Because I, Too, Am Hungry: On Food and Reading

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I don’t remember everything about Slaughterhouse-Five, but I remember that vitamin tonic. Though I read the book maybe 10 years ago, I can still see a dirty, malnourished prisoner of war working in a barely functioning Dresden factory that makes some kind of vitamin tonic for pregnant German women. And one day, starving, that man decides to open a bottle, and puts it to his lips, and tips it back. And what I really remember is how Kurt Vonnegut describes what happens next, how that man, whose name I cannot remember, is transformed, how that elixir hits his belly and then his blood, turning him from mostly dead to something suddenly rather alive, his bones alive, his hair alive, and that’s what I remember, that feeling that you can get from a book, a feeling that sticks with you, when somebody gets what he desperately wants, what he desperately needs.

When I think about my favorite books, I remember how they made me feel, and I remember the food, and sometimes those two feelings get all mixed up. I remember when a girl is hungry and when she eats something. Especially when the girl is hungry and when she eats something.

If you’re at all like me, you have your own, but here are mine.

Hemingway. I’ll start out slow here. Of course there’s the heroic drinking (so many aperitifs and digestifs) but for some reason the drinking does not stay with me. The raw-onion sandwiches in For Whom the Bell Tolls, however, I remember those. I can see the American bridge-destroyer crunching away on his raw-onion sandwich, the Spanish partisans drop-jawed and incredulous. Not that I have any particular love for a hunk of onion between bread, but I’ve got this in my head now: the snap, the pungent kick in the tongue, the sinuses suddenly supercharged.

And there’s that staple of 12th-grade English, The Old Man and the Sea. While Santiago is nearly killing himself by fighting the big fish, he—effortlessly, in my head—catches a second fish, a little one, dismantles it, and eats the flesh in ragged, torn hunks. I remember Santiago wishing he had some salt. When I read that book, I had not yet eaten sushi but I’ve eaten it since, and so I can verify that salt, with that raw fish, would have been good.

The Grapes of Wrath. Everybody’s hungry in this one. When the Joad family is traveling west, at some point they find themselves in a peach orchard. Everyone helps picking the peaches, and the kids pick some and devour some, and there are stomachaches, and finally an adult says, hey, you can’t make it on peaches alone. Earlier in the book, someone slaughters a hog and, rather than share, tries to eat the whole thing by himself, which is a mean thing to do. And of course I remember, as you do, that the old man, at the end, drinks human breast milk because that’s all there is and that it keeps him alive, and that’s not mean or not-mean but instead a whole other kind of thing that Steinbeck is doing there.

Atonement. I loved this book and I loved it when our man, the lower-class suitor of the upper-class girl, is stuck, with the retreating British army, in Dunkirk, the Nazis on their heels. He’s wounded, or is sick, or both, and he’s sitting with his back against a cold wall, and someone hands him or he produces from his dirty rags the following: a dried French sausage. It’s in McEwan’s novel that I first saw the word for this particular kind of sausage. Say it with me. Saucillon. The sick soldier dies later, and it’s awful, but that sausage he eats, the description of it, that does it for me. His mouth is filled with fat and salt and the taste of something hopeful and he, briefly, lives again. Do you have a saucillon, by chance? I’d like a bite. Full disclosure: I don’t know how to pronounce saucillon.

Stop-Time. It doesn’t matter what food. It could be the case that the simpler, the better. It’s almost certainly true that the more specific, the better. In my favorite memoir, Stop-Time, Frank Conroy describes his teenage self, in 1950s New York, and how he desires, with all of the cells in his body, a lunch so simple and yet so specific that I never could have dreamed it up on my own: an orange soda and a sandwich consisting of a deviled egg between two slices of white bread. That’s it. I’d recommend the book, and the deviled-egg-sandwich scene, to anyone. Do you like it when people in books go from something less than happy to something beyond it, all because they got, finally, what they wanted?

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. And also the bad-sounding food stays with me. What’s the deal with English food? I do not know. One of the older guys in that book, when he goes out, he goes to the same pub and orders the same thing, every time. It’s one of those incredibly English dishes made up of about 17 fried things, eight of them sausages, three of them beans, and the rest mushrooms or else tomatoes so ravaged by heat that they are no longer tomatoes at all but rather only wet sources of fiber. Actually, that doesn’t sound all that bad. I’d eat that plate of food. But I can see the glistening sheen of grease on everything and I can smell the warm, stale beer, and I wish the English didn’t feel the need to fry or else boil all of their vegetables. But, of course, they do. Also, it’s acceptable to make fun of the English, I realize, and it’s especially acceptable to make fun of their food.

Philip Roth. The best description of fruit-eating you’ll see is in Goodbye, Columbus. Fruit, man. Fruit for days. Flesh and stems and peels and juice and skins. Bananas and oranges and apples and pears and, of course, cherries. Also, this book is about sex, or about what you do when you want to have sex but can’t, and I’m reasonably sure the fruit has something to do with that.

Tony Earley’s Jim the Boy. Read that first chapter. Tell me reading about those farmers, very early in the morning, devouring those biscuits, those eggs, that ham, that coffee, doesn’t do something for you, doesn’t make you feel as if you could hoe a field, could do damage to some corn (if indeed it was damage that needed to be done), doesn’t make you want to go out and get that shit fucking done, man. And then read the rest of the book because it’s the kind of novel you want to tell your friends to read, unless they don’t like great books that are easy to read but which stay with you for years and years because they’re beautiful and the best kind of complicated and true.

Angela’s Ashes. Ireland in the 1930s: Not great. Everybody’s so hungry and there’s so little actual food in this story that what little food does show up, you remember it. Our man Frank McCourt goes to an aunt or a cousin or some sort of older lady, who feeds him something small and feeble, maybe a piece of bread. And when he asks for another little bit to eat, she scoffs, is incredulous, says, next you’ll be wanting an egg. And how precious those odd chunks of toffee are, and how you cheer for the little guy as he pops them into his mouth. And how, finally, after pages and pages, he somehow gets his hands on an actual order of fish and chips and he eats and eats and of course he wants more. And, oh, the alcoholic father, after yet another of Frank’s brothers or sisters dies, takes the little casket into the pub for a pint, and it breaks your heart. And how he rests that pint, between drinks, on the casket, and that really breaks your heart. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. I can see the wet ring from that pint of Guinness on the top of that cheap, tiny casket.

Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That.” Though I can’t recall exactly what Didion eats in her great essay about spending one’s 20s, vividly but depressed, in New York, I remember that she is so poor that she uses her father’s credit card for odd little meals at a fancy department store’s fancy lunch counter. Also, gazpacho. Even in the 1960s, New York was the kind of place where you could find gazpacho. And even though cold tomato soup does little to cheer up one of my favorite nonfiction writers, I’m certainly glad she ate it, sad spoonful by sad spoonful. Didion makes gazpacho exotic and sad and weird and I’d like some.

There are many more. But these are the ones I come back to. They pop up, unbidden, while walking, while driving, while eating. Each time, I think: I hope he gets that sandwich. And he does. In my head, he gets that sandwich, every time.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Baseball, Finally

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I tried at baseball, over and over, and I failed at it. But Dad breathed baseball and so we did, too. We watched the Pirates when they were on TV and when they weren’t we listened to WTBO broadcasts on Dad’s hi-fi. Every winter, he played for us the radio call from Game Seven of the 1960 World Series, when Bill Mazeroski’s tenth-inning home run beat the Yankees. Dad was thirteen that year. The voices were scratchy and we knew few of the names, but Dad, sitting on the edge of his seat, the record sleeve in his hands, did a running commentary. He coached our summer-league teams and knew the rulebook better than the umpires did. He studied the scorebooks, the spiral-bound kind with the pale-blue cover. A can of Schaefer sweating on the deck table, he’d sit outside for hours, one leg draped over the other, figuring batting averages, experimenting with infield combinations until the lightning bugs came out.

One day, when I was in the fourth grade, the regular scorekeeper for my older brother Jake’s team was sick. Dad told Jake’s coach that I could do it. Since Jake’s nickname was The Snake, his teammates called me The Worm. The guys got used to me sitting on their bench, quietly watching, scribbling after each pitch. They asked me what the marks meant. They respected me because Jake was so good. They talked about girls, about drinking, cars, baseball, but never about school. Ray Spriggs, a big guy and the only black kid on the team, sang the UB40 cover “Red Red Wine.” He sang in a nice, high voice, and I remember thinking, this is strange, this large man, eighteen years old, swinging two aluminum bats, singing this song that I heard on the radio. I tried to look away when he caught me staring, but I was too late, and he smiled. Dad was always sneaking photos with one of the Times-News’ good cameras, and after the season he gave me a print. In the photo, it’s between innings, and there’s skinny, fourth-grade me, sitting on the sagging, wooden-plank bench at Allegany and concentrating on sticking the sharpened end of a pencil into the band of my white sock. It looks like I’m scratching an itch, but really I was just staying quiet and getting lost in myself, which is what I did all the time.

Jake had told me to avoid the boys’ locker room at Bishop Walsh High, but after one game, I had to take a leak. I thought it would be empty, but the football team was undressing after a spring practice. The air smelled of sweat, steam, dirt, grass, and feet. I pissed quickly, big, older boys using the urinals next to mine, and hurried out. Just before I got to the door, a tall, skinny guy blocked my way. He wore only a white towel around his waist. “Let him through,” one boy said. The guy blocking my way, a tall redheaded boy, ripped off his towel and shook his hips back and forth so that his dick slapped his thighs, back and forth. I rushed to get around him and, as I opened the outside door, I heard him cackling.

I loved the stuff that came with baseball. We collected the hats, each ringed with white bands of dried salt. We worked the bills so that they curved as our cupped palms curved, each a crescent of fabric-wrapped cardboard. We collected Pirates hats, Orioles hats, hats we got from our little league teams. When we played for the Warrior Run Lions, we wore bright yellow jerseys and white pants stained with last year’s grass, or ketchup, or blood. Mom bought us big duffel bags. When it was cold, we stuffed them with sweatpants and hoodies, T-shirts, metal spikes when we were older, and batting gloves, white and soft in the spring but rubbed through and stiff by the end of the summer. We carried packages of Big League Chew when we were younger and, later on, mangled sacks of sunflower seeds.

Some kids called their gloves “mitts” but that sounded old-fashioned, too precious. You could always borrow somebody’s bat, or even grab an old pair of cleats, but your glove was your glove and no one else’s. Jake, Ryan, and I did not share gloves. Nobody shared gloves. You had a glove and it was yours and you loved it. When I was thirteen, Mom bought me a new Mizuno, from the Sears at the Country Club Mall. It was an infielder’s glove, smaller than most. That first week, I rubbed oil into it every night, tucking it under the mattress before I went to bed. After a while, the outside of the glove took on thin, sweat-darkened grooves where my fingers went. I chewed on the dangling laces, turning the ends brittle. My glove was a thousand shades of brown, from camel to businessman’s briefcase, and, for a while, it belonged to no one else.

Two games a week turned into five or six and by the time we were teenagers, every night we were either watching Jake’s college games or playing our own. We played in towns all over the skinny part of Maryland, southwestern Pennsylvania, deep up hollows in West Virginia, so far out there that we joked the local kids got around in Conestoga wagons. I played with that Mizuno almost all the way through, until I was eighteen, when somebody stole it from the dugout at Donahue Field in South Cumberland. I hope that glove still exists, if only at the bottom of a closet, or in the trunk of someone’s rusted-out sedan, because it’s the only part of my baseball world that still exists.

Or, the only tangible thing that still exists, because it’s true that I can still feel the rhythm of the infield drill. I did thousands of them, the movements deep inside me like the steps of a dance, like the bass lines to certain Beatles’ songs. I loved turning double plays, taking the throw from third or from short, quickly hopping backward off the bag and, in the same motion, flinging a sidearm shot to first. It was the only dance I was ever any good at. I had my own routines. I fastened and un-fastened my batting gloves, first the left and then the right. I ran onto the field and off, never stepping on the foul-lines. From second base, I did my chatter, saying the same things again and again. It was always a prayer. If I felt bad, the prayer meant: “Please don’t hit the ball to me.” If I felt good, it meant: “I hope I don’t fuck up the next one.” Always, what it sounded like was: “Hey, gimme a heater, hey, gimme a heater, hey now, kid, hey now, you got this one, you got this one, hey now.”

I swung at tens of thousands of pitches. I never, not once, hit a home run. Home runs were off-limits, undoable, like dunking a basketball or meeting the president. Simply hitting a baseball, in a game, was difficult. I said Our Fathers on the walk from the dugout to home plate. I said Hail Marys. I tried everything. I drank Pepsi but not Mountain Dew because I thought the Mountain Dew made me too jumpy. I pulled on my jersey before my pants. I heard that swimming on game days made you tired, so I didn’t go swimming. Or I didn’t say any prayers at all, or I drank only Mountain Dew, or I stepped on first base every time out. I tried anything I could think of.

I couldn’t pick up the spin of a curveball. I swung too early, pulling everything to the left, sending weak dribblers to the shortstop. I sliced pop flies to shallow right. I looked at third strikes on the corners. My hands stung. The pollen made my contact lenses stick to the insides of my eyelids. My balls felt strange inside my cup. I struck out. I went 0 for 3, 0 for 4. I cursed. I grew hot in the face, empty in the belly. I spewed hot anger at the umpires, at their big stomachs, at their big pickup trucks, at the parents in the stands. I disliked myself. It went on like that. I loved baseball but baseball never loved me back. It’s true that I wasn’t fast enough, or strong enough. I did everything right except own the thing that makes a boy an athlete. What I did instead was to spend my baseball years saying to myself, I’d give three thousand dollars to be able to hit the ball like that guy over there, or two years of my life, or five thousand dollars, or five years. I’d give up Mom’s car. I’d give a toe.

We were bad my senior year. Our second-to-last game was against Allegany, our city rivals. Ryan, a junior but one of the best in the county, was pitching. I was playing second. Before the game, we took our usual seven swings, but Allegany was running late, and so we got another seven. Then we got ten more. I found a groove, lacing flat liners to left-center, hard drives to left. We got ten more. Finally, Allegany’s bus pulled up, their guys throwing their stuff in the dugout, quickly shedding their jackets. They hurried to take the field for batting practice but then the umpires said the field was too wet. Puddles stood in the outfield. The umpires got together with the coaches and ordered the game moved to South Cumberland.

Driving slow through town, we would never again, it turns out, be quite so free, quite as on the edge of something as beautiful and deep, and strange. Way out ahead of us was the unknowable everything, but just within reach was seven innings of baseball, a game we knew better than maybe anything else in the world. Jason, Ryan’s best friend, would play third. Ryan, if he needed to, would pitch until he couldn’t feel his arm. I just felt good, young, but also not so young any more, and wiry, and strong, and alive.

Coach Murray had told us to drive straight to the field, but I stopped at the Sheetz on Virginia Avenue. We bought fountain Cokes and chips and then lingered in the parking lot. I drove Virginia Avenue slowly, under the railroad bridge that everyone called the Underpass, down through South Cumberland and its simple, worn houses with the toys in the front yards, past the bars that served draft beer and fishtail sandwiches. I took side streets, stopping for too long at stop signs. The city’s waste treatment plant towering in front of us, the smell of sanitized shit thick inside the car, I made the last turn down the gravel road and, finally, parked. Then, crunching gravel, we walked through the gate, threw our bags into the dugout, and jogged onto the field. Ryan went to the bullpen, to warm up. We took grounders or loped around the outfield grass, chasing fly balls. The air was thick, the grass green, our jerseys red as candy. Nobody, just then, had any real power over me. I was a free agent, a very young man on the cusp.

Mike Carter, a three-sport star at Allegany, was pitching. Mike threw hard, but straight. My first time up, I looked at a few balls and then knocked a fastball up the middle that missed Mike’s leg by a few inches. The immaculate white ball shot into centerfield. I had a single. My legs felt good. My hands felt good. There was no sting, only warmth.

Ryan, 17 years old, almost fully grown and getting stronger, threw well. We got a run. They got a run. My second time up, Mike kept throwing fastballs. It was as if time had slowed. I could see the red threads, the inked printing on the leather. I let the bad ones go by. Then Mike threw one down the middle, straight and flat. I drove it between the shortstop and third baseman, into left. Gone, with all that batting practice, was the tentativeness I’d always felt. I, for once, wasn’t second-guessing every pitch, triple-guessing it. Either I swung or I didn’t. I was fluid, at ease, confident, taller than I really was, thick around the chest and arms and legs in a way I’ve never been. “Yeah, Buck!” my friend, Brandon, yelled from the dugout.

I hit once more. The game was tied, 3-3, bases empty. Mike Carter was still throwing hard, straight. I fouled one off. I let two go by, for balls. I fouled another off. Often, when I’m happy, I won’t think about what happened next for six months, maybe a year. But when I’m down, I’ll find myself thinking about it twice a week. It is a moment that, among all the others, shines like a beacon.

Mike Carter grooved one, the seams spinning hard but straight. I could have said a prayer in the time it took that fastball to get to me. I swung an easy swing, but strong, and when my bat hit the ball I didn’t feel anything, no sting that shook the bones in my hands, no empty, soft feeling that meant I’d popped up. There was no feeling, only a solid crack. A streak of white shot up and to my left, and after that I was running, without noise, to first. There was no field, no bleachers, no Mom, no Dad, no Jake, no Ryan, no sound, no anything except for a screaming speck of white against all that blue.

It does not matter that the best hit of my life was not a home run. What matters is that the baseball shot out and over P.J. Yates in left. He turned and sprinted. The ball hit the fence on one hop. Later, somebody else knocked me in, and that run I scored turned out to be the winner and, after that, Ryan ended the game with a 1-2-3 double play that went perfectly, as in an instructional video. And all of that matters, the final score, the red of my jersey, the gray of Mike Carter’s, but because this is my story, it doesn’t matter as much as what I felt while standing on second base. I was a hot sliver of an eighteen-year-old boy who was one-hundred-percent alive against that sea of infield dirt, my red socks alive and my red helmet alive, my hands alive, my legs alive, my quick heart a warmed and greased machine.

Standing on second, at ease, third base ahead of me and after that home, I had the feeling that I’d found what I was looking for. I spotted Dad in the stands, clapping, and I thought: finally. And for Mom, though she’d never admit it, I thought: finally. And Jake and his buddies, visiting from college, I saw them standing and shouting, and I thought: all of you, all you red jackets and gray jackets and green and all you pairs of blue jeans, you all got what you wanted.

Photo courtesy the author