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Volume 16, Issue 5: Ferro Equus

Cheese in Context

Brendan O'Donnell

It was the 1980s, and I was growing up with a father who lived in flagrant, sodium-soddened defiance of the reigning low-fat AMA pieties the network haircuts hawked at the time. As various bran cereal commercials did their high-colonic song-and-dance on the living-room TV, Dad stood stoveside frying his favorite breakfast. It started with five thick rafters of bacon, melting and crisping in a cast-iron frying pan. After removing the bacon, he flicked a pat of salted butter into the turbulent pool of grease, over which he floated a pair of eggs. The whites convulsing in the pork offal `round the serene yellow yolks, the eggs sizzled to a mottled, speckled brown-gray. These set aside, a third of a baguette slit lengthwise was cast into the crucible to soak up whatever grease remained, until the bread attained a sopping perfection. Then Dad towered the trembling victuals atop a slice of sharp cheddar as thick as a child's hand on one side of the loaf and folded the other half over, like a Venus fly-trap capturing a locust. The assembled sandwich was dispatched in smacking mouthfuls with ceremony, honor, and two black cups of coffee as we looked on in quiet, respectful awe.

Dad's repast was sturdy enough to fuel an entire day's work. A carpenter by trade, he chose for us all to live in a fixer-upper. The house had seen successive remodels the way Latin America has seen regime changes, and consequently provided Dad with an inestimable series of weekend projects. Occasionally he brought me and my brother out to help him. Our skills ran the gamut from goofing off with the plumb bob to gazing stupidly at his back as he awaited our assistance with some five-handed task. Fueled as we were by cereal, our strength generally flagged at lunchtime. We'd become listless to the point that even something as wonderful as the power drill was downgraded from toy to mere tool. So we'd retire inside to eat, leaving Dad to power through the lunch break solo.
Sometimes Mom wasn't there to prepare our lunch. However, by watching Dad, I had absorbed the principles of fine cookery like the baguette had taken up the egg grease. I knew that butter made the thing go, and by age nine, I had figured out how to make grilled cheese with a minimum of smoke and odor: low heat, butter, bread, cheese, flip. Thick cheese was important—when melted, it was like another layer of butter between the bread. My brother appreciated it if it leaked over the bread-side and crisped some on the pan-bottom. The resulting sandwich was dipped in a small pool of ketchup, the alpha and omega of the nine-year-old's spice rack. Occasionally, the refrigerator wasn't forthcoming with the butter. In dark moments like this we'd downgrade to toasted cheese—grilled cheese without butter. Even with ketchup, butterless toasted cheese was to buttery grilled cheese what open theism is to Calvinism. But with Dad ruling the house, butter was generally plentiful, kept in barrels, and in plain sight if one ventured to open the fridge.
Thus refueled, we returned outside to subject our father to more of our assistance, and, excepting the position of the sun, afternoon passed much like morning did. Our bacon, egg and cheese-powered Dad continued working off the substance of his olympic breakfast, while my brother and I frittered our grilled cheeses away smashing toy cars with loose hammers and hiding under the wheelbarrow. Workday's end, we helped haul the tools inside and began wondering aloud what was for supper.
One such night, as we began floating our mealtime queries into the air, Dad revealed that Mom would be home late, and that he would fix supper for us. Dad's breakfast-time exploits were generally off-limits to us; our role was normally that of spectator. With this announcement, though, we were to become participants in Dad's stoveside heroics! As we considered this sudden promotion, Dad assembled his material on the counter the way Rembrandt daubed oils on his palette: the cast-iron pan of breakfast fame; ground beef, heaped into patties; rolls, sliced; bacon, already frying; cheddar, in hand-thick slices.
And so it commenced. As Tom Brokaw jabbered on about high-fiber diets, the bacon filled the kitchen with the smell of morning, even as day collapsed into dusk outside. After its transformation from trichinosis incubator to sturdy, pan-seared, sodium delivery-device, the bacon was set aside on a plate. True to form, Dad left the grease in the pan that he might let the three burgers splish-splash happily in the popping and sputtering hot-tub. The patties ran melted fat into the pool like tributaries stream into rivers. After draining the fat, he slapped the cheddar down on each, like pillows onto a mattress. After the cheese melted and glazed the flanks of the burgers, the meat was plated with the bacon to make way for the rolls. Dad roasted a spadeful of his beloved butter in the pan, set the sliced rolls into it, and cast a communicative eye towards the table, which was never set.
A few minutes later, one sat before each of the three of us: butter-browned roll-bottom, bacon-fried burger, sweating melted cheddar, maroon bacon slices, butter-browned roll-top. Years later in college I would learn that this was called a chiasm. Cheese at the center. In unison we all smashed down our suppers with the heels of our hands. Indeed, my brother and I strained mightily to swallow our first bites, stretching our meat-clogged throats out like young pythons each swallowing their first whole gerbil. Dad, his day's work done, smacked his down like a catfish eating peanut butter.

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