My wife was tickled the other day when a friend sent us a large basket full of crackers, peanut brittle, chocolates and a round container of “Sonomajacks, Gourmet Garlic and Herb” cheese wedges. Her curiosity turned to pure delight when she turned the container over and discovered it was from a cheese factory in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, where her grandmother Frieda used to work on a kind of Lucille Ball-assembly line trying to keep up with the small bits of cheese coming at her on a conveyor belt. The cheese brought back sweet memories of seeing her grandmother arriving on Christmas day toting a bulging bag full of the rejected wedges, some too fat, some wrapped in the wrong way. They were treats to the kids in the family since they were so exotic and so unlike the big hunks of aged Swiss and sharp cheddar that Ernie, her daddy, would fetch home from the local factory where he took the milk from their dairy farm.
Still on her cheese high, she later listened to a story on the radio about an old guy who had a novel way of getting fed while earning a little money on the side. This innovative chap had perfected his scheme of showing up at the funerals of total strangers and then slipping into any available car that was going to the wake where food and drink would be served. Since he lived in a small town, the word got out about him and he soon discovered that he would either be bribed to leave or allowed only a small plate of food before being escorted out.
Her story reminded me of my addled uncle Doody, a nickname people always called him rather than his formal name Donald. He was also a food con man who was notorious for showing up at wakes uninvited. I don’t remember if he ever had a job, but when we saw him at Thanksgiving or Christmas he was usually carrying a wad of money and a few extra pounds. He was always popular with the kids since he was generous with his change which he would hand out as a reward for listening to his stories.
My father had little use for him, since he was a layabout, but my mother felt sorry for him on the holidays and would include him in our family gatherings. What I didn’t know at the time was that there were few funerals and thus too few free munchies around the holidays so he was more than anxious to dine on a relative’s plate.
If you were willing to listen to his stories, even though your mind often wandered, you would end up with a nickel, dime or even a quarter if you asked questions afterward. We all used to laugh the hardest when he would tell about his ways of slipping into one of the cars in the funeral cortege. He was seldom challenged and could become as somber as all the rest. As I remember, he had a long face anyway so he was perfectly fitted for his lugubrious mask.
When he first was working on his routine, he was only interested in the food, since it seemed “exotic” to him in the way that the wrapped cheeses were to Jody. He had lived on pretty plain victuals most of his life so the sight of canapés or hors d’oeuvre with salmon spread, caviar or creamy liver pậte left him slobbering and drooling the way our dogs do as they watch me prepare their meals.
Later, when people wised up to his pranks, he was often escorted out without ceremony when some burly and unamused brother of the deceased would take him by surprise. He soon began to expect that he would be spotted eventually so he would make a beeline for the food table and gorge as soon as possible. He then developed another con when he would spot the bouncer heading his way. Taking to heart the motto that a good defense is a good offense, he would speak up so others would hear him and foil the bouncer from removing him without spectacle. He fell into his windfall, though, when much to his surprise, those who wanted him gone would bribe him to leave. This turn of events was the icing on his cake.
I remember so well how he dragged one story out beyond the breaking point by first describing the mediocrity of the food—some of the little sandwiches had no crust—and the “cheapness” of the bouncer. I can still see him sneering as he said he only got a five-dollar bill from one when all the time the man had been marked for at least a twenty.
This Christmas Jody and I will continue our own tradition of serving osso bucco with risotto rice. This meal all stemmed from reading the Billie Collins’ poem by the same name many years back. It begins,
I love the sound of the bone against the plate
and the fortress-like look of it
lying before me in a moat of risotto,
the meat soft as the leg of an angel
who has lived a purely airborne existence.
Of course, we’ll have a few nibbles of that Blue Mounds cheese beforehand and raise a glass to Jody’s grandmother and all our ancestors who have gone before and cannot be with us. And, for sure, we’ll set a place for Uncle Doodie. I’ll even slip a quarter under his napkin.
The meal, of course, will eventually come to an end, but not before again appreciating what Collins says about the food:
I am swaying now in the hour after dinner,
a citizen tilted back on his chair,
a creature with a full stomach—
something you don’t hear much about in poetry,
that sanctuary of hunger and deprivation.
You know: the driving rain, the boots by the door,
small birds searching for berries in winter.
But tonight the lion of contentment
has placed a warm, heavy paw on my chest,
and I can only close my eyes and listen
to the drums of woe throbbing in the distance
and the sound of my wife’s laughter
on the telephone in the next room …