Imperial Ham: The Wondrous Alchemy of Childhood in a Semi-Rural Township

In the summer of ’79, I came to live with my grandparents. The Greens owned 1/3rd of an acre in the small Limestone Township in Illinois. They had bought a tiny house with three rooms in the mid-1940’s. Over the years, my grandfather, the oldest of 12 children from a rural Kentucky family, added a large kitchen, am indoor bathroom and a back bedroom. The houses in the neighborhood were mostly larger with two stories and nearly all of them had large families. My mother was one of the few little girls on the block and held her own with the gang of boys who ran and played and shot arrows and bb guns.

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My mom with the neighborhood kids, second from left.

Every house also had a backyard vegetable garden. While the neighbors to the immediate right had corn and beans, my grandparents had a brilliant, strong nightshade patch. Bell peppers, okra, eggplant and some of the largest and sweetest beefsteak tomatoes on the Earth.  That summer we also added cucumbers. My grandfather could grow anything he put in the ground.

He worked at it, he watered and weeded and whistled parts of songs.

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Grandpa Alvie Green with my uncle and my mom.

And in late June, we would walk back to the further edge of the yard, across the swath of thick, Kentucky bluegrass. We’d pick one of the 3 to 4 pound scarlet gem tomatoes, rinse it with the garden hose and bite right in. There was a magic in the ritual of it, to the true reward of working with nature, There was a bliss and comfort to it.  A heaven that did not come from some store. It came from the dirt where you grew up. It came from the plot of land chosen by a WWII veteran who decided to migrate from his home in Kentucky and make a life for his wife and children. That tomato was a manifestation of love and home and family.IMG_2887

We’d make glorious sandwiches of Wonder Bread, Miracle Whip and thick tomato slices. We’d make pepper relish. My grandmother would marinate the cucumbers with onions in vinegar, salt and sugar. When I was sunburnt or started to break out, she would pulverize a cucumber and put the juice on my skin. We would trade our extras with neighbors. There was an unspoken connection and wealth in the ability to share.

That summer, my grandmother asked my grandfather for a meat grinder. And he bought it for her. It was huge. It was supermarket-deli huge. It had a lot of sharp, shiny parts which I was told not to touch. It was loud. I immediately hated it.  She bought it for one thing: Imperial ham.

Not to grind beef or make sausage. We raised no animals except the baby squirrels that my grandfather trained to come and take walnuts from his shirt pockets. They were friends, not food. Imperial ham.  What is Imperial ham?  Well…

It’s baloney. And mayonnaise. And onion. And sweet pickles. And it’s somehow suddenly a royal delicacy. Apparently, if you put baloney through a meat grinder and add these things in the proper amounts, a certain kind of alchemy occurs in which it is now both Imperial and Ham. There is nothing like it. It smells weird and it tastes like summer and it’s amazing on white bread. And especially magical topped with a tomato slice.  And a side of marinated cucumbers. We would put it all on white paper plates, sit outside in the big swing together, watching neighbors and squirrels.

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I remember it clear and precious, because we have had nothing like it for so long. Everyone I shared that with has died. My grandfather in 1997, grandmother in 2001 and my mother in 2010. I am heartened because I am seeing a renewal in the importance of local family gardening. Small farms that have grown to bring their organic bounty to market.  People who can grow anything and what they produce is beautiful and healthy, fresh and practical food to share, tokens and totems of home and family and love.

I dream of having the right and proper place to do the same one day.

 

Poetry: Found Art, Trifle & Tart

Is is still okay to say “Boyfriend” when you are both dancing on the precipice of 50? So what do I call him?  Life partner?  My old man? Significant other? There are MANY significant people in my life. The gorgeous Italian “inamorato“? I usually call him the best human being I ever met.  Anyway, this man is an artist,  And I, in my complementary role, am a visual learner and arranger of things.

Sometimes my love and arranging shows up in the food I make. Last night, I made one of his favorite desserts, Trifle – lemon pound cake with lemon custard, whipped cream, strawberries and raspberries. No cooking, just arranging. . You could soak the pound cake in liqueur in you like. The concept is to make a deep well of summery joyfulness.  It doesn’t matter if you just buy the pound cake, the artistry is in the assembly.

Dinner?  Pesto and goat cheese tart with heirloom tomatoes. Bake it for 8 minutes at 425 degrees. If you want it crispier, broil for 1 minute after that.  It’s a par-baked pizza crust, 2 tbsp. basil pesto, 4 oz. cream cheese, 1/2 cup goat cheese, top with mozzarella and arrange your cherry toms.  The heat does something magical to the goat cheese.  It’s tangy, soft and sweet all at the same time, a perfect match for the acidity of the tomatoes. Tear up some fresh basil leaves to nestle between the cream cheese and mozzarella layers.

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When our mutual friend introduced us back in October 2013, I don’t know if was I felt was love. He was too familiar. Not in any of his actions or words, but in the way my entire inner workings reacted to him just being. I had hit a spot in life when I did not believe in romantic love. When I was very sure dying alone would be just fine and dandy. I’d make sure it was dandy, because I would leave thorough instructions on my memorial service. I was THAT bored. I was THAT stuck. I was THAT set on memorializing myself as a loner.

Whatever I felt – passion, revulsion, the immediate need to protect my heart and my solitary way of life – it was powerful. After the most perfect day-long date in the world, in which he painted and I made shepherd’s pie and we talked and kissed randomly, I actually said. “Let’s pretend we never met.”

We did not speak for a few weeks. Then in late November, on a Thanksgiving day when I was completely alone and bereft of plans and people, I asked him to dinner. And he said yes.  During those two dark weeks, I wrote “Found Art”.  It’s not specifically about love. It’s about a specific moment in our lives when invisible lightning hits us. All our glib platitudes from Rumi and “Keep Calm” posters fail us. All the Silly Love Songs become dire warnings with the forceful insistence that you ARE going to feel this.  Stupid me clinging with a deathgrip to the notion that I am a self-contained work robot. So here is the poem.

Found Art
I had seen it before somewhere in a dream
A fleeting mix of ideas and color and imagination
Too true to be believed
I may have walked past it a hundred times
Images captured by the mind’s eye moving in outer circles
Barely concentric to my life
I was afraid to look at it
Because it might just tell the story of my childhood
Or list reasons for my darkness
It was an abstract
The vein and bone and brain of a human being
So magnified and precise that the pixilated cells
Seemed to move
I was afrai
d to look at it
And when I did I could not look away
I stared until the cones of my eyes ached
And my brain bled and black words dripped heavy from my pen
And the noise all around stopped because it whispered my name
Like a familiar
Like a river
Like a lo
ver
Like a devil
Like a desert
Like the West wind
Like a lover
Like home
Transfixed, I watched it move
I reached out and could not help running my hands
Over the curve, over fibonnaci spirals
Over sinew and skin and scar
And sweetness and painless light
It was a living map
A breathing mirror of all I fear
And worse, all I hope
Split in the exact center
Between the brain hemispheres
Deep down to the heart
In a Fissure of dark and tranquil and quiet
That knew my name and called to me quite clearly
I could
not close my eyes or fill my lungs
Although my mouth hung open
Waiting in awe for that kiss
Waiting for the wet, secret dark
To enfold me and invade me and
Fill me up with beautiful words
But it knew my name and was already adept
At shredding my fear and
hope
And ripping expectation to oblivion
I moved away slowly
Unwrapping myself from pleasure incarnate
Unsticking skin from skin
Untwining myself from this masterpiece
And I am still shaken, still swept up
Still aching
Still aware that it knows my name
Still needing a baptismal to wash away
The burning swirl of fingerprint and tongue

 

Everyone Likes Hot Dogs

My stepdad John was a Hungarian trucker. His CB handle was “The Happy Hunky” and he was a pretty amazing guy. He loved my mom. She did not have to work so he encouraged her to make friends and be artsy. She pursued ceramics and macramé and painting. When we moved into his house, he asked her to make it a showplace and redecorate. And she did! She reupholstered sofas and stained cabinets and laid new flooring. She thrived and she was happy.

People came to our house for dinner parties featuring his stuffed veal pocket and her lasagna. Red wine, good coffee, a little weed, Fleetwood Mac and Leo Sayer. Insane marshmallow fruit ambrosia, homemade cheeseballs with walnuts, highball cocktails, floating conversations about Stephen King, Jimmy Hoffa, Dennis Kucinich, Steve Martin and some lawyer named Mr. Hickey.

The dynamic of my relationship with John was not easy to define. I thought he was funny and I respected him. He thought I was funny and smart and marveled at how serious I could be about minutiae.  He was a good 15 years older than my mom and had already raised a daughter. He only really got angry when I disrespected my mom.  Other than that, he had me figured out.

My room would be a mess the entire week he was on the road. My mom would beg and cajole and threaten so I would clean it. John would come home on the weekend and simply say, “Wow! Who dropped the bomb?” It would be clean within 10 minutes.

I was still stuck in Spaghettio mode and had developed a nasty habit of wiping my mouth on my sleeve. Nearly every shirt I owned had an orange stain. My friend Dawn had also picked up this habit from me. Both of our mothers were frustrated. One night she, Dawn was over for dinner. It was Saturday so John was home and made “real” spaghetti.  It was real because it was made with dry noodles and Ragu.

During dinner, John took a big sloppy bite and wiped half his mouth on my sleeve and half his mouth on Dawn’s.  We were horrified.

John shrugged and said, “I thought it was okay to do that.  After all, you two were doing it.”  I could hear my mom through the saloon style kitchen doors laughing. I never wiped my mouth on my sleeve again.

John’s signature recipe was Stuffed Veal Pocket. I had no idea what veal was. I had reasoned that if it had a pocket, it was cousin to the kangaroo family but bigger. As an isolated kid who had been living out of tin cans, I was about to discover a new world.

Early Saturday mornings, John would drive out to the Cleveland West Side Market on 25th street. I wanted to go.  I mean why not go to the store? You grab a cart, listen to elevator music, check off your list, say please and thank you.  I had been to the store with my grandparents every Thursday in my life. What was so mysterious about West Side Market? Did they not allow kids?  I begged, I cajoled and threatened. Finally, John took me to West Side Market.

Yelling – not always in English. Smells – FISH, meat, flowers, baking breads. Colors – Vibrant palettes of fruits and vegetables. People shoving and crowding and knocking into me with their bags. Old women in babushkas buying parsnips, gorgeous dark eyed young men stacking fish, enough cut flowers to make me feel like I landed in Oz. Noise and bustle and haggling, the chaos of making a deal in hunter-gatherer heaven and above all this the atmosphere of shared passion for nourishment of the senses.

Each element by itself would have been enough to scare a shy child. The noise and confusion and unfamiliar faces and fish that looked back at you. But this special cloud of mayhem was driven by the cohesive purpose of trade. The food here was not just food. Jewels from the earth and sea harvested with intention and love. Buyers understanding the ritual negotiations and intrinsic magic within each carrot or peach.

There’s a place in the far corner of the Market on the Loraine Avenue side called Johnny Hot Dog. It was opened in 1912 by Mary Trisco and still open today. There is no better hot dog in Cleveland or maybe the whole Midwest. They even make a hot dog breakfast sandwich.  When John went to the Market alone, he would bring home a big brown bag of them with chili, diced onions and bright yellow mustard.

This particular morning, I held his John’s hand as we waited in line. The air hung heavy with smoke of grilled meat and sweet, fluffy steamed buns. I noticed there was a man in the back corner staring at me. His skin had a moist gray sheen like wet cement. His scent cut through the hot dog heaven and I felt real fear blooming in the back of my brain. I was pretty sure he was dead.  He had left this world and now returned to haunt Johnny Hot Dog. Because they had the best hot dogs on Earth. And we had to pass him on the way out and he might kill us for ours.

“John, I want to go home.”

“What’s wrong? C’mon, we’ll bring your mom a bag and make her day.”

“That guy. He’ll kill us for our hot dogs when we get ‘em.”

“What guy?”  So John couldn’t see him. Definitely a ghost, definitely dead.

“THAT GUY!”  I pointed and was loud. The man dropped his eyes. People’s heads snapped toward us.

“THAT guy?  Oh no. No, that’s just Clarence the Fire Bug. He don’t kill people. He just likes hot dogs like we do.”

It was the perfect answer. It established that he knew Clarence, that Clarence was neither dead nor murderous, that Clarence loved hot dogs like a normal not-dead person. Also Clarence was gainfully employed as a Fire Bug, which had to be a really cool job.  I was suddenly not afraid.  Staring people smiled at us. We bought a dozen chili combo dogs and headed home. On the way out the door, I made a point of saying goodbye to Clarence.

It took me decades to arrive at John’s sheer brilliance. To any child, the unfamiliar can seem terrifying. Even more so if that child has a gigantic, rampant imagination. Stranger Danger aside, we are taught that anyone not like us could be a threat or not a good person. Society uses markers like race or income class to measure differences and create separation.

What John did was phenomenal.  He did not really know Clarence – in fact he came up with his name on the fly. It didn’t matter. He destroyed everything different or scary about him in the simple statement, “He just likes hot dogs like we do.”

 

Poetry & Recipe: Sweet Summer Treasures

Today was my first trip to the local farmer’s market. The jewels of summer laid out in heady glory, each vegetable or fruit courting attention. Today I sought treasure and the feeling of home. The essence of love in pie form. Blueberries and nectarines without hesitation.

Tomorrow is June 11th. On June 11th, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh was conversing with Emile Bernard. “There can be no blue without yellow and orange.” 

And there it is: Dark, limpid globes of blueberries set against the tart sunshine of nectarines. And it has to be an oat and honey crumble. No false sugar or bland crust to hide the beauty. Honey to bring in flower nuances, Oats to deliver the earthy, solid texture of warmth and home.

The picture above is the end result.

Peel 3-4 nectarines and arrange in the bottom of the pan. Add 1 cup of blueberries. Drizzle with honey.  Melt 1/2 stick of butter in a pan and stir 1 cup gluten-free quick oats and 2 tbsps. more honey.  Top fruit with crumble. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes.  Let cool a bit, enjoy and share with people you love.

I wrote the poem below on a night like tonight, full strawberry moon rising above the peach-lavendar sunset. When summer is opening up in every color, in every breeze, in every flower, in all its bright affirmation of love and life.

The Other World of You

I know there is a secret part of you the world cannot touch
That glow beneath the skin, incandescent purple just at sunset when you
Are certain it is your will alone that melts winters into ripe summer blaze.
That part of you I glimpse in flashes through your eyes in the
honey-blue
crescent of your iris, the eclipse of soul dancing around the full
moon of your field of vision.
In my light, the half-light cascading chiaroscuro, I can read your secret map,
follow the nerve and vein of you, chart indigo rivers to your heart, find
my location by the pulse of your blood, the longitude of your
half-dreams unborn to the light of day.
The carbon-star of you burning through my heart simple and singular as a
fingerprint, I trace my lips across your cheek and suddenly
I am home.

 

 

 

Chocolate Bread & News of the World

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“The chocolate bread belongs to John.” My mom would repeat always followed by “you wouldn’t like it.” Even at eight years old, I KNEW that was a lie. John just didn’t want me to have any “chocolate” bread.

Mom and John would sometimes go out on Saturday afternoons. He would go golfing and she would go to her ceramics class. I was left alone for about 2-3 hours. Usually, I would be so engrossed in my Legos or drawing that I wouldn’t even notice when they came back.

But Saturday, October 29, 1977, my life was thrown into chaos by three cataclysmic events.

Hallowe’en was Monday. Mom had made me this really cool and creative Queen of Hearts costume from a cardboard chest frame covered in white contact paper.  On the front box lid, she had drawn and glued cutout felt and glitter. She had copied the Bicycle playing card design.  I had black tights, a scepter and a tiara. Plus the box hid my gut. I actually heard her friend Paulette say this when she was helping cut out the red and black stripes and hearts.

As excited as I was about the costume, being on my own around Hallowe’en was lonely. And the idea of not really being alone was worse. I dreaded the basement. There was a dark patchy corner between the laundry chute and the furnace where the air swirled and wheezed. The film “the Sentinel” had come out in January. To me, the entrance to Hell from that movie had a sister gateway right in that basement corner. I could hear it whispering open in the quiet when there seemed to be no breeze from the outside. Movies playing out in my head where Hell’s inhabitants, grotesque and full of evil intent, came through that corner and up through the laundry chute. Some of them took the stairs to savor their journey of malevolence and meditate on my destruction and how tasty I would be.

To combat the silence and all its devils, I would turn on the WUAB Channel 43 and SuperHost. For 20 years, Marty Sullivan dressed up in blue tights and a red cape, sometimes donning a blonde wig and claiming he was “Rula Lenska”.  Short skits and running gags cut in between horror classics. SuperHost was my transitional horror classics mentor bridging the gap between Creature Feature and Chicago’s Son of Svengoolie played by Rich Koz.  I can honestly say that I owed nearly all of my happy childhood moments to these shows and my dog Rosie.

So there I was battling basement ghouls, surrounded by my protective circle of scattered Legos, plotting for my chance to taste the chocolate bread when the drums started.  Terrifying, definite, sharp, angry. Bump-Bump BUMP! Bump-Bump BUMP! I dashed to the top of the stairs over razor blocks and green shag carpet, all the way up. At the top, heart pounding like a cage animal, I turned to look at the screen. On my television, there was a giant robot with bloody fingers holding a dead man.  The camera panned up its body and into its face driven by the visceral deathbeat of those drums. The robot seemed confused, angry, disconnected, sorry, questioning and murderous all at the same time.

I was petrified. Nothing in my life had prepared me for this actual terror. Giant freaking robot gouging the guts out of four men with this square robot fingers. This manmade nephelim caused blood and death no apparent understanding that he was the cause. And the men in their frilly shirts and tight white pants reclining lifeless and falling like beautiful empty shells. Those drums hooking into my brain and driving home the image, the story, the fear.

And then simply “Queen: News of The World.”

Then it was over. Commercial ended. I had to pee and catch my breath. When I came back down, SuperHost was back on. I was safe. And I wanted chocolate bread now!

I figured if I took a slice right in the middle of the loaf, no one would know. I was careful to tie the red wire the same way and put it back exactly on top of the fridge as I had found it. One slice of coveted chocolate bread and it was all mine. But what do you do with it? What do you put on it? I decided to maximize the experience and make a sandwich.  I cut it in half and opened all the cabinets.

Ok – Peanut butter made sense. And banana. And ooh marshmallow fluff!  And why not a sprinkle of cinnamon?  And cinnamon sugar. And raisins. Oh yes. It was a skyscraper sugar masterpiece delight. I poured myself a glass of milk and took the largest bite I could manage.

As I started to chew, I immediately felt myself gag. I sat there, eyes wide and watering, absolutely disgusted at the lump of poison-bitter, sickening-sweet lump of fresh hell sitting in my mouth.  I spit it out in the trash and continued to heave even after it was all out. I was shaking. Traumatized by the truth that “chocolate” bread was really dark rye. My mom lied about the bread being “chocolate”.  But she told the truth, I wouldn’t like it.

I sat on the floor by the trash can, shuddering and hugging myself. This was a horrible day.  Eventually, I cleaned up all evidence of my thievery and punishment for said thievery. I lay down on the couch exhausted, planning to nap until they came home. But then, the drums started again.

Queen’s News of The World commercial terrorized me until I bought it with my birthday money three weeks later. I was my first 12” vinyl. I played it all the way through until it was a warped, scratched dysfunctional version of itself. My favorite song from it is still “Sheer Heart Attack”. I played it until somewhere in my head the robot came apart and couldn’t hurt anyone. “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions” got the most radio play. But every time those drums start, I still fight a phantom twinge of nausea from “chocolate bread.”

Food Fight: Omelets

This morning I made myself an omelet.  It was an unhurried, conscious act of self-care. I’ve been eating a vegetarian low-carb diet.  I still eat eggs and cheese because no one has to die for those. I’m not getting preachy about it – I just never really liked meat.

But this omelet – 3 large eggs, butter, pink Himalayan salt, herbe de Provence and 2 campari tomatoes wrapped around a triangle of garlic herb Laughing Cow cheese. “Vache Qui Rit”.  The Cow Who Laughs.  This omelet was everything right with the world.

The process is meditative. Waiting for the butter to melt just so. The soft sound of the whisk whipping eggs to a golden froth. The patience of letting everything rest in the small, shallow pan until it is ready. omlet.jpg

I cleared the table and ate slowly and alone in quiet.

I cook for everyone every day. I embrace and thrive in the role of being a creative nourisher. I’m not a chef. I’m not a professional. But I understand what keeps my little family happy and strong. We eat dinner together nearly every night and we rarely go out.  Omelets are special to me. Omelets are the doorway.

I didn’t grow up around my mother for most of my life.  But when I was 18, I moved in with her. I was away at college most of the time, but when I was home I would make her breakfast. She always wanted an omelet with everything – which meant whatever we had. Ham or bacon, onions, mushrooms – light on peppers and cheese. Buttered toast. Hot chocolate.

And no matter what passed between us before or what was going on, the world would just stop so we could eat our omelets and talk and laugh. We’d sit in the living room of her little trailer, forks clicking against pink plates with little blue bonnet-wearing geese painted on them.  There was no formality. Nightshirts and bare feet on the couch. Usually a B horror flick from Showtime running in the background or MTV when MTV was actually music videos.  Making fun of celebrities and singers. One time she asked me if David Lee Roth had a potato in his pants and I shot hot chocolate out of my nose.

Omelets are a barometer of the heart for me as well. As I fell in or out of love with men I cooked for, the omelets would reflect it.  I know that still to this day I cook with emotion more than skill. I may know the techniques, but I follow intuition and bend the recipe rules. So when I would start to feel caged or diminished by someone, any dish I made for them would be derailed. The omelet would be too salty, overcooked, flavorless and once ended up on the ceiling hanging there in a drippy, sad metaphor.

But this morning’s omelet was about me and this moment in my life when I choose to nourish myself with my favorite things. Solitary joy.  Creating something with love. Savoring it with gratitude. I’ll be cooking for everyone else later.