From My Childhood

Weekend Meditation

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Neeley came home and he and Francie were sent out for the weekend meat. This was an important ritual and called for detailed instructions by Mama.

“Get a five-cent soup bone off of Hassler’s. But don’t get the chopped meat there. Go to Werner’s for that. Get round steak chopped, ten cents’ worth, and don’t let him give it to you off the plate. Take an onion with you, too.”

Francie and her brother stood at the counter a long time before the butcher noticed them.

“What’s yours?” he asked finally.

Francie started the negotiations. “Ten cents’ worth of round steak.”

“Ground?”

“No.”

“Lady was just in. Bought a quarter’s worth of round steak ground. Only I ground too much and here’s the rest on the plate. Just ten cents’ worth. Honestly, I only just ground it.”

This was the pitfall Francie had been told to watch against. Don’t buy it off the plate no matter what the butcher says.

“No. My mother said ten cents’ worth of round steak.”

Furiously the butcher hacked off a bit of meat and slammed it down on the paper after weighing it. He was just about to wrap it up when Francie said in a trembling voice, “Oh, I forgot. My mother wants it ground.”

“God-damn it to hell!” He hacked up the meat and shoved it into the chopper. Tricked again, he thought bitterly. The meat came out in fresh red spirals. He gathered it up in his hand and was just about to slam it down on the paper when . . .

“And mama said to chop up this onion in it.” Timidly, she pushed the peeled onion that she had brought from home across the counter. Neeley stood by and said nothing. His function was to come along for moral support.

“Jesus!” The butcher said explosively. But he want to work with two cleavers chopping the onion up into the meat. Francie watched, loving the drumbeat rhythm of the cleavers. Again the butcher gathered up the meat, slammed it down on the paper and glared at Francie. She gulped. The last order would be hardest of all. The butcher had an idea of what was coming. He stood there trembling inwardly. Francie said all in one breath,

“And-a-piece-of-suet-to-fry-it-with.”

“Son-of-a-bitchin’ bastard,” whispered the butcher bitterly. He slashed off a piece of white fat, let if fall to the floor in revenge, picked it up and slammed in on the mound of meat. He wrapped it furiously, snatched the dime, and as he turned it over to the boss for ringing up, he cursed the destiny that had made him a butcher.

After the chopped meat they went to Hassler’s for the soup bone. Hassler was a fine butcher for bones but a bad butcher for chopped meat because he ground it behind closed doors and God knows what you got. Neeley waited outside with the package because if Hassler noticed you had bought meat elsewhere, he’d proudly tell you to go get your bone where you got your other meat.

Francie ordered a nice bone with some meat on it for Sunday soup for five cents. Hassler made her wait while he told the stale joke: how a man had bought two cents’ worth of dog meat and how Hassler had asked, should he wrap it up or do you want to eat it here? Francie smiled shyly. The pleased butcher went into the icebox and returned holding up a gleaming white bone with creamy marrow in it and shreds of red meat clinging to the ends. He made Francie admire it.

“After your mama cooks this,” he said, “tell her to take the marrow out, spread it on a piece of bread with pepper, salt, and make a nice samwish for you.”

“I’ll tell Mama.”

“You eat it and get some meat on your bones, ha ha.”

After the bone was wrapped and paid for, he sliced off a thick piece of liverwurst and gave it to her. Francie was sorry that she deceived that kind man by buying the other meat elsewhere. Too bad Mama didn’t trust him about chopped meat.

It was still early in the evening and the street lights had not yet come on. But already, the horseradish lady was sitting in front of Hassler’s grinding away at her pungent roots. Francie held out the cup that she had brought from home. The old mother filled it halfway up for two cents. Happy that the meat business was over, Francie bought two cents’ worth of soup greens from the green grocer’s. She got an emasculated carrot, a droopy leaf of celery, a soft tomato and a fresh sprig of parsley. These would be boiled with the bone to make a rich soup with shreds of meat floating in it. Fat, homemade noodles would be added. This, with the seasoned marrow spread on bread, would make a good Sunday dinner.

— Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Many years ago, when I was about nine or ten years old, I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for the first time. To this day I remember this passage, and how fascinating and alarming I found it. The task of negotiating with the butchers seemed too big, too scary, too adult for a young girl just about my age. How could Francie stand there in the wake of an big angry man with a cleaver in each hand and keep asking for more? How could she keep track of all the money and know which vegetables to buy? Even the moments of kindness and a free bite of liverwurst were tinged with a touch of guile. What an enormous responsibility it was to be sent out into the roughness of the city to procure the family dinner!

And completely different from my childhood's Midwestern suburban trip to the grocery store it was. There, always accompanied by my mother, I would wander in fluorescent-lit aisles as we tossed canned goods and thick, cello-wrapped cuts of meat into our chrome cart. It was bright and shiny and I never had to negotiate a big, scary, knife-wielding man in order to have my supper. I never had to worry about how many pennies were in my pocket and if they could cover the cost of dinner. Wilted vegetables and marrow bones, butchers who swear a blue streak and ladies who grind horseradish on the street might as well be from the planet Mars.

Today, when I read Frannie's Sunday menu born of poverty and deceit, I lick my lips. It is no longer strange and slightly scary but rich in flavor and authenticity. And while my life in comparison with Francie's continues to be very different, I now find her food inspiring and delicious and immediately make plans to stop at the butchers this afternoon for a soup bone.

I am aware that for me this is a choice and not a necessity and that this, more than price of a soup bone and a handful of vegetables, is the biggest difference between me and Francie. My life is lush and plentiful, largely rid of scariness and vulnerability (although not as free from that as I tend to think). Every day I am presented with an enormous list of possibilities from which to choose. And while all this brings me pleasure, it's interesting that I find Francie's experience (and her food) to be more in accord with my heart. That if push come to shove, I would rather dine on a soup bone and its marrow than something fancier.

I suspect that I'm not alone in this. The 'poverty cuisines' of the world seem to be the ones that capture our appetites and attention the most. The peasant foods of Italy, China, Vietnam. The rich, vibrant flavors of India and Mexico. The warm homey biscuits and collards of the American South. Is this true for you? Is there an everyday kind of food that you keep returning to, something old-timey and simple, that sticks to your ribs and whispers hush to all your fears and anxieties? Have you ever had to brave the butcher or count out pennies worth of vegetables for your supper?

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I hope you enjoyed this encore Weekend Meditation, originally posted in October, 2010. I will be posting these vintage posts every Sunday (with the occasional new post, if I can manage!) for the next several months while I focus on writing my first book.

(Image credits: Dana Velden)