Good in the kitchen and with chicken snakes.
For twelve days I’ve been a vegetarian. Mostly.
Erin said what I really am (she’s an authentic, bona fide vegetarian) was a pescatarian. Which sounds similar to a Christian denomination. But, mainly, it means I am 90% real vegetarian, and 10% fake-out: I allow myself fish, eggs, dairy, etc. I have a great need for smoked salmon, on occasion.
I’m not trying to drag anyone along with me on this dietary sojourn (although twelve days is a little less than temporary), but as I cook all the meals in the house, Amanda might not have much of a choice. Well, except where the dairy part is concerned; she’s lactose-intolerant. Something that, with my cheese addiction, would just absolutely kill me dead.
At first, I was trying to be macrobiotic, which lasted about a week, and it didn’t stop because of any particular reason other than halfway through it I forgot I was doing it. Also, it was confusing: what food is a yin, and why, and if I yang’ed it too much could I counter it with a good long yin of apples and peanut butter. I just couldn’t get all of the material read in time to pursue it successfully. I did learn, however, that it’s a good idea to chew your food.
A lot. I think somewhere along adolescence I’d forgotten to chew food at all. I was shocked, making myself chew carefully in the macrobiotic way, at just how little I actually tasted food anymore. I just shoveled it down my throat, for no apparent reason, who was I racing against? Where was I going in such a hurry that I couldn’t even eat properly. What was I, an animal?
Besides, chewing food slowly was hardly a macrobiotic invention; that was plain, old-fashioned U.L., right down to the core, telling me at the dinner table from age 3 and up to treat the table as a “table, not a trough.”
U.L. I could understand; macrobiotics not so much. Not yet. So, somewhere on the other half that week, I became a pescatarian. (Years ago, I was a vegetarian, during college, until my diet slowly came to consist only of cheese. After awhile, I got fat. And constipated). This time, though, this time, I was going to make it stick, make it work for me.
I can honestly say that after that first week went by, I felt better. I really did. I was eating smarter. Paying attention to ingredients. I’m also trying to curb my appeal to processed foods, high fructose corn syrup (regardless of their rather subtle mea culpa commercials), and go back to the earth, so to speak. Which is hardly a new idea in my family, as we grow almost all of the vegetables we eat, ourselves; we have a cattle farm, and catfish, we used to have chickens and fresh eggs…I mean, what I’m basically doing is returning to my own childhood, one squash at a time.
Then Amanda had to send me that awful article about the nature of cage-free eggs. I’m so tired of corporate farming; although, they’re great for my diet. Reading about their treatment of animals does nothing but solidify my desire to stay pescatarian…although, no doubt, I’m going to have a panic attack at some point in the near future, like, maybe, Wednesday, about fish, too, until I no longer eat fish…or eggs.
Ya Ya was instrumental in instilling in me this idea of an animal’s morality. If you want to eat fish, she’d say, you go down to the lake, the creek, the pond, etc. and you catch it yourself. That fish had a good life free of you until you needed to eat. We’re the dominant food taker, the Hunter, but we can still have grace about it. That’s so Acadian of her. I mean, one way or the other, something was going to eat that fish: between me and the cottonmouth or the Crane, more likely, I’d rather it be me.
Maybe this story will help: one time, Ya Ya was letting me drive down some old country roads around Fish Camp, I was 14, but nobody cares if you break the law on a dirt road, and I was having the time of my life, kicking up all that dry dirt, creating dust clouds the size of a silo, when she touched me on my arm and told me to Stop.
There, some yards in front of the car, was a terrapin. He was, in the turtle-way, taking his precious turtle-time crossing the road. Ya Ya would have none of that. She said, “Get out, let’s help him.” And that’s just what we did. He shied into his shell, and I asked if I could pick him up. She let me, and I took him across the dirt road, a dirt road that perhaps only six or seven people drove down a week, but that wasn’t the point. This is what grace means to the dominant Hunter. This was giving back to those who sacrifice for us to live.
I just hope the terrapin actually wanted to cross the road. If nothing else, perhaps the tall grasses hid him from his predator, at least a little bit longer. God knows, I don’t eat terrapin, I don’t care how much Cajun/Creole blood I get from Ya Ya’s people. So I don’t know how valid his sacrifice would have been, but she believed in that Great Oval of Life – there are so few perfect circles, these days.
Tigi, on the other hand, was a Delta woman. Grown hard due to poor times, but having come from good stock enough to remember the better ones. She had a calm sensibility, even after she came back into money. She insisted on keeping chickens around the house for the eggs. She made U.L. keep the back row behind the house and around the old water well uncut so the wild strawberries would grow. That’s what we fed the chickens, mixed in with their feed. It made the eggs tastier, I like to say.
I remember, being six, standing with her out behind the house where the coops were, collecting eggs, how she balanced herself against the roost, cane hooked over her right arm, and how she reached in, blindly, to the back of the coops to retrieve the eggs.
She would wear the nicest house dresses, but with a constant apron covering them, with a waist-arc of pockets on the front of it. And in these pockets she carried the following items: a small pen knife, a pen, an insignificantly sized writing pad, a cameo brooch as big as your hand, and a wad of tissue.
I knew this because I explored the depths of this apron in the evenings, each night, when she dressed for bed. There was never anything added to the pockets, but I had to make sure, just in case. But, never, had I seen her use anything but the writing pad where she wrote recipes down as she thought of them, perhaps as a reminder of what to cook for supper, and grocery lists, and words. Words that she found beautiful, I guess…I never found out why. She died when I was eight, two years later.
That afternoon, though, I discovered why she kept the pen knife. As she pulled out egg after egg and deposited them in her Tupperware bowl, I stood watching and enjoying the moment. I loved my Tigi, who once, when I was crying having not received anything for my birthday from either parent, made me cry my tears in her hands and then showed me how clear the tears were, saying, there wasn’t a thing dirty in my soul, I was clean, clean, clean.
So, you can imagine how shocking it was for me to witness this: she pulled back her hand and instead of an egg, she had wrapped her fingers around the head of a chicken snake, six feet long or so. Why it didn’t bite her, I don’t know, couldn’t tell you.
It didn’t get a chance to either. Without a blink or a moment of trepidation, she wrung its neck, threw it to the ground, held its head in place with her cane, and sliced it off with her pen knife. I was rooted, not unlike how the gnarled aggravating magnolia roots can become. She pushed the helpless corpse of the chicken snake aside with her cane, took out the tissue to wipe it clean, and continued collecting eggs.
I don’t believe I ever went back to the coops with her again, not sure I understood the delicate balance the dominant Hunter sometimes had to achieve with the unsuspecting predatory competitor. They were our eggs, our chickens, after all. He was uninvited, and yet, so scorched is my upbringing, that I couldn’t decide if I was quite ok with it or not; it was all too “serpent in the garden.” I think I ran inside and took a bath.
You know, some people eat snakes. I read that once in a book; the book was The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss. It was an early favorite autobiography that I read, at least four times before I turned thirteen, about a Methodist minister and his wife and their impressive need to adopt children; I think it was fifteen kids overall they adopted. That part was easy to relate to, I wanted a family so badly back then, a normal family. Plus, they adopted children of need from all walks of life; they were the original Benetton ad, I’m sure. Life magazine put them on their cover once; someone gave them a new kitchen, for free.
They had all these wonderful things and experiences, but that only came later. They’d had to eat a can of snake, early on in their marriage. Just to survive.
I just hope it wasn’t a chicken snake, though.
They look too ugly to taste good. And for the record, I’m never going to find out.