The Palate Cleanser

“But I’m Hungry”

by Carol Kohn

The alarm didn’t sound. The parking lot was full. It was either coffee or the train. The rent was due. I hopped the train.

 Meetings began at eight-thirty with no end scheduled. Important topics required discussion. Topics that were never resolved. By ten-thirty a foreman phoned the conference room. We were low on supplies. Crisis mode. At noon, someone ordered the assistant to order sandwiches.

“What’s this?”


“I didn’t want turkey,” I said, examining the package.

“We selected for the group. No time to be picky. Everyone likes turkey. Don’t you like turkey?”

“Sometimes. But this is spread with oil, not mayonnaise. I don’t like oil.”

“Mayonnaise has oil.”

“I prefer mayonnaise.”

“We don’t have time to please everyone. You don’t see Jeffers complaining.” Jeffers never complained. Jeffers, I had been told, by Jeffers himself, was hungry. “The Sampson order has to ship on Monday.”

“Yes, I know the Sampson order has to ship on Monday,” I said as Jeffers, with his corner office and leatherette chair, raised his arm to show me he that he was eating without complaint.

I nibbled on the pickle and a potato chip or two. I could be a team-player. If I wanted to be. But instead of enjoying a beautiful June day in the sunshine in the park with my leather notebook and fountain pen writing my novel, the thing I wanted most, I sat in a dim, sealed, cold, conference room querying data.

A smile. “The purchase order for raw materials was never authorized,” I said.

Raw materials was Jeffers’ department. Jeffers tossed his sandwich in the trash.

By three o’clock we were still in the conference room, now with a bank of phones attempting to source materials from any country that could guarantee overnight delivery. Since it was nearly the next day in Europe and already the next day in Asia, we were limited to the Western states and all points south.

My turkey sandwich had been moved to the credenza next to the projection screen. Someone found a letter opener and sliced it down to be shared among the group. I was tempted at this point to take a bite, but by the time I finished my call to a supplier in Bolivia, the sandwich was gone. By four o’clock the assistant entered the room to collect from each person, payment for their lunch.

 Materials were eventually sourced and we were released a little past seven. I considered an omelet but was down to one egg and cheddar disguised as blue cheese. On the corner past the train station, a chain restaurant, usually too crowded to attempt on weekends, serving large, heavy meals, was open and empty. I chose a vintage red though I rarely drank, loosened my tie, and ordered from the chef’s reserve menu.

After two glasses and several breaks of bread, a smiling blonde dressed in black with a towel draped over her arm arrived.

“Careful, the plate is hot.”

She lied.

“Can I get you anything else?”

I stared at the white stoneware plate dumped with a slab of glossy, gray, undercooked trout. Hiding under the fish was a mound of what was advertised as jasmine rice, though I was certain it was boil-in-bag white. No garnish. No seasoning. No greenery. Everything was gray. Had it not been for the coat of grease that reflected the room’s minimal lights, the entire plate would have been a single shade, impossible to discern where the food began and the porcelain ended.

“This looks like slop.”


“Yes. Are you certain that this isn’t someone’s unfinished meal meant to be packed?”

“Fresh from the kitchen. I’ll get the manager.”

“You’re not happy?” said another blond dressed in black, not smiling.

“Isn’t this the Tuesday Night Special served in maximum security prisons?” I blamed the wine.

“We provide our guests with a gastronomic experience not served at home,” a quote straight from their marketing material.

“Because it looks like slop. I’d be ashamed to serve this at home.”

“I can bring you something else. Our special tonight is turkey.”

“Family Barbecue”

by Edward Fabian Kennedy

Silhouetted by the setting summer sun, my older sister hulked above my petite mother, a metal milk crate hefted high above her head. Her thin arms flexed, pausing for just a moment, before crashing the crate down on my mother’s forehead. Meanwhile, my older brother was sitting on my father’s chest, and I could just make out his fists, repeatedly striking my father’s face. For me, it was noiseless. All actions decelerated, a movie in slow motion.

Next to me, Aunt Adele spooned macaroni salad onto her plate. The chaos continued to unfold in front of us, but I couldn’t enunciate anything, string together any coherence. She shoveled a forkful into her mouth, and asked, “Did you want some more of that?”

My paternal aunt stood out from the rest of my family by being a teetotaler, but she made up for it with an incredible ability to make food disappear. She also wore hats that resembled stuffed Amazonian birds. That day she wore a dead peacock with bleached feathers.

I looked at the fight, then back at her, trying to get her to do something, but frozen facial expressions aren’t very persuasive, especially from an eight year-old. She kept eating.

This ultimate family brawl had been a long time coming, after many low-level altercations. Long story short, while I referred to my brother and sister as such, they were really just half-siblings, a product of my father and a woman with schizophrenia. My father ditched them and their schizophrenic mother to marry my mother. Shortly thereafter, I was born. Schizoid mom jumped off a bridge. Enter half-brother and sister, who unhappily joined us in creating a very dysfunctional unit.

Despite the underlying angst, all of us still looked forward to our one tradition: the afternoon summer barbecue in the backyard of our suburban New York City home. The distraction of comfort foods can keep people focused on the positives. At least for awhile. As the long summer afternoon became the lazy early evening, mumbled chatting usually turned into slurred shouting.

Neighbors poked heads above fences. Eyes watched through windows in darkened rooms. (You weren’t as clever as you thought. We could see you watching us.) Because of my family’s constant battles, we had become famous within a block radius. Sometimes neighbors called the police, resulting in law-enforcement-family member exchanges like this:

“So, wait, let me get this straight: Why did you throw the kitchen chair at your

father?” an officer once asked my brother.

“Because he’s an asshole.”

My mother insisted on backyard barbecues, the most explicit attempt by her to produce familial normalcy. A Pan Am stewardess before becoming a housewife and family referee/mediator, she organized barbecues as a way for us to interact and have quality time as a family. An Amstel Light and Benedryl kind of gal, she seemed convinced her “Bennie and a Beer” remedy could cure anything. If you were to say, “Mom, I just got hit by a car. I think I’ve punctured a lung,” she might reply, “Oh, honey, just have some Benedryl and a Schlitz. You’ll be fine.”

It was funny at the time. It kept her numb enough to deal with my father, a high school social studies teacher who spent summer afternoons in our backyard alternating between napping and guzzling white wine from an oversized mayonnaise jar. For me, as a kid, I knew summer was coming when I saw a sink full of glass mayonnaise jars floating in warm water, my mother soaking them and peeling off the stickers. This ritual repeated every spring because, by summer’s end, all our “new” glasses would have been dropped or kicked over and destroyed.

These dysfunctions came to a head the summer after I finished 5th grade. The day was special because it marked the first great responsibility my father had ever bequeathed upon me. He wouldn’t let me cut or water the lawn because he loved his lawn more than anything in the world, aside from yelling at his children. My father adored, as he so often put it, “my goddamn lawn.”

Number three on the list of his favorite things, after yelling at his children and the goddamn lawn, was steak. Specifically, a giant sirloin, the largest, cheapest piece of meat from the local Associated Supermarket, washed down with a few pints of wine from the five gallon jug that sat next to his chair under the kitchen table.

Given my father’s refusal to let me touch his lawn, I was shocked when he glanced at the hunk of steak, turned to my mother, cracked a wry smile, looked at me, then back at her, and said, “Let the fucking kid do it.” Many great triumphs—and probably many great tragedies—have been sparked by these words.

With the focus and dedication of a mob hit man, I grabbed the hunk of meat, still dripping thawed blood, and placed it on the preheated gas grill. I had listened to the slurred lecture many times, his very own Strategies For Grilling a Giant, Cheap, Shitty Steak.

It went the same way every time: “Well, first, you thaw the fucking thing, then…”

  1.  Ten minutes one side, ten the other (“For lazy, inattentive fuckoffs like your brother.”)
  2.  Five minutes and flip, five minutes and flip, five minutes and flip, five minutes and flip (“You better fucking pay attention to the meat.”)

The second was certainly a riskier proposition, but with great care and focus on the screen of my digital Casio calculator watch, I could be heralded around the dinner table by my grateful family for a perfect, evenly grilled steak.

I periodically glanced between my watch, the grill, and them, seated about ten feet away. From my station behind the grill, the exact details of the conversation were unclear. I could only distinguish various curses and mumbles between my red-faced brother and glassy-eyed father. My sister, eighteen at the time, nervously shredded her paper napkin between sips of wine from her large souvenir Yankee Stadium cup. My mother waved her hands frantically, appearing as if she were a sorceress and her hands held a magic power that could tranquilize anger and suppress ten years of a family’s rage. Aunt Adele continued to shovel macaroni salad into her mouth.

As the volume of cursing increased, I struggled to maintain my focus on the grill. It was getting close to crunch time for the steak. Sure, excitement can be distracting, but all true genius came from concentration, according to the motivational poster hanging on the wall at my dentist’s office. Also, at the last minute, my mother had requested baked potatoes, so I had to pay extra-special attention to my watch, accurately timing both the steak and potatoes.

Suddenly, the picnic table chatter increased, becoming noticeably heated. Neighbors from both sides of our house began to appear, some under a pretense of yard work, others unabashedly staring.

The pitch at the table rose to just below screams. My brother, a freshly minted high school graduate, had questioned my father’s competence as a father. The latter disrespectfully disagreed. Along the lines of his usual defense, my father argued that he put food on the table and a roof over our heads, so we’d better fucking follow his rules.

Things settled down a bit when I came to the table with my perfectly cooked steak: Not too bloody, not too well done. It was my culinary masterpiece.

Eyes alighting on the carcass, my father nodded a bit, grabbed the giant steak knife, and lustily delved into the meat. My mother, boozily holding tongs, dropped foil-wrapped potatoes on each plate. I humbly took my seat at the edge of the table, next to my aunt, and waited for acclaim.

My father chewed, nodding a bit. I couldn’t deduce whether or not a compliment had been offered. He had problems with praise. If he had met Edmund Hillary the day after the mountain climber had finished the first ascent of Mount Everest, Sir Edmund might have gotten a “Not bad” or even a “Pretty good” from my father.

I watched them partake in my masterpiece, momentarily pacifying the table: an assemblage of chomping, chewing, lip-smacking, and mouth-closed, guttural burps. And then my father opened his big fat mouth, throwing a truckload of gasoline onto the embers of a dying fire.

“And you’re not grateful for this?” he asked my brother and sister.

There was a brief moment of peaceful silence. Then my brother stood, shrieked, “This is what I think of your fucking food!” and chucked the overloaded paper plate against the house. Shards of steak bounced and fell into my mother’s small peppermint patch below the kitchen window. Pieces of potato left butter and sour cream trails on the red brick.

My sister rose and ran over to my mother and threw her down, grabbing the steel crate in the process. My brother knocked my father to the ground before leaping onto him and repeatedly punching him in the face.

Only Aunt Adele and I remained at the table. She enjoyed her food despite the surrounding chaos. I’m pretty sure she enjoyed the steak. I just stared at the mayhem.

Both parents were on their backs, my siblings beating the shit out of them. I wasn’t sure who to root for because everyone had shown nothing but love to me, the baby of the family. Unfortunately, they all shared a long history of betrayal and conflict.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to pick sides. My brother and sister ran from the backyard down the driveway, cursing, and then drove away.

I looked at my aunt. She chewed and shot me a glance that said “What the fuck do you want me to do?”

My mother rolled back and forth on the impeccably maintained backyard grass, face covered in blood.

“Eddie,” my father mumbled from a sitting position, his left eye swollen. Blood trickled down his cheek past his lip. “Call the fucking police.”

My aunt looked at me, still chewing, but this time pursed her lips, pointing towards the phone in the house.

The ambulance brought us all to the hospital and then the police station. My mother told me how proud she was at how I had handled the situation. But no one mentioned my perfectly cooked steak.

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