Young Love, Cafeteria Food, and a Tornado

I originally met my future wife Melanie Jane in an awful school cafeteria, when she was in the third grade. Many years later we had our first date on April first, at our High School prom. She wore the sexiest dress I have ever seen, and we were two April fools in love in no time.

I needed to update and totally completely fictionalize the whole thing. Much much older students, basketball, pizza, crap cafeteria food (the only real part), mortal sins, and a tornado complete this fairly short short story fairy tale. Maybe a little beyond PG-13, so read at your own peril. This is dedicated to the two days of constant tornados we have just had.

The Tornado

Sally “Moon Pie” McGowan was one more beautiful young woman. Even in high school, I was a scholar, a gentleman, and an athlete, but I still couldn’t keep myself from staring at her during lunch. She ate like no one I had ever seen, and still managed to laugh and smile at the same time, even while she ate the pig slop they served at our cafeteria. When she was finished eating, she would turn in her tray, and come by the athlete’s table, say hello to me, and pat me on the back. All the rest of the football team were insanely jealous of me. They never bothered me about it, as I already had the rep of being a badass.

It served them right, as almost all of them were pigs, of every variety. One of them later went to jail, for spouse abuse, after we all graduated, and one idiot even managed to get convicted of statutory rape—of a twelve year old girl. And this was all in western Georgia, where those kinds of things happen often.

The bad news for them was that she was an excellent athlete as well, and could have whipped most of them by herself. On top of the that, her parents were both ass-kickers, and would have de-balled any of them who laid a finger on her, and then kicked their asses all the way to twentieth street in Atlanta. Her mother was my English teacher, and the President of the county’s Teacher’s Union, and her father was a an Irish born college Math instructor at a nearby Community College. He was the union’s Vice President. It was obviously a genetic thing.

Sally had gorgeous long brown hair, which she wore in pigtails whenever she played basketball or volleyball. She had the classic snow-white complexion of an Irish girl. Then there were her eyes, which made me look away every time she looked at me. I literally couldn’t stand it. They were bright green, with yellow highlights in them, and after a moment, I would turn and look back, and she would be staring at me, with some intensity.

This back and forth continued until she noticed that I attended every game she played, when we were both in the Eleventh grade. Then she asked me to sit right behind the bench at every game, and would ask me for advice during time outs. I was her assistant coach now.

One night in December, they were having a tough basketball game against a great team from another county, and she turned around and asked, “What can I do?” I told her their three point defense was weak, and she should heave up some threes. All she did was hit about ten in a row. 

There was a serious celebration after they pulled off the upset of the year, and Sally finished with 38 points. Her coach had heard my advice, and gave me a high five after the game was over. “Freed,” she said, as that was what everyone called me, though my name was Friedrich. “Come to practice when you have the time. I could use an assistant like you. And don’t go anywhere, because Sally wants to talk to you about something. You’re going to like it.” Then she smiled at me, and the whole team ran into the locker room, whooping it up.

Sally came out in ten minutes, just out of the showers, with wet hair and no makeup, and she was still a beauty. She sat next to me, and put her hand on my knee. “Friedrich, let’s start stop staring at each other all the time, and go out. Tomorrow night is good for me. Pick me up at seven, and let’s get some pizza.” Then she kissed me on the cheek, and left, before I could even answer.

I was there to pick her up at 6:45. I was apprehensive, as my parents were Jewish, and her’s were strict Catholics, though neither of us two really cared that much about religion. Her parents greeted me like I was their long lost son. 

Her father was really funny, and told a few Irish stories while Sally was still getting dressed, and at the same time, gave me the third degree about my future plans. Then Sally came down the stairs, and when I saw her, I knew I was crazy in love. 

Cheeky as always, Sally kissed me, right in front of her parents, and said, imitating her father’s Irish accent, “What do you think of my fine lad, here?”  She hooked her arm around mine.

Her father could hang with her with ease. “He’s a good enough specimen, to court me daughter,” he said. “Looks good and Irish, fit, and smart as a whip. Wants to get a Ph D, and teach, for the betterment of mankind. He must be at least half Irish.”

“I’m of German Jewish descent, sir,” I said.

“Never mind, lad,” he said, “We welcome Jews to Ireland. It’s the Protestants we don’t want. They’re like fleas on a dog. Just try and get rid of them.”

Sally and her mother began laughing, as they had heard this tirade before. Sally said we had to go, kept laughing, kept her arm hooked in mine, and we walked out to my Toyota. It was Margherita pizza time.

Sally snarfed down pizza like nothing I had ever seen. I had taken two bites, and her first slice was gone. I shook my head, took two more bites, and her second piece was gone. I had to ask something, about two things. 

“Are we actually courting?” I asked.

“According to my father, “ she said. “He was obviously born in the nineteenth century.” She swallowed another bite of pizza.

“What do you think?”

“I like you better than anyone I’ve ever met. I’m on the borderline of falling in love with you. We just need to get to know each other better.”

“ Why do you eat so fast?”

“‘Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.’ But I eat this fast because of the potato famine.”

“The potato famine? And wasn’t that James Joyce you just quoted?”

“Right, smart guy. Many Irish people starved during the eighteen hundreds, mainly because of the filthy British, My father taught me to eat as fast as I can, in case the British came to steal our food.” Another piece of pizza was gone by then.

I had to process that one. “There are no British around here in Georgia.”

“This was a British colony. The English are everywhere.” By then, three-fourths of the pizza was gone. “We Scots-Irish need to keep our guard up.” Then she finished off her last piece of crust, and smiled at me, while she chewed.

I was far past the love borderline. I took the chance, which was the first time in my life, and said, “Sally, I love you. There is no one else in the world like you.” The entire pizza crowd looked at us.

She swallowed her drink of water—she never drank the flavored sugar water that most people had with pizza. She looked at me with those green eyes, and said, “That was quick. OK, I lied. I’m already in love with you, and have been for a couple of years. My parents gave me the wink of approval, instead of of the usual thumbs down, with you. You could end up as a trophy in-law.” Then she gave me a long pizza flavored kiss. There was applause from the other patrons, which included one of our teachers.

I was down with that, except for the in-law part. Me, married to that beauty? If she wanted it, sure. I thought the likely hood of that was small. I was an idiot, as usual.

She had us park in her driveway, after the pizza, and she literally mauled me. She kissed me into submission. and then decided to rub me all over my body. After about an hour, she said, “Curfew time. Just a preview of coming attractions.” She left, and winked at me. What was up with all the winking with this family?

Winks or not, this whole thing just got hotter and hotter, and after three months, Sally had done everything but rip my clothes off of me. She would stop just short of that, and declare, “I’m a good Catholic, and there are things I just can’t do.”

“I’m a non-observant Jew, and we don’t have rules like that.” Then I grabbed her, and started yanking her clothes off.

“Wait, wait,” she laughed, and said. “Compromise, You can take my top off.” Deal. I did, and she was even more beautiful than I had imagined. I could also imagine what the rest of her looked like. Then came that dark and stormy day.

A brief digression here. How did she get the nickname of Moon Pie? Because she could eat an entire Moon Pie in three bites, which is a particularly disgusting factory made Southern dessert, which comes wrapped in a plastic bag, and which I believe comes from just outside of Chattanooga. That was the usual dessert at our cafeteria, naturally. Our assistant football coach had a stopwatch, and he timed her eating one once. She was a good two seconds faster than the biggest fattening hog on our offensive line.

At any rate, back to that dark and stormy day. It was late March, and her parents were gone to the yearly state union meeting, which for some reason, was always held at a resort hotel on our Atlantic coast. The weather forecast was so ominous that Sally said we should stay at her house that day, which was a Saturday. As we had already driven, unknowingly, under a tornado once, I had no problem with that.

It was even stormier than anticipated. I got there early, as usual, and Sally opened the door, and literally jumped on me, and hugged me. She said, “Thank God you’re here. The new forecast is for a huge tornado outbreak. I would have died, if you had been hurt coming over.” Then she began crying.

There’s nothing I like less than seeing a woman cry, especially one I loved as much as this one. I picked her up, and carried her into the house, kissing her the whole time, naturally. That slowed down her crying fit some. I knew they had a basement built like a 1950’s fallout shelter, and I knew we would be safe there. After she stopped sobbing, I said, “Let’s go down to your basement. We’ll be the safest people in Georgia.” She nodded in agreement.

I practically had to carry her down there, but she weighed so little that that was a big nothing. I sat her down on the couch they had, and suddenly she perked up. She said, “I am going to take a shower, as I refuse to die while I’m dirty. Grab a couple of beers out of our beer fridge here. We might need them.”

“Can do. Don’t forget the clean undies. My mother says you should always have on clean undies, in case you die.”

“I’m not worried about the undies,” she said, and winked at me again. This time, the winking didn’t bother me at all.

I grabbed two beers, opened both, relaxed on the couch, and turned on the weather. It looked really bad, as a huge line of storms was almost where we were. After about ten minutes, Sally came out of the shower, wearing the sexiest silk robe I had ever seen. When I first saw her in it, I thought that there was nothing on, under it. I was right.

She sat down right next to me, and I handed her her beer. All I could say was, “That is one sexy robe. It’s just not as sexy as what’s inside of it. You’re going to have to go to confession, just for wearing that.”

All she said was, “Father, I have sinned. I’m looking forward to confession if I have the nerve do what I’m thinking about. My confession will turn our dirty old priest purple.” Then she kissed me again, and said, “I’m going to whisper in your ear what I have in mind.”

Naturally, as soon as she put her lips to my ear, the line of storms moved in, and announced itself with one tremendous clap of thunder. Then all the lights went out. The power was gone, and we were in complete darkness.

“I know there are some lamps down here,” I said.

“Forget those,” she said. “I like it like this.” The next thing I knew, she was on top of me, and singing in my ear. It was a poem by WB Yeats, set to music.

Down by the salley gardens

   my love and I did meet;

She passed the salley gardens

   with little snow-white feet.

She bid me take love easy,

   as the leaves grow on the tree;

But I, being young and foolish,

   with her would not agree.

In a field by the river

   my love and I did stand,

And on my leaning shoulder

   she laid her snow-white hand.

She bid me take life easy,

   as the grass grows on the weirs;

But I was young and foolish,

   and now am full of tears.

She was Irish, alright, and she had the singing voice of a prima donna. But she was a prima donna, anyway. All I could say, was “That was as beautiful as you are.”

“Oh yea? ‘Dear heart, how like you this?’” She threw her robe off, while quoting some Elizabethan poetry this time. So much for the good Catholic girl. But she could always get absolution, as long as her story didn’t give her priest a fatal heart attack.

She whispered in my ear again. “You know all of those assholes at school who say that I’m a virgin? Actually, I am, and never even thought about it until I met you. Be patient, but that is all about to end. I’m not going to die without having made love to you.” Then she stripped me down, and climbed back on top of me again.

I said, “It was no dream: I lay broad waking.” I could hang with her during a poetry slam.

She just smiled, and kissed me again. “This is my first time, and I read that it is going to hurt, and I had no idea how big that thing you have was going to be,” she said. “So lie still, and let me do this myself.” I had no problem with that. It was my first time also.

She apparently knew what she was doing, as it hurt her for about two seconds, and then she was all on it. After about fifteen seconds, I had to say, “I hope you’re not going to give me a heart attack.”

“You’re about to have an attack, but it’s not going to be of the heart variety,“ she said, and really went to work on it. I lasted about thirty seconds more, and then it was done.

She took all the satisfaction that she could get out of it, and then bent over, kissed me, and said “Don’t go anywhere. I’m coming back in a minute for seconds. It was that good.” Then she kissed me again.

God, she was going to wear me out, but it was the absolute best way of being worn out. Then I had the ultimate terror stroke—was she trying to get pregnant? She was Catholic.

That thought passed in a second. She was far too intelligent for that. I was still going to ask about it, anyway.

She came back, grabbed me, and said, “Hello, cowboy. I feel that the resurrection of the flesh is holding up fine. You have to ride me this time.” 

I had to say, “You aren’t afraid of getting pregnant, are you?”

“Hardly. Abortion is way worse than sex for Catholics, and my parents put me on birth control as soon as I became a teenager. They thought that with my looks, I might get raped by one of the local rednecks, but mainly those we go to school with, and impregnated. Technically, both abortion and sex are mortal sins, but even our pervert Priest thinks that carnal desires and acts are on a completely different level from abortion. I think he’s had plenty of carnal thoughts, especially when he sees me. Now, I didn’t tell my parents about my ball kicking skills, and I don’t mean footballs, either, so I really was not in that much danger. Now shut up and kiss me, and do your duty.”

I did that with pleasure, and I went slow, and lasted more than a minute this time. My reward was that she came back with a blanket, and said we needed a nap. She asked me when I had to go home. I said, “My parents are very liberal. As long as I call, I can stay out all night. Is that fine with you?”

“Under one circumstance—you have to cook with me naked. Supper and breakfast. Naturally, I’ll be naked, too. Just be careful with the knives. I don’t want to see you damage an important part.” I laughed my butt off at that. She was as clever and witty, as she was beautiful.

Before I dozed off, I could swear that I heard her say, “This is just what it will be like when we’re married in a few years. What a life we are going to have together, Professor.” I forgot to say that my nickname was Professor.

While we were snoozing, a tornado hit, and destroyed the house next door. Sally’s family lost five really old hardwood trees. And we slept right through the whole thing, with our bodies curled tight up against each other. Love will do that to you.

Six years later, when we were both in grad school, we went to the courthouse in Fulton county, and got married. Sally said, in her fake Irish accent, that “There was no way in fookin Hell” that she was going through with a Catholic wedding. That was ten years ago. Strangely enough, she never cooks naked anymore. It could have something to do with our kids. We just sleep that way.

Something of a shout out here to our greatest Southern Woman novelist, Kate Chopin, who was half Irish herself. She also wrote the scandalous short story “The Storm,” of which this is something of a riff. Read that one, when you get a chance. It makes this one seem tame.

Country Winter in the South

Snowed Under–Not

Today is my birthday, and its (irony alert) a frigid seventy degrees F here. So some landscape shots for you, from our little Appalachian river valley. That’s Garden City Mountain, on the other side of the river.

A River Runs Through It

Our little river can be seen upon close examination. According to popular myth, fishing becomes spectacular when the dogwoods bloom. Go trees!

Auburn, Alabama, Bans Drinking While Standing

No Wonder My Stella Box is Empty

Don’t take my word for it. This quote is straight from the city council.

All ABC [Alabama Beverage Control] licensed alcohol establishments in the City of Auburn shall suspend walk up bar services at indoor bars and only allow alcoholic beverages to be served to seated customers. Further, the serving of alcoholic beverages to any person who is not seated at a table / counter / bar is hereby prohibited.

Auburn City Council

Don’t worry, they still plan on having football games attended by several thousand drunk people.

Warsaw Zoo Feeds Marijuana to Elephants to Reduce Stress

“Dude, I’m an Elephant. Chill out, Dude. Would I stomp on you?”

It is truthfully “medical marijuana,” aka CBD oil, the oliphants are getting. Apparently dogs and horses have been getting it for years, which could explain how our dogs act. Now it is on to literally bigger things.

The Polish, they are so clever. I hope they do the next movie about Dumbo, the stoned elephant. That sucker can fly.

Cheeseballs!

I wish this was as funny as the Mel Brook’s classic movie, Spaceballs, but it is just sad, pitiful, and an amazing display of ignorance instead. It does say something about people who buy processed food like cheeseballs.

It ain’t easy getting banned from Wal-Mart, but these two doofuses from Minnesota did it with ease. They decided to wear face masks with swastikas on them, to protest the mask requirement there. As MJ and I are both of German extraction, we take some serious affront to anyone who thinks a protest should include a swastika.

As they were getting kicked out with their toilet paper and giant container of cheeseballs, the female part of the duo said this gem: “If you vote for Biden, you’re going to be living in Nazi Germany.”

She says this while wearing a swastika. Irony now is officially dead.

I’m Getting Really Bored With Dog Food

Give Me some Real Food

Emma and Siegfried are getting tired of dog food. They like variety as much as people do, and they got maybe a teaspoon of hamburger each tonight. Sorry, puppies, but we are almost out of beef.

So humans are not the only animals tired of this crisis. These two pooches live like the top one percent of dogs, when it comes to eating well. And by that I mean protein rich and healthy.

Black dog Emma is closing in on seventy pounds, which is way large for a registered Aussie. Ziggmeister (our knick name for Siegfried) is not far behind. Those are two healthy three year old dogs.

At least we sit up at the table when we are eating.

Uncured Bacon in a Saumure Anglaise

That’s an English Pickle, for the Francophobes

Joel Salatin, aka “The world’s most famous farmer,” up there in Virginia, wrote an entire book about “the pigness of pigs.” Yesterday at the Festhalle farmer’s market I ran across one of my favorite sellers, a young woman who usually has one of her five children with her (this is Alabama). Instead, she had a big cooler full of fresh local pork that she had grown. Here was some real pigness of the best kind.

When she said she had fresh uncured bacon, I nearly had an infarction. I bought a pound, and she instructed me about how to cure it. My response was I always use a Saumure Anglaise when I cured pork like that.

Now, everyone usually looks at you like you are a snake with two heads when you use French in this part of the South, as opposed to New Orleans or Mobile, the two oldest French cities in the region. However, she looked impressed, and said I obviously knew what I was doing. I told her this wasn’t my first rodeo.

Here’s my version of this Saumure, adapted from Jane Grigson’s monumental book on French charcuterie.

Ingredients

Water

Handful of Salt

Handful of Brown Sugar

One Bay Leaf

Sprigs of Fresh Thyme

Peppercorns

Four Cloves

Fragment of whole Nutmeg

I omitted the nitrates (pink salt) from this recipe, as this is going to be eaten in short order. Boil this combo, and then let it steep until cool. Pour it over the bacon or other fresh pork you have, and throw it into the fridge.

For how long? That depends on how brave you are. I let mine go for at least a couple of days, and thicker pieces, like fresh ham slices, for around six. Sugar and salt are decent preservatives on their own, and I’m still kicking, so there’s anecdotal evidence to prove it’s not deadly to avoid the nitrates. Just check out some of the furry Italian sausages sometimes to see if nitrates have to be used.

The bacon will not be furry, but it will be tasty. And it will be cured the natural way.

Minerva, Chapter One–A Novel About Food and Therapy

Gentle Readers, I thought I should share with you some of my fiction, as this deals with food and manifold other issues. The narrator is a female psychology professor. Feel free to comment about it, should you choose to slog through these 4000 words.

Minerva—The Case History of a Young Woman Recovering from a Childhood of Abuse

Introduction

All of the details of this story are perfectly true, to the absolute best of my recollection, and supported by the literal file cabinet full of notes that I have kept on Minerva; but at the same time, they are also fictional up to a point. I originally thought that I should write this like one of Herr Doctor Freud’s case studies, but I eventually thought better. This needed to be a narrative.

I have been Minerva’s therapist for six years now! And I have never seen anything like the transformation she has gone through. Recovery is a process that never really ends, but Minerva is now a happy, and already remarkable, career woman, and is married. I hardly thought any of those possible after I read her case history for the first time.

After all I said about this all being true, I have changed the names and even the fields of academic study to the point where it will be next to impossible to determine her, or my, true identity. I do in fact work at a medium sized university in a medium sized city in a medium sized state in the US South. That means this could have taken place in essentially anywhere in the entire region.

I chose to call this young woman “Minerva” for various reasons. The most striking of these is her love for all things Italian, and her staggering depth of knowledge about the culture. Those will become apparent to anyone who reads her story. The most important is her resemblance, in so many ways, to the mythical Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. Literally no barrier could stop her unending search for knowledge. If she had been a male, her mythical name would have been Prometheus.

Minerva herself has read this manuscript, and she complimented me on my obfuscation concerning our identities. She said she doubted that even she could have solved the puzzle of who she was, or where she came from, after reading this. Fortunately for us all, she was able to solve the puzzle of who she is in reality. If I played my own small role in helping her, and helping others by telling her story, I have done better work than I ever have done up to this point. This is the story of Minerva unchained. 

Chapter One

Problems

Meeting Minerva for the first time was like discovering a new galaxy on the far edge of the universe. She walked into my office at nine in the morning during the first day of fall classes, under strict instructions from my sort of friend, and her new advisor, Dean Franklin, that she should be on time. In retrospect I believe she was on time down to the actual second when eight o’clock turned to nine o’clock, which became to me the key trait of her personality, accurate and honest as a nuclear clock. The most generous thing most people would have said about her appearance was that she was “striking,” which is a polite way of saying she looked different from just about anyone else. She was gymnast muscular, thin, and pale as a classical statue. On top of that was the most outrageous head of red hair that I had ever seen, which was likely visible from the other side of our galaxy. I was probably fortunate that I had not had time to go through the foot high pile of files that the Dean had sent me concerning her, and so I really had no idea about this young person who would eventually become my semi-adopted daughter. My first impression, when she walked in and smiled at me, was that she shone like the center of that distant new galaxy. I had no idea how true that intuition was to prove to be.

Buonjiorno,” she said, and waved at me with a semi-circular sweep of her hand. “I’m Dean Franklin’s new ward, Minerva.”

Maybe she thought she was a character from a Victorian novel. I laughed, stood up, and shook her hand. I said, “I’m MaryBeth, Professor of Psychology and Licensed Therapist. Dean Franklin told me you spent the summer in Italy.”

“What a blast,” she said. “Actually, it was Italy and Switzerland. I studied in both places.”

“What did you study?’

“Opera, architecture and physics. I studied in Rome, and then at CERN in Switzerland. That’s the place where they’re building that massive particle accelerator.”

The name sounded vaguely familiar. “Isn’t that the place where they came up with the idea for the internet?”

“Exactly, but technically they invented the World Wide Web. Tim catches all kinds of shit from the other scientists about all the hype he receives because of that. I gave him all sorts of hell about putting those two slashes in every web address. You know, http://. Hyper text transfer protocol, colon, forward slash, forward slash. The two forward slashes are useless, because they don’t signify anything. I hate anything that doesn’t signify. I finally got him to admit to everyone that they were a mistake.”

“Who is Tim?”

“Tim Berners-Lee, who always gets the credit for inventing the Web. I got an email from him last night, telling me to be sure and come back to CERN next summer. Listen to me, ‘I got an email last night from the guy who invented the World Wide Web.’ I must sound like the most stoned student you’ve ever talked to. I have to tell you right now, I don’t use any drugs. Especially prescription drugs. I have a real phobia about those.”

Maybe I should have looked at those files after all. I certainly would as soon as she left. I decided to change the subject. “So how did you get to know Dean Franklin?”

“I don’t really know him that well. I was handed off to him. I get that a lot.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“No one really knows what to do with me, except for John. That’s John Berger, the famous attorney here in town, but you know that. You’re a good friend of his. John knows exactly what I should do, and what keeps me going. What happened is, my family handed me off to my grandmother Audrey, who is wonderful, and she handed me off to her friend John when I moved up here last spring, before I went to Europe. John hands me off to people who he knows can help me. He told Dean Franklin to send me to you. You have quite a reputation. I can tell from your office that it’s all true, the things everybody says about you.”

“Thank you, Minerva. I’m glad you like it.”

“It’s so orderly. I hope you can make my mind like this room. Oh, I have to tell you, I got handed off to my local police precinct a couple of days ago. They’ve practically adopted me too. The women there think I’m some kind of hero. All I did was break that one cop’s nose. He was a really big redneck, too. Not bad for a skinny seventeen year old girl.”

“I didn’t hear anything about you getting arrested from the Dean.”

“I wasn’t arrested. I volunteered to go down to the precinct to apologize to that big cop, though. Now some of this is just hearsay, so I’ll tell you what I know, and what I was told happened. Some of this is in my file already. One of the many things I have been diagnosed with is night terrors and incubus attacks—you know, a sleep disorder. I scream at night, while I’m asleep, and can’t remember any of it the next day. I had an attack the night I got back from Italy. The cops thought someone was trying to kill me, and they broke in to my apartment to save me. This big redneck guy tried to wake me up, and I broke his nose with a palm heel strike. That’s when you hit someone with the heel of your palm. At least that’s what Cleo told me.”

“Who is Cleo?”

“The police woman I found sitting on my couch. The morning after I got back from Italy, I woke up and saw that my bedroom was a mess. I thought it was just another incubus attack, so I got up and took a shower. I finished, put on my robe, and put my hair up in a towel, and then I put on my pink fluffy bunny slippers. They have ears and everything. Grandmother bought them for me as a gag gift, but I really like them. They’re so cheesy. So I walk into my main room—my apartment is only four rooms, but it’s free, because my grandmother owns the building. Then sure enough, Cleo is sitting there on my couch, in her police uniform. She had made some coffee, and was having a cup and a doughnut. I know that’s a cliche, but I love doughnuts, and went to Krispy Kreme first thing as soon as I got back from Italy. They were the only things in my fridge, except for some milk, blueberries, and some butter. And she was reading a magazine. I just told her hello.”

Dean Franklin was getting a congratulatory phone call as soon as this interview ended. Minerva knew the guy who invented the internet, and also a local cop named Cleo, who was into coffee and doughnuts. I was going to spend all day, and possibly, all night, with her files. But right now I was in the middle of some coffee and doughnuts.

“So what did Cleo say?”

“She asked me if I wanted some coffee, and a doughnut. I said yes, poured myself some coffee and grabbed a doughnut, and asked her if she would like any blueberry pancakes. She said, ‘Honey, I loves me some blueberry pancakes.’ So I whipped us up a batch. And I had some maple syrup in the cabinet. Then we sat and ate our pancakes, and talked.”

“How were the pancakes?”

“Delicious. I just needed some honey to sweeten them a little more. I make a mean pancake.”

“So how did she get into your apartment?”

“She and the big redneck guy broke my door down. The police fixed it back after we had our pancakes. Cleo stayed behind to look after me, after they took Jed to the hospital.”

“Jed?”

“Jed is Cleo’s partner. She told him not to wake me, because her sister has night terrors too. He grabbed me and shook me anyway. Big mistake. Cleo said, ‘Baby, you need to get a job catching cobras by hand or something. Your hand came up and knocked his nose so far up in his head, that the doctors are going to need a map to find it. Whack! Jed never even saw it coming. First thing I knew, he was lying on the floor on his back, looking for his nose with both hands all around his face.’ That’s why I went and apologized to him.”

Through some miracle I managed not to laugh. “How did Jed take the apology?”

“Well, I guess he had to take it well considering the whole place was filming it all with their phones. He’s a good foot taller than I am, and I guess it was a little embarrassing to get whacked like that by someone my size. The doctor had done a pretty good job pulling his nose back out of his skull, though that part of his face was all blue and all bruised. He was typing his report at his desk when I walked in to the office. At least he didn’t run away from me when he saw me. I’ve had that happen before.”

“So what did you say?”

“I said, ‘Hi Jed, I’m Minerva. I’m sorry I broke your nose like that, but I don’t know what I’m doing when I’m asleep. Can I kiss it and make it feel better?’ He said no. I can’t really blame him. Do you mind if I look around your office some? I really like this place.”

“Be my guest.” She really had some intellectual curiosity, which was becoming ever more of a rarity with students.

As soon as she came around to look out my window, she saw something she liked behind my desk. “Oh my god,” she said, “Where did you get that big bag? I have to send one of those to Italy. I know two guys in Maremma who would love one. That’s in Tuscany.”

I had never seen someone so excited about a bag before. “That’s my market tote. It was made in Minnesota. I got it to go to the farmer’s market, but now I use it every day. All my things fit in it.” 

Minerva practically had her nose down in the bag, and was fiddling around with everything in it. Then she went to her purse, and pulled out a very fancy, but small, tape measure. She showed it to me. “This is very precise. It was made in Germany. I need exact measurements in both imperial and metric units. Those always signify,” she said.

A repeated word, signify. I already had something to work with. I asked, “Do you need something to write down the measurements on?”

“No, I just memorize everything. It’s easier that way. I’m buying four of these bags. I’m sending two to Maremma, one to my grandmother, and I’m keeping one for myself. I need to learn about the local markets here. Italians love their local markets. They even have Agritourismo there.”

“Agricultural tourism? That sounds great, eating your way across a country. Is that how you ended up in that part of Tuscany?”

“Hardly any international tourists go to Maremma. That’s why it’s so special. My voice coach was from this little village there called Scansano, and after a couple of lessons, he and his wife invited me to go there for the weekend, to meet his family. His twin uncles would have adopted me, and I went to see them every weekend I was there, after that first trip. I got handed off to them after I taught their three dogs how to guard their chickens. The uncles were seriously impressed. They had worked as shepherds when they were younger.”

“So you know how to teach dogs to guard chickens.”

“It was easy with Dante, Leo, and Michael. They’re Maremma sheepdogs. That breed has been guarding animals for at least two centuries, probably longer. They may have even been developed by the Etruscans.”

I had to laugh at the names of the dogs. “An Italian dog is named Michael?”

“My grandmother thought he was named after Michael Corleone, but that’s Siciliano. Those dogs are strictly Toscano. Michael the sheepdog is named after Michelangelo.” She gestured like a character from The Godfather when she said Siciliano.

God, she was witty. I hoped the Dean could send me another like her, but I doubted such a person existed. “I guess that means Leo is named after Leonardo. That’s an artistic pack of hounds there in Maremma.”

“Exactly. Leo is named after Leonardo. As a reward for training their dogs, the two uncles taught me how to cook Tuscan food. Talk about old school! They had to cook for themselves when they were shepherds. They even make their own Pecorino Toscano, which is a sheep milk’s cheese. And their own bread and sausages. I learned all those skills. And after the shepherding work dried up, they worked at the best vineyard near Scansano, making Morellino di Scansano wine, which is famous. They taught me about all the best Tuscan wines, also. I have a couple of cases in my apartment, and more on the way.”

“So your education was all around this summer. When did you find time to sleep?”

“I hardly ever sleep, which is one of my main problems, which we should work on. When I do, I scream my head off with some regularity. One reason I drink so much wine is it helps me go to sleep.” She had finished with her measurements of the bag, taken a look out the window, and then sat back down.

“Aren’t you a little young to be drinking wine?”

“Not in Italy. Sixteen is the legal drinking age, but I can’t buy wine legally until I’m eighteen. How strange is that. I could drink it there, but I couldn’t buy it. John told me you love good wine. So I have a surprise for you. He absolutely dared me to do this today.”

She reached inside the giant leather purse she had, which was easily half as big as my market tote, and pulled out something wrapped in parchment paper, and a piece of flat bread. Then she said, “Would you like to try a piece of the twin’s homemade cheese, with some Tuscan flat bread I made? I smuggled the cheese through customs.”

  It would have been impossible to say no. “Good thing they didn’t have a cheese sniffing dog at the airport, or you may not have made it here today,” I said. “Let’s eat. Manga, manga.”

She laughed, whipped out the fanciest Swiss Army knife I had ever seen, tore off some bread, and sliced some cheese on top of it. She handed it to me, got some for herself, and said, “I should tell you the sheep’s milk was not pasteurized.”

Here was a trust building opportunity. “How old were these guys, and how long have they made this?”

“Sixty nine, so they have made this for fifty years at least.”

“I’ll risk it then.” I took a bite. It was unlike any cheese I had ever eaten. Mild, and sweet, and with something undefinable. Kind of like my young patient.

Minerva swallowed her bite, and said, “I can tell you like it. The twins told me  that I was tasting the smell of the pastures of Maremma.”

They were exactly right, I suppose. Smell and taste together. I took another bite.

“One of the twins told me he could tell which of the actual pastures the sheep came from, just by eating this,” she said. “After he said it twice, his brother said, ‘You can barely tell this cheese from the stuff that comes out of a sheep’s butt hole’. Only he didn’t say stuff, or butt hole.”

“At the very least,” I said, “I can tell the difference between this cheese and sheep shit.”

Minerva laughed, “Maybe calling sheep shit on somebody is a shepherd’s way of calling bullshit on somebody,” she said. “But this food just makes me thirsty. Let’s have a drink.” She reached back into her cavern of a purse again, and pulled out a small glass flask, and a couple of glasses not much bigger than shot glasses. She poured us each a glass of what was obviously red wine. She said, “The twins made this as well. It’s their version of Morellino di Scansano. John insisted that I bring you some.” She poured the wine, handed me a glass, and said, “Salute.”

I didn’t normally drink wine at nine in the morning, but I could make an exception in this case, even if I was breaking every campus rule in the book. The wine turned out to be every bit as good as the cheese. After I downed the glass in one drink, I said, “No wonder you went to Scansano every weekend. Did the twins have any other talents?”

I caught her in the middle of a another bite of cheese. She finally said, “More even than baking Tuscan bread, their big thing is making pasta. They’re launching their own war on Big Pasta. You know, the stuff that comes in a box. They say pasta in a box is destroying Italian culture. The tote bags are for them to use in their contraband unstamped egg business. It’s more than a little illegal, but they have God, justice, and the Mediterranean diet on their side—at least that’s what they say. And their side just tastes much better anyway,” she said, and poured us another shot of wine.

Admittedly, the last thing I was expecting on the first day of classes was to walk into a Slow Food documentary, narrated by a seventeen year old who was sent to me as being in urgent need of therapy. But I had to know about this unstamped egg bootlegging thing before we got down to the therapy business. ”What’s an unstamped egg, and why is it illegal?”

“It started with the EU,” she said, “And it ruined local egg production and pasta making. Every egg in the EU has to go through a processor, and be inspected and stamped, and most villages and towns in Italy don’t have egg processors. I didn’t see the connection until the twins proved it to me. They knew I was the most skeptical person in the world after the first weekend I met them. So they set up an experiment with a blind tasting for me.”

I had to at least make some attempt at progress, so I asked the obvious question. “Why are you so skeptical about everything?”

“Because everything my family taught me for fifteen years turned out to be sheep shit. Except for my grandmother, of course. She’s as bad a skeptic as I am, but I wasn’t allowed to spend much time with her, until I moved in with her a couple of years ago. The twins took me into their famiglia almost immediately. I love the way Italians value famiglia so much, and sharing good food is the center of it. Let me tell you about the experiment.”

“Be my guest.”

“Both of the twins made the same fresh pasta dish, Tortelli alla Maremmana, which is a ravioli type thing, and then made me choose the best one. They were both excellent, but one had the same thing this cheese has-the smell of the Tuscan earth, maybe. I chose that one, and the twins were so pleased they broke out their favorite wine that they had made, and we all had a drink. Then they told me the secret to the best pasta. It was the local, unstamped, bootleg eggs, that were used to make it. They had the flavor of the woods around Scansano, where their chickens foraged.”

“So that’s when you began your life of crime?”

“I’ve done more than just smuggle cheese and bootleg eggs. You’ll find out about that when you read my many files. Please don’t be discouraged by them. So many head shrinkers have given up on me already. I don’t want to sound like an asshole, but most of them dumped me because I’m smarter than them. But I’m getting a little tired of being handed off.”

I didn’t even consider that as a possibility, My normal procedure was to just talk for this first hour, and so I had her talk more about Italy. It was was so diverting that I lost track of time, until she said, “But damn, I have a class across campus at ten. I better go, because it’s really not in my character to be late. The Dean says I have to come back here at nine tomorrow. I scheduled my eight classes around that time slot.”

“Eight? Isn’t that a lot?”

“I wanted to take ten or eleven, but the Dean wouldn’t let me. I’ll probably be bored, with so little to do. But at least I get to talk to you. You sure know your stuff MaryBeth. All the psychiatrists I’ve talked to were not at all interested in food, or Italy. You can keep the rest of the cheese, and the bread. I’ll clean up the glasses.” She grabbed the glasses and threw them back into her purse. “Bye, and thank you so much,” she said. “See you tomorrow exactly at nine.” She made the same semi-circular wave as she left my office.

I treated myself to some more bread and cheese, and thought about how enjoyable it was going to be talking with her all semester. As a diversion, I decided to look into her file. I flipped the top file open, and the Dean, thoughtfully, I considered, had provided a one page executive summary for me. After two sentences I considered stopping reading it. This charming young woman, and incredible intellect, had spent fifteen years of childhood in a literal hell. No wonder she screamed at night, while she slept. I was going to have to be her Dante, and help her explore and understand the levels of the hell she had been through. And I was going to be damned to a hell of my own making if I couldn’t help her.

Oktoberfest, Alabama Style

oktoberfest

“Trink, trink, Brüderlein trink.” Drink, brother, drink.

I have copied the schedule for the Oktoberfest celebration in my hometown of Cullman, Alabama, Die Deutsche Colonie von Nord Alabama.

Practice your chicken dance, and bring a Bavarian flag. Prost!

Cast Iron Cookware-Materials and Methods for Seasoning

cast ironHere’s a touchy subject if ever there was one, a place where only angels-and fools-dare to tread. However, the above picture of our wall of cast iron will have to serve as evidence that I know whereof I speak. That’s one heavy batterie de cuisine. By the way, the small skillet hanging on the upper left is almost forty years old, but could pass as about a year old.

However, I am going to avoid absolute pronouncements and merely discuss the merits of various materials and methods. Think of seasoning cast iron as analogous to painting a wall. Unless you’re Jackson Pollack, you want to apply thin, even, layers of finish. Here are the top four choices for oils (fats) to use.

Materials

  • Traditionalist’s Choice: Animal Fat.  I’m fairly old school, so I personally use lard, BUT lard that I have slowly rendered myself from locally grown pigs. A section from the Purdue University Pork Industry Handbook , “Pork and Pork Quality” (PIH 128), notes that pork fat is a good source of linoleic acid, a main component of the “drying oils” (aka, oils that transform into a polymer), that will be discussed below. Without wandering off into the forests of chemistry, that is an acid that allows lard to form a polymeric surface (the molecules link together), when exposed to a combination of heat and oxygen. It’s the same way traditional oil paint dries. A. D. Livingston, in his Cast Iron Cooking, is a strong proponent of animal fat, noting that pioneers even used such things as bear fat for seasoning. If you have some extra bear fat in the fridge, go for it.
  • Expert’s Choice: Flaxseed/Linseed oil. Essentially the two are the same thing, but Flaxseed is usually a raw oil marketed for culinary purposes, while Linseed oil comes in various forms, and is intended for wood finishing, or for making oil paints. It is the most famous of the drying oils. In oil painting, this is the oil of choice, as it provides a smoother finish (See Painting Materials, a scholarly text for artists from 1942. We’re in some seriously nerdy territory now). Flaxseed oil is the best for cast iron, raw linseed second, and polymerized linseed oil, which has been heated so that it will dry faster, would be a third choice. I use a food grade “Danish Oil” (polymerized linseed oil) for wooden spoon and bowl finishes, and the brand I use (Tried and True) is also approved for cutting boards. Never ever use boiled linseed oil, which contains as many toxic chemicals as an EPA Superfund site.
  • Two Other Drying Oils: Safflower and Walnut Oils. I have not used these on cast iron, but they are highly rated as drying oils. Safflower has the benefit of being inexpensive and widely available. I have used Walnut oil as a wood finish, and unlike linseed oil, the smell is wonderful. The finish is fantastic as well. Walnut oil has almost twice the oil content of any other non-synthetic oil, so a little goes a long way. Allegedly, it was Leonardo da Vinci’s secret weapon when it came to making oil paints. If you have any left over, make salad dressing with it, or start forging a copy of the Mona Lisa.

Soybean oil and poppyseed oil are also drying oils, but try and find some non-GMO soybean oil at the same price as safflower oil. After you have put an almost invisibly thin coat of oil on some cast iron, what are you going to do? Cook it. Here’s three methods.

Methods

  • Top of the Stove, Bro. This one requires the most attention, but it is the method of choice for seasoning carbon steel pans, and will work with cast iron as well. Disconnect the smoke detector, apply the material thinly, heat it right up to smoking point, take the pan off the heat, wipe it down, and let it cool off. Repeat until you have the finish you want. By the way, don’t disconnect the smoke detector.
  • Bake it. By far the most common method, and recommended by manufacturers such as Lodge, in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. Apply the material, place the pan upside down in the oven, and bake at a high temp for an hour. I’d go with 500 degrees F. Repeat, and apply another coat of oil, if the finish is not sticky to the touch. If it is, bake it for another hour, without additional oil. If it’s sticky after that, scour the pan and begin all over. You’ve been a Jackson Pollock with your oil, which is not a good thing.
  • Burn it. “Like any other Primitive would,” to quote Neil Young from a different context. As with most things, there is a right way and a wrong way to do this. I have seen videos of people throwing a cold skillet into a fire, straight onto a bed of glowing hot coals, which is the cooking equivalent of What Not to Wear. Thermal shock is one of the few things that will ruin cast iron. I prefer to put my cast iron in my brick oven as my fire is just beginning to burn. Eventually, I will push it up into the coals, as the fire begins to burn down. Then I let it cool for hours, or even overnight. If it’s an older piece of cookware, this method serves the double purpose of seasoning, and burning the grunge off of the exterior.

So choose the combination that you like, and be patient. If you pay attention, and take care of your cookware, eventually you will achieve this finish:

Chicken Fryer

A couple of decades of frying chicken has left a little grunge at the top of this fryer, but the business part of this piece is a pure slick polymer. The scratch is the result of an unfortunate use of a metal utensil years ago, and so I now use only wooden ones I have made myself. (Not that I would brag or anything, but I have one featured in the book A Gathering of Spoons: The Design Gallery of the World’s Most Stunning Wooden Art Spoonsby Norman D. Stevens.)

Let’s finish with a couple of often disputed topics. The first is cooking acidic foods, like tomatoes, in cast iron. Of course you can. You’re cooking on a polymerized surface, not bare cast iron. The dish will taste metallic if cooked in an unseasoned pan, but no one should be cooking in an unseasoned pan anyway. I have cooked literally hundreds of dishes of Chicken Creole and Chicken Piquant in my favorite skillet, and both have tomatoes, and the second additionally has white wine and olives. I’ve made both in some of my wife’s fancy copper pans, and the result wasn’t nearly as tasty. Go figure.

The last question is of great import, which is how to clean and maintain cast iron cookware once it is seasoned. A. D. Livingston became an absolutist when working at the nuclear lab in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, after hearing of a skillet that had not been washed in over a hundred years–only wiped clean. He allows rinsing with hot running water is acceptable, but that is it. Others say a drop of dish washing liquid is fine. My experience is that properly seasoned cast iron can withstand anything but steel wool, or one of those copper scrubbing thingys. Even food that might have stuck on comes off easily, unless allowed to dry out on to the pan. Even then a few minutes of soaking will do the job, and if you are impatient, try A. D.’s method of boiling off the offensive bits of food.

In short, chose whatever method serves you best. Back in the day, people just went with what they had. Things appear to have turned out alright.