The day before the results of my blood tests arrived in the mail, I dined in an Ethiopian restaurant with friends. We ate creamy brown potatoes and lamb with gravy wrapped in injera bread. Our waiter, a native of that distant African country, bantered with the four of us each time he approached our table to pour more water or serve another dish, trilling a sporadically coherent string of words.
At the end of the meal, bill paid, this waiter — the restaurant’s owner, we’d eventually realized — reached over to clear our plates and laughed as my friend laced her coffee with cream. He folded her small action into his meandering conversation, mysteriously around now to the subject of dairy products, and told us that, although Eskimos might end the lives of their old folks by floating them out to sea on glistening slivers of ice, his village did in the aged by feeding them bowls of butter.
Pure fat, that is, to finish clogging half-hardened arteries and bring the flow of blood to a stop.
The doctor’s postcard, which I read on my way in from the mailbox the next morning, was basically a break-up letter. My body telling me we’re no good for each other; my heart deciding we can’t go on like this. I swallowed the line of numbers in red on the fold-out card and they jerked through my arteries, circled my pinkish central organ like those wagon trains on “Gunsmoke,” the TV show where men shot guns at bad guys out of adrenalin-laced fear and the thrill of killing.
This medical note delivered scary cholesterol numbers, triglycerides, c-reactive protein (whatever the hell that is), and a “danger of a cardiac episode” scrawl at the bottom in my doctor’s handwriting. In that moment — before discussions of drugs and diets that would return me to good health — the culmination of these facts and figures felt like this: Bang, you’re dead.
I grew up in Salmon, Idaho, where my great-grandmother churned butter in her kitchen to slather on dough white and smooth as baby skin before adding a fine rain of cinnamon and a cystalline layer of white sugar and baking it all in a pool of fresh cream. On other days, my grandfather bubbled butter on the stove, mounded in sugar, then stirred and whipped and clattered until golden caramel dripped from his spoon. My mother dolloped butter on green beans, used it to fry apples, and brushed it on the waffle iron on Sunday mornings.
Every day, my family members killed each other a little more with butter. Oh, how we adored being killed. Butter on tall buttermilk biscuits at supper, inches thick on hot cobs of corn, smeared on steaks sizzling on the grill. The habit extended to the neighborhood at large. In the sixth grade, my friend Meredith introduced me to what soon became a favorite afterschool snack: a piece of Wonder bread, soft, moist, building strong bodies in 12 ways, smeared to the crusts with butter and pressed firmly into a plate of white sugar. I loved how the resulting treat crackled against my teeth.
At Christmas and Easter, the Welsh side of my family ate gray chunks of salt-cod — my grandmother mailed away for it — floating in a buttery white sauce. I nibbled the edges of the cod to get to the biscuit underneath. Consuming this particular swimmer was one of my family’s rare traditions. But in all the decades I lived in Idaho, and in all the meals I consumed at my grandparents’ homes in Salmon, I never ate a piece of the town’s namesake.
Squawfish, my grandpa called those large, plump ocean-goers. He went on to amaze his wide-eyed grandchildren by proclaiming this story: When he was a boy, the fish swam downstream in such abundance that he could cross the Salmon River on their slippery silver backs. Down there at the same riverbank — his so-called squawfish gone now thanks to upstream dams — we kids might catch a few small rainbows and trot them back to the house for breakfast, where they were fried up in butter (of course) and served along with the bacon and crispy eggs. But salmon? We wouldn’t have known to miss it, to seek it, to even think of it as nourishment.
I was nearly through college when my parents took me to visit wealthy friends near Seattle, on Bainbridge Island overlooking Puget Sound. In the late afternoon, the sun rippling across the water, Mr. Curtis, my dad’s pal, sauntered out to the deck where I was drinking beer with his teenage son and laid a big chunk of salmon, splayed open, on the fired grill. The fish was a vivid orange, a new kind of orange to me: the color of first sex, of raw words, of youth’s embarrassment. It was the color of a kind of vulnerability that seemed to me, at 19, to be quite inedible. When we sat down at the family’s mammoth table, I picked at the main course, avoiding my father’s glaring and silent admonition to eat what I’d been served.
I was years from the yearning that rises in me every summer for salmon’s sea flavors and river textures; now I eagerly wait in line at the fish market when wild chinook is in season, caught right here in an Oregon river or just off the coast. I eschew Alaskan salmon and despise any suggestion of the dreaded farmed variety. It’s my adopted state’s orange-pink meat I want, and I pay the gasp-inducing prices while smelling already the sweet aroma of salmon sizzling under garlic and lemon, anticipating every glorious bite and congratulating myself for the omega-3 oils soothing my pumping heart, knocking aside the litter and the plaque and packing my slick bloodstream with the Ds and Bs that may let me thrive into old age.
But back there on Bainbridge Island, when the idea of fish for dinner was still anathema to me, I was many years — many — from understanding that I might save that heart simply by eating salmon fished from the West’s wooded creeks.
I won’t disdain butter. I can’t. If the women who cooked for me in my youth — my great-grandmother, my two grandmothers, my mother — came into my house today, not one would seek a filet of salmon among the eggs and cheeses and mustards of my refrigerator. All four would push aside the thick flaxseed to be sprinkled on cereal in the morning, the soy yogurt that promises to melt bellies away, the edamame gently splashed with sesame oil. They’d shoo away the note from my doctor. Each woman would be looking for one ingredient in order to create a dish in my kitchen that I would eat and I would love, cooked out of love for me, happily ingested by me with a certainty that the sweet creaminess would sustain my life and not, heaven forbid, hurry its end.
Ah, there it is. A perfect, symmetrical, yellow-as-sunshine expression of tenderness and care. A cube of pure butter.
Debra Gwartney is a member of the nonfiction faculty at Portland State University and the co-editor of Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. Her memoir will be published next year by Houghton Mifflin.
Contributions from farmers, cooks, and others who are tasting the many meanings of food.
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