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Let us hope that it can. As old age approaches, I offer, as my contribution, the example of a stomach without remorse or damage, a very well-disposed liver, and a still sensitive palate, all preserved by good and honest wine. Therefore, wine, fill up this gla.s.s I now hold out to you!
A delicate and simple gla.s.s, a light bubble in which there play the 51 51 sanguine fires of a great Burgundian ancestor, the topaz of Yquem, and the balas ruby, sometimes with a paler purple tinge, of the Bordeaux with its scent of violets...
There comes a time of life when one begins to prize young wine. On a Southern sh.o.r.e there is a string of round, wicker-covered demijohns always kept in store for me. One grape harvest fills them to the brim, then the next grape harvest, finding them empty once more, in its turn fills them up again. Perhaps you have a h.o.a.rd of fine old wines in your cellar, but do not disdain these wines because they give such quick returns: they are clear, dry, various, they flow easily from the throat down to the kidneys and scarcely pause a moment there. Even when it is of a warmer const.i.tution, down there, if the day is a really hot one, we think nothing of drinking down a good pint of this particular wine, for it refreshes you and leaves a double taste behind, of muscat and of ce-darwood....
52 MICHAEL FRANK.
The Underside of Bread: A Memoir with Food Nearly a century ago in Safed, a small town in what was then known as Palestine, a slice of bread slipped out of a young girl's hand one morning, and five children, all sisters, began to riot. Skirts were hiked up over knees and sleeves were bunched above elbows. Big ones trampled little ones, little scratched big, some bit and others pummeled until the bread was pulverized and chins were sc.r.a.ped and a great emotion descended over the girls, rage and sorrow and jealousy, much jealousy: for the underside of the bread had been covered, in secret, with a thick golden icing, upholstery as bright as the sun that hung over their village. The bread, it was apparent the moment it dropped, had been b.u.t.tered.
There was a sixth girl present that morning, and she alone knew about the subterfuge and grasped its purpose. She was my maternal grandmother, Sylvia Ravetch, nee Shapiro, and this is one of the few stories she told me about her childhood in Palestine. At approximately thirteen, Sylvia understood that her sister Leah was ill with polio and that the doctor had ordered her to be given b.u.t.ter with her bread, to make her fit and plump. Sylvia also understood how poor her family was, seven daughters in all born to a lacy-bearded, Talmud-studying rabbi and his stout, dark-dispositioned, tirelessly domestic wife. It fell to Sylvia to soothe the younger girls, to explain. She did not weep at this injustice, she told me proudly; she reasoned through it and helped her mother pacify the children. With the marriage and departure of her older sister, she had a.s.sumed the place of the firstborn, and firstborns are responsible and perspicacious, natural mediators between parents and siblings. Once Sylvia interceded, Leah was able to eat her bread with the b.u.t.tered side facing up.
Actually, now that I've put it down, I realize that this is the only only story my grandmother told me about her childhood in Palestine, and I don't think it's by accident that it centers on a memory of food, even if the food, in this case, went unconsumed. Food has a rare ability to 53 story my grandmother told me about her childhood in Palestine, and I don't think it's by accident that it centers on a memory of food, even if the food, in this case, went unconsumed. Food has a rare ability to 53 carry you back. It's not dissimilar to scent in this, though for me taste is more powerful than smell; more dependable too, since with few exceptions (a recipe botched or forgotten, a vegetable common to one garden, uncultivable in another) food can be counted on to produce a sensation in time present that will duplicate a sensation from time past.
With its myriad connections to the nurturing and sustenance of mothers and grandmothers, nannies and governesses, food is an uncanny defog-ger of early memory. But not only of early memory: its habits and a.s.sociations, the ritual of its acquisition and preparation, the quarrels it can provoke and the solace it can provide have a way, I think, of recovering and linking a good deal of lost history.
Can you distill someone in food? It is my contention, or at least my experiment here, that if you capture the bread and b.u.t.ter, you capture the life. First, some terms. "Distill" and "capture" locate this endeavor squarely in the realm of memoir, not biography. Memoir is impression-istic, selective, idiosyncratic, a concatenation of scenes-ingredients-that, when artfully combined, add up, if you will, to a recipe that works. I know this woman, you think when you come to the last sentence, even as you recognize that there are a great many facts you haven't learned about her. In a memoir, you can mount your subject behind all sorts of very specific frames: food, travel, reading, medicine; if you tried this in a biography, you would not be doing your job. Although the goal of both is to "shape a likeness of the vanished figure,"
as Leon Edel has put it, the biographer, he explains, "seeks to restore the very sense of life to the inert materials that survive an individual's pa.s.sage on this earth." In a memoir, if you have no letters or books or doc.u.ments of consequence, no collections of b.u.t.terflies or drawers full of military decorations, no inert materials to draw on, as I haven't with my grandmother, you still have the slice of b.u.t.tered bread, figs and k.u.mquats and a sponge cake, diaphanous sheathes wrapping airy blintzes, endless gla.s.ses of pulpy orange juice, Sylvia's foods all and all richly storied. Food is a language that is spoken, one way or another, in every life.
By the time I knew her, my grandmother was deracinated, "pluck[ed]
and [torn] up by the roots" (OED) (OED) and worse; it seemed as if her roots hadn't been left dangling to surface again, as they do in so many transposed lives, in the anecdotes, artifacts, and customs that mark immigrant grandparents as exotic and old-worldly. With Sylvia they were chopped off. While it's true that she spoke, read, and wrote Hebrew and worse; it seemed as if her roots hadn't been left dangling to surface again, as they do in so many transposed lives, in the anecdotes, artifacts, and customs that mark immigrant grandparents as exotic and old-worldly. With Sylvia they were chopped off. While it's true that she spoke, read, and wrote Hebrew 54 fluently, she never did so with me, the son of her un.o.bservant daughter and son-in-law. Her vocabulary had the occasional thread of Yiddish running through it, but the threads were much fainter than they would have been had she been born in Eastern Europe or Russia. All but one of the few photographs that were taken of her family in Safed were taken after Sylvia left. If she had carried so much as a hairpin with her from Palestine, it had long since disappeared. But it's not merely the lack of goods and chattels that marked Sylvia as cut off from her origins.
She never celebrated her birthday; indeed, she did not know it, a fact I had great difficulty understanding as a child-it made Sylvia seem like a figure out of a fairy tale or a myth when in reality she was merely another girl child fathered by a man who, longing for sons to follow him in his Talmudic studies, couldn't be bothered to mark down the date any of his daughters was born. My grandmother suffered from what my mother calls immigrant shame, though I wonder if it is not more specific to Sylvia than this categorizing suggests. She was embarra.s.sed by her accent, which she believed gave her away as a greenhorn (my mother never heard it; nor did I). She thought her handwriting looked foreign and unlettered (it didn't; she wasn't), so that when I wrote to her during my summer vacations she refused to write back.
She hated most photographs taken of her and often tore out her head, leaving a long series of decapitated bodies to embrace children and grandchildren, husband and friends. Even though she'd been married for decades to a man who had his citizenship, because she'd entered this country illegally, she never let herself return to her homeland; she remained convinced, in middle age, in old age even, that if she left America she would not be allowed back in.
Out of this self-abnegation, the blankness of Sylvia's past, the story of the bread and b.u.t.ter had the l.u.s.ter of a single wick shining on an enormous black sea. "Unfortunately, one only remembers what is exceptional," Virginia Woolf observes in her loose, honest, speedily written late memoir, "A Sketch of the Past." If this is true, and if the bread and b.u.t.ter incident was indeed exceptional for Sylvia, it was, I believe, because it represented the moment when she became conscious of her autonomy. Sylvia stood apart from her sisters that morning. She read her mother and comprehended, if she did not condone, her duplicity; by interpreting for an adult, she joined her ranks. The bread and b.u.t.ter presaged the dramatic turn Sylvia's life was to take two years later, when the girl who did not weep at being denied this gustatory treat was 55 deemed sufficiently mature to travel West, to Montreal, where she would go to work as a Hebrew teacher and earn enough money not only to keep herself but to help bring the rest of her family to North America.
When Sylvia married my grandfather, Shalom Ravetch, in New Jersey, he was studying to become a pharmacist, a nice, dependable occupation that would take Sylvia far away from the b.u.t.terless penury she knew as a rabbi's daughter. But her new husband had a crisis; pills and ointments bored him; he went back to school and then on to the Jewish Inst.i.tute of Religion; and now it's, say, 1942, and Shalom is the rabbi of Temple Sinai in Long Beach, California, where he delivers sermons with such t.i.tles as "Anti-Semitism-the Remedy" and "Chanukah Challenges the Jew." Sylvia is the rebbetzen, leading the kind of public life she never antic.i.p.ated. With endless orchid corsages pinned to her collar, her hair waved and sh.e.l.lacked, suits and stockings donned and pumps polished, she occupies a regular front-row seat at the synagogue, beams at bar mitzvahs, and is brave at funerals. She teaches in the Sunday school, attends banquets and fund-raisers and sisterhood meetings. She sits on committees; she performs good works. At home the pumps are replaced by slippers and an ap.r.o.n covers the good suit while Sylvia kneads and braids dough for each week's challah and prepares sedulously kosher meals. She can't cheat because members of the congregation are fond of stopping by, unannounced, to check up on the rabbi's wife. She can't skimp because her family, two sons now and a daughter, rarely eats alone. The Ravetches' door stands permanently open, the leaves in their dining room table stuck in place to make room for mayors and businessmen and fellow rabbis, scholars bearded and scholars shaven, fathers with children in crisis, wives with husbands on the run; anyone, it seemed to my mother, watching this panorama as a young girl, who pa.s.sed through Long Beach and needed a kosher meal.
Week after week, the braids on Sylvia's challahs grew to Rapunzellian length. They were laborious loaves, and I could easily let them stand for this period of my grandmother's life, but the impulse to render the past as fairly as I can compels me to reach into Sylvia's larder and find her sponge cake. I tasted it, in its later incarnation, many times in my childhood, and I always had the sense that this was Sylvia's happiest dish, not merely because it was party food, though party food it certainly was, but because I detected an unfamiliar levity in the way she composed its aromatic batter. Was it a child's fascination with the mystery of the 56 egg white, that runny mucous liquid that a grandmother's deft wrist can transform into a mountain of frothy snow? I think not. This dish provoked a ruminative look in Sylvia. She inclined her head as she prepared it, almost as if she were leaning, smiling into another world, peering at what I never knew or thought to ask. Thanks to my mother, I know now that Sylvia's sponges date from the height of her kitchen drudgery but that they did not often grace the table jammed with its uninvited guests. No. She saved them for the sudden marriages her husband performed during the war: soldiers or sailors who had fallen in love and found a bride and, on a day's leave, far from home, appeared in Shalom's study to be wed. Some died in battle, some lived long lives, but all who had no family nearby were launched in marriage with a slice of sponge and a gla.s.s of berry wine. They were Sylvia's pastry of celebration, of goodwill, and whenever she turned one out of its pan she seemed to be revisiting, briefly, a vanished festivity.
My mother marries, my grandfather dies, I am born, the pancake wars begin. Until I am ten years old, when I visit one grandmother, I visit the other. I do not think there is anything odd about this-don't all grandmothers live together? Mine do. Well, to be precise, my mother's mother lives with with my father's mother. After Shalom's death, Sylvia was deemed incapable of living on her own. She'd never maintained a checking account or managed her affairs or been by herself. She was lonely and grieving. The children convened and decided it would be best if she took up Huff's offer and moved into the back bedroom of her apartment in Los Angeles. Finally the leaves were yanked out of Sylvia's dining room table; her household was disbursed; she arrived at Ogden Drive with two suitcases and two cartons of books. my father's mother. After Shalom's death, Sylvia was deemed incapable of living on her own. She'd never maintained a checking account or managed her affairs or been by herself. She was lonely and grieving. The children convened and decided it would be best if she took up Huff's offer and moved into the back bedroom of her apartment in Los Angeles. Finally the leaves were yanked out of Sylvia's dining room table; her household was disbursed; she arrived at Ogden Drive with two suitcases and two cartons of books.
In the kitchen, as elsewhere, these two women could not have been more incompatible. Huff was chocolate, Sylvia vanilla. Huff prepared dense, meaty soups, Sylvia chicken broth with matzo b.a.l.l.s floating through them. Huff brewed coffee; Sylvia preferred Sanka. Their polar-ities were as clear to me, their shared grandson, as their different perfumes. Huff drove, Sylvia rode the bus. Huff had worked in the world of Hollywood and had the wardrobe and jewelry and bearing to prove it; Sylvia had remained in the synagogue and at home.... But there was one place where at least their culinary worlds intersected, a dish both women made: the thin papery delicacies Huff called either crepes or German pancakes and Sylvia interpreted in a more utilitarian way, as 57 57 sh.e.l.ls for her blintzes. Huff larded her version with b.u.t.ter, in the batter and in the pan, where she left them over the flame until they were crisp and brown; afterwards she acc.u.mulated them in the oven, in a square Pyrex dish coated with still more b.u.t.ter; then they were eaten with syrup or powdered sugar or jam. Sylvia's were prepared with the scantest amount of shortening. Her batter was scarcely poured into the scalding pan until it congealed, and the pancake was turned out onto the countertop, pale as the tiles on which it cooled. Later it would envelop a filling of hoop and cream cheese, eggs and vanilla and sugar, all mixed with the fingers of her right hand.
If "pancake wars" has an overly melodramatic ring, consider the battleground: the affections of an eight-year-old boy who is about to be awakened from the childish notion that tension, conflict, hurt, and loss are the stock-in-trade of the school yard, never of grandma's-grandmas'-house. I can travel back and open the door to the apartment on Ogden Drive so easily, so vividly, that I have trouble believing it no longer remains intact: the living room with its Flemish mirror, its brown and beige curtains and sofa, the Queen Anne table, the Welsh dresser arranged with Chinese ceramics, the reverse paintings on gla.s.s; Huff's bedroom with its twin beds, the bureau with bunches of carved grapes for pulls, the wallpaper I would finger when I woke in the morning, wreath-urn-wreath, wreath-urn-wreath; wreath-urn-wreath, wreath-urn-wreath; Sylvia's smaller bedroom down the hall, where one wall is papered with blue toile (revelers picnicking in a generic French garden) and where the Zenith radio by her bed crackles with opera every Sat.u.r.day morning; the kitchen with its pegboard, its whistling tea kettle, its flame-darkened frying pans, its spoon rest. Whoever guides this camera will never let me skip the spoon rest. A ladle is slapped down. A bowl jumps. Pancake batter splashes. "Why will a young man ever need to know how to make blintzes?" Grandma Huffy asks Grandma Sylvia sharply, and Sylvia wipes her hands on her ap.r.o.n and abandons her post at the stove. Huff melts a chunk of b.u.t.ter in the pan, enriches Sylvia's batter, and makes me a heap of German pancakes that I eat with syrup and powdered sugar and...appet.i.te. I would like to be able to say the pancakes turned to paper-dust-wood in my mouth, but they didn't. They were delec-table. Sylvia's smaller bedroom down the hall, where one wall is papered with blue toile (revelers picnicking in a generic French garden) and where the Zenith radio by her bed crackles with opera every Sat.u.r.day morning; the kitchen with its pegboard, its whistling tea kettle, its flame-darkened frying pans, its spoon rest. Whoever guides this camera will never let me skip the spoon rest. A ladle is slapped down. A bowl jumps. Pancake batter splashes. "Why will a young man ever need to know how to make blintzes?" Grandma Huffy asks Grandma Sylvia sharply, and Sylvia wipes her hands on her ap.r.o.n and abandons her post at the stove. Huff melts a chunk of b.u.t.ter in the pan, enriches Sylvia's batter, and makes me a heap of German pancakes that I eat with syrup and powdered sugar and...appet.i.te. I would like to be able to say the pancakes turned to paper-dust-wood in my mouth, but they didn't. They were delec-table.
The moment, however, was not. The first of several complex pairings of women in my life had revealed itself to me. By some obscure alchemy of consciousness, the sting of Sylvia's hurt feelings turned on, or more accurately turned me on to, the rivalry between my two grand-58 mothers. The beautiful museum of their apartment was never quite so beautiful or quite so like a museum again.
Huff dies, and Sylvia has a handful of fairly good, fairly independent years-bookending her youth, she even resumes teaching Hebrew at a synagogue in Los Angeles-before she becomes ill and a paid companion moves in to care for her. During the in-between period, Sylvia spins a coc.o.o.n that relieves the considerable pain of my early adolescence. Its dominant motif, the images that linger most palpably two decades later, all contain food: gla.s.ses of fresh-squeezed orange juice that were Sylvia's idea of a cure-all for every cough and shiver; bowls of warm, fragrant, milky tapioca; the ubiquitous blintzes, which she would send home stacked between sheets of waxed paper; figs and k.u.mquats, which we would buy on our excursions to the Farmer's Market, Fairfax and Third, and which, I now suspect, must have summoned her childhood in Palestine; the celebratory sponge cakes, of course; her crisp mandelbrot mandelbrot cookies, which I never tasted again until I went to live in Florence and encountered them under a different name, cookies, which I never tasted again until I went to live in Florence and encountered them under a different name, biscotti di Prato; biscotti di Prato; and the Friday Night Meal: a plate of glistening T-bone steak, a pool of peas, a sour-creamed and chived baked potato for me and for Sylvia a scoop of cottage cheese and half a pear. I was being given the b.u.t.tered bread, while she made do with the plain. and the Friday Night Meal: a plate of glistening T-bone steak, a pool of peas, a sour-creamed and chived baked potato for me and for Sylvia a scoop of cottage cheese and half a pear. I was being given the b.u.t.tered bread, while she made do with the plain.
The last time I saw Sylvia I'd come to the apartment for one of my Friday nights and was given the choice of staying as usual or accompanying my younger brothers to the movies. Sylvia encouraged me to go.
"There'll be another Friday," she said. We embraced-in the dining room, of course. I saw us, I see us still, in the mirror that hung on one wall: an ungainly dry-haired boy standing over his grandmother, her eyes large and moist, the color of skim milk. Holding-fitting. She died at five o'clock the next morning. Later that same afternoon, a United Parcel truck parked at 1648 North Ogden Drive, and a large squat man in a brown uniform delivered a tinned fruitcake ordered by my mother, an out-of-season surprise for my grandmother, who was fond of them.
Mom and I opened the cake, prepared two gla.s.ses of tea, and sat down to the familiar table in the familiar room, but neither of us could swallow a bite.
Other than a handful of birthday cards, the only examples I have of Grandma Sylvia's handwriting are her recipes. Among them is one for 59 59 the sponge cake. I tried to make it once, about five years ago. It was a disaster: limp, heavy, off. Unlike the fruitcake, which I don't believe I will bother to taste again, I will return to the sponge one day, only not, I think, until I am an old man, and I am able to tell my grandchild some stories about bread and b.u.t.ter and pancakes and orange juice and a long-ago woman in a long-ago time. Surely then the cake will rise.
60 JAMES SEAY.
Our Hands in the History of It When she wrung the necks of chickens for our Sunday meals, my grandmother summoned an uncommonly nimble articulation in her wrist that allowed her, after about three quick rotations of the bird, to cast it far enough from her to avoid spotting her ap.r.o.n with blood. It was a motion of the wrist that I don't remember in even the younger women of our family, nor in any of the men, including my father, gathered for our Sunday visits, but then again age and gender aren't the controlling factors here. There's also the fact that I've never seen anyone else wring the neck of a chicken, so what I guess I'm saying is that I can't imagine anyone even coming close to the smooth, articular motion that my grandmother introduced into her final rotation of the bird to send it in headless flight from her.
Usually she would have taken two pullets from the chicken yard and put them in a raised frame-and-wire coop for special feeding during the week before our visit. At some point in the past my grandfather had brought in some White Leghorns to mix with the flock, but her choice for these special occasions continued to be her "Dominickers"
(Dominiques), because the Leghorns were too small to satisfy her pro-tocol for a full serving on each plate-man's, woman's, or child's. Even if Leghorns were allowed to grow beyond pullet size, for laying purposes, their eggs were too little for her use, she said. So it was the favored Dominicker that she would take from the coop, gather partly under her arm, one hand over its neck and head, the other around its legs, and carry to the middle of the backyard. Releasing its legs and holding it by the head, she would rotate it quickly in the air by the weight of its body for as many turns as she judged the thickness of the neck to require. The image that I carry, nearly half a century later, is of that particular motion-to say flick is to suggest too sharp and radical a motion-of her wrist in the conclusion, along with a casting away and a simultaneous stepping back while still in an almost graceful stoop, a half bow. The headless chicken, thrashing in the gra.s.s, is a blur to me and my cousins standing agape on the back porch or draped over one of the low limbs of the apple tree.
61.We are waiting to watch her take the other Dominicker from the coop and wring its neck.
The food and wine I remember and celebrate most fondly is that which I've been close to the source of. It's probably sentimental to think that these experiences actually are more intense and resonant the closer we are to the place of the sowing or gathering or preparation-and in the degree to which we have had a hand in any of this-but my own narratives of eating and drinking seem to favor that notion. The baker, dusty with flour, has just handed me a batard batard fresh from the oven, and I am eating it outside his shop. The Provencal village is bright with promise all around me. It is the best bread I have ever eaten. In another story it is a local wine and a train window in Tuscany letting onto the changing crosshatch of vineyard rows. My wife-to-be and I might think vaguely of the cheese and olives we have wrapped in wax paper, but for now there is nothing close in pleasure to this wine and the fleeting landscape of its origin. It's not that all of this is better than s.e.x, but there are other pa.s.sengers sharing our sleeping compartment. Also the nuns have a habit of looking into compartments, regardless of whether the curtains are open or drawn, in search of better seats and privacy. fresh from the oven, and I am eating it outside his shop. The Provencal village is bright with promise all around me. It is the best bread I have ever eaten. In another story it is a local wine and a train window in Tuscany letting onto the changing crosshatch of vineyard rows. My wife-to-be and I might think vaguely of the cheese and olives we have wrapped in wax paper, but for now there is nothing close in pleasure to this wine and the fleeting landscape of its origin. It's not that all of this is better than s.e.x, but there are other pa.s.sengers sharing our sleeping compartment. Also the nuns have a habit of looking into compartments, regardless of whether the curtains are open or drawn, in search of better seats and privacy.
O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost thigh, drumstick, wishbone, come back again. Obviously, the chicken that my grandmother is about to fry is going to be the best that I have ever eaten. As I said, these narratives of memory and celebration have for me an emotional signal-to-noise ratio that relies on both the hands-on and the close-source quotients. My bread in Provence, even though I am at several removes from any chance at having a hand in its creation, is caught in the light of all its sources. Or at least I have romanticized it as such, and that generates a nearly optimum signal for the scope of things here. Likewise with the Tuscan wine, where the sense of source is even keener. It is late summer and the vines are heavy with grapes. The speed of the train accentuates the gradations of texture in the vineyards and gives the illusion of an actual winemaking already at work in the vines. As we pa.s.s through Chianti, the Gallo Nero (black rooster) logo of that region's wines flashes occasionally by our window, each image doubling and deepening the impression of those same roadside signs that we carry in memory from our recent drives into the countryside for lazy picnics among the olive groves or under the slender cypresses, all a part of the taste and texture of the soft wine and cheese and olives in brine and herbs, the fresh loaves of bread. We drink more of the 62 wine and look out of the window now with the mild sadness of such departures. It is the best wine we have ever drunk.
I have my hands on the Dominicker's scaly though surprisingly smooth legs and am carrying it to the black cast-iron pot under which my grandfather has a fire going. My grandmother will dip the headless chicken into the hot water to loosen its feathers and then let me or one of my cousins take it to the back porch while she is scalding the other one. We have spread newspapers for her. If she is not in too big a hurry she will let us help with the plucking. Everybody gets a tickle-feather to take home later, despite the fact that the air of the car will be tinctured with wet chicken. That odor, though, is nothing compared to the smell of the recently lit kerosene stove blending with the stench of burning pin feathers as my grandmother singes the plucked Dominickers in the kitchen. She would normally dip them in melted paraffin to remove the pin feathers, but the store was out of stock. On the kitchen counter there is a blue and white paper carton of Humko Vegetable Shortening out of which she scoops a large portion of shortening for the hot skillet, and it's not until the butchered and dredged chicken is settled in this, sputtering and popping, that the kitchen becomes a place my cousins and I want to spend any time in. My grandfather has butchered a hog recently and given her the lard he rendered, but she adds it to the melted shortening only sparingly and has never fried a chicken in it exclusively, as some of the neighbors do. Too greasy, she says. Throws the flavor off.
Proust may have written the book on this kind of thing, but the typically Gallic quality of his treatment of his Aunt Leonie's tea and pet.i.tes pet.i.tes madeleines madeleines is much too delicate and highly nuanced to handle the imprint that is forming in my brainpan now that the true frying has commenced in my grandmother's kitchen. is much too delicate and highly nuanced to handle the imprint that is forming in my brainpan now that the true frying has commenced in my grandmother's kitchen.
Don't misunderstand; it would suit me to do a lot less cooking than I do, and I'm sure my grandmother would have said the same for herself.
If I were a boulevardier, I would be one with a proven weakness for good restaurants and cafes. If I were an especially rich boulevardier, I'd leave the boulevards once a week and jet to such places as the west coast of Ireland and be at Moran's of the Weir before the landing gear cooled, drinking one of their lighter draughts and eating salmon from the waters of history. This is not to say that I am backing down from my claim that the best food and drink for me is not only close-source but also a part of the work of my own hands. The family Moran's salmon, close to its source, is of the first order, but in the final reckoning I cannot honor it 63 in the way that I honor, say, the flounder that my friend Tom Huey and I caught and pan-fried in b.u.t.ter, dill weed, and lemon over an open fire on Cape Lookout one summer evening at sunset.
They were the best flounder I have ever eaten. One reason is that they were fresh out of the water. We had been drift-fishing in Lookout Bight and hooked them in the late afternoon after an otherwise luckless day, except for sighting some of the wild horses running at a canter along Shackleford Banks. In the slackness of the afternoon Tommy kept mixing Cuba Libres for us. By differing degrees our marriages were failing, and this was something I guess we thought we could do to stave off what was coming. Besides the Cuba Libres, all we had for dinner was the flounder and half a loaf of Pepperidge Farm, which made the moment seem sort of scriptural and beatific. When we woke the next morning and stumbled out of the tent, we found my Boston Whaler beached, dead weight on the sand with its heavy seaworthiness and an old forty-horse Evinrude that was about three times the weight of present models. We had neglected to factor in the low tide line in an-choring it, so there it was, thirty yards from the water, and we had to move it, foot by dark Bacardi foot, over the drying sand. All of that-the dead weight and sweat and near nausea, the beautiful emerald water we fished on, the recurring dread beneath the surface of our happiness, the wild horses, the fish finally taking our bait, the driftwood fire-is why it is the best flounder I have ever eaten. We had our hands in the history of it, and its provenance was all around us.
These stories of fish eaten fresh out of water-including those from sushi lovers-are implicitly compet.i.tive, and I give the prize to a group of Oriental tourists that a charter boat captain working out of Alligator Point, Florida, told my group about. After boating a nice Spanish mackerel that one of the Orientals had caught, the captain busied himself rigging an extra line and getting bait ready, only to look around and find the Orientals sitting in a circle on the deck by the fish box. They had quit fishing, taken the Spanish out of the box, cut strips from it, and were happily, ceremoniously, feasting. Those little fellas had brought along a bottle of some kind of brown sauce, the captain said, and were putting it on that fish and eating it raw!-smiling and jabber-ing in a language he'd never heard. Happy as they could be. It was the best fish they had ever eaten.
I am going to the garden to pick collards after first frost. Even while tilling and working the compost into the ground and planting the small 64 64 seeds, I knew the mature plants would take up too much s.p.a.ce for the limited plot I had, but I wanted to feel the heft again in the harvesting and taste the taste I remember from country dinners. I plan to cook them for several hours with an unhealthy-sized piece of fatback in the pot. My boat is in the water and I am playing out line to troll along tide rips for blues. When they start striking we'll double back and try to cast without spooking them. The farm family, friends of my sister, calls to say come pick some Silver Queen; the ta.s.sels are turning. There are doves simmering in a broth of red wine, shallots, herbs, a little olive oil. Maybe a pinch of fennel. Even in a brief cataloging such as this, we begin to read our lives, and in this sense food also takes on a political shading, though that would have to be the most remote of motives and a.s.sociations. My father is home on leave before shipping out for the Pacific. He has put on his red and black buffalo plaid shirt and is up in the pecan tree shaking a limb that we can't reach with the shaker pole.
The pecans shower down on me. When I have filled another pail or two, we will take them inside and pick them, pa.s.sing the nutcracker back and forth across the table as my mother gets ready to toast them with salt and b.u.t.ter. We will eat them fresh out of the oven early in the evening, and then tomorrow my father will go to war. My greatest fear, though, is that a limb will break or he will lose his purchase as he climbs higher. But he calls down to me and says to crack some of the pecans and make sure these higher ones aren't too green.
One Sunday we showed up at my grandparents' house unannounced.
Maybe because the phones were out. I don't remember. At any rate, my grandmother had not put any Dominickers up for special feeding, and besides she said there weren't any really big enough to cook. We'd have to go with one of the Leghorns. I don't think that this was a terribly unsettling event for her-the subst.i.tution of a Leghorn-but I do think that our surprise visit and the need she felt to set a decent table for company, though not a two-chicken crowd, fl.u.s.tered her a bit. Still and all, she took her usual steady course to the chicken yard, singled out a shiny white Leghorn, and began to work it toward a corner. This was a hot summer day in Mississippi, and the Leghorn, smaller and more agile than her Dominickers, tested her further, but she caught it and brought it to the middle of the yard to wring its neck.
At the critical moment during the wringing, something apparently failed to engage in the small bones and musculature of her wrist, with the result that the chicken was not propelled as far from her as usual.
65 In the bird's first wild flailing loop on the ground, several drops of blood from the neck stump came flying back at her and were absorbed in the white cotton of her ap.r.o.n, just off center between her b.r.e.a.s.t.s. She had forgotten to change to her work ap.r.o.n before coming to the chicken yard and was still wearing the clean white ap.r.o.n that she had put on when we arrived. I can see her now, pulling the bib of the ap.r.o.n slightly away from her body and looking down at the stains on the clean cotton: three bright and neatly tailed meteors of red, seeming to be in a state of tension, still resisting their arrest in flight.
It was not a particularly dramatic mishap for her, though, as well as I can remember. She took note and went on with the work at hand. My grandfather later commented on the stains, but she explained it as a simple matter of not having cast the chicken far enough and then not being able to dodge the spattering of blood. The nuisance was in the prospect of having to wash and iron the ap.r.o.n again so soon. I am not making this out to be a badge for anything or a mark of my grandmother's mortality. It was a measure of her failing strength and facility of motion possibly, but she went on to wring the necks of scores of chickens and serve up the platters by which I continue to judge all fried chicken put before me.
After we ate the Leghorn that day, along with hot b.u.t.tered biscuits, mashed potatoes and gravy, pole beans, creamed corn, sliced tomatoes, pickled watermelon rind relish, iced tea, and fried peach pies, my grandfather and I walked to town to visit Mr. Woolfork's ice cream parlor, which we often did during my visits. The unusual thing, though to me it seemed providentially arranged and was a time-honored combination in Mr. Woolfork's parlor, was that Mr. Woolfork sold used pocket knives along with his ice cream. He kept them in cigar boxes under the counter and would bring them out if someone wanted to buy or trade knives. The strangeness of that union, ice cream and knives, did not register on me until much later, but the realization seemed only to deepen the mystery that I somehow sensed as a child.
A pocket knife was as essential as a shoe or a hat. My grandfather would whittle, lance a boil, cut an apple, or trim his toenails all with the same pocket knife. Mine was perhaps more a token knife, though I would find ways to use it in the woods, on fishing trips, and so on. I don't want to push the implications here, but obviously our knives-their size, sharpness, relative elaborateness-were a subject of comparison for me and my friends. But so also were our dogs, our bi-cycles, our new winter coats. For whatever meaning, they were fascinating ob- 66 jects-knives-and it was an enthralling piece of action for me to walk into Mr. Woolfork's with my grandfather, order White House Ice Cream, and sort through the knives offered there for sale or trade. Probably my hope each time was that my grandfather would get me a different knife, but he did that only a couple of times during my entire childhood.
As for his own knife, he would wear down a blade maybe every ten years or so and have to trade the knife and some money with Mr.
Woolfork or go to the hardware store for a new one.
The thought of this particular hardware item in an ice cream parlor comes back to me on occasion, its force field of mystery as strong as ever. I call them the ice cream knives, and somehow I am trying to bring them to bear on the image of my grandmother and her ability to deal so summarily with her Dominickers and Leghorns. There are affinities, but the two images-the ice cream knives and my grandmother with her chickens-are bound to a time and a culture and I have to leave them there in a loose and tentative circling. They seem to want to join in what might be a redefining of sacrament and sacrifice that I could understand, but it is a closure that I am finally incapable of forcing.
Besides, that would be asking too much of a motley a.s.sortment of used pocket knives in a cigar box, and also my grandmother would look back at me through the years, puzzled at such a farfetched notion.
At the moment she is looking down at me as I reach under the thin cover-cloth she has spread over the leftovers on the table. There is not much fried chicken left except for a neck and a back with its vestigial tail pucker that she refers to as the preacher's nose. She knows I am full of White House Ice Cream but does not say anything. I am telling her about the ice cream knives. As I pick at the last of the nuggets of meat on the chicken back, I look up at her and see that she still has on the stained ap.r.o.n. She looks down at the bloodstains and then back to me without any comment. I don't say anything either. I am eating the best chicken I have ever eaten.
67 WILLIAM CORBETT.
To Carol Braider's Kitchen I first saw shelves of cookbooks, hanging copper pots, an overflowing spice rack-first drank wine and first ate garlic, olive oil, kosher salt, and soups made with homemade stock-in Carol Braider's kitchen. I was fifteen at the time and because of my upbringing expected kitchens to be sterile as hospital rooms. You went into them carefully for snacks, made no mess, and at dinner you cleaned your plate, did the dishes, and did not linger. It was a high compliment to declare some house-wife's kitchen floor was clean enough you could eat off it. first saw shelves of cookbooks, hanging copper pots, an overflowing spice rack-first drank wine and first ate garlic, olive oil, kosher salt, and soups made with homemade stock-in Carol Braider's kitchen. I was fifteen at the time and because of my upbringing expected kitchens to be sterile as hospital rooms. You went into them carefully for snacks, made no mess, and at dinner you cleaned your plate, did the dishes, and did not linger. It was a high compliment to declare some house-wife's kitchen floor was clean enough you could eat off it.
Carol Braider's kitchen smelled of food and cooking; there was no attempt to hide what took place there. Her stove was crusted with spilled food and her refrigerator crammed with leftovers-it was what my grandmother called a pigsty. As she cooked Carol drank wine, and dishes were as much improvised as built from recipes. Her ap.r.o.ns were spotted and stained, and she was constantly hovering, tasting, stirring, adding pinches of this and that.
When you dined at Carol's table you were expected to smoke between courses, to drink a few gla.s.ses of wine, to talk over coffee. Carol's husband, Donald, was my teacher, and when I came into their house as a baby-sitter and had my first meal there, I was appalled and fascinated.
We ate spaghetti with a sauce that was not not meatb.a.l.l.s, and their poodle, Bucky, ate with us-I can still see the strands of pasta disappearing one after another into his curly black muzzle. Growing up, I was usually put off by the strange odors in friends' kitchens. But Carol's kitchen did not repulse me. There was so much life and so many mysteries in the place that I was drawn to it. meatb.a.l.l.s, and their poodle, Bucky, ate with us-I can still see the strands of pasta disappearing one after another into his curly black muzzle. Growing up, I was usually put off by the strange odors in friends' kitchens. But Carol's kitchen did not repulse me. There was so much life and so many mysteries in the place that I was drawn to it.
My awareness of food as more than sustenance, of the lore of cooking, eating, and drinking, began in the Braider kitchen. Carol's kitchen meant freedom to me; although I was fed liberally, as any middle-cla.s.s child of the fifties, I was confined to a dull menu and a tense dinner hour.
My mother must have felt similar constraints, for as she got to know Carol she began to consult French cookbooks, use wine in sauces, and generally let her kitchen and her cooking go. She had always loved to 68 eat and had, until the ten days it took her to die from a fall down the stairs, a lumberjack's appet.i.te-she was forever going on a diet tomorrow. Yet before Carol's influence my mother's cooking was bland as her kitchen was spotless, and her dinners had as much to do with discipline as food.
My father was a doctor, a general pract.i.tioner, and five nights a week he held office hours, first in a room off the kitchen and then at his office in a local shopping center. When he came home at sundown he wanted food on the table. He often teased in a crude way that he expected his wife to be a slave and wanted things just like they were in the old country, where the wife served the husband, then satisfied herself on what sc.r.a.ps were left over. His diatribe was interrupted by the ring of his office phone. "Take two aspirins and call me in the morning." "Give him a bath in Epsom salts." "I'll be out to see her after office hours." If my mother served us a dish fixed-she never "prepared" a meal-in a new way, he ate it without comment in an ostentatious silence. In response to her asking if he liked it, he'd snap, "I'm eating it ain't I!" He half meant this to be funny, but he had so little gift for humor that the effect was most often deadening.
About his own father he said little, but his most repeated anecdote had to do with food. His father and mother had a miserable marriage, one of such acrimonious contention his father frequently stayed away from home for days at a time. When he came back at lunchtime he found waiting, as expected, a mound of cold stuffed cabbage. He sat down to this plate and wordlessly polished off every one, as many as twenty-five stuffed leaves at one of these sittings. Then he retired to his chair in the living room and snored off his gluttony. For my father his surly father embodied some otherwise indefinable male prerogative. The apple, as Hungarians say, does not fall far from the tree.
Of course, there were many nights when my father was not the "moody Hungarian," and on these occasions my brother and I sometimes suffered as well. During the day my mother used the rod of my father's coming home to dinner to try to keep us in line. By the time he arrived, and we were seated, my mother served up our crimes with the ca.s.serole, and the meal quickly became a court in which we were lectured and punished-so many nights early to bed, so many afternoons doing yard work, etc. As he harangued us, we either wolfed our hamburgers, hot dogs, or tuna ca.s.seroles so as not to be hectored about our lack of appet.i.te or, baleful night, pushed our food around our plates, food we had to force down even on an ordinary night: liver, broccoli, or lima 69 beans! Frozen Ford Hook lima beans cooked in a pressure cooker resembling the Kaiser's helmet! Limas that were a stomach-turning green, mealy and and slimy and even drowned in catsup...impossible to force down. My brother and I could not be members of the clean plate club no matter the threats that rained down on us: "You'll stay here and finish your dinner even if it takes until h.e.l.l freezes over." It took years before we could laugh at this and years before we could deflect some of the unwanted parental scrutiny through jokes and mockery, but it's no wonder I still inhale my food, as if to escape the table. slimy and even drowned in catsup...impossible to force down. My brother and I could not be members of the clean plate club no matter the threats that rained down on us: "You'll stay here and finish your dinner even if it takes until h.e.l.l freezes over." It took years before we could laugh at this and years before we could deflect some of the unwanted parental scrutiny through jokes and mockery, but it's no wonder I still inhale my food, as if to escape the table.
We were so ceaselessly sullen and sharp with one another, so angry and in tears so often, that the family battles over dinner are more memorable than the dinners themselves, save for my mother's desserts.
She had a sweet tooth and a gift for pies and cakes, inherited from her mother. Her cherry pie or b.u.t.terscotch cream pie, chocolate pudding, her black cake with white mint frosting, or even her thin-sliced ice-box cookies kept my attention on any number of mushlike stews from the pressure cooker.
At restaurant tables my father could be expansive and, to restaurateurs, charming. Thursdays were his day off, and if he and my mother didn't drive to New York City for dinner and a show, we dined out at Manero's Steakhouse, The Clam Box, or the Algonquin Club with its gla.s.s boats of celery and olives. My father liked to have his steak burned black, but what he liked best in restaurants was to diagnose illnesses he could see in another diner's walk, posture, or complexion.
Most dinners out calmed our fractious temperaments, and we even enjoyed ourselves. If I wasn't always crazy about the food in these restaurants, I did fall in love with eating out. I think it was the staginess of restaurants, their rituals that first appealed to me. There was so much to pay attention to, so much to consider and to master. I imagined a curtain going up revealing a world arranged to surprise, test, and delight me.
As my parents got to know the Braiders and their interest in food developed, so did their taste in restaurants. During the late fifties and early sixties, good cooking began to mean French cooking. They were not adventurous eaters, and we sampled none of the ethnic restaurants in working-cla.s.s Bridgeport. Indeed, their tastes must have been formed in part by their rejection of the ethnic cooking of their childhoods.
My father's mother was a hilariously rotten cook. We went there twice a year for the same lunch: stuffed cabbage (I still can't stomach even one!), chicken paprikash, a bland bland dish, noodles that came to the dish, noodles that came to the 70 70 table in a clump, green beans in a red sauce named "lurch" by my mother, and a dessert of hard curls of pastry dusted with confectioner's sugar. We ate this meal in her kitchen with the windows closed even for the summer lunch, and we sweated like pigs as we groaned through the courses.
My mother's mother was more gifted. We still use her recipes for spinach or Swiss chard with hot bacon dressing and for shoofly pie, a Pennsylvania Dutch mola.s.ses-based breakfast pie she called crumb pie.
She had a small vegetable garden behind her Pennsylvania home, and she put up vegetables and the huckleberries my grandfather and I gathered while stream fishing. She could bake a superb huckleberry pie and cursed them if they came out "runny b.u.g.g.e.rs." And she could make a good dish of sauerkraut and roast pork. But she hated the mess of cooking, and her meals seemed less important than the cleanup to quickly restore her kitchen to apple-pie order. Outside of the lunches she made for her bridge club, she never served a guest in her house.
And her husband refused to eat out after being served cake on a dirty plate at his sister's.
Throughout my childhood I heard women complain of slaving over a hot stove, of working their fingers to the bone fixing dinner, and of men who wouldn't lift a finger and if they did have a mind to wouldn't know what to do if you told them ten times. "Get out of the road," my grandmother shooed my grandfather out of her kitchen. Cooking, for the cooks of my childhood, and eating for all of us, was a form of labor.
Given the extraordinary plenty of this country, it seems strange we did not enjoy ourselves more, but we did not seem to know how. Certainly my grandparents, three of whom were immigrants, sustained no peasant traditions. Perhaps we had so much we took food for granted and did not want to remind ourselves of how much we had.
The food at meals was often secondary, secondary to discipline, to cleanliness, and to shortcuts, bargains, and the new improved world of timesavers. Food, it seems, would take care of itself or be taken care of by ever-new marvels of processing. In my house meals were used to dispense justice, or they were finished speedily so the mess of cooking could be tamed and order restored.
In Carol Braider's kitchen I experienced a mixture of leisure and total attention. Every move Carol made mattered and could be enjoyed in itself; and every cheese, cut of meat, sauce, piece of fruit, or hunk of bread had a history, imparted some knowledge, and therefore possessed a presence. I remember watching once as Carol made ca.s.soulet ca.s.soulet with its with its 71 71 traditional goose fat, mutton, and pig's hocks. It was a snowy March afternoon, and she cooked from a thick book, warped by b.u.t.ter, oil, and a hundred different sauces. And I remember another ca.s.soulet ca.s.soulet at her table twenty years later. Its texture, grainy and smooth, is in my mouth as I write. And I remember Carol's at her table twenty years later. Its texture, grainy and smooth, is in my mouth as I write. And I remember Carol's creme caramel creme caramel, a slippery blond denseness, taste, color, and texture in each mouthful.
Certainly there was turmoil and sometimes sharp words as Carol cooked, but there was also the intense pleasure of watching someone in love with her work. And the special pleasure of listening and talking while you are doing something else at the same time. Carol seemed to be free to do as she pleased, and this sense of freedom was liberating for me. Carol made food that tasted good, sometimes great-but the greater pleasure came from enjoying food for its own sake. In this way the humblest sausage or a dish of leftover ca.s.soulet ca.s.soulet has dignity. And so does the man or woman who sits down to savor it. has dignity. And so does the man or woman who sits down to savor it.
72 MICHAEL DORRIS.
The Quest for Pie One of my seminal childhood books was Mickey Sees the U.S.A. Mickey Sees the U.S.A. , a travel extravaganza in which Mickey, Minnie, and the two nephews, Morty and Ferdy, set out in a convertible and traverse the country. , a travel extravaganza in which Mickey, Minnie, and the two nephews, Morty and Ferdy, set out in a convertible and traverse the country.
Every place they pa.s.s offers adventure, new sights, tasty treats-the ultimate all-American family vacation on wheels.
That was a while ago-so far in the past that Disneyland didn't yet exist as an promotional destination-but the high concept of that fictional journey took root in my imagination and informed each family outing. We had relatives scattered from Tacoma to Miami, from New York to San Francisco, from Tensed, Idaho, to Henderson, Kentucky, and every summer my mother, my aunt, and I managed to visit some of them. (Occasionally my cousin Frank would join us, but not for the long hauls. He had a tendency to become carsick, and once my aunt had to bathe his forehead in milk from the thermos just to keep him pacified until we reached a picnic ground.) I was too young to drive, of course, so I became the navigator. In deep winter I would begin to clip coupons from the National Geographic National Geographic, soliciting maps and lodging brochures from the tourist bureaus in states along our potential routes. These packets, as they were invariably called, arrived in impressively lumpy envelopes, extolling the "enchantment"
of New Mexico, the "surprises" of Missouri, the "discovery" potential of New England. Sometimes, once I had learned to type, I wrote letters to accompany the clippings, broadly hinting that I had more than just a pa.s.sing interest in this or that region and was in fact contemplating relocation. This line of correspondence yielded even more substantial harvests of mail when the respective state office of economic development got into the act. For one heady week in 1959 I received, absolutely free, a daily subscription to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Star-Telegram, forever establishing in my mind a loyalty to that plucky city in its underdog rivalry with Dallas-which was apparently above wooing my business.
Over the spring I would cull through my colorful stash, making short lists of state parks, petting zoos, and inexpensive motels that prom-73 ised heated kidney-shaped swimming pools. I mail-ordered a wonderful little device that looked like a cross between a ballpoint pen and a thermometer. By merely adjusting a setting to correspond to the scale of a map and running the little metal wheel on the tip along the route of any highway, one got an instant reading of the approximate mileage involved. Then it was a matter of simple calculation. The distance from starting point A to destination B divided by fifty miles an hour (my family's average speed) times eight hours a day (their joint capacity behind the wheel) equaled the range of my accommodations search.
There was a limit, however, to the discretion I enjoyed. I was, after all, a child, a pa.s.senger, and my mother and aunt-the women who drove the car and paid the bills-had their own priorities that any proposal of mine necessarily had to incorporate. And those were, in a word, pie.
Looking back, I realize now that our journeys could quite accurately be described as a quest for pie. For instance, like experienced surfers who chart odd itineraries (Laguna to Capetown by way of The Big Island) in order to snag a reliable wave en route, I always had to include Paoli, Indiana, in any cross-country trip. There was a cafe off the square in that otherwise undistinguished hamlet where was found, according to my mother the connoisseur, a lattice crust like no other. Woven in intricate patterns across a sea of blueberry or peach, each segment was crisp and melting, studded with just the right amount of sugar, laced with a subtle jolt of almond extract, and browned to perfection. If I brought us through Paoli too soon after a major meal, we might order our twenty-five-cents-apiece slices for the crust alone, reluctantly leaving the fruit on the green plastic plates.
An innocuous-looking lunch counter in New Ulm, Minnesota, was the polar opposite: a decent pastry, nothing to complain about, but a truly spectacular chess or lemon or coconut cream within. The baker wouldn't tell, but my grandmother back home, upon hearing my aunt describe the airy yet smoothly substantial and satisfying volume of the filling, put her money on whipped egg whites and a dash of mace. Yet no amount of research was too exhaustive in pursuing the solution to so important a mystery, and that was fine with me. New Ulm was also the site of my favorite motel in the world: a swimming pool, a play-ground, and a fully made bed that folded down from a door in the wall-for eight dollars a night. I always finagled for us to hit town just as the sun was about to set, and consequently in New Ulm we ate pie for dinner, and then again for breakfast.
74 The pie map of the United States bears little resemblance to standard demographics. The New Yorks and Clevelands and Milwaukees are mostly etched in light print, marked with tiny dots, while the big black circles and capital letters are reserved for Brattleboro, Vermont, Tyler, Texas, Shelby, Montana, and Hays, Kansas. There are other features as well: On the west side of an invisible line, running roughly correspondent to the Appalachian Mountains, people prefer their doughnuts with icing. The South is The South when you leave a restaurant and instead of "good-bye" the waitress says, "Come back," unless it's New Orleans and she says, "Enjoy." The hallmark of the Midwest is an all-you-can-eat salad bar with at least one hundred items, most of them encased in jello. The Rocky Mountain states feed in pure volume, no matter what the course-the byword there is "Refill?"-whereas the Pacific Rim overdoes with fruit, as in a wedge of orange on the plate next to your pizza.
A culinary relief map of the country pretty much inverts the standard topological zones. Rather than the vaguely camel-back shape of North America (the humps represented by the two major north-south mountain chains), portion size translates into a more hammock effect. Sea level becomes the highest instead of the lowest part, and major sags and droopings are found inland from the coast. The state of Utah, for instance, const.i.tutes the sleeping giant's hip, for it's a place that com-pensates for an arid and rather spartan environment by distributing ten-cents-a-pop soft ice cream machines at the exit door of most restaurants with large parking lots. Nebraska, home, at rest stops beckoning from the endless Interstate 80, of a particularly high-density food called potato meatloaf, accounts for the mid-depression of the continent, and the Old South-arbitrarily centered in Gadsen, Alabama, birthplace of the bottomless grits-is its lolling head, which, as any chiropractor will tell you, is the heaviest part of the body.
European tourists, with their effete tradition of teeny-tiny gla.s.ses of no-ice Coca-Cola, must be flabbergasted by the proffering of "20 oz.
Thirst Busters" at each K-4 convenience store in the western steppes, and j.a.panese honeymooners, coming from a context of hundred-dollar steaks, must believe they've found paradise in the hefty "full-pound burgers" of rural Texas. Dietary largesse is patriotic, an ent.i.tlement protected, coterminous with individual ownership of automatic weapons, by the Const.i.tution. We fought Iraq for the right to drive-thru an emporium boasting thirty-six oil-based flavors of frozen nondairy dessert. We celebrate Christmas with Federal-Expressed boxes of the world's 75 weightiest Oregon pears or Idaho potatoes or California onions, or by sending each other baskets, their overflowing contents of dense Edams and Goudas barely contained by protective cellophane, shipped from Wisconsin-a state whose highway signs proclaim more often than historic markers or scenic vistas simply CHEESE. Less specific, but no less commanding, is the banner permanently overhanging Tower City, North Dakota, visible from five miles in any direction, reading FOOD, and followed by an enormous arrow pointing straight down to the rich, loamy landscape.
For Americans of a certain age and cla.s.s, food is the punctuation of life, a commercial break between those bothersome segments of work or play that require the use of our hands, thus prohibiting their availab-ility for unwrapping, unpeeling, or defrosting. Eating certifies leisure, the coffee 'n' Danish break a defiance of the time clock, the snack a voluntary intrusion into a routine not of our own making. And yet eating is also a kind of defensible duty, a recreation we can shrug off as a need, excuse ourselves for, indulge in with some righteousness.
Researchers tell us that diners' pupils narrow to pinpoints when plates are set before them. Our beings concentrate, focus, rivet to the task at hand. We need need to eat, we tell ourselves. Our parents mandated it, and it made them happy when we complied. It made us good. It made us grow. Unlike masturbation or pleasure reading or a midmorning nap, determined consumption carries a cultural cachet of respect, equaled only, on occasion, by refraining from eating, an appositive ingestive practice during which, if anything, our minds are even more firmly fixed on what's to eat, we tell ourselves. Our parents mandated it, and it made them happy when we complied. It made us good. It made us grow. Unlike masturbation or pleasure reading or a midmorning nap, determined consumption carries a cultural cachet of respect, equaled only, on occasion, by refraining from eating, an appositive ingestive practice during which, if anything, our minds are even more firmly fixed on what's not not for dinner. We read cookbooks as literature, copy and exchange exotic recipes, devote on the average (if we can afford it) one technology-laden room of our homes for the sole purpose of food storage and preparation, and another, plus deck or patio, for its display prior to disappearance. We support an entire industry of pressure-sealed leftover containers because we invariably prepare more of everything than we can swallow. for dinner. We read cookbooks as literature, copy and exchange exotic recipes, devote on the average (if we can afford it) one technology-laden room of our homes for the sole purpose of food storage and preparation, and another, plus deck or patio, for its display prior to disappearance. We support an entire industry of pressure-sealed leftover containers because we invariably prepare more of everything than we can swallow.
What is this obsession with jumbo helpings? Is it the aftershock of the Great Depression, a kind of chipmunk-drive to h.o.a.rd unto and into ourselves so that in the event of lean days we can feed off our own stored fat-the ultimate convenience: we don't even have to leave home or microwave! Is it an a.s.sertion of Manifest Destiny, the ultimate reward for the transoceanic migration of our starving ancestors? Do we eat "because it's there"? Certainly for most of us the urge to stuff normally arises from habit, not from hunger. Early on we were initiated