Three things before I offer you this little essay from my files. One, it’s old. It features Noah, now 15, as a toddler. Two, the culinary climate it describes has shifted slightly since I wrote it. Fat has gotten almost trendy: upscale restaurants are now serving pork belly and chicharrones (in tiny, delicately garnished portions, but still). And three, it’s just a food essay, with no Larger Import. Another time I’ll write about the pleasures and the pitfalls of tradition. (Actually, I already have: find pleasures here and pitfalls over here.) Right now I just want to cook.
My mother and I have a Thanksgiving ritual: just before dinner, when everyone else is setting the table, getting changed, watching football, she and I, alone in the kitchen with a resting roasted turkey, tear the salty, crispy skin from the neck cavity and share it in wordless, slick-lipped satisfaction.
We never invite anyone to join us, possibly because we’re greedy, and possibly because we’re a little self-conscious. Our Thanksgiving tradition might be characterized as private, or it might be less charitably described as furtive. No matter what Dr. Atkins has done for the sale of pork rinds, mainstream culture remains deeply suspicious of the pleasures of culinary fat. At best it’s considered a necessary evil—you can’t sauté without it—subject to strict, health-preserving limits.
My husband, for one, sometimes doesn’t even butter his toast. When he does, he spreads it like varnish, like polyurethane, as if he’s giving bread a thin layer of protection. I spread butter like spackle, like mortar, as if there were crevices to be sealed, bricks to be laid. I look at his toast sad, but unsurprised—this is a man who eats his salad without dressing, as if it were medicine. He looks at my toast disapproving, but resigned—this is a woman who eats the skin of other people’s grilled salmon left abstemiously on the plate.
Not that he doesn’t have vices. When it comes to dessert, my husband prefers his ice cream securely placed between a brownie and a blanket of hot fudge sauce. He has a sweet tooth; I have a fat tooth. Oh, wait, isn’t that an expression? Not in America. Here everybody loves sugar, and every other body craves it, declares herself unable to resist the candy in the bowl on the colleague’s desk. But to confess a love for the rich comforts of butter and oil is suspect in this country, where we sugar-coat our fat cravings as Krispy Kreme donuts and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, where those of us who love fried foods have to sleuth them out of menus where they have been rechristened “crusted” or “battered” or “golden.”
My palate is far happier in Europe, where you can easily get a nice salad with lard shavings, but you would never find sugar in a vinaigrette. Where Belgian frîtes are accompanied not by a sweet tomato sauce but by a creamy, lemony mayonnaise. Brits like to have it both ways, god bless them: they have a raging sweet tooth, but they also have clotted cream, fried bread for breakfast, and sausages containing just enough meat and filler to hold the grease in place.
Europe feels like home to those of us who would consistently choose brie over a brownie. And Europe is where some of my best fat memories reside. I’m sitting in the breakfast room of a London hotel. How old am I? Maybe 12. Most of the others diners have gone, my parents are back in their room gathering their maps for a day of nonstop sightseeing, and I have a blissful moment of peace. In front of me is a pot of tea, and a toast rack filled with white bread perfectly browned at the edges. And somewhere on the table there is butter—in little pats? On a dish? I can’t remember. All I can remember is sublime comfort, buttering slice after slice, pouring cup after cup of hot sweet creamy tea. The tea warms my throat, the bread pleasantly scratches my tongue, and the butter is cold and a tiny bit salty. It’s drizzly outside, and I don’t want to go out and trudge around the city negotiating an umbrella, and I don’t have to. Quite. Yet.
I’m eating a dish of broccoli in a trattoria on a side street in Florence. I’m 23. The broccoli is not lightly steamed and still crunchy; it is not overboiled and flavorless. It is lusciously simmered with garlic and oil until it was left melted and silky, with just enough texture to use a fork—for scooping, not spearing. One notch further and it would be a broccoli spread. That’s what I do: I spread it on my bread.
In America, it’s true, you can find unapologetic butter-love; you just have to head south. Go on . . . that’s it . . . keep going . . . There you are. Down in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, the local barbecue joint or fried chicken joint may proudly be named Fat Boy’s, biscuits are made with lard, and the point of collard greens is evidently the pork fat in which they simmer for hours. Maybe it’s through Atlanta, where my mother was born and raised, that she finds her way to that turkey skin every Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s through her that I find my way there too. Despite the influence of his sugar-loving culture, I cherish a small hope that my son will join us there one day as well. Once, as a two-year-old, he held out a piece of bacon to me while we were having brunch and said, “Mama, put some butter on it.” He knew enough already not to ask his daddy.