Cucumbers

I remember my grandparents’ garden from my childhood. I remember following along behind my grandfather, sent out for tomatoes, while I “helped” by pulling fresh cucumbers off the prickly, hairy vines. Wiping the vegetable off on my tee shirt, I chomped into it right there where I stood.

My grandfather was a staid mountain of a man. He didn’t talk much to his family; he frequently responded to my grandmother in grunts or one-syllable sounds. When he sat down to eat, he really tucked into it:  seconds were certain, thirds were not out of the question. I never knew him not to eat what my grandmother set on the table, but he drew the line at cucumbers.

When my brother, my cousins and I discovered this, we were giddy with unexpected knowledge. We were between six and seven years old and our shrill little giggles must have sounded like the munchkins in Oz. Our secret-telling was, no doubt, conducted in theatrical stage whispers. We couldn’t believe it. Grampie didn’t eat cucumbers! We had to clean our plates, but now here was this revelation.

And so at every meal shortly thereafter, we took turns offering our grandfather helpings of the cool disks marinating lightly in vinegar with a hint of sugar and generous salt and pepper.

“Would you like some cucumbers, Grampie,” we asked choking on our hysteria. In the spirit of humor moderated by solidarity, Grammie hid her smile until it wore off and even she spoke sharply, telling us to leave our grandfather alone. But it was irresistible to tease the unteaseable, to ruffle the unruffleable.

“How about a cuke, Grampie,” we asked, until finally he pounded the table with one open hand.

“I don’t want any goddamn cukes,” he thundered before slamming downstairs to his woodworking shop where a half-gallon of vodka was kept cool under the stairs.

What he didn’t know, sadly I think now, is how nicely good vodka goes down with a bit of gently muddled cucumber, fresh from the garden.

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Penny Candy

Our mother used to complain that whenever we got our dirty mitts on a nickel, we ran to the corner store to buy penny candy. She often withheld the coinage in her determination to curtail our sugar consumption.

As luck would have it, the penny candy store was next to a used car lot. They must have also had a towing operation for cars that were totaled. The mangled cars were moved to a lot behind both businesses until they were transported to a permanent junkyard.

This was back before seatbelts were required and, in fact, seemed like an unnecessary appendage to the seats. It was also before the push for compact cars had gotten traction. These junkyard cars were heavy metal beasts with speedometers that went up to 150 or 175 mph. On those late summer Saturday nights after the bars closed, groups of people hit the long, dark country roads, some determined to bury the gauge on the far right end of the speedometer.

We were intrigued by the cars, which were frequently mashed like accordions. Sometimes the door would have bent open in the accident. It was likely one of these times that our curiosity beckoned us into the wreckage, where we found loose change on the floor of the car. Afterwards, of course, we knew to try the door or crawl through the holes where windows had been.

Greedily, we collected the coins. Sometimes they were as crumpled as the car was, defying our ability to imagine how it could have happened in the crash. Sometimes the coins had blood on them. At first the blood induced eye-widening amazement, but shortly thereafter it just meant “spit and rub.”

We divided the spoils between us and hurried back to the corner store, slapping our loot on the counter and ordering ourselves another round of Swedish fish, hot balls, and Mary Jane chews.

 

MaryJane

Cheesy

 

Limburger cowSue and I had enjoyed an impromptu road trip to find a kinda famous “dented goods” place run by Mennonites in the middle of “I’m Lost” Wisconsin. Because of getting lost, we got there a half hour before closing, and discovered that we didn’t need more time than that. My primary purchases were corn remover pads in every configuration. It’s been 5 years and I still have stock, but what a deal!

We found roadside attractions to take turns posing beside. I felt like a true American standing beside the big ass upright cow statue that was wearing a chef’s hat and holding a big raw slab of sirloin.

Our last “official” destination before heading back to Illinois was established: Baumgartner’s in Monroe. It is one of a kind, so far as I can tell. The walls are covered by a battle between wine and beer, which I understand is symbolic of a battle between the Huguenots and the Catholics. In Monroe, the beery Protestants win.

Limburger catapult

Note that the beer steins are loading catapults with limburger while wearing clothespins on their noses.

Years earlier in our friendship, when Sue lived upstairs from me, we had gotten drawn to Monroe by their rotating festivals—one year it was the cheese festival and the next an accordion festival. Fortunately a girl never had to choose between them.

We’d almost come to blows during the Cheese Festival parade that honored families of cheese makers—seriously there were flatbed trucks with a bunch of old German farmers sitting on chairs. It was cute and funny, but the people of Monroe are serious about their cheese. They set up chairs days in advance, we later learned, to watch the parade. When I stepped out to take a couple of pictures, a wave of seething hatred washed over me from behind. Soon the grumbling began and we moved along, hoping not to have drawn the short straw in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” re-make.

On this day in Monroe, we were bound to try a local cheese of lore: limburger! We knew of its stinky reputation, but we’re fans of stinky cheese! Until our sandwiches arrived, we didn’t know that limburger actually smells like roadkill that has been in the sun for several days. We laughed and cried and cried.

 

One bite taken sandwich

I don’t think I was able to eat more than this. I can still smell this sandwich.

 Pull my finger