My father was a farmer, not a foodie.
He ate and drank normal things most of the time, of course — steak a favorite, maybe a Beck’s beer. Or at night, a blackberry brandy. Or a blended Scotch like Dewar’s.
But between the margins lived very curious choices of food.
He’d eat whole cloves of garlic, raw. Munch, munch, munch. The resultant breath potent enough to punch a hole through a vampire’s breastbone and turn his heart to strongly-scented ash.
Horseradish could be grated onto anything. He’d also eat that raw, right out of the garden.
Hell, the raw garden was a good place to find him. Grazing like some kind of horse or antelope. Picking up green peppers, parsley, tomatoes, beans. Crunch crunch crunch.
If my mother made asparagus in boiling water, Dad would drink the asparagus water. A hot, tall, frothy glass of mm-mmm asparagus water. It looked like a big cup of pee. Which is, perhaps, appropriate.
You know Clamato juice? Clam Tomato juice? He’d drink that, too. Most people make dips from it, or use it in recipes. He’d drink a glass of it. Warm, cold, didn’t matter. Glug, glug, glug.
Hot peppers were always on the menu. Never seemed to bother him, either. He grew a wide variety in the garden and would occasionally go out and sample the wares by just popping them in his mouth like they were fucking Triscuits. Didn’t seem to faze him. He’d occasionally say something like, “Hot,” or, “This has good heat,” and then he’d see if I wanted a bite. And it was a trap. Always a trap. Because he’d goad you, tell you it wasn’t that bad, or maybe he’d say from the beginning that it “wasn’t hot at all,” then you’d eat it and from the first moment your tongue touched the thing it felt like someone had jabbed a sparking Stun Gun into your mouth. Alarm bells and synapses firing. And he’d laugh.
He grew these little tiny peppers — “Thai hots,” he called them. Bright red. Each no bigger than the tip of your pinky finger. He’d take two of those, break the skin with a knife (not even chopping them), then toss those two into a pot of elk chili that simmered for the rest of the day. That chili was the deadliest chili around. A turbid, blood-red brew. Delicious, admittedly — but it even got to him. Dad would sweat and snorfle and cough. And keep on eating. It was like a Szechuan hot pot had made sweet spicy love to a bowl of Tex-Mex chili. You could probably boil an elk alive in that pot.
He ate organ meat without batting an eye. Something I’ve only recently come to, myself. His favorite part of the chicken was the “gizzards,” which meant not just the gizzards but all the bird’s inner workings. Heart, liver, etc. All the little inner bits fried up in a pan with some onions and butter, maybe some old-school lard.
We’d go fishing sometimes and catch these gutter eels and one time he was like, “Hell with it,” and we put ’em in the cooler and took them home. He went at them with a cleaver and cut them up into something resembling hunks of garden hose, or maybe something out of an H.R. Giger artwork. Then cooked them and ate them. I guess they weren’t great but they did the trick. I wouldn’t go near ’em.
He ate a lot of fish that we caught. We had catfish at our pond that were big sonofabitches. Long as my arm, thick as my thigh. You’d throw bread into the water and there they’d come, slow like whales, mouths open wide, bread and water disappearing into that fleshy aperture. We didn’t kill or eat those fish, though. Hell, one time a great blue heron — beautiful birds, by the way — started paying visits to our pond and finding it a rather epic buffet. Spearing sunnies and bass and maybe trying for the catfish. So Dad shot it. Which was illegal at the time and, I suspect, still is. His reasoning was, “Bird was eating my fish,” and that was that.
We used to go and shoot birds sometimes — pheasants, geese, chukars — and then have to eat gingerly so you didn’t crack a tooth on the shot. That’s not weird so much, but it comes to mind so there it is.
Weird was pickled pig’s feet. He loved those. Mason jar of those looked like something out of a mad doctor’s laboratory. Fibrous hooves calling to mind a forensics scene where they discover a body in a swamp.
Food was a thing for us. We were a farming family — though by the time I was old enough to have a clue, we raised whitetail deer and that was it (and we generally didn’t eat those deer but one time we ate one and that, well, let’s just say that did not go over well). Later, elk. But farming life is hard and even though the sting of that hard life was gone from ours it still remained and so with it came that utilitarian “You eat everything,” and that meant whatever was on your plate and in your glass even if you didn’t like it. (Though that ended one day when I was forced to eat eggplant and I threw up at the table.)
Really though this isn’t about food. It’s about memory. What we take with us, what we forget. Who we become because of those things. Father’s Day will always be a reflection — like his birthday, like my son’s birthday, like Christmas, like all those days that ping the emotional radar — and it’s always interesting to see what memories float up out of that turbid blood-red brew. One memory leads to the next and the next and the next after that, feeling your way around the dark with open hands to see what you find. It’s good. Strange, but good. Someday, when I’m dead, my son will do the same thing, I hope. Piecing together those memories. Finding a thread and pulling on it until he gets to something he didn’t expect to remember. I guess that’s how we are, fathers and sons. And mothers and daughters and all of us with whatever memories we carry. Memories and stories and lost images found anew.
Happy Father’s Day, you motherfuckers.