Family Sausage Dressing

I rarely use a recipe. I cook by the memories of my ancestors. I know what a dish is supposed to taste like, and I know how to get there.

The stock. Last in, but first made. The fat, gelatin, skin, and bones of a take-home chicken from some too-tired-to-cook work night, thrown into the slow cooker with two bay leaves, a few onions, carrots, celery, salt, pepper, sage, and rosemary. White wine if there’s the bottom of a bottle hanging around. Some vinegar to pull the goodness from the bones. The acids lay down some dimension, and their forward taste takes a seat in the back of the room when everything’s said and done. Let that go for hours. When it’s time, pull out the solids with a colander, then freeze that gold until it’s called for. That’s how Mimi and Pipi would do it, too. Handy, since I make a Thanksgiving dressing with their ghosts as well.

Dressing is about diversity and abundance. Three loaves of bread. Sourdough. Darkest pumpernickel rye you can find. And a hearty loaf of wheat; extra seedy is good. Tear them all to bits the size milk bottle tops. Fill all your mixing bowls past what they can hold. Let the late autumn air suck the moisture out of them; or dry them out in the oven if you’re ready before they are. You don’t have to make croutons out of them, we’re just getting them thirsty for what’s to come.

In the biggest cast iron pan in the place, the one that handles Sunday mornings, drip a little oil in the bottom. When it’s warm enough to move like water, put in two pounds of Italian sausage. Bird sausage replaces pork sausage nearly unnoticeably. When it’s nearly browned all the way through, add those seven or so small onions chopped with the Red Pig knife from the  grandmother on another side of the family. It’s alright that they pile above the top of the pan. They’ll cook down. When they do, pile on the chopped celery. Two full hearts.

In another pan, melt a whole block of Irish butter. Mimi never did get to Ireland. I wish she had, but dying with a few unfulfilled dreams means having never lost the ability to dream. Two full heads of garlic, chopped coarse for slow continuous release. Rubbed Sage. Rosemary. So much it seems indecent. Life is about flavor. Pour the herbed butter over the meat, onions and celery. Let it simmer a bit. Wash a few dishes.

In the big pot used for canning, the only thing in the place—aside from the bathtub—that will hold the whole thing with room to stir, dump in the bread. Pour everything from the cast iron pan in. Stir with gusto enough to dredge the good stuff up from the bottom of the pot and the generations. When it’s good and mixed, with so many shades of white, brown, and gray, without accumulations of any one thing in any single place, take stock, and add the cohesion. Stir more, getting the stock into every morsel, relaxing it, giving it some semblance of oneness.

In big heaping scoops, transfer it into a huge aluminum roasting pan. Cover it in foil. Tomorrow, it’ll taste like West River Street in Deerfield Michigan.

I Love You In Markers

There are a number of objects that have traveled with me most of my life. I still have Tim & Tam, my two stuffed bunnies; my yellow baby blanket that I used to nicker on—a made up word for rubbing the silky edge against the nape above my lips—and the rainbow afghan that my maternal grandmother—my mimi—made for me. She’d made one for each of her eleven children, and one for each of the many grandchildren she had. There are a few others, as well, from times more near, and of other eras of my life between then and now. The meditation bell given to me by Sister Renee Richie, who had the same exact religious name as her brother, who was also a religious brother in another order. The kayak paddle that I commissioned, made of black walnut, made only with hand tools, by an anthropology teacher who considers his alter ego to be Captain Jack Sparrow. A petoskey stone that Dave gave me from one of his adventures, same as he has relics of my adventures. A leather hacky sack, given to me by a friend. It was her father’s. She gave it to me after his funeral.

Upon a wall in every home I’ve ever had, has been a picture. The frame—the newest element—was a gift from a lover who knew how to preserve what is important to me better than I did. I hadn’t notice the picture disappear, but when it reemerged one Christmas morning, the familiar image was majestically encased in a dark hardwood frame, nice glass, and brown paper on the back. It’s one of the most loving gifts I’ve ever received.

Behind the glass, is an eighteen by twenty-six, hand-colored-with-markers, Doodle Art poster, like an enormous page out of an elaborately detailed coloring book. The image framed by a web of jungle bamboo, are tropical trees and mandalas of flora with lions, snakes, monkeys, chimps, gazelles,ostriches, butterflies, toucans, and tigers.

My father must have burned through a ton of packs of markers working on it. After the divorce. I don’t know which state he lived in then. Maybe it was Florida. Perhaps California. But at some desk or at some table in a kitchen I’ve never been in, he put in a hell of a lot of time to send a labor of love to me, his son, who grew up out of his view.

Balance and a Better Direction

Justice is about bringing things into balance, and pointing them in a better direction.

I first felt the tear of justice before I could speak or think in words. There was an imbalance in the one with the beard. That made an imbalance between him and the one who was soft. That made an imbalance in her. And when the chaos between them erupted for long enough, the one with the beard and the one who was soft ended in divorce. And with few words but overwhelming emotions, I, as a toddler, struggled to decide to whom—the soft one, or the one with the beard—would get which portion of love, which I clearly had a limited supply of.

Justice as judge.

***

My Aunt Aimee was a teenager when I was born. My Mimi and Pipi’s old yellow house burned down when I was a baby. I never knew the house my mother grew up in. Just the ranch that they built in its place. It was a house that only needed three bedrooms since nine of the kids were out on their own. Just Martha, the youngest still lived at home. Aimee lived away at school. However, even though they didn’t have most of the kids at home anymore, most of them lived nearby with their families, and there were lots of big meals to eat together, so the basement was big enough for a kitchen with two ovens, a rack of mason jars of put up foods, a woodshop, a bar, a fireplace, a bathroom and enough picnic tables for everyone to sit at close to the same time. That basement was big enough that I rode my bike around, and not just in a constant circle. In fact I was learning to ride my bike when it was just Aimee and me in that basement. It was the day that I stopped the bike in place and said to her “you’re retarded.”

“Shut up.” She said. “That’s not a nice word.” and she made a sound of vocal cords constricted that came from her nose while saliva gather at the corners of her mouth, with her tongue making a clicking sound that she made when she got upset.

Her pain was apparent and large. Inside, I collapsed, and my stomach reviled in the disgust I had for myself.

Justice as empathy teacher.

***

My friend Brian is an exceptionally bright and gifted guy, and exceedingly goofy. There’s no one I’ve eaten more macaroni and cheese with. Not a contender on the horizon. He was one of the brightest theatrical lights to shine from our hometown, and of course he moved to New York trying to be a star. He did some things, but later the dream got more tailored to his actual life. I was going to NYC a lot back then for work, and nearly every time, I’d see Brian. A few times I’d stayed with him too. If you know anything about NYC apartments, you know how generous that is. Rent was cheaper—if you want to call it that—out in Astoria. Just twenty minutes ride into Manhattan, still the city, but more organic. Going in and out of his building there was an old Ukrainian man who would sit in a broken lawn chair. He lived downstairs from Brian. He had a golfball-sized lump on his chest where his pacemaker was which I’d just assumed was a tumor.  You could see since he just wore an undershirt, or on the hottest New York days, no shirt at all.

“Hey Mr. Thomas.” Brian would say.

“Thanks again for the ice. Thanks for the ice!” Mr. Thomas said profusely. It’s not hard to be a saint. Sometimes you just need to share the benefits of owning ice cube trays.

Justice as neighbor.

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