Sunday, March 13, 2011

It All Began With A Bug

Whether June bugs are good to eat or not, I don't
remember. I've just been told I ate one.

I have a queasy stomach. I don't know if I was born with it or if it developed over time, but I definitely know it's there. I mean, I can be craving eggs, only to crack one open, find a bloody spot, and into the garbage it goes. I end up eating a bowl of cereal. That's just one example of the kind of fussy tummy I'm talking about.

I rather think my squeamish stomach grew into being as I myself grew. My mother always told the story of how she found me sitting behind a chair in the living room, crunching on something with all of my four tiny teeth. Now you have to understand that my mom was the June Cleaver of her time, always cleaning the house, me, and everything else that touched her world. So when she found me chomping on this big brown thing, she hurried to get it out of my mouth.

To her way of telling the story it was a June bug--a large brown beetle common to Minnesota summers. This particular bug, however, had morphed into the size of a silver dollar--or so the story went--and I was enjoying the crunch to the point where I refused to give it up. Yet mom persisted and out came every wing, feeler, body part, and leg. She said I cried when she took my tasty treat away. I remember not. I was less than two years old.

Do you see where I'm going with this story? In my dad's house we girls had to try three bites of everything that went on the table--bar none. If after tasting we decided we didn't like it, we were never forced to eat it ever again. Dad broke that rule for nothing. For the most part, mom never overruled him. Except for the oysters. Dad adored oyster stew and on occasion he'd bring the slimy creatures home from the grocery store and make his own version of the seafood soup. Mom said that I'd eat all the crispy crackers poured atop the warm bowl of cream but when the oyster went in my mouth, I spit it out and handed it to her.

"But mommy, it tastes like a fawogg," is what she insists I said. I don't know. I was still in a high chair according to her. To my remembrance, I'd never been fed a frog, but no telling what I may have put in my own mouth. My folks were fishermen and we spent a lot of time around Minnesota's abundant lakes with their abundant froggy inhabitants. And even though dad didn't excuse me from the three bite rule in our house, mom did. If they battled it out behind my back, I never knew about it. I also never ate another oyster. At least not until I was an adult and discovered them fried. That changed everything.

As best I can remember, I always trusted what my parents put before me to eat. As WWII was on and everything was rationed, we mostly ate from our farm. Dad raised pigs and chickens and alternated his field crops between corn and wheat. What we didn't have, he bartered with farmer friends in exchange, thus bringing beef or milk into our pantry. When the shelves were nearly bare, he'd take to the woods, bringing home pheasant or rabbit or deer or squirrel or quail.

Of course we always had chicken and eggs. My friends perpetually suggested that I must hate chicken because we ate so much of it. My sisters and I always replied "No." We all loved it. Mom fixed it so many different ways, who could ever tire of it? Then there were the pigs. Dad would do the butchering, my aunt would do the rendering, and mom would have basement shelves filled with canned pork, lard, head cheese, and blood sausage. Trust me. If I ate the latter two I mentioned, I don't remember. Once I understood what they were, I refused to touch them. But dad relished them. Good ole German stock that he was, he never wasted anything. I suspect that nothing was ever thrown away in the Old Country and that tradition had been passed down to him.

I have to admit that dad made the best pork sausage I've ever eaten. I think it was his family recipe brought over from Germany. Every spice just tingled in my mouth. We ate it with greedy delight. I well remember the day I came home from school and found him washing a sink full of what looked like long, slimy, white worms. I couldn't figure out what it was so I asked dad. "Pig intestines," he answered. I was horrified. "What for?" I questioned. "For the sausage," he answered. My tummy lurched. I asked again, "Are you gonna put the sausage inside those guts?" He nodded his head yes and then explained. "It's what people have been doing ever since time began. All sausage is put into natural casings."

Throw up time. But wait. I loved that sausage. I'd have to figure a way to get rid of the gut casing. From then on, young as I was, I used my dinner knife to slit the casing and pull  it all off so I could eat the meat. Dad just chuckled. And since I was the most outspoken of us girls, I didn't mind telling him why I wasn't going to eat the casing. "I'm not putting anything in my mouth that used to have poop in it," I said firmly. Mom gave me a knowing look. Dad warned me not to get sassy. I let the subject drop.

Dad never cooked. So when he did should have been a warning, but I never picked up on it. Every so often he'd come home at lunch time and begin stirring up something that smelled so good I was immediately drawn to the kitchen. "What are you making, daddy?" I'd ask. He'd keep stirring and answer with, "Brains." I'd ask if I could have some too and when they were done we'd both sit down and lick our plates clean. Potatoes and brains and spices. So good. I don't remember how many years I did that. I do remember that I was in grade school the day truth dawned on me.

It happened the day mom came into the kitchen while dad was cooking up his specialty. She wrinkled up her nose, looked right at me, gave a shudder and said in a disgusted voice, "I just don't know how you can eat that stuff." I looked at her and answered with, "But mommy, it's so good." She wrinkled her nose again, so far up it stretched her mouth into a scary face. "But it's brains," she shuddered. A little bit of light went on inside of my head. I pointed to my forehead and asked, "You mean--brains?" She nodded yes. I looked at dad and said accusingly, "Are we eating people's brains? Where did you get them? Are they from dead people at the hospital? I'm not going to eat them anymore!" Dad looked over at mom and commented. "Well, Toots (that's what he always called her), I hope you're happy. Sandy liked them till you stuck your nose in." Then he looked at me. "They're cow brains." I didn't care. I would never eat them again.

Although mom always did the grocery shopping, there were times when dad would make a run by the butcher shop and my middle sister and I would tag along. Mom would never give in to letting us buy any treats but dad was an easy mark. In those days, nearly every butcher counter had giant-sized jars sitting atop the meat case and inside those jars were assorted goodies. The biggest jars held something called pickled pig's feet. We were quite small when dad started us out munching on them. They were pickled, crunchy, and we could walk around holding them with a napkin and chomp on them at will. They lasted a long, long time. Every time we saw that jar, we'd beg dad to buy them for us. He always did.

I went on for many years, happily scarfing down pickled pig's feet. Then came the day dad and I had been out running errands and we stopped by a grocery store in a nearby town. We went to the meat case and while dad was talking to the butcher, I was scouting out the jars atop the case. One really large jar held at least a dozen whole pig's feet, hoof to knee. I stood in horror, tugging at dad's sleeve. He looked down and I said, "Dad, what's that?" and pointed to the jar. He told me it was pickled pig's feet. I disagreed. "No, dad, they can't be. They have hooves." He said, "I know. The ones we get usually have the hooves cut off and the legs cut into smaller pieces, but that's what you've been eating all these years.

Throw up time.

By the end of my grade school years, I'd grown older and wiser. I decided that my dad had always been honest with me, always explaining exactly what I'd been eating. My problem had been not taking things at face value. I determined that from here on, I'd believe everything my folks said. That was why, that one Saturday afternoon when it was Mom's turn to have the Bridge Club over for lunch and cards and I asked her what everything was, she went through the menu with me. Finger sandwiches filled with ham, home made pickles, green salad with garden tomatoes, and sliced watermelon. It all looked so good. Then mom reached into the refrigerator and pulled out this scrumtious looking green pie with clouds of whipped cream all around the top edge. My mouth began watering. "Oohh," I asked, "what's that?"

"Grasshopper pie," she said.

Oh, no, the three bite rule. I ran to my room and hid.

For the first five years of my life it was only mom and dad,
me and my little sister, Shirley.


Copyright 2011 by Sandra L Keith  All rights reserved
Photos are the property of the author and may not be reproduced without permission.

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