Smothered – William Preston

William Preston

How many roads must a man walk down before he correctly reads a poem? If—on this rain-drenched evening, at this kitchen peninsula—I rightly read Yeats’s “When You Are Old,” then for years I’ve read the poem wrong.

I used to think (ten minutes ago) that the “Love” that hid its face was the speaker’s. This surely is a misreading, which is why the work has remained for me both marvelously evocative and a mystery. Love (capital “L,” you see) has eluded the woman who is the poem’s subject. Her “pilgrim soul,” which along with her mercurial character (“the sorrows of your changing face”) has drawn many a man, has missed out on Love. Love, for its part, “paced upon the mountains overheard” and “hid his face amid a crowd of stars.”

And so we come to ketchup. (For other-spellers among you, equals in this minor accompt: “catsup.”) Ketchup has been my crowd of stars, the distraction of mountains. Love becomes, in this reading, from my childhood to early adulthood, a direct, meaningful encounter with meat—a thwarted encounter. (Baked ham alone is exempted from this discussion, but that, too, was veiled, slathered with a lava of gravy—sometimes yellow, sometimes gelid brown, the latter such a thing of sugar and salt as to be a gifted understudy for ketchup on the stage of my white-and-blue Pfaltzgraff plate.)

Did I know the flavor of chicken? (I insisted on breast meat, but what would have been the difference?) Pork chops? Steak? (Hot dogs get a pass; after toddlerhood, we all treat hot dogs as a means of condimental delivery.) Every bite came ketchup-soaked. An only child, I had no pressure from within my family to try meat without ketchup. As my mother later told me, the ketchup had been my parents’ solution to my pickiness with food. Rather than heading off disgust or distaste, however, ketchup became a way to eliminate diversity in Flavor City.  Mashed potatoes, too, were ketchupped in that time before memory. I was such a little thing, and I knew the flavor that made me happy, and my parents—worried over my size as I was born perhaps a month prematurely—did whatever needed doing to get me fed and make me big (which I am not).

College came. In the dining hall, people would ask exactly once what I was doing, then move on. We all had quirks, and we had to live together.

Only one time did this habit cause me embarrassment: For those of us who lived far from college, going home for Thanksgiving break, only a few days long, was unthinkable (unless we were of the moneyed classes, who regularly flew their children back to either coast for a few days). I always stayed in my dorm for Thanksgiving. My freshman year, I was invited to one of Chicago’s northern suburbs by a Jewish student, a sophomore, who, though he publicly promoted himself as an asshole, was a really sweet guy underneath the assholery. We took the train to his town. His family welcomed me. Table set. Turkey carved. And once the turkey had been set upon my plate, I asked, “Can I have some ketchup?” As my friend’s mother rose wordless to the task, his father spoke, shaking his head: “What a goy.”

My sole lesson learned was to avoid requesting ketchup when dining with Jewish families.

Over time, I did, like most of us, move on from the eating habits of my youth, finding pleasure in the unfamiliar—or the familiar newly met.

Steak was a staple of my homegrown years. My mother served steak at the table that held always and only the three of us and the radio’s AM music; we took it alongside baked potato (as many butter squares as I desired) in the cafeteria-style dining at Rustler; during the years when we traveled some distance to attend a growing evangelical church, we ate steak Sunday afternoons at a steak-centric restaurant where my parents loaded their barely green salads with blue cheese dressing and I began my meal with an extraordinary amount of salt in the form of the cheese and broth-loaded toast atop the French onion soup whose onions I wouldn’t touch. I ordered steak rare because my father did; I remember it as more medium-rare in preparation, but what did I know (what did I know) of the pink interior when the purpose of steak was to deliver me more ketchup to amplify steak’s rougey core?

For decades after leaving home, I ate no steak, not to sort to be had at a restaurant, the fat cut, the slab with bone or without. In the three decades of my marriage, near as I can recall, we never (once . . . maybe?) prepared such a cut of meat. Rarely, we dined out; I stuck to pasta, chicken, burgers. But half a dozen years ago, at The Dark Horse, a place whose name makes me think not of unlikely winners but, due no doubt to restaurant’s dim interior, of the Groucho joke about it being impossible to read inside a dog, I ordered a steak. The surface was rubbed with coffee, according to an evocative description by the server. (I remember nothing else of the description (“Mexican” or “Mayan” may have been in the dish’s name) except what it evoked, which was my desire to eat what had been described.) Though I allowed a touch of steak sauce on some few bites, every bite was ketchup-free. So this was how steak tasted. Like wine, it merged with your mouth, melting as it melted you. I hadn’t known.

I don’t fault my past self or think ill of him—or of anyone who blunts or masks a food. It’s a thing we do. How good my food seemed in its unvarying flavor. But I’ve moved the condiment aside to let the unknown inside.

Recent months have brought me other purer meetings with food, not only because of a post-bypass menu. I tend to salt nothing. Scrambled and fried eggs see no additions. (Hard-boiled I lower lightly into a sparse sprinkling of salt—but I could give it up.) Coffee, once for me a means of administering sugar to my system, I now embrace . . . or I should say, I now taste, sans sugar, sans milk, sans everything. It’s made me not a coffee snob, but someone aware of how coffee tastes when it’s good, a thing it seems you can only know when it’s unadulterated. I am no longer shielding myself from these flavors. The first time I enjoyed broccoli, it had been fondued to death. Now I boil it and am done.

To find you are unfamiliar with what you’ve known yourself to be familiar may be discomfiting. And oh, the distant mountains remain a place of comfort. Perhaps 15 years ago, my mother watched me eat boiled broccoli and asked when I’d started eating that, the question edged with panic. I still, in her mind, needed mothering into a meal.



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