As we wait out winter like hostages in a snow cave, it’s time to get back to serious stuff about the writing life.
Like the time I got a notion to pickle
some beef. Light bulb moment: a steaming platter of succulent corned beef and cabbage from scratch; a pile of tender juicy pastrami on a bun (with dill pickles on the side). I googled a recipe.
In the garden shed I found an old ceramic crock, encrusted with soil, littered with dead insects, garnished with spider webs. I didn’t want to eat anything that had come into contact with that crock, even after a good scrub down, so I invested in a brand new one (pricey), a beef brisket (thank heavens the recipe called for a cheaper cut of beef), multi pickling salts and spices, vinegar, bay leaves, peppercorn, garlic, lots of it, and onion. I put it all in the crock and got my husband to carry it down to the cool basement laundry room where it sat, impassive, indifferent, building a personality distinctly its own. Every time I went down to the laundry room we gave each other the eye, mine increasingly apprehensive, its, smug and secretive.
The third week it started to smell. ‘Not exactly unpleasant,’ I said to my husband. ‘No…,’ he sounded sceptical. ‘That’s how pickled meat is supposed to smell,’ I added for good measure. A few days later, ‘What’s that smell,’ older son inquired coming in from school. ‘Phew,’ said second son. I persevered. What could go wrong? I had followed directions religiously.
A few days later, ‘You’re not going to feed that to me,’ said my husband. ‘I’m not gonna eat that,’ said first son. ‘Yuck,’ said second son. ‘I’ll eat it myself,’ I said, in my best little red hen manner. ‘You can’t eat that,’ said my husband, ‘you’ll kill yourself.’
I opened the lid of the crock. I skimmed a foul-smelling curd from the brine’s surface. A lump of something dull grey with a bluish greenish aura sat still and unmoving. I thought of the excitement with which I had approached the project. I hated to let that go. I hated letting go of the time and effort and expense invested. I had a crisis of self-confidence. If the pioneers of yore without any formal education could pickle beef why, with a master’s degree, couldn’t I?
To paraphrase the famous words of Tom Hanks… we had a problem.
What to do with rotten pickled beef?
We couldn’t keep it in the house and we couldn’t throw it out. ‘You don’t want to leave something like that hanging around,’ said my husband. ‘There must be a law against throwing anything that smells like that in the garbage.’ I agreed. The garbage men might think we were throwing out a dead body, they might report us. To complicate things, the garbage had been picked up the day before. I thought about what it would smell like by the end of another week. The neighbours would be complaining. Also, we didn’t want dogs and cats getting into it and killing themselves. We might even get sued.
We could bury it in a very deep hole at the end of the garden but I didn’t want to have anything more to do with it. Ever.
‘That’s easy,’ one of the sons said. ‘Put it in someone else’s garbage.’
And so it was that we wrapped that sorry looking hunk of putrid flesh first in plastic wrap, then in several sheets of newspaper and tied it neatly with a string. We drove around looking for the two prerequisites – a trash can that could not be traced to us and one that got picked up daily. We found one in front of an out-of-our-neighbourhood Safeway where a group of students were demonstrating against buying California grapes. We pretended to join the protest while my husband nonchalantly sidled close to the garbage container then quickly, without looking to either side or backwards, tossed in the thing. We scuttled back to our car.
That’s where the real story ends. My folly discarded. But on the way home, my imagination took over. Of course, it did. The ‘what if’ tool of the novelist. What if a demonstrator had thrown a bomb into that trash can? What if the bomb exploded? What if a bystander saw us throw in our package and got the license plate of our car as we drove away?
Thus, my effort at pickled beef wasn’t a total failure after all. I got a story out of it, which appeared in my second collection of short stories. So what’s the moral of this little anecdote? Nothing is ever wasted. You’ll find a place in your writing for even the most mundane, most embarrassing, incidents in your life. Or, deciding to throw something out can open up a whole lot of new possibilities.
Take your pick. Make up your own. There must be a message there some place.