The Memoriam Meal

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.

Except …

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.

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.

Whisky Wind-down, 7: Holiday’s End

A bottle of Seagram's VO Gold sits next to a pair of glasses, in front of a Christmas tree.

Today’s dram: Seagram’s VO Gold, 8-Year-Old

Today’s tasting notes: It’s smooth Canadian whisky, a tad sweet, with just a touch of bite. Finishes clean and easy.

Today’s thoughts: For most of my adult life, whenever I’ve been home for the holidays, we end up at my dad’s home by late afternoon and stay there for dinner and dessert. And once the blizzard of grandchildren and presents has passed, and things quiet down, Dad usually asks if anyone feels like a Christmas drink. For as long as I can remember, for him, that means a couple of ounces of Seagram’s VO Gold, over ice, topped with Coca-Cola.

The older I get, the more I appreciate this ending to a long Christmas day. I’m even getting to like the VO Gold, minus the cola.

Today’s toast: To holiday traditions, holiday tipples, and holiday tipple traditions.

Whisky Wind-down, 8: Happy Place

A glass of Crown Royal rye whisky stands next to an empty mini-bottle on a yellow KitchenAid stand mixer.

Today’s dram: Crown Royal, rye

Today’s tasting notes: How do you make traditionally easy-going Canadian whisky bite back? Mix in rye.

This one is 90% rye, though, so maybe it’s actually the Canadian bit that’s smoothing an otherwise harsh rye?

At any rate, it’s a pseudo-sweet, biting-but-smooth dram, just right for a nightcap at the end of a long day.

Today’s thoughts: The long day was mostly in the kitchen, which is one of my favorite places, with two of my favorite people, Mom and The Empress of Whisky.

Between us, we produced two varieties of cupcakes, lemon chiffon pie, lemon syrup, a chicken and pasta dinner, and pizza dough for the traditional lunch tomorrow.

We also played games, told stories, went shopping, and assembled furniture.

All in all, great day.

Today’s toast: To the holiday hustle; it’s the good kind of tiring.

Whisky Wind-down, 9: Home Again

A bottle of Canadian Mist whisky sits next to a filled glass, next to a tiny tabletop Christmas tree. All of these items sit upon a kitchen counter.

Today’s dram: Canadian Mist, blended, aged 36 months

Today’s tasting notes: Look, it’s young Canadian whisky, so it doesn’t hold much. What’s there is warm, sweet, and pretty smooth. It goes down damned easy, actually.

Today’s thoughts: This is my favorite dram yet, and it has nothing to do with the whisky and everything to do with the setting and the company. This is from my mom’s liquor shelf, in the kitchen of her new home, to which we just toasted.

Today’s toast: To home, there really is no place like it for the holidays, no matter how new or old.

2016 Whisky Wind-down, 6: North, South, Shalom


Today’s dram: Highland Park, 12-Year-Old

Today’s tasting notes: This is a new one. At least, I don’t recall having tried it. It’s the product of another venerable whisky distillery, the northernmost in Scotland. 

There, on Orkney Island, they still malt their own barley before drying it over a fire fueled by peat with a heavy dose of heather. 

The marketing spiel says that heather gives the whisky a floral character. I can’t say I detect that by smell, but then I may be a touch stuffy at the moment. On the tongue, it is warm and smooth. It goes down easy, leaves a lingering pleasant warmth with maybe the faintest kiss, almost a memory, of smoke. 

Today’s thoughts: I grew up in the South. Rural southern Georgia, if specifics matter. There are things about Chrismas in the South that are different than Christmas elsewhere. 

We don’t expect snow, for starters. 

Sure, we dream of a white Christmas, but we know it’s just that — a dream. Actual white Christmases happen to other people. Northerners, mostly. 

My first Christmas in Maine was a bit of a revelation in that regard. Christmas there is like the Christmas I had only seen on greeting cards. Snowy landscape. Smoke curls from cute chimneys. And everywhere everyone was eager to stay indoors, playing cards and drinking something warm.

Also, they have this weird substance called “stuffing” which is used in place of dressing* at the holiday meal. I can’t say I completely understand the reasoning, but it is enjoyable enough. 

Also, wine. 

I realize I am at risk of generalzing too much, but wine was never a thing at my southern family’s dinner table. We had sweet tea. (They call it “the table wine of the South” and that really isn’t an exaggerattion.)

Something else I never encountered? Chanukah. It’s not that we don’t have Jews in rural, southern Georgia, but they are few and far between, and I was a young adult before I knew any personally. Today I am friends with a few, inlcuding my sister-in-law’s husband.** 

He’s a New Yorker by birth, but now he and his Maine-born wife are raising a Texas-born son in Alabama. That kid has culture out the wazoo, even before his aunt and uncle come calling.***

This is the third evening of Chanukah, and I have enjoyed the past two, so today shall I stand respectfully quiet as the family kindles their menorahh and my five-year-old nephew tries to keep up with the words of prayer and song that go along with the lighting of candles. 

Today’s note on passive-agressive holiday greetings: There really is a lot to celebrate. Be gracious, wherever you find yourself . 

Today’s toast: L’Chayim.

—–

* — If you are not from the South, I will forgive you not knowing about dressing. I am not talking about the stuff that goes on salad. Think of southern dressing as a stuffing casserole and you will have close to the right image. I miss it and will very probably have to make my own before the year is out.

** — Is there a word for that relationship?  A proper word, I mean? Some people would refer to the two of us as brothers-in-law, but that is both confusing and technically incorrect. As Ann Landers put it, “You are no relation; you are just two men who married sisters.” But we are family. We need a word. 

*** — I am not the drunk uncle. Mostly. I try to restrict my uncling influcence to hats, beards, and Star Wars. Sometimes I consult on train layouts or LEGO arrangements. Also, I make pancakes.