San Diego, California
I'm not sure grandpa realized what he was eating. The passage that led from his nose to the back of his throat was undoubtedly narrowing . I'm sure of it, because when he chewed large chunks of food, he had to breathe through his mouth, which amplified the smacking, mashing sounds of mastication. With his blocked nasal passage, and the open mouth while chewing, I wonder if he could taste anything. He was old with leathery skin, had the faint smell of beef jerkey and the look of a lizard with an unblinking eye, especially when he chewed; this reptilian feature led me to question the depth of his consciousness. At times his stare was so distant that I thought he would fade out, the way the t.v. does when you turn the brightness all the way up. So, that's why I'm not sure he realized what he was eating.
Grandma and grandpa came to town for 2 or 3 weeks every year in August to coincide with my dad's birthday. Sometimes dad would spite them by deliberately arranging alternate plans during that time. But this year, he acquiesced. During most of the day we would amuse ourselves separately until dinner, which seemed to be our unifying ritual. Dad's wife was there too. She was substantially younger than him, but seemed to have years of experience over him when it came to the pleasantries of entertaining guests. All the proper tableware was set, with matching plates, placemats, cloth napkins, and ringed napkin holders. The silverware truly was silver, with each piece on its proper side of the plate. Her attention to detail when it came to these matters was impeccable. Her conversation at the outset of these culinary extravaganzas was equally appropriate. However, ample amounts of wine were served... to her and my dad.
I remember one dinner which began with a sequence of salad, followed by baked potato with butter on the side (familial hypercholesterolemia ran rampant at that table, and step mom did her best to limit dad's intake of what would be in time, found to be his ultimate poison), some skinned chicken concoction that didn't quite taste bad, seasoned heavily with Mrs. Dash (she tried to limit his intake of salt also), green beans topped with sprinkled bread crumbs topped off with some sprayed on imitation butter substance. Beyond the niceties of food related talk, the silence initially was broken only by the staccato clatter of serving utensils banging against food containers and the dysrhythmic cacophony of chewing, smacking and mashing, led for the most part by granddad.
I'm amazed he never choked when speaking, because it seems as though he had lost a great deal of oral coordination. For example his tongue didn't always propel the food backward as evidenced by dribbles of leaking mixtures of meats and vegetables trailing down from the corner of his mouth past his chin to the Irish linen tablecloth. Nonetheless I understood him to ask me "Hooee, your just about as tall as me now."
"Grandpa, I've been taller than you for 6 years now."
"I don't think so," he mumbled in an almost unintelligible rattle which sounded half like throat clearing and half wheeze," but it's ok. Are you almost finished with school?" The 'S' from school helped launch a small chunk of meat at a speed close to the sound barrier missing my eye by a few inches.
"I just started this year, grampaw, still got two or three years to go."
Please don't judge me harshly for what happened next, but I seemed to have lost control and intentionally fired back a well chewed Mrs. Dash seasoned poultry projectile, using the word "two" as a fulcrum, which hit him squarely on the wide lapel of his musty white shirt.
His response was unexpected as though someone had turned down his 'brightness' control giving him new found clarity of consciousness coupled to a will to compete that had never failed him and stuck with him to his dying day. (He died of a heart attack while racing a neighbor's 6 year old grandson in his Olympic size condominium swimming pool.) He brushed off the meat bullet, which left behind a faint splotch of dampness, and sighed deeply.
"Hooee, I think you were aiming for me, but you did it all wrong. You have to take a deep breath before you spit out a food missile. Did I ever tell you about the time I was working at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in Chicago. It was 1936. It was a cold winter's day. The whole lot of us had just come back from a long day's worth of work to post our sales. I was just coming out of the men's room after a lengthy session, on the third floor, where they did the billing, on Wabash Avenue, when I noticed everyone was lying on the ground with their eyes closed. The women were quietly sobbing, and some of the men too! It was a large room and it was covered from wall to wall with fellow salesmen, secretaries, bookkeepers and the rest. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a shadow moving quickly down the stairs and out the front door.
It suddenly struck me: there were open purses with their contents spilled, and men's wallets strewn everywhere. They had been robbed and the thieves were running out the door! I acted quickly and without more than a thought, I grabbed a half-eaten Reuben sandwich, which by now had turned cold, shoved it in my mouth and ran after those no good so-and-sos in hot pursuit, chewing with feverish rancor all the way. I caught sight of them immediately after I left the building as they were rounding the corner of Wabash and State. The sauerkraut made it a little hard for me to breathe and slowed me down a little bit, but eventually I caught up to three armed bandits and shouted:
'Hey you no good so-and-sos, give me back the loot!"
"They didn't realize who they were dealing with and immediately brandished guns and aimed them at my chest.
"'So! We've got a hero here. Well listen Mr. Cabbage breath, why don't you just forget you saw us so we don't have to plug you full of lead.'
"I wasn't going to let those scoundrels get away with that, so I opened my mouth allowing a well formed ball of cabbage, corned beef, and rye bread to freeze to a hard finish aided by the cold Chicago winter breeze that whistled through the air that day. 'Take that,' I said, and used the 'T' in 'take' to launch the frozen food ball with great speed, knocking down the thief on the far left just one moment before he pulled the trigger. As he was halfway down and spinning to his left, the gun fired a bullet into the chest of the second thief, went all the way through him, and came out through his ribs and continued on through the chest wall, lung, and heart of the third thief.
"Suddenly I was standing there with sauerkraut spewed down my chin breathing steam through my nostrils, looking down on three dead bandits. And it wasn't a pretty site. The next day the headline of the Tribune read: INSURANCE SALESMAN IS HERO AS MOUTHKATEER. The Sun Times reported: SALESMAN AND REUBEN KILL THREE. I received a lifetime coupon for free Reuben's at Wolfie's and received all kinds of fan mail from pretty ladies, which is how I met your grandma."
I wasn't sure what to say to that far fetched fairy tale, as a potato pellet flew through the air and smacked me under the left eye.
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