I ran out of butter. I wondered how I could possibly eat my toast this morning. Because this was a day I had to have eggs, butter and toast.
When I saw there was no butter, I didn’t exactly panic, but felt a very strong disappointment. Like when you realize there is no coffee in the house and you will have to wake up without it, and will end up feeling dull, tired, and unexcited all day long…
Once when I was visiting a friend in Carmel and we sat down to a decadent lunch of lobster, asparagus, white wine and freshly baked bread, a delicate little salad (my welcome lunch to commemorate my first visit to California, then still a truly promised land), her sweet elderly aunt suddenly inquired with a slightly worried look in her crinkled blue eyes: “Chris do we have enough butter?”. It was butter, and only butter that would make everything at the table sing with flavor, make our mouths water, our tongues wiggle in anticipation like salivating dogs, and our four pairs of hands reach out simultaneously to the pale creamy block of butter on the table like Oliver Twist in front of the steaming porridge pot.
This 20th day of January 2018 where I have already seen another major house-falling -apart problem, more financial problems, mental physical spiritual health problems…. and on and on…. I barely managed to get up this morning. And then going to the bathroom to see if I was still there…. I caught my face in the mirror and saw the face of a very old woman. As though overnight as I slept, someone had taken a very fine paintbrush and drawn tiny lines all over my face. I look frightening. Like someone waking up to find their hair had turned white overnight. Like that woman I read about who ended up sitting in a Ferris wheel… way at the very top by herself all night long… because the employee had left her there accidentally, while in a drunken stupor. When they found her the next day her black hair had turned snow-white.
The thought of a nice buttery breakfast of lightly toasted sourdough bread, two perfect eggs glistening in the delicate fat, thick fruity preserves…. That made me feel slightly better. Old age, financial ruin, my house falling apart all around me. Butter could make that fade away for a little while.
There is also the sudden, once again, premature spring, forty-eight degrees on January 20, all the garden snow melting in great pools and the almost warm, misty spring-like air in the garden. Butter can help with that too.
In a true spring I would run out in the morning, even at 48 degrees with my coffee and start searching excitedly for the signs of a new season. Start looking for snow drops, or squill or the tiny tips of daffodils. Not now. I draw the blinds, close the shutters… fear the bright shining sun that this winter has been either too bright, too warm or for two weeks icy cold. Even the sun doesn’t know what to do, or where to go.
So sometimes breakfast is the only thing to look forward too before the day starts slapping you around again. Before the strange and constantly unpredictable weather makes you yearn for things that used to be true: Spring, Fall, Summer, Winter. I used to know what they meant; they even had a certain color: Chartreuse Green, Orange/Scarlet/Deep Emerald Green, White/Black/Grey.
I considered the no butter dilemma and realized there is always olive oil or walnut oil (from an adventurous and expensive salad recipe from many Thanksgivings ago before the penny-pinching times arrived). Or Crisco. Corn oil. Peanut Oil. Maybe there is some lard somewhere. Maybe a jar of saved bacon fat, duck or goose fat. People used to do that, save the fat in little jars they kept in the cupboards or under the sink. Then they used it to dip in pieces of bread, fry potatoes, or fish. Oh the pleasures of freshly caught trout fried in bacon fat!
I have never tasted that myself, but I read about it and I think I know what that must have been like. I did go fishing once and caught some tiny blue gills or rather a friend did and then he fried up the two or three precious little fish caught way up north in Minnesota. Oh the blue gills! How sweet and fresh and tasty the mild white meat was! How pure! How full of the outdoors and the piney air and the waters where wild black bears still swam.
I remembered once in Spain, ordering eggs for breakfast and almost spitting them out. They were cooked in olive oil. There was no butter for the bread. What a horrible breakfast I thought. But then I was from America where breakfast often means toast, butter, jam or jelly or preserves, omelets made with three eggs and loaded with cheese, ham, and every vegetable in the garden. Sides of bacon, sausages, or ham. Mountains of hash browns or fried potatoes. Or steak and eggs, pancakes stacked a foot high, or waffles equally tottering on oversized plates. All smothered with whipping cream, butter, maple syrup or strawberries dyed cherry red. All gloppy and candy sweet… or neon blueberries smothered in Karo corn syrup…..
One day I was told I ate too much butter. Too many eggs, too much bread, too much cheese and I had to stop. That was over 20 years ago. I stopped eating butter and cheese for a while. Even eggs. Then over the years I read that eggs were good, eggs were bad, eggs were awfully bad, eggs were awfully good, and now it appears eggs are very very good again. They are after all, the perfect food.
Sometimes when I go down to the basement to get the eggs out of the fridge (the upstairs refrigerator broke down) I have to put them in the pockets of my robe in order to walk upstairs again. And I feel those perfectly oval, smooth, fragile, very cold eggs, a little precarious, moving slightly in my pockets, as though little chicks would be popping out of them, so precious as though they were baubles of gold to hang on a Christmas tree…. and it feels like I am holding the whole world in my pockets, the whole fragile icy world about to crack. I often think what it would be to fall down the stairs with those eggs in my pocket and what a soggy mess I would be at the bottom of the stairs. A human omelet.
I now still buy butter and slice it into a fat little patty and drop it into a pan and let it foam and crack in an egg or two, and baste them or have them sunny side up or scrambled. Scrambled softly, slowly, like MFK Fisher once advised in her famous collection “The Art of Eating”. She said to cook eggs in a pat of sweet, unsalted butter on a very low heat and to cook them very slowly, stirring all the time. And to add a little heavy cream…..and stir and stir… Until you have a mass of soft creamy curds. I might shave a bit of cheese into it, snip a few chives on top, drop in a few sliced cherry tomatoes. They taste better if you saute’ them in butter first.
And then the toast. I might pop in two very square pieces of sourdough bread from the Breadsmith or La Brea bakery and toast them just a little, and then spread them with another pat or two of butter. Rush it all to the table and savor every little last creamy fatty soft and slightly bland little bite. Oh, the coffee. There must be coffee! Strong, slightly bitter, yet mellow. Made with icy cold fresh clean water. If you can find fresh clean water….
So it is today. This prematurely warm January day. You might say enough enough already of this kind of talk. But I can’t seem to stop. The weather now has become such a source of strangeness, of anxiety, of frustration, of complete confusion and discombobulation… and fear lately, mostly fear.. Fear of weather. Fear of what we have done. Fear of what will happen. Every day the weather is a major player. All encompassing, all enveloping. Like a huge sweeping wave of terror.
I dreamt the park across the street erupted in volcanoes. I dreamt that over twenty years ago when I first moved here. I still remember every single detail of that dream. Being in the store near my house at the checkout counter… and seeing from the window the park outside and suddenly the huge geyser of dirt and foam and water and debris and suddenly the great noise and the panic in and outside of the store. And I remember outside as I was running and screaming like the other people not knowing what to do and where to go, knowing it was useless to run home and try to shelter there because the home would not be there, and even if it was safe I couldn’t get there because I had to cross the park, standing there in a swirl of panic and rushing cars and people and screaming everywhere, and me being completely alone, until suddenly I saw my friend Nerida.
Nerida, from work years ago, a very tall beautiful woman who looked like an African ancient queen. She had befriended me in my very darkest hours, when my mother died suddenly. One day when I was crying at my desk she walked over to me, literally grabbed my hands and almost dragged me to an empty conference room, and we both sat down and she said the most beautiful, compassionate, meaningful, heartfelt prayer for me. It was she Nerida, coming to save me. She was standing by a car in the chaos and she was motioning me to come to her and be saved. This, I know is true.
I am not sure why I am thinking now of Nerida and that dream. But then, yes, I do. Because I think bad things are going to come. Very bad things. Even worse than they already are. And there is nothing that I will be able to do about it. And, I am not going to worry about it anymore.
I went to the kitchen and I poured olive oil in the pan. I let it get almost hot and cracked two eggs into the pan and covered it with a glass top. I took out two pieces of sourdough bread. They felt very heavy in my hand. Full of flour and almost dense as though they were made of dirt. But they were only bread and had that slight sour tang.
The eggs were almost ready, and the bread was only slightly toasted so that it looked and smelled and felt in the hand almost like freshly baked bread. I cut the two slices of bread into four pieces. Two into triangles and two into rectangles. I thought the different shapes might make them taste better. After all I had no butter to spread on the bread.
I spied a jar of honey on the far kitchen counter, not clear and liquidy but thick and opaque almost like quince paste. I have only been using the honey for tea. I spread the honey on two pieces of the bread and I put the eggs on the plate and sprinkled them with a bit of salt and a lot of pepper. And then I saw my butter dish on the lower shelf of the kitchen cart. I must have put it there sometime last month after Christmas Eve dinner….. I noticed (with some excitement) that it had a tiny tiny bit of butter on it.. the size of a dime…the kind of a smidge that warranted nothing, that you would put in the sink to wash…. and I took a knife and I spread that tiny smidge of butter on my remaining plain toasted bread, and I took it all into the dining room that still had remnants of Christmas Eve dinner … pale candles in old red votives, dark green brocade tablecloth, jade napkins, coppery gold and frosted leaves in an old Victorian urn…. a glass vase of gold, red and amber glittering baubles…. and I sat there and I ate my breakfast, happy as a fish swimming in the everlasting waters of another spring.
PostScript: Oh, whoever you are who may be reading this… or not…. I feel I owe some explanation… perhaps only to the little fish swimming in the seas or the cold little eggs in my pocket… I am still playing Dmitri Hvorostovsky on the CD player. This story started out with Dmitri Hvorostovsky still on my mind, as his CD (“Russian Romances”) is still in the boom box in the kitchen, and this post is also filed under his own separate category. I am still feeling very sad and shocked at his premature death last November, as though he was someone I knew very well…. And when I am not listening to WFMT radio I press the CD button and there he is in my kitchen. And his voice still makes me almost delirious with happiness and also delirious with sadness. And he seems to be, for me, right now some sort of symbol, for what, yet, I do not know. And when I started out this morning in search of butter and eggs and toast I thought about him, and his funeral, and final burial in that cemetery in Moscow, that very cold and wintry day, and all the people standing there tired and unhappy, tearful and bereft and exhausted, weeping for their silver-haired lion. And, it was just easier for me to write about butter and eggs. Even though I was trying to write about Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the snow.