We ate rabbit this Thanksgiving. I’ve eaten the animal on most of the major holidays of my life. My Nonna cooked it in a brown-red sauce of tomato paste and garlic with rosemary, a recipe that came with her from Cascine di Buti in Tuscany, where she was born. They eat a lot of rabbit there, and a lot of boar too. The hills that surround the town were a preferred hunting spot for the Medici family.
After my Nonna died, her husband, my Nonno, roasted the animal in pieces in the oven with potatoes and rosemary. No sauce. Just the oil mingling with the juice of the meat and the strong, sweet herb. There was a little garlic too. My mother took over and braised the rabbit slowly in a pan with garlic and served it over thin sliced and fried potatoes.
This year we celebrated with Nina’s family in our small apartment. We pushed the furniture out of the way in the living room and we ate all day. Drank all day too. I felt my family reaching out in two directions as we all ate home-made pasta in a deep red sauce made with veal and pork and beef, drank Campari and Sambuca with strong coffee.
I watched with an invisible smile while these people, with roots in a different place, dirtied their hands on pieces of rabbit, sucking the bones clean. They swept up the leftover sauce with hunks bread just like I did. This postcard came in the mail yesterday, a thank-you note from Nina’s mom. I put it in a frame and hung it on the kitchen wall, right above our table.
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.