The Ringer

sally 2“I’ll move a guy to a different shift.  Don’t worry about it,” the Lieutenant said. “I’m happy to put you wherever you want. That’s four hours I don’t have to pay him.”

With a phone call, my time slot as a volunteer ringing the bell for the Salvation Army was set. I’ve come to see ringing the bell at the collection kettles as an annual holiday tradition, like going to the office party. And, like going to the office party, it’s never as fun as I like to remember it. In fact, it gets pretty old after fifteen minutes. But, I’d say to myself, if you’re going to jingle the Christmas bells, it ought to mean something. Like food for the poor, and also shelter, I guess. And whatever else the Salvation Army does. Anyway, it’s probably pretty good. So, on goes the red apron and I ring for a few hours: a scant few hours out of an ever-lengthening season of over-indulgence. Clearly, I am a saint.*

The bell ringer operation is short-staffed this year, so instead of meeting a Salvation Army…soldier? Trooper? Officer? “Employee” just kind of indicates a lack of dedication to the cause. Instead of meeting at the supermarket as in previous seasons, I have to go pick up my bucket. The Southeast Regional headquarters is huge, and it takes me forever to find the right door. There’s another ringer already there, and I try to make small talk as we wait for someone to answer the buzzer. She seems very uncomfortable. I’m sure we are both glad we’re not doing this in pairs.

The Lieutenant gives me my kettle, apron and bell as well as the bucket for the guy he’s paying to do the next shift.  He also tells me that I’ll need to bring my kettle back that afternoon, although I’m fairly certain he told me on the phone that he would pick it up. I probably frown involuntarily at the thought of fighting my way back up this commercial strip on the busiest shopping weekend of the year, because he thanks me profusely in a manner inconsistent with the actual amount of time I’ll be spending ringing the bell. “It’s great of you to do this.” Why, you’re welcome. It is quite great of me. I mean, my God. Four hours.

Truth is, I’d never done a four-hour stint before; the Chinese water-torture-like repetition of ringing for three hours had strained the limits of my feeble endurance in the past, and I had usually done only two. Today, I seem to have chosen the chilliest morning of the season and it’s not yet above freezing. The cup of coffee I brought goes cold remarkably fast. Before the first half-hour is out, I’m pretty sure I’m going to die like the Little Match Girl; freezing to death while dreaming of a warm hearth.

More likely, my last thought will be of ham. The purveyors of Boar’s Head meats have descended upon the store in a sort of pork-based marketing blitz of coupons and free samples. They’re also selling dollar hotdogs. I know this because the salesman keeps limping out the front door to yell about it.

Then he sings Christmas carols very loudly and gives me suggestions on how to bring in more money.  Most of them involve singing, presumably like him, in a style that brings to mind a less talented relative of Justin Timberlake auditioning for American Idol.  “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I move to the other side of my Salvation Army sign so I can avoid eye contact. Looking the other direction with fake interest in other things quickly becomes genuine people-watching.

A woman with long, straight black hair and an orange-hued tan walks in the door closest to me, not tossing change in the bucket, I might add. Along with her abnormally high forehead, sour expression, and chunky, fuzzy boots, the combined effect is that of a skinny Klingon.

At the exit down the way, a woman comes out and drops her bottle of champagne on the ground. She picks it up and examines it closely for about 30 seconds. I’m no bottle scientist, but I suspect that a glass container of carbonated liquid under pressure generally betrays breakage in a fairly obvious manner, so this seems excessive.

That guy reminds me why I don’t wear sweater-vests anymore.

If the woman who parked in the expectant mothers spot is pregnant, she found out about it maybe last week. But, perhaps, she is planning for a family, because clearly, she’s saving her pennies, as I don’t get any of them.

One of the feel-good holiday stories in the news this season has been about a pricey antique gold piece found in a Salvation Army bucket. Of course, I have several people jokingly ask me if I’ve received one, and I laugh as if I haven’t heard this yet. I do, however, have one woman rummage through her wallet and then say, “I thought I had change, but all I have is this Ugandan Token.” I don’t know what that is, but I would love to know what you get when you redeem it.

I start to whistle the Mexican Hat Dance. (This is not totally random. That’s my phone’s ringtone, and I’m thinking how much I want the Lieutenant to call and say he’ll pick up the bucket.) Just as I begin the tune, an off-duty mariachi emerges from the parking lot and walks past me into the store. While I’m fairly certain I just performed a magic trick, it quickly becomes clear that it’s the type that only works once.

A couple of years ago when I did this at night, a pimply guy in his early twenties in a cheap, ill-fitting suit and a cheap, ill-fitting perm approached me from the parking lot. He tried to sell me something called an “entertainment pack,” which consisted of Thrashers tickets and Hawks tickets and tickets for what was possibly the women’s basketball team or perhaps a soccer team or something; I couldn’t entirely follow. But I told him I didn’t really like sports. He looked at me like I had said I occasionally enjoyed the strangling of puppies. I got the same look when he found out I was ringing the bell as a volunteer.

Then he tried to poach people who passed my kettle, and I started getting similar looks from them as if they suspected we were in cahoots. Eventually, the young entrepreneur wandered off into the dark parking lot, where a pockmarked man in a bad suit accosting people would, presumably, seem less suspicious.

Today, I’ve decided that if anyone asks, I’m going to tell them I’m doing mandatory community service for beating up a guy. I figure this will make me look tough. A red apron does not. Nor does it provide much in the way of warmth.

I take advantage of a slow moment to put on an extra shirt (although it should be noted that every moment of a repetitive task in freezing temperatures feels slow, but I digress). While I would like to use the one stall in the bathroom to change, it is, unfortunately, occupied by someone with obsessive compulsive disorder. I know this because I hear the sound of wiping for the full 8 minutes I’m in there.

I barely notice the added layer in this cold, but I do notice the inordinate number of people in shorts. Presumably, they’re coming from the gym, but man. It’s a windy 32 degrees. One woman has a number of unsightly bruises on her skinny legs. It would seem that she might have a double incentive for sweatpants. And then, there are all the flip-flops. ‘Tis really the season for you to spare me the sight of your toes.

But everyone, flip-flops, shorts, or not, is moving pretty fast from car to store and back again. People pause to dig for change less on cold days like this, and the special-needs grocery cart wranglers don’t slow down to talk to me.

Last year, one of them asked me my birthday.

“May 19, 1976.”

“That was a Wednesday,” he declared. “Ask your mother. She’ll tell you.”

Forget my mother. Get your things while I unhitch this money-bucket. The three of us are going to the nearest Indian casino.

You see a lot of stupid, jerky things when spending four hours in a parking lot. There are times when I say things under my breath that I’m fairly certain the Salvation Army would not want its bell-ringers uttering. Most of these are directed at the people who run the stop signs at the crosswalk in front of the store. Or park in the crosswalk. Or don’t yield right of way to pedestrians. Or park for a protracted amount of time in the fire-lane. Or leave their shopping-carts in the middle of a parking space to get knocked into cars. Fucking asshole motherfuckers.

But, my venomous mutterings are ultimately inconsequential; out-loud pleasantries have the most potential to cause real problems.

See, it’s hard not to religiously profile people when you do this, but you kind of have to. There’s no catch-all holiday greeting anymore. “Happy Holidays” used to be a pretty safe choice until the whole “war on Christmas” shtick, an outrage manufactured seasonally as if it was fruitcake. So, now, “Happy Holidays” is the more potentially offensive phrase.

But this neighborhood is tricky; it’s largely Orthodox Jewish. This grocery store has rabbis on staff and houses one of the metro area’s only Kosher Chinese restaurants, but inexplicably, several of the neighborhood streets have Yuletide-themed names such as Merry Lane, Holly Lane, and the seemingly unambiguous Christmas Lane. It’s confusing. So, while I’m sure the Salvation Army would prefer I say Merry Christmas, I usually pick what I assume is less likely to work people into a lather. Occasionally, I will make a decision, admittedly prejudicial, based on a person’s car, clothing, facial expression, facial hair, stylishness of eyeglasses, or race. Y’know. The usual.

But otherwise, I just kind of go with my gut on “Christmas,” which usually goes over pretty well, or “holidays,” which has earned me both gentle corrections and emphatic rebukes. Obviously, anyone in a Yarmulke gets the more specific “Happy Chanukah,” but it’s best to not get too creative. One time, the Lieutenant hung around for a little while after dropping off the bucket and said “feliz cupleaños” to a Mexican family who chipped in. And a very happy birthday to you as well, good sir.

I always like it when parents give their kids money to put in the kettle. It’s never too early to reinforce the importance of giving. It’s even better when the kids ask for the change instead of being prompted. One time, a girl was standing right next to me as her mom dug through her purse. Before I was able to decide if this was a “Christmas” or “Holidays” situation, the girl took the quarter and popped it into a gumball machine. There is nothing that encapsulates a teachable moment lost so well as a crappy toy in a plastic bubble.

While I’m perfectly comfortable taking change, my greatest fear while doing this is that some legitimately needy person will come to me for help. I have no idea what I’d do then. My second greatest fear, at least for the past few hours, has been the singing hot dog guy coming back. And, there he is; “One dollar hot dogs” And in nearly the same breath; “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas.” Going against my own rule, I ring louder and faster.

See, in the past, I’ve found that the key to maintaining sanity, at least in the short-term, is to ring only when necessary; if there’s no potential donor in the immediate vicinity, I give myself a few short moments of blissful silence. Unfortunately, by the end of today’s shift, I’m too bell-addled to stick to this practice, and too cold to think of anything but ringing. So that’s what I do. Incessantly. It’s like blinking. Breathing. A heartbeat of metallic persistence.

The last 30 minutes pass in a blur; a jingling blur. My replacement comes out of the store finishing off a dollar hotdog. “I usually ring the bell all day. I don’t know why he cut my hours.”

“Yeah, that’s weird,” I say. Wait, did he say he usually does this all day?

I can only imagine such a day, and at this point, I prefer not to. Driving back to headquarters, not hearing bells seems odd and I feel a sort of phantom movement in my arm. This goes on for a surprisingly long time. It’s like walking after you’ve been roller-skating.

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The above was performed at True Story!, a bi-monthly, nonfiction reading series in Decatur, GA. A shorter version was recorded for the radio program City Cafe with John Lemley on WABE, Atlanta’s NPR affiliate. The segment was produced by Kate Sweeneyhttp://www.wabe.org/post/jack-bell-ringer.

*Despite my continuing admiration for the Salvation Army’s efforts in the alleviation of poverty and in disaster relief, this is probably a good place to note that I no longer financially support the Salvation Army, either through my own donations or through my volunteer efforts. For a long while, I was, for the most part, blissfully ignorant of their very retrograde views and practices regarding the LGBT community, and what rumblings I had heard, I rationalized away as a downside to a largely great organization. But, after learning more, I can no longer ignore their political activities and employment practices, both of which are contrary to the pursuit of equal rights for all. If you would like to donate money to organizations that are involved in both poverty relief and disaster response services, might I instead suggest your local food bank? Find out more about the national food bank network at http://feedingamerica.org.

Still, I miss doing the ringing. Which is weird, I know.

I’m Super, Thanks.

Due to a copyright claim of which we were previously unaware, the Screw-Spotter will henceforth be known as the Nail-Noticer.

I’m not crazy about the beach. It’s hot. It’s sunny. It’s sandy. I chafe. But, with kids frequently comes vacation inertia, and the beach has become the leisure of least resistance, despite the aforementioned sandy friction.

Recently, I was hunched under a beach umbrella, recovering from a jellyfish sting sustained when I’d slipped into the water to pee (touché, Ocean). Bored and struck by the startling lack of diversity in Hilton Head, I thought up a superhero who developed powers after eating a not-fully-cooked order of Crab Rangoon, becoming The CrustAsian. The blockbuster first issue would be kind of like The Metamorphosis but with more spandex. I think at some point, he goes up against an Ayn Rand-spouting super-villain called Rational Shellfish, but I didn’t really get much further than that as I realized I should probably stop daydreaming and turn my attention to keeping my kid from drowning.

I’ve been thinking a lot about superpowers lately. Not in a, “How, exactly, do the Hulk’s purple cutoffs do that?” sort of way, although I am often prone to such idle nerding-out. A lot of my recent interest in beyond-the-comic-page powers is tied up with the fact that I’ve been shooting a documentary about people who cosplay, or dress up as characters from comic books and sci-fi. So, this has put me in contact with a lot of the primary colored trappings of superheroism, if not the actual powers.

I like the idea of superpowers, or at least the kind that don’t really exist: spider-sense, super strength, telekinesis and the like. The CrustAsian’s exoskeleton also seems beneficial, but having the additional power of being delicious with drawn butter is probably a liability. There’s always a downside. I know this, because here’s the thing: I recently realized that I have a superpower. And, it’s a pain in the ass.

I possess the uncanny ability to spot every screw, nail, tack, bolt or any other sharp bit of metal in the street. Not from my car, which is unfortunate, because that certainly would have saved me from a few flat tires. But, c’mon. I’m not Superman with super vision here; I mean when I’m out walking around or jogging. Although, if I were Superman, I would be flying instead of driving or walking, and even though I could spot nails and such in the streets, I would probably have bigger concerns.

Well, I like to think that I do have bigger concerns, but my attention is still drawn to every pointy object in the road. This sometimes includes small twigs; I didn’t say my power was finely calibrated. It just seems like there’s something in the visual processing center of my brain that hones in on all grayish-brown cylinders of a certain size. And, like with those digital jumbles where you struggle to see the hidden 3-D image that jumps out at you repeatedly once you finally find it, I can’t not see nails and screws. If it was simply a matter of taking note of these, merely cataloging them in short term memory, that would be one thing: “There’s one. Yep. There’s another. There’s…mmm. Nope. Stick.”

But, as every Spider-Man writer has rehashed ad nauseam, “with great power comes great responsibility.” So, I stop and pick up every one of these things, which can really fuck up your momentum when you’re trying to exercise, physical fitness being one of the base-level requisites of superheroics.

I like to think I do it out of altruism. Flat tires are no good, especially when you’re attempting to change one while trying to keep a toddler from running out in the street at the same time. Surely, Superman has prevented such a scenario of imminent kindersplatt in one of the thousands of comics he’s appeared in since 1938. But, wouldn’t it have been simpler and less traumatic for everyone involved if another hero had just picked a screw up off the ground a few minutes earlier? So, I’m that guy.

My mom always suspected that I had some obsessive/compulsive tendencies, and she might have been right. I’d flip the light switch repeatedly to make sure it was turned off just so. I’d do the same with the faucet. Even now, I fight the urge to check if iPads really do turn off when you close the cover. So, picking up hazards in the road could be just another in a long line of inconvenient compulsions.

I was raised Southern Baptist, and I’m prone to anxiety and second-guessing myself anyway, so an ever-present, amorphous sense of nagging guilt still kind of hovers over much of what I do. Granted, it’s not motivation on the level of a criminal shooting my parents, but we can’t all be Batman (and, to be fair, taking a shortcut through Crime Alley was really a “you buy the ticket, you take your chances” sort of bargain, Mr. Wayne).

Does my power to spot sharp metal in the street come from a desire to subject myself to more obligatory hindrance, just as trouble always seems to oh-so-coincidentally find the neurotic Peter Parker? Am I subconsciously always on the lookout for this stuff? And, where does it all come from? Do Home Depot trucks just have shitty suspensions, routinely shaking grab-bags of loose hardware all over my zip code? No matter the reason, the result is that I’m frequently walking around the neighborhood with fistfuls of rusty metal. This is where the hard, calcified pincers of The CrustAsian would come in handy. Or, clawy. Whatever. Fortunately, I’ve had a tetanus shot in recent years, having been reminded by a German Shepherd bite to the left ass-cheek that it was probably time for a booster. But now, at the very least, I can chuck bits of metal at aggressive dogs and other assailants.

Then I would pick them back up.

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This piece was originally published by Write Club Atlanta as one of several Local Voices responding to a prompt about superpowers.

Illustration assembled from Public Domain sources with the exception of the screw, which was created by Paul Robinson and distributed via GNU Lesser General Public License.

It Would Be Lazy to Name This “Bringing Home the Bacon,” So I Won’t

This article originally appeared in Jason Pierce Mallory’s Scene Missing Magazine.

As an overly sensitive young boy whose natural propensity for interspecies empathy was amplified by a fondness for Disney movies and a long-standing subscription to Ranger Rick magazine, the idea of hunting appalled me. With a kid’s logic, I’d decided that killing animals was unspeakably cruel. Now, please pass the bacon.

Using every part of the pig but the oink.These days, I’m of the opinion that if you consume meat, you have to acknowledge the impact of your decision, and you can’t ignore the fact that something died so you could eat it. Very profound, I know.

But, the problem is, I’ve never really held myself up to that standard. While I say that I would now be perfectly willing to hunt, this has never been in the realm of possibility. I do keep hearing a lot lately about something called the “Paleo Diet,” which I can only assume involves bludgeoning your food with a comically oversized Captain Caveman club, but I don’t think I personally know any avid hunters. So, invitations to go on hunting jaunts have not been forthcoming.

Cutting up a pig is not something that really appeals to me. Or especially interests me. It’s certainly not the kind of thing I would pay $100 for the privilege to do. But, as any number of stale leftover cakes in the break-room at work have proven, there’s a lot I’m willing to accept for free. When a local butcher offered me the opportunity to take his hands-on, whole-hog butcher class, I said yes, in violation of some ethical standards, probably, or at least the ones I imagine I have when I’ve been drinking enough to refer to myself as a “journalist.”

I co-produce a food show on the local PBS station. The show is pretty keen on meat. In fact, the most recent episode was subtitled, “Barbeque, Bacon, and Other Adventures in Meat.” This is how I first became acquainted with Pine Street Market, a boutique charcuterie and butcher shop.

Ignoring the fact that most people aren’t dying to see blood and graphic dismemberment in their light-hearted PBS food shows, I shot a segment on Pine Street that included a sequence of pretty shocking extreme close-ups from the butcher class: sawed limbs, a lopped-off head, and oozing, torn joints. I told myself it was a statement: “If you eat meat, this is the reality you are morally obligated to accept.” Also, I thought it would be grimly funny to throw in some bloodcurdling screams, slasher-flick sound effects, and Bernard Hermanesque violin stabs.

When I told the editor of Scene Missing Magazine about the segment, he incredulously asked if I was kidding. “I don’t want to see that,” he protested. “That’s just gruesome.” It should be noted that we had this conversation over hamburgers. (It also should be noted that J. Pierce Mallory is kind of an asshole as an editor, and also, I suspect, more than a little unhinged, always going on loudly about, “Peter Porker! Get me pictures of Spider-Ham! I’m going to run an editorial on the front page about how he’s a menace to our city!” It’s really embarrassing to have lunch with him sometimes.)

But he had a point. In a hypocritical echo of my childhood attitude toward meat, I was actually quite uncomfortable seeing all that stuff myself. Now that I’m done subjecting viewers to it, I’m going to face the reality behind the food I eat, too: blood, bone, muscle, ligament, and all. I see my helping to butcher this hog as a character-building exercise, albeit one where I receive a pork chop and two pounds of premium bacon when I’m done. Plus, I work in kind of a sketchy neighborhood, so it wouldn’t hurt to brush up on my knife-handling skills.

Today, the front door of Pine Street Market is wide open in an attempt to disperse the applewood-scented cloud rapidly filling up the place. Shooting my food show, I always came out of charcuteries and barbeque joints smelling and feeling as if smoke had seeped into every pore. I would return home, leave my clothes outside, and scour myself in the shower with a vigor to rival Silkwood. After some effort, I could get clean, but even now, months after production wrapped, the camera equipment still smells vaguely like beef jerky. This morning the smoke is especially dense, reducing the visibility in the shop and, no doubt, leaving me with deliciously fragrant lungs.

I’ve decided to wear my blue Piggly Wiggly supermarket t-shirt. It has a smiling pig’s face on the front with “Piggly,” and his fat bottom bracketed by cartoon motion lines on the back, accompanied by “Wiggly.” I’m always a little self-conscious about that part, as the prudish side of me has somehow equated it with anatomy-highlighting sweatpants that have words like “PINK” or “JUICY” written on the ass. But today, the shirt seemed appropriate because a) the dark color will hide any stains that one might generally associate with dismemberment and b) there’s a pig on it. I assumed everyone would be wearing some sort of attire that says in a cutesy/ironic sort of manner, “I am way into meat.”

Now, I see that I was incorrect. In fact, I am almost the only person in a meat-themed garment. I realize that this is kind of like going to see a band and wearing one of their t-shirts to the show. I’ve become the guy at the Rush concert who really needs to demonstrate that he’s into Rush.

Actually, that was probably a bad example. I kind of imagine that every guy at a Rush show is that guy. But, you know what I mean.

Conducting today’s class is Rusty, the shop owner. With his boyish good looks, friendly smile, and auburn hair, objectively and non-hyperbolically speaking, he’s probably the world’s cutest butcher. If you’re into guys, especially guys who make bacon, you’d probably find him dreamy. As the class is made up largely of men who seem to really like food, most of them probably just envy his job. Rusty says that Pine Street Market makes and sells 900 pounds of bacon per week, and hundreds of additional pounds of hand-made sausage and fresh meat.

But, the really artisanal, intricately crafted stuff is in the curing room, or “cave.” There are reddish brown salami, each with a dusting of snowy white on their casings. Coppa, a particular cut of pork shoulder, maintains a marbled look, still visible through the cow intestine in which it’s tied. Proscuito ages over a year and a half to a golden tan from hoof to ham. Everything is oddly beautiful; everything is moldy. This is the same culture that forms on brie cheese, and with careful regulation of humidity and temperature, it cures the meats.

“Do you sell the mold?” a man in a baseball hat asks eagerly. Rusty tells him he can buy the starter culture online. When Pine Street began production, the mold had to be introduced into the curing cave. Now, it just circulates through the air in the chamber, infecting all the meats.

There is probably a more appetizing word than “infecting” that I don’t know.

Rusty also shows us the culprit behind the surfeit of ambient smoke: a refrigerator retrofitted into an industrial grade smoker. Today, its venting system isn’t working properly. As we watch, a local chef removes smoked trout he’s prepared for a collaborative dinner hosted by Pine Street and several farm-to-table restaurants. The burly man has a very detailed tattoo of a hog and a carrot on his forearm, but given significant license taken with perspective and scale, it appears that it is a tattoo of a pig impaled on a giant carrot.

Speaking of such things, there is a 195-pound pig split lengthwise on tables in the middle of the room. I probably should have mentioned that earlier, as it’s hard to miss. I’m not sure if the total weight reflects the removal of the head, which is nowhere to be seen. On my previous visit, it sat at the juncture of the two tables, a ghoulish smile on its face, sole remaining eye seemingly frozen mid-wink.

The skin of each hemiswine is stamped with USDA markings, but otherwise, it is an unblemished pinkish-white. “What do you use to get the hair off?” one of the few women in the class asks.

Today’s special guest is Tommy, the farmer who raised the pig at Gum Creek Farms. “It’s a device called a de-hairer,” he replies. I guess that makes sense.

While the pig is pale on the outside, under the skin, the meat ranges from a salmon pink at the shoulder to nearly red at the hams (the ass, not to be confused with the “butt” which, on a pig, is the shoulder). Someone asks why pork in the grocery store usually appears lighter. Tommy says many large-scale operations gas their meat with a preservative that helps it ship and pack better but that also tends to diminish the color.

The pigs used here are not gassed, and they’re not packed. Tommy delivers whole hogs, minus the organs (with the exception of the kidneys, which are left in as a gauge of freshness), and they are butchered to parts on the premises.

There is a small, fatty flap protruding limply from each shoulder. As if reading my mind, Rusty says, “This is jowl.” With a quick swipe of the knife, it’s the first thing to go. Cured in the cave, it will become guanciale.

Rusty and another butcher prepare to separate the shoulders from the body halves. The eager guy asks, “Can we do it?”

Before filming the class for the show, I’d envisioned several rows of students, each hacking away at their own pig. It was something like dissecting frogs in biology class, but without the formaldehyde. Everyone would even wear white lab coats. The reality was quite different, of course. You can’t turn sixteen people with no training loose on sixteen hogs. Butchery isn’t like writing for Scene Missing; it requires skill.

Rusty assures the would-be volunteer a turn later. He counts three ribs in from the shoulder. “We call these ‘first ribs,’” Rusty says. “Probably because ‘neck ribs’ sounds too human.”

He cuts through most of the hog with a knife in about five seconds. The last bit requires a saw, which does not make a pleasant sound against bone. There is a window in Pine Street’s storefront that allows customers to look down on the butcher operation. A lady peers through, her face reflecting both fascination and disgust.

Someone told me once that she stopped eating pork when she heard that a pig was as smart as a three-year old human child.  This person I regarded as only marginally smarter than a three year old, so I wasn’t sure whether I should believe her. But, Tommy says that his pigs are smart enough to divert their water supplies into holes they’ve purposefully dug nearby to make mud wallows.  That absolutely sounds like something my kid would do. I feel a pang of guilt.

I’ve been a vegetarian. Kind of. I mean, I ate meat on occasion, but I still threw around the V-word a lot. It was because of a girl, and even after that high school romance ended in all the outsized emotional turmoil expected of a teenaged heart broken for the first time, the whole kind-of-a-vegetarian thing stuck for a while. My reasoning included some vague acknowledgment of meat consumption being bad for the environment, probably bad for my body, and definitely bad for animals. But, vegetarian options in restaurants are often lousy and meat is, indeed, pretty delicious, so I didn’t really stick to this.

Now, in addition to not really being a vegetarian, I’m only a half-assed carnivore, and my standards are almost comically inconsistent. I don’t cook meat at home. This is due, in large part, to laziness, but also to a hypochondriac’s fear of e. coli, trichinosis, mad cow disease, swine flu, salmonella, poultry AIDS, veal malaria, baconemia or some other food-borne pathogen. Yet, I am perfectly okay with a possibly disgruntled food service worker making me a burger when I go out, because he’s got to know what he’s doing, right? I stopped eating Frosted Mini Wheats at breakfast because they’re made with gelatin, which comes from the hides and bones of animals. It seemed weird that something had to die for me to have a bowl of cereal. It does not seem so weird that something has to die for me to have a pork chop. Implied death is kind of in the name, there. I would like to say I insist on meat raised organically, naturally, and humanely on small family farms, but “insist” is a pretty strong word.

Tommy says that many large operations raise hogs in facilities frequently arrayed like parking decks, with several floors of pigs on top of each other. They’re pretty much in their own shit a lot of the time. By contrast, Tommy’s pigs are allowed to forage in the woods for acorns to supplement their locally milled feed. “We treat ‘em kind,” says Tommy.

Well, up until a critical moment they do, I guess. Rusty saws the shoulder and front leg apart at the ball and socket joint. I reflexively cringe a little at this. I’m still recovering from a partially torn rotator cuff. I’m not sure how I injured it, but I always envisioned my wife planting her feet against my ribcage and attempting to heave my arm out of its socket as I slept. At least that’s how it used to feel every morning. The bloody, rounded bone parting from its mate that I see right now is much how I imagined the interior view of this would look.

I eventually went to a physical therapist who began our first session by leaning forward with his hands against the wall. “Put your hands like mine,” he said. I looked closely. He was doing something weird with them, and I tried to mimic him, keeping some fingers straight, and tucking others under. Eventually, I realized that he wasn’t doing something strange with his fingers so much as he was missing a few of them at the knuckle.

Apparently, this is a real danger for me today. I have agreed to hold Pine Street blameless in any number of scenarios in which I envision myself, ranging from merely slipping on the wet floor to cutting off a finger with a knife or saw blade to the combination maneuver of slipping and then landing on a knife while possibly losing some fingers as I frantically reach out for help but find only saw blades.

Before we cut into the ribs, Rusty strips away some of the fat by hand. It makes a discomfiting sound – something like pulling away the pith in a bell pepper or a pumpkin, but fuller, louder, and wetter. The fat will later be cured as lardo or used in making salami. Pine Street will save the tail and feet, too. With some tiny exceptions, they use everything. “The little pieces we keep throwing away are the glands,” says Rusty. “They’re not good for you.”

Half of a pig won’t yield both pork chops and baby-back ribs, because those are the same bones, only butchered a different way. Evidently, it’s easier for a novice to cut pork chops, because that’s what we’re doing. I’m not sure how this is going to go. I’m a little squeamish about feeling the friction of saw against bone.

As it turns out, it’s not that bad. I barely notice the sound anymore. My saw gets stuck, and I become too determinedly preoccupied with getting its teeth back into a groove to take note of any accompanying sensations until afterward; I find my fingers are greasy and slick from keeping a firm grasp on the fat while I sawed.

We break for a snack of salami and cheese before beginning the second part of the class. There are also a couple growlers of beer on the table. I assume that these are to accompany lunch at the conclusion of class, but a hirsute man in ratty jeans seems to have made it his mission to drink as much of the beer as he can before then, despite his vocal displeasure at having to use a Styrofoam cup. Realizing that the window of beer opportunity may be closing, I grab a cup of my own. It is not yet 11:30 am.

After the break, we turn our attention to making bacon. First, there is a discussion of nitrates that kind of loses me. When I hear the words “poison” and “carcinogen,” I realize I probably should have been taking notes.

As this is theoretically the halfway point in a three-hour block, I assume that readying bacon for curing and smoking will be something of an involved process akin to beginner-level basket weaving: not particularly difficult, but still time consuming.

As it turns out, at least for the purposes of this class, it entails throwing two pounds of pre-cut pork belly into a gallon-size Ziploc bag along with a premeasured amount of maple sugar and curing salt and then shaking it up and rubbing it around pretty well. Wanting to feel that I at least have some control in this process, I decide to add Albanian rubbed sage to my bag. Coincidentally, Sage’s Albanian Rubdowns could easily be the name of one of the full-release massage joints in the seedy neighborhood where I work.

The hairy guy has had the same thought (probably not about the happy ending massage place, but about the sage), and I reach the herbs just after him. When he’s done with the sage, he gestures toward my bag with the container. I have misgivings, as this guy doesn’t seem like someone for whom moderation is second nature, but I don’t want to be a dick, so I hold the bag open with a “sure, why not?” shrug. He sprinkles in a surprisingly restrained amount. I mash everything around in the bag the best I can, roll out the excess air, and seal the zip.

And then we’re done. For a short while, we pick at cold roast pork and potato salad and sip the rest of the beer. In chatting with the other attendees, I learn that, with the exception of a woman who is opening a new restaurant, most everyone just has a casual interest in seeing what goes into butchering a pig; “knowing where my food comes from,” is the near-universal sentiment.

Actually, it seems to be the only universal sentiment. About the time we realize that all we really have to talk about is meat, a worker hands each of us a hefty pork chop wrapped in butcher paper (which I will later carry around with me while on a poorly thought-out errand at the mall) and tells us to come back in a week to pick up our cured and smoked bacon. Two pounds seems like a lot, and I imagine I’ll be giving much of it away to friends and neighbors since there’s not much bacon-related experience in my mostly-Jewish, mostly-vegetarian household.

My mom fixed meat when I was growing up, but by the time I was cooking for myself, I didn’t eat it that much. Aside from baking some fish, I have never actually prepared meat before. The only grill I have is a George Foreman. Will that cook the pork chop thoroughly enough for me to avoid trichinosis or pig lupus? (Please say yes.) I don’t know exactly what to do with this thing. But, I know where it came from, which was the goal, I think. Where is it going? Into the freezer while I figure the rest out.

This pork chop is almost assuredly not the one I myself cut. In fact, I’m not absolutely sure it came from the same pig. Even so, I feel a little more like I had a hand in producing my food. I realize this is rather ridiculous. I cut a pork chop. My Paleolithic ancestors risked being trampled or gored by a frightened, enraged mastodon in order to provide food for their tribe. These are not the same things. But, I’ll graciously accept this small victory over, I don’t know, competitors in the food chain or the food-industrial complex or annoyingly smug vegans or something.

I proudly tell a neighbor about my small-scale adventure in the butcher shop, cutting up meat for the first time at age 36. She politely feigns being impressed and then says that when she was in high school, she went on a mission trip to a village in Latin America where it was her job to kill, exsanguinate, eviscerate, and butcher pigs.

I guess you can get your own bacon, then, Megan.

A Time To Come Together Again As A Nation. Again.

As always, our divided yet resilient nation has but one choice in the face of polarizing events: fabricate a quote from Thomas Jefferson or MLK Jr. that seems relevant to the situation at hand and then put it on the internet.

– Abraham Lincoln*

*Fun historical fact: Did you know Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy? And, Kennedy had a secretary named “C’mere, Sweetcheeks.”
A well-known quote.
Graphic created on makestickers.com. But the quote is totally legit.

An Easter Egg is a Sometime Food: a Review of the Cadbury Screme Egg

My Bunny ‘O Lantern makes so much more sense than a Halloween Egg.

When I was in sixth grade, my best friend was a Jehovah’s Witness. Whenever we had holiday festivities or birthday parties, Travis couldn’t participate and always missed out on the sweets. One day around Easter, a kid named Greg was eating some candy at snack time. Travis asked for a piece. “It’s Christmas candy, so…” Greg replied, in a cautionary tone that implied, “Are you sure you really want it?” I still don’t know if Greg was being considerate of Travis’s faith or just warning him that the candy was nearly four months old.

I thought of this recently after seeing that you can buy Cadbury Eggs at Halloween. Which is weird.

I love Halloween. Or at least I think I do. Now that I’m a parent, I’m not crazy about my kid eating a ton of sweets; it’s hard enough getting Stella to go to bed as is without the extra energy provided by high fructose corn syrup. But, she’s nicer to me when I let her have candy, so there’s that. Also, making Jack ‘O Lanterns is fun, and people really get into decorating for Halloween in a way that makes me excited for Christmas.

I also love the idea of kids, and even adults, going nuts over dressing up, even though it’s not something that I’m really dying to do personally. My last Halloween costume involved a pair of white socks with hastily drawn faces that I wore on my hands. My costume was A Guy Who Has Ghosts For Hands. This year, I’m going to wear a stick-on “Hi. My Name Is…” tag with “Dracula” written on it. Ergo, I will be Dracula.

I’m not a big fan of scary movies and such, but I like the Halloween atmosphere. I’ve always been too sensitive for gore, but I like spooky and creepy. I like the idea of a vaguely sinister day of the year where the spirit world is in close contact with the physical world and weird shit happens. Of course, I don’t really believe this, but it still makes for a spine-tingling rush when I find myself in a dark, quiet space this season.

The drug store near my house is not one of these places. It’s brightly lit, and, while not particularly noisy, you still aren’t going to be spooked by ghostly whispers there. Especially when you are on Zoloft and had only intended to breeze in for a refill. Sorry…Sertraline. I had meant to use the generic term. Since I will be referring to a number of products by name in the remainder of this piece, it’s best I steer clear of outright product placement whenever I can. So, I won’t be using the name of the drug store; let’s just call it “Smallgreen’s.”

Distractingly situated en route to the pharmacy counter, the Halloween aisle at Smallgreen’s is a Grand Guignol of plastic and sugar. The first thing I notice is a “Torture Tool Garland,” although the accompanying sticker on the shelf notes that it is a “Bloody Torture Tool Garland.” No thanks, Smallgreen’s. That’s just too much. I would prefer the clean torture tools. The packaging notes, somewhat reassuringly, that, “This is a decoration, not a toy.” Given the opportunity, my four year old would probably beg to differ.

Also available are the “Werewolf Multifang” and the “Vampire Multifang.” One would think that the versatility implied by the portmanteau “multifang” would be enough, but apparently you need different packaging for the same cheap dental prosthetic.

An animatronic figure named Nicky DaKnife seems to be some sort of zombie hobo gangster. I press his button and he thrusts da knife in and out of his head. Nicky talks, too, and at first seems like a bargain at $15, especially for a place like Smallgreen’s, where the mark-up on cheap plastic crap is incredible.

“What kinda guy jabs a knife in his own head?” he asks. “Me, dat’s who!”

I’m not sure who is writing for Nicky, but I think I see where the manufacturer saved money. Also, his hair seems to be peeling away, but that could be intended to be seen as a side-effect of having a knife in one’s head.

For $30, you can get a 400 watt smoke/fog machine. The fire department recently rushed to the strip club nearest my office only to find that the smoke machine had been accidently left on over night, so clearly there are some inherent dangers in owning one. Still, I have no idea what wattage is really appropriate. You probably shouldn’t use it in the tub, though.

But, most of the aisle is, of course, occupied by Halloween candy, from the marginally, seasonally different to the uniquely grotesque.

There is a “Horror Meals” tray of gummy candies in the form of bloody fingers, eyeballs, ears and tongues. Never mind that this candy is made in China, a country whose sketchy foodstuffs I generally try to avoid; gummy candy is gruesome enough in and of itself. It’s made with gelatin, which comes from hooves and bones and even more marginal animal bits. I know a rather smugly self-satisfied vegetarian whom I’ve seen eat Gummy Bears on numerous occasions. I’m waiting with gleeful anticipation for the right moment to break all this to him.

There are over a dozen varieties of Russell Stover chocolate pumpkins with different flavored fillings, none of which are pumpkin. There are giant bags of “Fun Size” candy bars, each individually wrapped and sealed to guarantee against the insertion of razor blades, rat poison, and other hazards renowned in urban legend. The packaging cannot, however, guarantee that the contents never came into contact with peanuts. (Sorry anaphylaxis-prone kids! Better luck at Christmas!) The candy coated Jordan almonds in pastel colors seem either out of place or out of season. But, were it not for the redesigned packaging, most out of season would be the Cadbury Creme Eggs, rechristened for Halloween as Screme Eggs.

For years, the Creme Egg was the only exposure I had to Cadbury chocolate. I grew up in a small town in rural Appalachia, and we didn’t really truck with Eastern exoticism from faraway places, like British chocolate, draught beer, or hot tea.

Eventually, I visited England and tried Flake from a neglected-looking vending machine on a subway platform. Given the machine’s appearance, I assumed that the chocolate’s cruddy, stale-seeming texture was related to its having been there a while. In retrospect, this is probably why the candy is called Flake. Years later, at an international foods place in Atlanta, I tried some manner of Cadbury bar filled with Turkish Delight. Despite the name, you might be surprised to learn that the filling did not consist of Ottoman hashish, but rather, some weird magenta goo I later found out was rosewater gel.

An illustration of the full range of reactions to the Cadbury Egg.

My dad introduced me to the Cadbury Creme Egg growing up, which is strange, because my dad doesn’t like things that are too cloying, and the Creme Egg can be momentarily incapacitating in its sticky sweetness. But, we loved them and still do.

A lot of people don’t; my wife is one of them, and she will make a face and fake (?) gag whenever I mention Cadbury Eggs. Most holiday foods have their fans and detractors. Consider eggnog (quick note to myself: stash away “Consider Eggnog” for future use on tombstone after cholesterol-related death, as name of holiday album, marketing slogan for National Eggnog Council, etc.). No one is so/so on it. It’s either a treat you welcome with the coming of the Yuletide, or the thought of it is nauseating.

I’ve found that opinions of Creme Eggs track like this. And, while my study is far from scientific, I’ve noticed a distinct correlation between people who dig eggnog and Cadbury Eggs. Or don’t.

But, even as a fan, I can’t say I welcome the Halloween incarnation of the Creme Egg. As I’ve gotten older, my preferences have shifted to darker chocolates: the kind with cacao percentages on the packaging. Okay, “preference” might be a stretch. I’ll still gobble milk chocolate like a dog with a death wish, but I’ve come to appreciate the darker stuff. For a few years, I’ve thought that a dark or semi-sweet variation on the Creme Egg would work really well. The fondant goo in the middle doesn’t really need help in the sweetness department, and a subtle bitterness might offset it quite well. The Screme Egg is a real missed opportunity in this regard. While the green “yolk” (rather than the usual yellow) does invoke shades of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien, and Gremlins, a nearly black egg would look so much more sinister.

Even still, repurposing Easter candy for Halloween makes no sense. While we’re at it, let’s just try to get more mileage out of the chocolate crosses I’ve seen alongside the bunnies and eggs each March. I’ve always thought that no matter what you believe, these are more than a little disturbing. Either you’re giving a kid a chocolate representation of an instrument of agonizing, torturous execution, or you’re allowing her to have the symbol of your Lord and Savior for dessert, possibly rendering it blasphemous with the first bite. Honestly, a chocolate cross seems much more appropriate for Halloween than an egg. Just turn them upside-down and kids can incorporate them into their pretend witches’ Sabbaths and black masses. Kids do that, right?

I was interested to see how my own kid would respond to the polarizing effect of the Cadbury egg. There are times when Stella seems like a random kid who has been assigned to me. She’s hot-tempered, passionate and dramatic. I am melancholic, passive and introverted. But, clearly she is my kid, as she has the genetic predisposition to love Cadbury Eggs. She was very impressed.

You have to crack a few eggs etc. etc.

We thought it would be funny to take a picture of a smashed Screme Egg in a frying pan, and then we disposed of the evidence before Mom got home. Stella did her best to scrape up every last big of green goo from the pan.

Oh right: my review. I’m not going to bullshit you: these taste the same as the Easter ones and either you’ll love them or hate them.

“Guess what,” I told her. “They have these at Easter, too, but the inside is yellow.”

“Wow.” she answered. (She responds to many insignificant facts with, “Wow.”) “Why?”

“It’s marketing,” was the best I could come up with.

“We should get one for Mommy,” she replied.

I look forward to sharing my hard-earned wisdom with Stella over a glass of eggnog.

Walgreen’s Smallgreen’s has Cadbury Screme Eggs 2 for $1.59. Or, just wait until Dia de los Muertes (trans. “Day of Half-Price Candy”) and stock up super-cheap for Easter.