Food is sad. The image of my grandmother in a thin house dress slathering butter on saltines brings a gray feeling of loss. So do the dusty Hershey bars my grandfather carried home from the bar to dinner, the ones that sat in our junk drawer for months and months. Look down the ice cream aisle an hour before the supermarket closes if you don’t believe me. Birthday cakes, all their colors and layers and writing, are melancholy. Food is an intimacy, so connected with bodies and pleasures and things felt not thought. Food sustains us while it whispers of death and dying. The reason we celebrate with those we love around tables full of food is the reason why it’s sad. Those people around the table have died and will die, and so will you. And so will I. The worst part of the Catholic burial sermon comes when the priest, in his long white robes piped in green, begins talk of being together again around the table in heaven. It sparks a rage and a trembling. I feel lightning in my chest. Death becomes real to me, the passing, and I don’t feel the comfort I should. No more chicken soup to soothe a sickness. No more rabbits and pastas to celebrate. No more cognac and coffees, no more breaking balls and crumbs on tablecloths. The biggest, strongest men, men who’ve seen it all, squeal and scream out when these lines are spoken. They grab hold of someone and tear at their clothes. Then they stumble off somewhere to stare at a table piled high with food, someone urging them to eat something.
[Drawing: The Frugal Repast by Pablo Picasso, 1904-1913]
An old man in a red sweater sat alone at a low table. It was noisy in the long, dark barroom. TVs winked bright colors and music drifted on the din of young people getting high after work. He shuffled his feet under the table. This man was nervous. He sipped at his beer slowly and smiled at the waitress who too-frequently asked if he wanted another one.
When his food came, meat with boiled vegetables and a pile of mashed potatoes, he spoke to the young waitress softly. He leaned in toward her. His smile was embarrassed and the only words I heard were I’ll have it later. She took the plate away and came back with a plastic bag. He looked around the room before pushing back his chair and arranging his feet beneath him. He walked out the door with his food onto a windy street in the coldest part of winter.
He didn’t know how to be alone. He always ate at home with his wife. But he was hungry, so he walked down the street to the bar to eat. He’d never been there before, but he’d seen it a million times. In that room he became the kind of sad that grows into anxiety and if his wife had been there she would have known what to do. She would have taken his hand on top of the table and smiled with half of her mouth. No words. He would have felt better and he would have squeezed her fingers, forcing their way into his palm. But she died, so he had nothing, not even his meal.
My mother brought home one pomegranate every year. It came with the runny noses and long shadows of November, the paper crunch of dead leaves under our feet. Pumpkin mouths wilted on front steps and bare branches, like old bony fingers, pointed in every crazy way. She cut through the rough skin and my sister and I picked out small jewels, staining our hands and the kitchen tiles a deep blood red. My father wasn’t there. He was off coaching on the bumpy fields. The last bits of the high school soccer season, a scramble for the state championship before the winter came and took everything away. I was impatient, always, taking big bites out of the clusters, pockets where juice-filled jewels hid themselves away, getting the skin in my teeth and turning the bites bitter. Slow down, my mother urged. She picked out seeds and we cracked them between our teeth, standing up at the kitchen counter. I have more patience now in my own home. I pluck the seeds, tart and sweet, from their hiding places, peeling away the yellow skins carefully. Slowly. I think of blood and shadows, the chambers of my own human heart. The pumping and the time.
It was … oh, it was in Les Halles. Among the oranges and turbot and baby pigs dangling from their hocks, among bins of celery and pushcarts piled high with spring turnips; there, where hawkers shouted come-ons and where women scrambled for freshness in their daily bread; amid the fruit wagons and rows of neck-wrung chickens, halves of warm beef open to flies, clogged gutters and garbage, crowds pushing through troughs of grapes and melons and string beans – there, in midmorning market on a spring day.
—Cacciato, red-faced and simple, walks away from the Vietnam War. His plan is to march the 8000 miles to France. Paul Berlin and a few of his squad are ordered after him in Tim O’Brien’s novel, Going After Cacciato (1978). They find their boy shopping for bread and cheese in the stalls of Les Halles, the Parisian marketplace of legend and lore.
Are they AWOL? Are they on a mission? Are we to believe this is all possible, the stops in Riyadh and Turkey, without passports, in full combat fatigues? Riding trains heavily armed with M-16s and hand grenades? Are we really down this rabbit-hole tunnel with an exiled VC commander? If not, then where are we?
Is it less or more insane than Billy Boy Watkins losing his foot and dying of fright in shit-smelling mud, or Frenchie Tucker climbing into a tunnel to be shot in the nose by an invisible enemy under the soil? Is it all actually happening? Hell, no matter. Oscar, LT, Stink, Eddie and Paul are all walking to Paris, or they’re not. We’re going with them.
I started and finished this book on a month-long work trip in an unfamiliar place, far away from home. Everything sounded, looked and smelled totally different. Anything seemed possible and worth believing.
The flies are different here. Smaller and faster. Smarter, with sharper heads. They land on my nose and tickle my feet. Grains of fine sand crack between my teeth and darken my shirt collars. The air dries my throat. But there are dates on every table, wrinkled and stiff with their sugars. Sticky. And tea, bitter and warm and drunk from tiny cups in gulps.
The glasses are empty. Cloth napkins crushed in piles. An echo of laughter remains in the glow of flickering, shrinking candles. Piles of bones heaped on plates. Picked up with fingers, they were sucked clean, left like dinosaur skeletons buried in the Earth’s dry crust, or forgotten deaths bleached gray in the desert sun. I fed friends, new friends, people I will know better as years pass, but I also ate with my family, with dead old friends. Wizards from my boyhood. I traveled to a house that’s sold, sat around a table that’s gone, smashed into pieces and tossed onto a pile. My toes twisted in an ancient carpet. There’s tradition in the food I served, and living breath in its passing. Cook. Eat. Share. To be warmed by a sun that stopped shining long ago. They pull meat away from the small bones of a rabbit for the first time and I smile inside myself. A smile in my chest lit by fireflies. I was little. I remember it all, strained accents and flashing angers, when I pour the espresso around from the iron pot and pass the bottle of Sambuca across the table. The good cognac, only for celebrations. There are a million meals in meals like these. It’s after midnight and I’m sore around the eyes from smiling, becoming freer with new humans. The hours pass into morning. I sit at the table alone, water running in the kitchen, and wonder where all the time went.
Too big I thought to myself. I leaned over for a closer look, my ears chilled by the vents pumping cold air through the meat counter. Four or five giant pork loins sat in a bin, each at least two feet long, thicker than the thickest part of a football. Massive things, much bigger, more intimidating, than any meat I buy. I picked one up, gave it a heft. It was heavy, like a baby, in my palms. I spun it around, examined the thick white cap of fat, the darker meat near the edges, the pink blood-slime seeping into the corners of the plastic seal. I imagined a Tyrannosaurus Rex’s tail. This was usually the time I put it back timidly, overcome with the size, the 22-dollar up-front investment, and reach for the tame slices in Styrofoam cradles, covered in saran wrap. No chance taken; no surprise inside. Defeat.
I get nervous and depressed at the first part of a journey. I travel for work and every time I do I imagine not going. I want to not go. I count the days with dread, trying to slow down the time. It all seems, somehow, too big. Planes, foreign lands, passports, visas. The feelings were the same with this pink loin. Too big. But I grabbed it anyway, hoisted it into my cart next to the dwarfed jars and onions, rolled it through the aisles and up to the front. It came home with me. I sliced it with a bread knife. Two-inch thick cutlets, beautiful in the cross section, a ribbon of fat running through the middle, a little pinker on one side, leaner on the other. Nina bagged up all 32 pieces, two to a bag, and into the deep freeze they went.
There is a dinner we have regularly. Pork loin pounded thin and flat with a mallet, breaded with egg, flour, bread crumbs and fried in olive oil until crispy. It’s topped with a salad of baby arugula and tiny yellow tomatoes. We will get 16 dinners from that giant loin, each will cost a little under two dollars and a half. Victory.