For Christmas, I received a book of “questions for creative exploration”. They are writing prompts, not all questions, and I decided that I would include my responses to them in my blog. They’re meant as daily exercises, but I just picked one I liked and got to work. Because I’m a rebel, baby! I also slightly deviated from the instructions because the book’s not the boss of me. The exercise for this day was…
Write a vignette infused with nidor, the particular scent of cooking meat or burning fat.
The idea might have come from my mother or hers, since we lived next door to my grandparents at the time. I can’t remember my age, but I couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven. My sister was seven or eight, a pig-tailed bundle of mixed joy and mischief. Wherever the idea originated, it sounded like fun, maybe the best idea ever (for a bored, pre-internet, ten year old kid, anyway). As the older kid, I was in charge, and I took responsibility as seriously as my Cub Scout oath.
We received empty cans, the family-sized variety that held a week’s worth of applesauce or baked beans. My mom cut little windows on the bottoms of the open ends, where we could feed fuel into the upside-down can. The tops got punctured around their circumferences to let the fat drain and fuel the flames. That was where the meat would cook, as if on tiny griddles.
We turned the cans upside-down in the gravel driveway and set out to find small twigs for our fires. Wood was plentiful where we lived, plenty waiting in the yard normally splintered by the lawnmower. While we gathered, Mom prepared burger patties.
The kindling got stuffed through the window of each can. Mom provided the matches and let us start out fires with bits of wadded newspaper. The flames warmed us in the shade of the maples, summer’s heat seldom oppressive there in upstate New York. My stomach growled in anticipation of lunch.
The can fires consumed the twigs almost as quickly as we could feed them, until Mom pronounced them hot enough to serve as stoves. She fetched the patties and plopped them onto the cans. The roar of sizzling meat startled us, and in moments the heavenly scent of the cooking beef wafted up to taunt us. Fat gathered and congealed along the sides of the patties. Little flames shot up from the grease vents, at which Mom would caution us and snuff them with her spatula. Any moment, the piping-hot burgers would be ready to eat. Or so I thought.
Mom flipped the burgers that still wept blood and grease, fearful they would burn. My hunger built until its ache swelled beyond my belly and threated to eat me. The scent of hot grease engulfed me, teased my nostrils with its promises. Still the burgers sizzled but defied my impatience. They took nearly an hour to finish cooking. To two hungry kids, that felt like forever. Not only were we waiting for them to finish, but one of the neighborhood dogs sat nearby. We’d dubbed him Picnic Puppy after he’d snatched a sandwich out of my sister’s hand a couple of years before. None of us wanted to take our eyes off him while the burgers remained targets.
I don’t know if it was the best burger I’ve ever eaten, but it was surely the most highly anticipated. I devoured it in record time and could have eaten another if there had been room on top of the can. The experiment had been fun, but I remind myself of that day whenever I have to wait more than a few minutes for fast food.