That Buttery Light
The way that her father, a ruddy, pink German Lutheran, came home smelling of the high yeasty salt of butter. His creamery whites and paper hat darkened by ghost spats of fat. The way that sometimes, when dinner was pulling the scent of ripe sauerkraut upstairs into the pages of her homework, she would look outside at their neighbor, Ella Fenske’s, potato garden. All those invisible white bulbs (tender, unapproachable, alluring) hidden under the dark meaty crust of Minnesota dirt. The dirt, so deep and dark, her uncle said, it was richer than chocolate. More essential than coffee. More lucrative, even, than their unflagging belief that God would deliver bratwurst and doughnuts on Sunday mornings no matter.
The way she poked yellow-tipped stick pins into the hem of her homemade prom dress, just so, without even a thimble to protect her pale young fingertips. The way the white crinoline crunched high around her nimble thighs, the brave boning around the bust holding rigid that which was still necessarily soft. At midnight, her future husband cupped bone with rough hands. She gasped. She tucked her chin into his neck. The moon winked an alarm: it was time. The future, she knew, loomed patiently.
The next day. The way her mother presented fried eggs, over easy, without question. The whites pale and innocent in her father’s forgiving butter. The way her toast points would lead her due west, where the future husband smoked a cigarette outside the chicken coop. The way her day-after hair glowed in the tiny kitchen in that buttery sunlight. How the window filled. How her mother smiled. How her mother cupped her chin, for the briefest of moments.
I want to go olive shopping with you on a late gray weekday afternoon. You hold the tub; I’ll silver claw the green globes right up to the top. We’ll sprint to the beer aisle and buy a mix-pack, eat bulk jelly beans, buy extra soft toothbrushes and People magazine and read it out loud on the way to Goodwill where we’ll try on shoes in front of the mirror, inspect old telephones for their glamour, look for thin crisp wine glasses so fine you could bite them broken. Taco Bell or Wendy’s? Rock-paper-scissors. You get a Baconator; I get a baked potato bathed in cheese and broccoli bits. We’re almost out of gas, but if we go straight home to our little house behind the florist’s and our cat Norman and our smooshy sofa full of lost pennies and pistachio shells, it can wait, can’t it? We’re not going anywhere for a while.
It was the year restaurants whisked up tepid to-go dishes delivered in sub-zero temps: steam-limp fries, Alfredo sauce hardened atop pasta clumps, a wan roll with two foiled butters. Drinkers fancied something new: peanut butter whiskey, rosé by the can, a Redbull Tito’s. Winter bonfires beckoned even the diehard quarantiners outside with their bright licks of orange and marshmallows. Then, overnight, Little Free Libraries overflowed with baked beans, ramen, rigatoni, bags of clementines, pucks of tuna. Ziplocs of hand-knit mittens and hats hung clothes-pinned to porch railings as the death toll rose.
It was the year the high school sent my daughter home with the giant marimba, which landed smack in the middle of our dining room where she plunked “Maple Leaf Rag” out on it. Soon the toothy monstrosity bullied our big mahogany table against the wall. Colonies of puzzle boxes took up residence. My husband spent hours putting them together on a wobbly card table. We watched them transform into pink sprinkled donuts. Lush Tuscan gardens. Rickety covered bridges. Tiny elves building toys by candlelight. Eventually, he created beautiful worlds we could deconstruct, destroy, then build again.
It was the year lawless passengers punched flight attendants. People Costco-ed with caution after anti-maskers spat in managers’ faces. The Taco Bell drive-through bled dangerously onto the highway. School children ensconced themselves inside computers while teachers invented scavenger house hunts for an unmatched sock! A teaspoon! Zoom froze pixilated laughing open mouths like donkeys braying. Teachers returned home from teaching to keep teaching. When families absconded to the Adirondacks and posted pics of fireplaces and snow, the opposition travel-shamed. Followers liked, brutally. Occasionally, sharp icicle spears plunged off gutters that could’ve killed someone.
I grew up in a tiny town in Minnesota where my Grandpa Griep ran a creamery and so we often had fresh butter right out of the churn. We Minnesotans go very heavy on the dairy, and that wholesome yet heavy richness still informs my writing. There’s a creamy, benevolent honesty to butter, cheese, and cream, that reflects the non-nonsense quality of Midwesterners, but also: it’s “bad” for you, so right there is instant tension.
I tell my students you can write about anything through the lens of food: divorce, death, sex, a pandemic, disappointing holidays, poverty, travel, heartbreak, racism, childbirth. My current memoir-in-progress, Bootleg Barber: A Daughter’s Story, is heavy on food. My late father, an alcoholic and barber, would eat anything so quickly he’d have to punch burps out of his chest: raw hamburger, a pack of hot dogs (cold), Limburger cheese, the entire apple, pickled ham hocks, half a brick of Velveeta, even raccoon and squirrel meat. Although he quit drinking eventually, his addiction lived on by pounding ten Cokes a day, then two pots of coffee, then buying scratch-offs by the dozens.
When I think of my most prominent childhood food, it’s a cheap frozen pizza, cut in squares (so it seemed like there was more), served on the cardboard box—for a family of six. Our below-poverty income meant a) we lived in a trailer court, and b) we got free lunch tickets at school—a great source of shame that I carry to this day. Although I now live in New York, have traveled widely, and cook a worldwide variety of cuisines, it’s still that rich, heavy Midwestern food that drives its way back into my writing every time.
Anne Panning recently published her first memoir, Dragonfly Notes: On Distance and Loss. She has also published a novel, Butter, as well as a short story collection, The Price of Eggs, and Super America, which won The Flannery O’Connor Award and was a New York Times Editor’s Choice. She has also published short work in places such as Brevity (5x), Prairie Schooner, The Florida Review, Quarterly West, Kenyon Review, and River Teeth. Her essays have received notable citations in The Best American Essays series. She teaches creative writing at SUNY-Brockport and is working on her next memoir, Bootleg Barber: A Daughter’s Memoir.