Memoir

I don’t like to write about myself too often, but a personal blogger can’t avoid it altogether. A few things about family here, too.

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Poets in the Kitchen

Meadows brand scrapple in the Big Apple
Meadows brand scrapple in the Big Apple, 2007

I’ve probably written before about our family’s adventures with raising pigs when I was a kid. My parents were part of the back-to-the-land movement, which meant that we lived as far out in the country as possible—first in central Maine, then here on a mountain in the Appalachian part of Pennsylvania—and raised, hunted or gathered as much of our own food as we could. For three years in a row, we got a pair of adorable piglets from a local farmer in the spring and butchered the hogs in the fall. The logic was that we could convert a lot of kitchen scraps and surplus vegetables from our garden into meat, but the project was not without ecological cost. Though we gave each pair a large pasture and shifted the location every year, that part of the field has never recovered its fertility from the massive erosion it suffered when the growing hogs rooted everything up.

Pigs are very impressive creatures. Unlike sheep or chickens, there’s something going on when you look in their eyes. Their capacity to eat anything and everything is more than epic, it’s down-right mythic. They are role models of consumption, sacrificial gods of plenty. In their native Eurasian forests, wild hogs are essential nutrient recyclers and agents of natural disturbance.

We named each pair we raised: Pork and Beans the first year, then (in honor of the winning presidential ticket in 1976) Jimmy and Fritz, and finally Sears and Roebuck. Dad built a smokehouse, reusing the walls and roof from a decommissioned outhouse, and the first year, Mom went whole-hog, so to speak, and even made head cheese. Looking back, I think raising pigs was something we did more out of enthusiasm for the back-to-the-land lifestyle than anything else; we were never terribly fond of pork per se, and eventually discovered that it was way cheaper and easier to satisfy our need for free-range meat by shooting a few of the increasingly numerous white-tailed deer. The movable shelter Dad built for the pigs has long since rotted away, and the electric fence charger was moved up to the garage, where it was put to work around the garden, keeping deer out rather than pigs in. These days, we don’t even garden, getting most of our vegetables instead from the local Amish, who are new to the area since I was a kid.

scrapple slices on a cookie tray
baking scrapple to feed hungry bloggers

But one thing I retain from that era of my childhood is the sense of scrapple as a special treat. Mom was always looking for a cheap way to feed her three ravenous sons, and scrapple is nothing if not affordable. Both my parents were raised in New Jersey but have roots in eastern Pennsylvania, the heartland of Pennsylvania Dutch (i.e. German) culture and cuisine, so they never learned to look down their noses at this meat product whose very name tends to make urban sophisticates recoil. I like to tell people it’s much healthier than a hot dog, being generally fresh and local and containing cornmeal and other grains, depending on the brand. I also like the way it blurs the line between breakfast and dinner—every diner should serve it for that reason alone. But in the diner where I used to work in State College, though scrapple was on the menu, no one knew how to cook it. We were instructed to whack off a slice and drop it in the deep fryer. Yuck! Here’s how we make it in my family.

Scrapple and Maple Syrup

Cut loaf of scrapple into half-inch slices. Either fry in an iron griddle or place on cookie trays in a medium oven—the latter approach is slower but uses less oil (especially if you have access to trans-fat-free shortening). Flip when the bottom begins to get crusty. Serve hot and drench in maple syrup.

Ode to Scrapple

lightly edited from the original posting (August 7, 2007)

Sing scrapple: buckwheat-
and cornmeal mush-stuffed
relative of head cheese,
the hog’s gray matter.
Plus every part
that couldn’t be cured
into ham or crammed
into sausage casings—
some good foot meat, perhaps,
a corkscrew piece of tail—
up to and including
the oleaginous grunt.
Always the butt of jokes
for the ignorant mass
of wiener-eaters who prefer
their pig scraps pink
and pre-fitted for the throat.
This is a square meal
the color of earth.
It’s what’s for supper
when you haven’t eaten
since breakfast and want
something you can
slap in the hot
fat of a griddle and fry
until it grows a thick
brown skin. Then
serve with Grade-A
maple syrup, go hog-
wild, wallow in the gray
and gritty mush.

half-eaten slice of scrapple on a plate
A meat product even vegetarians have a hard time resisting.

Photos from a 2007 gathering of literary bloggers in New York City by Rachel Rawlins (tournesol on Flickr).

Our family photo albums are like a lot of family photo albums, I suppose: pictures of birthday parties, babies in the bathtub, Christmas with the grandparents, etc. But one thing sets my parents’ snapshots apart: the vast majority of them were taken outside. As soon after my February birth as it became possible, I was taken out to explore.

on the lake shore, 1966

Of course, it wasn’t unusual for kids to play outside back in the 60s and 70s. But since my parents never bought a TV, we had even less reason than most kids to stay indoors. (more…)

Aircraft. It sounds like something one could learn: how to breathe, how to oxidize. But this craft is the kind that floats, and it is enormous. It takes us the full width of Norway at its widest point to reach cruising altitude.

The Boeing 787 is nicknamed the Dreamliner, and its crowded cabin, though far from silent, is filled with a lovely hush of white noise that makes it difficult to stay awake. The only light left in the sky is a band of red above an oddly low horizon which goes before us like Yahweh leading the Jews out of Egypt, on and on into what my body assures me should be night.

five-hour sunset
a movie plays on the back
of every seat

Our original flight map had shown the plane going farther south, but I wake to find us over northern Iceland. In little over an hour we’ve made the journey that used to take the Norsemen more than a week in their own formidable crafts, part Dreamliner, part F-22. I’m not sure what always makes me favor window seats on the left side of a plane, but this time it pays off: that stream of bright orange in the near distance can only be the lava flow from the volcano Bárðarbunga, which on Google Earth—accessible from my seat-back video screen—shows as a great round hole. Now it is the rest of the island that is black, and the caldera, when it periodically appears, is as livid as a setting sun.

a glowing wound
in the darkness six miles below
Bárðarbunga

Volcano! in half
a dozen languages
we gape through our portholes

A little later, as the lava flow recedes into the distance, I start to see the lights from settlements along the north coast. Pressing my face right up to the glass, I realize there’s still just enough light to distinguish land from the slightly darker sea. I recognize Vatnsfjord from the maps that accompanied translations I’ve read of Vatnsdæla Saga and Grettir’s Saga, and then the fern-frond-like Westfjords from, well, every map of Iceland ever (though I do think of the ill-fated hero Gisli). Then we are back out over the north Atlantic, its waves and storms as remote as a legend from our comfortable, high-tech bubble. The west seems brighter now, but it will have faded to blackness by the time we land in New York. I remember with a smile something someone said about the pilots as we waited to board at the Oslo airport: “If they’re too late, they won’t have time to fly up over the top of Canada as they usually do.”

curve of the horizon
even from this height
it’s hard to believe

The thing I think I’ll remember most about this summer in northwest London is the constant sound of gunfire. Fortunately it’s all from video games.

Civilians die by the hundreds in Gaza, Syria, and countless other conflicts, but in the “realistic” MMORPGs, the casualties are mainly if not exclusively other players. The bombed-out hellscapes are a given. It feels almost innocent.

But while the teenagers played war, Rachel and I watched all four seasons of Game of Thrones, which our mutual friend Jean Morris — a fan of the show — aptly described as “adrenalin porn for aging hippies.” The graphic violence and frequent nudity and sex did feel gratuitous, though the show was gritty in many other ways as well. What we perceive as realistic helped the supernatural elements from seeming too wildly improbable most of the time. It all added up to good, escapist fun.

But last year on Facebook I remember Dylan Tweney pointing out in reference to Game of Thrones that the drug cartels in Mexico are also fond of putting enemies’ heads on pikes. It made him uncomfortable, he said, that we would take pleasure in such a spectacle.

What does it say about us that we are so entranced by violence… and that we conflate graphic violence with realism? Perhaps there’s some law that states that the grimmer the world becomes that one is trying to ignore or escape, the grimmer the escapism too must become. Perhaps we are locked in a new kind of arms race: between reality and imagination. But if so, is another world still possible? And do the still, small voices of a greater-than-human, numinous reality still stand a chance?

Watch on YouTube

A lovely little animated trailer for a new book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, by Oliver Burkeman. I sort of feel as if I don’t need to read it, because I’ve been saying this sort of thing all my life — ever since my high school launched a Power of Positive Children (POP-C) propaganda campaign, complete with motivational messages on the intercom every morning, when I was in 11th Grade. I think drug and alcohol use and teen pregnancies actually increased as a result — it was such obvious bullshit that you could will your way to success. Especially in a school system as nakedly classist as ours was, where Stanford-Binet IQ test results were arbiters of fate and teachers did all they could to discourage poor kids from thinking they’d ever amount to anything. I realize now that that campaign wasn’t for us, really. It was for the teachers and administrators, so they could reassure themselves that anyone who stumbled or didn’t get ahead had only themselves to blame for having bad attitudes and being negative.

In other news, I’m looking forward to spending another summer in the U.K., surrounded by cynical, sarcastic alcoholics. My people.

Hat-tip: Brain Pickings.

This my birthday, 28 years.
This morning Sir W. Batten, Pen, and I did some business, and then I by water to Whitehall, having met Mr. Hartlibb by the way at Alderman Backwell’s. So he did give me a glass of Rhenish wine at the Steeleyard, and so to Whitehall by water. He continues of the same bold impertinent humour that he was always of and will ever be. He told me how my Lord Chancellor had lately got the Duke of York and Duchess, and her woman, my Lord Ossory’s and a Doctor, to make oath before most of the judges of the kingdom, concerning all the circumstances of their marriage. And in fine, it is confessed that they were not fully married till about a month or two before she was brought to bed; but that they were contracted long before, and time enough for the child to be legitimate. But I do not hear that it was put to the judges to determine whether it was so or no.
To my Lord and there spoke to him about his opinion of the Light, the sea-mark that Captain Murford is about, and do offer me an eighth part to concern myself with it, and my Lord do give me some encouragement in it, and I shall go on. I dined herewith Mr. Shepley and Howe. After dinner to Whitehall Chappell with Mr. Child, and there did hear Captain Cooke and his boy make a trial of an Anthem against tomorrow, which was brave musique.
Then by water to Whitefriars to the Play-house, and there saw “The Changeling,” the first time it hath been acted these twenty years, and it takes exceedingly. Besides, I see the gallants do begin to be tyred with the vanity and pride of the theatre actors who are indeed grown very proud and rich.
Then by link home, and there to my book awhile and to bed.
I met to-day with Mr. Townsend, who tells me that the old man is yet alive in whose place in the Wardrobe he hopes to get my father, which I do resolve to put for.
I also met with the Comptroller, who told me how it was easy for us all, the principal officers, and proper for us, to labour to get into the next Parliament; and would have me to ask the Duke’s letter, but I shall not endeavour it because it will spend much money, though I am sure I could well obtain it. This is now 28 years that I am born. And blessed be God, in a state of full content, and great hopes to be a happy man in all respects, both to myself and friends.

My birthday is water in wine,
an impertinent chance.
I do not concern myself with it.
Give me rage
and I shall go on:
I was a changeling.
The man in whose place I troll
was born happy.


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 23 February 1660/61.