Cigarettes: It’s What’s for Dinner
In the early 1970s, my aunt had the cardiac equivalent of an Amtrak wreck: a derailment and twisted wreckage, but fortunately no loss of life. My mom, always ready to help the sick and ill-starred, left our house to stay with my aunt for a few weeks.
She came back changed.
My aunt, it turned out, had notions. Her husband was a world-famous botanist, and they’d spent years living in far-away places like Brazil and Malta and India. In their travels, my aunt picked up some interesting notions about food. One of her favorite foods was escargot. In my eight-year-old brain, I knew that escargot had something to do with snails, and that they came from France. I’d always pictured them looking like the giant snail in Dr. Dolittle—a creature you might actually be able to ride if you had the right kind of saddle. I imagined that somehow, out of that enormous snail, came escargot.
I didn’t really want to think about the details.
When Mom came back from my aunt’s, she couldn’t stop talking about escargot. “It’s simple,” she said while stacking empty coffee cans on the counter. “The average California garden snail is perfect.” She pawed through the pantry, pulling out an ancient bag of cornmeal. She shook some yellow meal into a coffee can, then into another, and then ferried the cans out to the back yard, where she arranged them on their sides. They looked like a miniature airbase among the pansies and candytuft.
Overnight, the snails came out from under the fenceboards and paving stones in great slick mobs. Mom trapped a dozen or so in each can, fitted them with vented lids, and fed the poor snails all the cornmeal they could stand. “The cornmeal cleans them out,” she said.
This was another detail I kind of didn’t want to know.
One day I came home from school, and the cans were gone. “Where are the pet snails?” I asked.
“In the freezer,” Mom said.
I don’t recall ever eating the snails; there’s a sooty, dark-matter cloud around it in my memory. But I looked at Mom differently after that. She’d had weird hobbies before, like hypnosis and handwriting analysis, and she and my dad were the only parents on the block who had a waterbed. But up to that point none of her interests had involved killing anything. I began wondering about the two or three boarders we’d taken in over the years, who, my mom insisted, had “gone back to their families” or simply “moved.”
Whatever I thought about Mom got more complicated when I came home one afternoon to find a minty, familiar scent wafting through the house. I went to the kitchen, pulled the lid off a steaming pot on the stove, and stood staring, thinking I must be having a crazy dream: Bobbing around in the pot of boiling water were 20 or 30 bloated cigarette butts, still faintly smooched with my mother’s pink lipstick and sporting their green brand name Salem.
Mom walked in, a book under one arm. “It’s for the roses,” she said, answering the question that sputtered in my mouth. “Nicotine, aphids hate it. Smells bad, doesn’t it?” She wandered off to the far end of the house, leaving me in a menthol cloud.
The aphid spray worked, but the smell of the boiled butts proved too nauseating even for Mom, so she gave it up after a few tries. Still, buoyed by her successes, she officially embarked on an Era of Weird Food. Over the next year, the family got a bellyful of froglegs, oxtails, beef-tallow fondue, and live lobsters. Our neighbors loved it; they had joke material for years.
Eventually my mom got tired of finding strange ingredients, and her pioneer toughness mellowed into something more humane. Eventually the only exotic things slaughtered in our kitchen were occasional persimmons or coconuts. But we never lived it down, the circus in our kitchen. On our suburban street, we were the nutty neighbors, the ones with nine cats and a pea-green microbus and a peculiar smell floating from our windows. The neighbors knew better than to think it was an emergency—a chemical spill or a botched suicide. Still, I imagine they did a quick head-count of their loved ones—pets, children, check—just to be safe.
And as for me, I grew up thinking the whole world was that way, that even the most mundane days could take on an air of adventure and unexpected food. After I left home, I found that the world was larger and stranger than I could have imagined. By then, however, I had to content myself with exotic varieties of squash and tomatoes, as shortly after I left my mom’s house, I became a vegetarian.
It seemed the least I could do.
Amy Miller’s writing has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Fine Gardening, The Poet’s Market, and ZYZZYVA. She won the Cultural Center of Cape Cod National Poetry Competition, judged by Tony Hoagland; the Kay Snow Award for Fiction; and the Earl Weaver Baseball Writing Prize. She works as the publications project manager for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and blogs at writers-island.blogspot.com.