Friday, February 13, 2015

The Year of Eating Dangerously

Before we buttered our first roll, before the glasses were filled, before we had a chance to say grace, my mother set down the platter of turkey and announced: “Everybody—save the neck for Dad.”

There was a pause as our eyes connected. It was the only time the six of us kids had ever been in complete agreement. Mom might as well have instructed us to save him the eyeball.

Recently I read a story about vultures and the disgusting things they eat, things that would poison a human. When vultures pick over a dead carcass, they skip the neck.

Normally, it was fun to watch Dad eat, because he always had a tiny bit of corn stuck on his chin—even if we weren’t having corn. But the thought of him baring his false teeth, tugging away at some gristly rope to tear off a stretchy morsel of purple meat like Tom Hanks eating the little baby ear of corn in Big? No thanks.

To be fair, I’ve never tasted turkey neck. I’ve never even seen one. Store-bought turkeys don’t come with necks anymore.
A few random organs come neatly gift-wrapped and nestled inside the bird—probably not from that bird originally, but people do feel they’re owed some organs to throw away. But there has been no outcry at the absence of a neck.

Turkey itself is probably on its last legs, so to speak. I heard a lot last year, “I just don’t like turkey.” It had never occurred to me that liking turkey was an option at Thanksgiving.

A lot of cooks wouldn’t care if we skipped the turkey. Thanksgiving is the only time most of us handle a dead body bigger than a three-year-old.

Party food stopped making sense about the time pioneers stopped wearing buckles on their hats. Stuffing, for example, requires stale bread, which we don’t have anymore. Bread no longer goes stale because it is no longer made out of food. I bought a loaf of raisin bread last March, and by October it was still good. Even mold won’t eat it.

To make stale bread, you have to drive around in your car hanging it out the window. Or be a real American: go buy stale bread at the store. You can buy a can of stale bread crumbs for only three times the cost of fresh bread.

Valentine’s Day has the best food. Any menu is fine, really, as long as it includes chocolate. The problem is that the Valentine’s Day dinner isn’t followed by a football game on TV. After steak and seafood in a rich butter sauce with a bottle of wine, finished with chocolate mousse and a nice port, you are expected to be romantic.

The opposite of good holiday food is St. Patrick’s Day. St. Patrick’s Day food is the reason the Irish ran away from Ireland.

On Mardi Gras I do oyster shots, which are raw oysters dunked in cocktail sauce and vodka. With enough cocktail sauce and vodka, I could eat boogers—which is about the same as oysters.

I respect Passover, the only holiday where food is supposed to be miserable.

On Cinco de Mayo we celebrate the Mexican victory over France in the Battle of Puebla by eating food from Texas.

Hot dogs on the 4th of July taste good mostly because we bury them in cheese, sauerkraut, relish and mustard. You could probably leave out the dog and not miss it. Made of ground ears and lips and looking like wet toilet paper dyed zombie pink, we know it’s not really food, but it’s better than a bun full of neck.

Hot dogs would be gray, except we dye them with cochineal, which is made from crushed beetles boiled in ammonia. But still, that’s better than gray meat.

In my family, Chex Mix is served at every holiday. Chex Mix is mostly butter, Worcestershire sauce and seasoned salt. Seasoned salt is salt salted with salt. A salt lick has less salt than seasoned salt. Seasoned salt has more salt than salt.

Tastes evolve as we age. I used to beg Mom for Wonder bread. Now I despise it. I used to gag over sauerkraut. Now my mouth waters at the thought of it. As I grow more and more to look like my father, I fear that someday, some Thanksgiving, I’m going to blurt out, “Hey—don't touch that neck!”

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Funeral Procession

Part I

I was barely sixteen when I attended my first funeral. It was in honor of my good friend Jimmy, whom I had known for about three weeks. My parents encouraged me to go, but didn't offer to accompany me. So I drove the seven quiet miles to Gibbon, Nebraska alone.

 I didn't know what to expect. I was apprehensive, in a fog. I hadn't yet learned how to cry in public.

I don't remember who first introduced me to Jimmy, but we hit it off immediately. He was a drummer, and his country band needed a new guitar player. I fancied myself to be a rock guitarist, but Jimmy swore the band was really fun, and they were booked solid for a year. My current rock band had played one gig, with nothing more in sight.

It went to audition for his band, played them a song or two, and they hired me on the spot. "Come here on Saturday and I'll drive you to the gig," said Don, the leader. Don was half black, half Mexican, with a strong limp from childhood polio forty years before. He was a natural frontman, graceful and smooth. Like Joe Cocker, it was hard to take your eyes off him.

"When do we rehearse?" I asked.

"It's country, son," Don said with a kind smile. "Just listen and play along. You'll be fine."

Jimmy gave me a grin that said, See what I mean? How cool is that!

By that weekend, Jimmy was in a coma. While driving his 5-year-old sister to school, he was broadsided by a bread truck at a gravel road crossing so remote they didn't bother with stop signs.

His mother sensed it. She rose from her desk job, walked silently out of work and drove directly to the spot of the crash. She was the first to arrive.

Ten days later Jimmy was dead, and I was cobbling together appropriate clothes for his funeral. The first thing I saw when I entered the hall was Jimmy, lying in his open casket. I froze in place. I had no idea people did such things. It was awful to stare, but I couldn't look away.

I inched closer, and it wasn't Jimmy, not really. I'm sure the mortician did his best, but Jimmy had been crushed, and the reconstruction was imperfect. Jimmy's head was now longer, narrower, more square. He was wearing his new class ring, and it dangled like a pendulum on his bony finger.

I don't remember much else. Words were said, they closed the lid, and drove Jimmy away.

And that was that.

Don eventually married Jimmy's mom and adopted his little sister. Last time I saw her, she squealed as she wedged herself four feet up inside a doorway, proud as a chimp, her grin tugged at by faint pink lines where her awful wounds had once been. I like to think she's a raving beauty now.

I stayed with the band of strangers for a couple of years, repeating classics like Lonesome 77203, The Key's in the Mailbox, and Crystal Chandelier. I never told my rock-and-roll friends I was booked every weekend. My friends never saw the band photo, with the four of us wearing matching brushed denim leisure suits, each of us leaning one hand on a photography studio fence, me half the age of the others. The new drummer was 35, but I tried to befriend him. I moved away to college, eventually losing touch.

So that was that.

• • • • •

Part II

I was lucky enough to go four years before my next funeral. I had a front row seat. I was a pall-bearer for a man I never met.

How do you live 98 years and get carried out by a stranger? I didn't dwell on it; I answered yes when my father-in-law asked. He was not close to his father, whom we were burying, and probably didn't have an answer to that himself.

The funeral was held at St. Cecilia's Cathedral, among the largest, most breathtaking churches in the country. Raised Methodist, then accepted and rejected by the Baptists, I was unfamiliar with Catholic rituals. They save a special set for funerals. I nearly bolted from my pew when I looked over my shoulder to spy three robed boys advancing down the aisle holding spears. As the priest flicked holy water on the gleaming honey maple casket, I had to nail my feet to the floor to stop from wiping it off. My brain screamed, You'll ruin the finish!

The priest nodded to the pall-bearers. I was in front, port side, so I couldn't watch the others for clues what to do. We lifted the old man slowly, and an attendant slipped the gurney from underneath. I was surprised how light the casket felt, as if no one was inside.

The massive Cathedral sits atop a grand procession of steep marble steps, and as we passed through its giant iron doors and descended, I lifted the front slightly to keep the casket level. My starboard partner lifted in kind, but the two men in back instinctively lifted as well, and the casket lurched downhill.

Before we had a chance to respond, I felt the wiry deceased slide with a quick shish across the silk lining down toward the bow of his ship, his head konking against the wall with a hollow thump, like a ripe melon. We buckled under the sudden weight shift, lifting hard to right the ship.

As we reached the bottom and aligned him for reception into the yawning hearse, I concentrated only on not stumbling under the weight. Furtive looks danced among the bearers, but not a word was said. The car door was shut with a quiet, final chunk, and off the old man went, leaving me to imagine his freshly pressed suit rumpled, his elbows up around his ears, his head tucked sideways for eternity.

At the cemetery I stood beside another pall-bearer, my brother-in-law, whose grandfather was now suspended by steel cables over a freshly dug hole. "So you felt him…" I whispered.

"Yeah."

"You gonna say anything?"

"I dunno…"

We waited, hands crossed in front of us, dark glasses hiding our eyes as we scanned the scene. The other pall-bearers must have known too, but we didn't dare to look at each other. And what would be done? Stop the ceremony, pry open the casket, grab gramps by the ankles and yank him straight, tugging his suit back down from around his chest, his pants from around his knees?

Finally the grandson whispered, "Who's gonna know?"

And then, time decided it for us. The casket descended, water was sprinkled, prayers were mumbled, roses were tossed, dirt was flung.

And that was that.