Tom Thumb + Voices
The tiny bubbles have just started to form on the edges of the pot when the front door opened wide enough, and long enough that I can feel the chill blow down the hall and join me in the living room.
“Mom! Hey mom! Can Sam stay for dinner?”
“Do you remember that we’re cooking for Grandma tonight?” I despise speaking with a forked tongue, but in this age of dietary restrictions one can’t always be direct and sensitive at the same time. And I know my boy knows I’ve been working too hard on Grandma’s meal to cook-up a second for some greens eatin’ rabbit.
“Oh, right,” he calls back.
Over the sound of their snow boots falling to the floor I hear my son speaking quietly to his friend, “Sam, your family eats meat right?”
I can’t hear Sam’s reply, and after a moment my son says, “What about pork?”
The bubbles release from the sides of the pot and it starts giving off a barely perceptible hiss.
I hear my Nana’s voice, “Quit fussing with that Debbie, what have I told you about a watched pot?”
Jimmy and his friend Sam come into the living room.
“Mom, this is Sam.”
“Evening Sam, and Debra’s fine.”
Sam held his hands out to the wood stove and rubbed them together as he looked around at all the candles and up at the light fixtures. “Power out?”
“No Sam. When we cook for Grandma, we turn off the lights and cook on the old wood stove.”
“Won’t she have trouble seeing?”
“She passed about ten years ago. Jimmy, will you and Sam set the dining room table before you go off to play?”
When I look back to the pot the water is truly boiling now. Grandma’s right again. Never seems to a boil while I’m watching it. As I slip the Tom Thumbs into the pot, I’m relieved that the house is dim and Sam hadn’t noticed the bowl by his feet. After seeing them he might have changed his mind about being vegetarian. The Tom Thumb sausages are stuffed into the large intestine instead of the small, and they bulge unpleasantly like some desiccated organ, which I supposes is exactly what they are. Meat stuffed into an organ, dry cured and covered in white, powdery mold. It’s food from back when food grew in your yard. Back when food needed washing, grinding, canning, slaughtering and butchering.
When the boys come back down stairs it’s because they are drawn here by the smell and sizzle of the sliced Tom Thumbs frying in butter. They momentarily forget how not-cool it is to hang out with one’s mom and laze about the room like hungry coyotes. I’ve already played the set-the-table card to get them out from underfoot so I can finish this meditation in peace. Transferring the pan of fried Tom Thumbs to the serving platter and dropping new slabs into the smoking butter, I’m reminded of the first year I tried this; I let the woodstove get too hot and the butter flashed in the pan.
My iPhone timer goes off in my pocket. The electronic noise is jarring and cuts through the quiet candlelit house like bullets. With a smoking pan in one hand, a metal spatula in the other, and two able-bodied boys lounging within reach, I say, “Jimmy, your father will be home any minute. Will you light the candles on the table?
“Not you Sam. You’re going to grab those oven mitts and take out the cornbread.”
The mitts he figures out, but the latch on the oven door has him stymied, and he almost opens the firebox door. Finally he figures it out and a cloud of steam smelling of cornbread wafts upward, mingling with the smoky butter, and fried meat. I lift the lid off the Dutch oven and the amazing smell of roasted rosemary potatoes mixes with the others, and completes the spell. A kind of olfactory sorcery which breaks down the walls between here and yesteryear, and she’s alive and with us again.
Now I’m the one being asked to set the table and light the candles. My little brother drags Nana’s chair in from the other room and sets it in the guest of honor spot at my parent’s long banquet table. Mom and Dad sit at either end and though they are the farthest apart my Dad makes eyes at her that makes her blush.
I never thought of it before, but something about the strength of the gastronomic alchemy this year has cleared up the memory: Sitting beside Nana’s empty chair is Mom’s father, and when it’s time to say prayer, instead of linking hands with the rest of us, Pappy grips the dark wooden armrest of that antique chair. It occurs to me that this tradition isn’t about doing something because it’s what my mom did and it helps me remember her; it’s about cooking all the mothers and grandmothers back to life.
A note: This story was suggested by the same woman who suggested Vascular Dementia + Horny Toad in a Shoebox, and I’ll admit it had me good and stumped, until I asked her what the inspiration was and she said this:
“Food is a vehicle for voices of the past. Food is a way to see how life was lived and what was normal. Do we hold onto tom thumb because it's family, tradition, and how that makes us feel - safe and belonging? Or do we move on and speak with a new voice carried on by a different home cooked dish? Is this a conscious question? Or does the taste buds decide? If I was a parent, what would I decide to serve my family?”
THAT sparked my imagination like I’d had a gas leak while I was away on vacation. Thanks for the suggestions, and keep them coming!