Tag: 2018 Group Writing December

Sacred Cake

 

I’d be willing to bet that each of us has, somewhere back when we were very young (I get that that’s probably not as long ago for most of you as it is for me), a special memory that’s stuck with us over the years, of someone we wish we could see again, of a thing we wish we could find again or do again, or a food we wish we could taste again, just once before we shuffle off this mortal coil.

Mr. She, one of the world’s great storytellers is spoiled for choice in this respect. The tales of his childhood (born three floors above a bar on Pittsburgh’s South Side, into the second-generation of a Polish immigrant family, in which almost all the men were furnace operators, stove tenders, and welders at the local Jones and Laughlin Steel Plant), are full of poignant, loving, and sometimes bizarre detail–who here doesn’t want to hear about Father John McKaveny, the Catholic priest with the steel plate in his head (earned in World War I), and his foul-mouthed parrot? Or about how one of Mr. She’s earliest childhood jobs was to take a small handful of coins from his “barrel-shaped Polish grandma” and go up the road to the bookie’s every day to play the numbers as instructed? So many stories, so many characters, and such a life.

An awful lot of Mr. She’s early memories involve food. Lovely, warm memories like that of the pretzel shop at 2316 Carson Street–turning out pretzels by the thousands each day, and selling the “mistakes” and the broken ones, still hot, in brown paper bags, from the back door, for a few pennies each to the kids who’d line up around the block for them. Or of the loaf of bread he’d be sent by Grandma to collect every day, which sometimes smelled so good that by the time he’d reached home with it, most of the soft insides of the loaf had been prized out by his grubby little fingers and eaten, and only the crust was left. Disturbing memories of Kapusta, cabbage soup, an unpopular, but cheap and filling concoction that was, Mr. She swears, left to simmer on the stove for at least a week, quite possibly with a few dirty socks thrown in for a little extra flavor, until the entire building smelled of overripe cabbage and other underlying and even less pleasant odors. Or, czarnina, duck’s blood soup. (That one was a result of the “waste not, want not,” philosophy of the time, the family being anxious to use up every part of the duck, since they purchased it “on the hoof” as it were, and started out their cooking adventures by wringing its neck. Or even of the vegetable dish he thought, for most of his life, was called “suttocush,” thanks to Grandma’s imperfect command of the culinary idiom of her new home. That much-loathed concoction led to an aversion to an admixture of corn and lima beans which persists to this day.

The American Reverence Problem

 

Last year’s huge hit film Greatest Showman, with its highly fictionalized story of P.T. Barnum’s rise from the slums to the apex of American success and society, could be thought of as a case study in what makes American’s quintessentially themselves. There is however one scene that makes another and for the purposes of this essay, more important point about the American character: The meeting with Queen Victoria. For the three people on Ricochet who have been living under a rock and have not seen it yet, the meeting threatens to end in disaster when the Queen makes a remark about Tom Thumb’s height and gets from him the response “You ain’t exactly reachin’ the top shelf yourself, sister.”

And everyone in the room holds his/her breath waiting to see how the Queen responds to this irreverent remark concerning her person. Will she be offended at the lack of deference to her state? Will she ignore it? Or will she be able to laugh at herself? She does, they do, the audience does (it was a laugh line after all) and the film goes on. More than anything else, though, this one line of dialogue is what distinguishes Barnum’s Americans from the British subjects in the scene. Not attire, status or fame, but the attitude toward a person who is supposed to be and is accustomed to being treated with deference and even reverence by others in society. The Brits are shocked and the Americans are all kicking themselves for not having made the remark first.