The Best of 63,000

Spare ribs

I grew up in an atmosphere of food as fuel, though my mother would wince to hear her culinary efforts so lightly dismissed.  But she was in charge of feeding five kids three meals a day, and then a separate meal for my father, who arrived home later.  Our kids’ meals were simple and repetitive – hamburgers, macaroni and cheese, carrot sticks, brightly colored Jell-O for dessert.  Done – 15 minutes tops, with a reward of two Hershey kisses for a clean plate, then it was out the door for more horsing around in the summer twilight, or during the winter watching the Dick Van Dyke show at 6:30 PM.  In our family, shared food was just not the vehicle to create a forced intimacy prompting teachable moments, lessons learned, experiences shared.

The sensory elements of food – smell, texture, or artful presentation – were   foreign concepts.  I do recall the creamy-mouth feel of ice cream and the sound of burbling bacon on weekend mornings, but beyond that, nothing.  Cheese was limited to American cheese of suspect orangeness.  The only foreign food was dreadful Chop Suey sloshed out of a can.  Indian food – never heard of it.

Yet even in this desolate palatal environment, there was one instance when everything coalesced into the pinnacle food experience, a shining moment among the estimated 63,000 meals that I have consumed in my life.  And it didn’t even involve a table, a plate, a fork, or a napkin.

I was a newly minted teenager skiing with my mother and four younger brothers in Aspen.  This was a budget-driven trip.  We all squeezed into a basement rental apartment. As the only daughter, I manufactured some privacy by sleeping in a closet with a make-shift bed fashioned out of sofa pillows.  I recall my peculiar view of looking up into the small-bore tunnels of the sleeves dangling above me.  My mother slept in a cot beneath the open staircase, every night sweeping out the bits of mud that had flaked off our ski boots as we tramped up and down the stairs.

I shudder now when I think of my mother’s added responsibility of grinding out the same parade of meals, of tromping through the local grocery at the end of the day in half-fastened ski boots.  Breakfast was frozen waffles or Fruit Loops whose colored sugar dusting turned the thin milk grey.  After breakfast we made picnic lunches of cold cut sandwiches lubricated with a  smear of mayonnaise and colorful mustard. Dinner was some sort of slop-dop spaghetti and meat ball affair, over in about 15 minutes as we rushed back to the slopes for night tobogganing.  But we were functioning as a united family, all doing basically the same thing at the same time.  I could see my mother’s pleasure watching us all get along, dispersing and coming together again and again on the ski slopes and then swapping quick-fire stories at night recapping the days’ frantic activities.  All this communal experience lacked was the mutually enhancing impact of shared food.

I stood at the top of Snowmass for the last run on our last day of skiing at the end of a week of uninterrupted sun.  I had achieved a respectable skier’s tan, a particular point of pride when I would return to school after spring break.  But cracks were beginning to show.  I felt the skin tightening over my forehead and knew that another day of high-altitude sun would produce flaking and peeling and my perfect tan would collapse into tatters.  My lips were chapped and cracked.  Time to head down and home.

I started down the Big Burn ski run, a wide expanse that was tailor-made for my mediocre skills.  I hoped that I looked like and skied like a pro.  I was making sweeping parallel turns, I had a perfect tan and my blonde ponytail streamed behind me.  I wondered if others thought the same.  As I sent up a spray of snow by a ski instructor, I imagined that he would tell his student, “Look at that woman ski.  She is doing it exactly right.  Try to be like her.”  I spotted my mother skiing off to my right, and my brothers ahead of me.  We would all funnel down to the bottom at the same time.

A blossoming aroma wafted up to me followed by music.  As I turned the last corner and slid into the base, I landed in the midst of an impromptu après-ski party complete with a steel drum band.  To my right I spotted a plume of barbecue smoke rising from an enormous grill covered with racks of sizzling spare ribs.  The barbecue sauce was a rich brown sheen, the crystalline sugar glinting in the waning sun.  The pit master dramatically flipped the ribs as he swayed with the music.  He caught my eye and nodded yes with a thumbs up motion.  I shook my head.  Spare ribs were a rare luxury, both due to their expense and the fact that in our gender-defined household grilling was considered a man’s job, one that my father had no skill or interest in.

I swallowed to control my gushing saliva and glanced at my mother standing next to me.  She swallowed twice.  I knew she would probably say no if I directly asked her for such an indulgence.  She preferred surprises so I stood in silent anticipation. Suddenly she stood straight up and announced to my siblings dispersed in the crowd, “Hey kids, who wants ribs?”

We were all stunned but knew to seize the moment.  We crowded around as she peeled off bill after bill so that we each could get our own rack.   The ribs were lean with crispy charcoaled edges and firmly baked-on sauce.  I could feel their warmth seeping into the palm of my hand as the weight of the ribs folded the thin paper plate into a trough.  I dipped my finger into the barbecue sauce accumulating in the crease.  The sauce singed my tender flesh as it penetrated my creviced lips, but I pressed ahead.  I sucked the ribs and then slowly pulled each out, scraping every tendril of meat and charcoaled remains.  My mother and I looked across the barbecue pit at my younger brothers and laughed at their faces smeared with sauce.  My brothers returned my salute of two gnawed ribs held high in triumph.

I began to sway along with the crowd to the Caribbean rhythm.  I glanced over to the right and was surprised to see a woman staring at me.  She was wearing a white turtleneck that highlighted her tan, as burnished as the barbecue sauce.  She was standing next to a man whose arm was casually draped over her shoulder.  The two of them each took a sip of beer from their sweating bottles.  She said something to the man, who dipped down to give her a quick kiss on her head as she continued to look my way.

My confidence on the slopes faded before this golden couple.  They looked like they were in their early twenties, maybe just 8 years older than I, but so much more sophisticated.  A few of my schoolmates had boyfriends, passing notes in class, maybe sitting at lunch together, but even that innocent beginning seemed a long way off.  I was still wearing oxford shoes and bobby sox and my quilted ski jacket came from the children’s department.  Such a transition seemed daunting and mysterious.  “What do I have to do to get there?” I thought. “I want to be that woman.”

I pivoted away from the chatter of my mother, took a deep breath and directly faced my new aspirational goal. The woman met my gaze and said, “Are those ribs as good as they look?”

I quickly wiped my lips on my sleeve to remove any smear.  I held up one of the ribs as a demo and tried to speak as a connoisseur. “Yes, they are nice and lean. Just the way I like them,” I said.

The man dazzled a smile at me.  “Well based on your recommendation, I think that we’ll get some too.  He held up two fingers toward the pit master.  As my smile broadened I felt the deepening sting of the barbecue sauce.  It didn’t matter.  I could only think, “Well now, maybe this is how it starts.”

The sleeve of my parka crinkled as the man brushed by me to collect his order.  His beautiful girlfriend gave me a welcoming nod.

The missing words in the following poem are a set of anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like post, stop, post).  One of the missing words will rhyme with the previous or following line, giving you a big hint.  The asterisks indicate the number of letters.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers.

I thought, “Is this a ******** seat here at the bottom of the hill

Watching that young couple and those ribs sizzling on the grill?”

What was it about those two that I found so inspiring

Was it the coming of age that my heart was ********?

I might have been ******** in a delusion cloud, but I didn’t care

I just wanted to start my journey from here to there.







Answers: ringside, desiring, residing




Posted in

Leave a Comment