Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Bug Soup

     "I thought you said this soup wouldn't have bugs," I said, scooping black specks out of the broth.
     "That's pepper," my mother answered.
     My brother, Carmine, looked up from his bowl.  "Then why do they have legs?"
     "Don't be silly," she answered.
     "And eyes," my sister added.
     "Shut the hell up, and eat the goddam food," my father said, his fist clenched, his voice cracking.
     "Yeah, eat it," said David, the brother who was always placating my father.  "It's dee-licious!  Watch me!" and he motioned to his soup spoon, into which he had amassed dozens of weevils, floating like dead men alongside globules of fat.  He opened his mouth wide, and poured the spoonful onto his tongue.  "See?  Good!  Protein!"
     "Jesus!" my father said, casting a sidelong glance at David.  But you could see he took satisfaction in this stalwart 11-year-old, whose role in the family was to amuse, and defuse, with the goal of keeping us from getting hit.  Sometimes it worked,  My father needed admiration, and David gave it to him.  But the rest of us didn't, and we paid the price.  I would have preferred an out-and-out revolution, but children didn't do that sort of thing.
     I separated the weevils from the rest of my soup, lining them up on the paper napkin under my fork.  It was a mild form of rebellion, but it didn't go unnoticed.
     "Who the hell do you think you are?  The Queen of Sheba?  Shovel it in!" he shouted, raising his hand to strike.  "Goddam insubordination!"
     "Tony, please..."
     Then he was out of his chair, an emperor of a man with huge hands and a red face, looming over the table.  All six of us ducked, instinctively.
     But this time we'd lucked out:  my father's heavy footfall could be heard heading first for the screen door, which slammed behind him, and then to his Cadillac, which screeched out of the drive.  He wouldn't' be back until close to midnight--"What is he doing out so late?  I'd ask, and my mother answered, "Business"-- when we'd be hiding out in our rooms, safe...maybe.
     Why were there always bugs in our soup and spaghetti?
     It has to do with rotating food.
     Isn't it a rule that when you buy groceries you put the newest purchases behind the older ones?  This is fine if you don't shop until you've gone through most of your stock.  But if you keep enormous quantities of packaged goods in your pantry, as my parents did, in case of catastrophe, the food at the front is likely to be very old.
     Therefore, in our house, the next bag of Pennsylvania Dutch egg noodles was invariably infested with weevils, and the raisins hosted hoards of worms.  If you were hungry enough you didn't see them until the third or fourth bite.  And, in truth, they didn't affect the taste of the raisins, which in any case had become gritty from aging fructose.  It was an aesthetic problem, and with some foods the yuckiness is an American phenomenon.  Maybe it shouldn't have bothered me, but it did.
     There's that famous Sardinian cheese, casu marzu, which is best eaten when the maggots, which have digestive enzymes that help ferment and acidify the cheese, are still squirming about.  Their presence means the cheese is still "alive."  And the French "Mimolette" has a crust that is infested with mites:  their burrows allow air to reach the soft interior.  The Germans have a similar cheese, called Milbenkaese.  These traditional foods are unknown in America, where we pasteurize and ultra-pasteurize everything.  There may even be an American law against selling wormy cheese.
     But there isn't one against weevils.  Once you have them in your pantry, you have to throw everything out at once and wash down the shelves with vinegar-water, otherwise every new product you buy will be invited to the weevil party.
     My parents--a doctor and a dentist--made decent incomes.  Yet, they couldn't bring themselves to throw out food--that would be "a waste."  And they stockpiled such large quantities that nothing we ate was ever fresh.  My mother cooked whatever was next in the line-up, night after night, weevils and worms and all.  She used the bug-ridden noodles, rice, and raisins not only because she couldn't bear to waste them but because my father, an exacting paterfamilias and someone who counted all the packages, insisted on it. 
     My mother bowed out, however, when it came to eating it.  Sometimes she made herself a can of Campbell's soup, saying her stomach felt queasy.  More often, she had a cheese sandwich and hot Lipton's tea.
     "This soup is disgusting," I said, once my father was out of the drive.
     "Don't be ridiculous," she reprimanded.  "It's good."
     "Then why aren't you eating it?"
     "I do, sometimes."
     "Why can't we be like other families?" I asked.
     "I don't know what in the world you mean," she answered stiffly.
     "I don't want to eat bugs."
     "You'll do as you're told, young lady."
     When do we stop puzzling over our parents and their absurdities? 
     Their way of life becomes a template for us:  we either adopt it or reject it, but we always respond to it, as though it were a first stepping-stone, a launch-pad. 
     One thing I've learned, after listening to thousands of patients' stories (because everyone obsesses over parents), is that there aren't "other families," as in "Why can't we be like other families?" 
     There isn't a norm, or a perfect family, or an average person.  We're all looney, just below the surface.  Looney is the norm.
     I live in the south, home of weevils, where everyone stores flour in the refrigerator.  Noodles, too, and rice, and raisins--if they're smart.  Nevertheless, every once in a while I am surprised by telltale black specks in my pasta water, swirling in the foam, just before it boils. 
     I admit, there's a part of me that doesn't want to dump out the whole pot and start all over.  "What a waste," I say to myself, and am reminded of my parents. 
     Then, I refuse.  "I don't want to eat bugs."
     Feeling like a rebel, I put together cheese sandwiches for dinner, and brew a pot of hot tea.

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