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Vocabulary

Monday, March 29, 2010
Once, on the way home from school, when I was in second or third grade, I learned a new word.

It was a time when my vocabulary was in one of its major growth spurts, and I was always ready to show off my new-found knowledge. I was also just mature enough to know that choosing the right moment was essential to extract the maximum benefit from its use.

For the rest of the afternoon, I watched for my opportunity. The afternoon passed, and as darkness descended, I could hear the sounds of dinner being prepared in the kitchen.

My mother's stove was a huge black cast iron affair, for which -- I suspect -- wood had originally been the intended fuel. It had been altered several times, so that it could be used with coal, and later, for burning kerosene. The apartment had no central heating, so the stove served to heat the apartment as well. Consequently, the kitchen was a good place to do one's homework on a wintry afternoon.

Unfortunately for me, on that day, being in the kitchen meant that I knew -- in advance -- what we were going to be eating for dinner that night. One glance at the small glass jar, filled with a reddish-brown substance, sitting -- open -- near the stove, was warning enough. Although I was not happy about the impending menu, I was resourceful lad -- and I could see that there just might be a bright side to my grim culinary situation.

My father came home from his work as a phone company cable splicer. He was hungry after the dim day's labors, spent either on a windy telephone pole, or down in a damp manhole. We didn't have much money, back then -- and my mother had to make great sacrifices in order to put food on the table. However, being only seven or eight, at the time, I was completely oblivious to her maternal heroics.

My father, my younger sister, and I sat at the little linoleum-topped table in the corner of the kitchen, while my mother brought our dinner to us. It was chipped beef on toast. While my father -- who had served in the Navy during World War II -- would certainly have known the dish as "SOS, Shit on a Shingle," he never said anything like that at our table. My little sister, normally talkative, just looked at her plate, saying nothing.

I said nothing.

I was waiting for just the right moment, the point when dramatic tension was at its peak.

At last, that moment arrived. I stood, for effect -- rising to my full forty-five inches -- and announced, clearly and firmly enough to ensure that everyone was paying complete attention, "I'm not going to eat that CRAP!"

As expected, my audience was impressed -- not only with my new word, but with the astonishing appropriateness of its use at that moment. My father's response (an unholy mixture of anger towards my thoughtlessness and vulgarity, defense of his young wife's feelings, and his own frustration in the face of economic hard times) was instantaneous.

I really don't remember the punishment I received. Some blessed vagueness of memory screens the pain of that moment. Two things, however, are certain. First, I did eat chipped beef on toast that night and, second, I never, ever, used the word "crap" at my mother's table again.


Chipped Beef on Toast

A classic dish that serves one unhappy family.

Ingredients

2 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 Cups warm milk
1 (8 ounce) jar chipped beef
salt and pepper, to taste
toast, as needed


Method

  1. Melt butter, over low heat, in a saucepan. Stir in flour to make a roux. Add milk, slowly, stirring all the time, until thick and relatively lump-free.
  2. Add beef, heat through and adjust seasoning.
  3. Serve over toast.

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