Volume 16, Issue 5: Ferro Equus
Cheese in Context
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 importantwhen 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 cheesegrilled 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.