unfortunately, as we brush our teeth, I see him yawn and rub his eyes with his free hand. He looks exhausted, and to be fair, it has been a long day. On occasion, even genius must rest.
It is morning. We sit side by side on the swings of the Greenbrook Elementary playground, swaying gently. Mr. Warner’s feet dangle above the ground, reminding me his outsized talent is only just developing.
Soon Mr. Warner will go inside to start another school day, where he will likely work with paste or maybe even something new. We look down at the ground cover, soft brown mulch meant to cushion any possible falls. We reach for a piece at the same time and put it in our mouths. I realize that I am starting to see the world as he sees it. Perhaps brilliance can rub off, even in such a short time.
Mr. Warner turns to face me. His blue eyes are piercing. “You know what?” he says.
“You know the pencil shavings inside of the sharpener?”
“Those might be good,” he says. It is not often that truth strikes so quickly and hard, but there it was. In that moment, I knew he was right.
“Now,” he says, “gimme an underdog.”
I rise from my swing and take my place behind Mr. Warner. I charge forward, pushing this man-child as high as he will go, thinking that with the help of a discerning critic from the paper of record, Mr. Warner may just touch the sky.