I don’t know that I can ever write, or need to, about this day as well as I did three years ago.
Those words I wrote that day got to the heart of what November 11 is for me.
But here I am, feeling like a writer again, three years later, and I have things I can still tell you about this day and how it still pulls at me, 28 years after it broke me.
It has become my recent custom, on this day, to spend the morning in as much of a meditative state as time and circumstances allow. The last couple of years the day has fallen on a weekend, and The Empress of Whisky has, knowing me well, quietly taken herself away, to a long trail on a mountain somewhere, living in her happy place while I dwell in my sad one.
The sadness fades. After 28 years, I don’t have much left of despair, and the anger ended quickly, for what is there to be angry about in this? We all die, thousands of us daily, and to be angry at this fact is to court a kind of madness. I have enough madness, thank you.
But the sadness fades, I write, with tears pulling at the corners of my eyes, telling myself they are there because I have been fighting sickness this day, much like I did that first day. It’s just the virus, making my eyes water, I say to myself, as I pause the key-clacking to dab at them. Just that, nothing more.
It could be that. I could be done with this, I try to tell myself, as the day approaches every year, but no. Never. I don’t really want that. I don’t know, at this point, who I would be without these melancholy days that fall, as they do, perfectly upon the onset of crisp autumn, following on the heels of All Hallows Eve and Día de Muertos.
I learned, a few years ago, that one custom of Día de Muertos is cooking favorite foods of the deceased. I learned this after I had first prepared, on this day, the meal I am about to describe, and I felt as though I had intuited something before learning it, which is a magical feeling, the kind of feeling I need, to get through this day year after year.
My great-uncle was a decent cook.
He’d been cooking for himself for the latter years of his life, at least, though I got the impression he learned earlier. I don’t know. It’s one of so many things I never thought to ask.
Being a Southerner, through and through, his meals reflected that, in technique and ingredients. It’s not that fancy cooking hadn’t been invented or hadn’t reached the South; the old-timers — and he was one — just hadn’t found a use for it.
Still, I imagine sometimes explaining to him my method for cooking a traditional Southern dish — pulled pork shoulder — using a sous vide technique. It would either blow his mind or delight him, maybe a little of both.
But I digress. The meal, I promised.
Start with the tea. Always, the tea.
In a stainless steel stock pot (5-6 quarts is ideal), toss two family size tea bags (Tetley, please) and about a gallon of water. Turn your burner to high and wait. Don’t go far. Eventually, finally, the water will hit a slow boil. Immediately cut the burner off. (Any longer at a boil will draw too much bitterness from the tea leaves). Let it sit a bit, maybe poke the floating tea bags. Then, carefully, with a slotted spoon, withdraw each bag, and give it a gentle press with the back of another spoon to push most of the liquid out. Discard the bags. (Or, if you have a compost pile, as my great-uncle did, save them to add to it.)
Now comes the sugar. If you use less than two heaping full cups of granulated white sugar, you are doing this wrong. The heat of the tea will do most of the work for you, but give it a few stirs to make sure it all dissolves properly.
Now, when he did this, and I was around, my impatience usually got the better of me and I wanted tea right away. He would usually accommodate me, pouring a half-glass or so (the better to cool quickly) into the plastic Superman mug he kept for me to use at his house.
I didn’t realize until much later in life that the reason I like hot tea — a very un-Southern thing to do — is because of this erstwhile ritual.
So, these days, I scoop myself a mug’s worth — Superman is long gone, so one of our Starbucks city mugs must stand in — and resist the urge to sip until it has cooled enough not to burn. (I am not always successful at this.)
Tea at hand, we’re ready to proceed.
Black Top canned pink salmon. No other brand. (I don’t know what the others are like, and I see no reason to deviate from how it was, and always must be, done.)
Your hands are going to get messy. Accept this. (It’s hard for me, to be honest.)
Open a can (or two), and carefully drain the liquid into a bowl.
Begin to ignore the interest of Cat, who will have shown up by now, sitting in her watching spot outside the kitchen door, even if she were comatose upstairs five minutes ago. (I will later give her a few sips worth, but only that, as the liquid is far too rich for her delicate digestion.)
Deposit the fish into a separate bowl and begin the delicately tedious process of pulling out the unwanted bits — spine bones, skin, the odd fatty bit. (The canning of salmon is not exactly neat. And while some people are fine mixing all these bits in, I do it the way I learned, which is the right way, even in a poor family, to make the best patties.)
Once you have the fish separated, crack an egg (per can) into the bowl. Mix with hands. Now go wash those hands. As usual, you forgot to get the cornmeal ready earlier.
I use Dixie Lily yellow cornmeal. I can’t say, with certainty, that’s what he used, but it’s appropriate here, being a Southern pantry staple.
A word here about rice. I have forgotten the rice. This is probably what will really happen, as I prepare this meal a few hours from now. I am bad at stovetop rice. It’s a failing I cannot seem to overcome. Always too soggy or with crunchy bits still in. My great-uncle made flawless stovetop rice every time. He could also grow any plant to great success. I did not pick up either of these traits. And while I cannot overcome my failings in the garden, I can get rice right, using the technological marvel that is a rice cooker.
Anyway, start the rice while your hands are still clean. It will probably get ready on time, or a little after.
Now add that cornmeal. Try your best to eyeball the right amount. (Measuring is no use here, I’ve learned). Mix with your hands. When you inevitably need to add more, go wash your hands and get ready to grab that dry good again for the second addition.
When the mix feels right — sorry, this is all feel; I can’t explain it — leave it. Pull out the cast iron.
Now, a word here about cast iron. If you don’t have it, just don’t bother with any of this. Is it 100% necessary to get this dish right? Yes. Because we are not just going for a final food quality; we are also going for a resonance with the past. My great-uncle never cooked on anything other than cast iron because he never owned any other type of pan. (Pots, yes, and other kitchen implements as well, but he had a pair of cast iron pans that were the workhorses of his kitchen. I do not know what became of them, and that makes me sad.)
You could use canola oil, but why mess with tradition? Melt a decent blob (a third-cup or so) of Crisco shortening in your cast iron pan. Heat to medium.
Start forming patties. Toss a fleck into the pan to see if the grease is ready. (Yes, I am using the term “grease” because that’s how he referred to it, and it is such an old Southern way of describing hot oil that just feels so right today.)
Fry, flip, fry, drain on paper-towel lined plate.
When they’re done, let them rest while you put a can of LeSueur English peas on to warm (with a generous pat of butter and dashes of salt and pepper).
That’s it. You could pair with some canned corn (whole kernels, please) or add a bread like Jiffy or (a childhood favorite) Pillsbury canned biscuits, but you’ve done the essentials that were part of this meal every time he ever made it, and now I remember so many of those times — lazy Saturday afternoons or the occasional Friday night when my parents were on date night and he babysat me and my younger sister. (Aside: She does not like fish, any kind, so he would always make her a small burger instead. Love, people.)
When it comes time to dine today, I think I will do so while watching one of those old movies we enjoyed together.
I’m thinking this year it will be Flash Gordon.