I’ve known one of my two oldest friends for over six decades. We met when I was in ninth grade, taking Basic Art in high school. Tom Stratton, a sophomore, was in the same elective class. We eventually went to the same college, fished—in Canada, Wyoming, and the Caribbean—together, rode dirt motorcycles in as many dangerous ways as we could imagine, and made art together (while living, illegally, in a shared studio with no running water). We built his first house together. We hunted together, and got our first deer—with bow and arrow—within minutes of each other. We were simpatico in almost every way.
Tom never understood my fascination with food and cooking. He was too practical for that; to him, food was just fuel. Not something one should fuss over. He was a frugal Scot who believed that one should just eat whatever is on the plate and get it over with.
One time, long ago, he invited several of our friends to dinner. Knowing his spartan approach to all things gustatory, I was curious. Besides, while I did not share his non-foodie philosophy, I never turned down a free meal.
When I arrived, I spotted a huge pot of simmering chili. As you probably know, I’ve got some Texan preconceptions about what does—and does not—constitute chili. I was prepared to have my opinions challenged.
My suspicions were justified.
There were a LOT of beans in that chili (right away, a serious red flag). No self-respecting Texan would put beans in chili. Also, there was no meat. Not a surprise, either (this was before we got our deer—so there was no venison). It was chili, perhaps, but definitely not chili con carne.
He applied a hand grater to a block of government cheese, as a fancy garnish.
The rest of the proteinaceous portion of the chili was TVP—Texturized Vegetable Protein, a form of surrogate meat made primarily from soybeans. So we were eating beans, with beans, and more beans. It was a leguminous variation of Monty Python’s “spam, spam, sausage, and spam” sketch—but hold the sausage.
About half an hour after we’d finished our meal—even before the dishes had been cleared away—the flatulence kicked in.
A furious fusillade blasted forth from every chair at the table. Tom’s dinner party looked—and sounded—like the campfire scene in Blazing Saddles. The memory of the evening’s fragrance has, mercifully, faded with time.
I mentioned Tom, last week, in “Sugaring Off,” about us making maple syrup together. I didn’t know, at the time, that the story was to be a kind of obituary. My old friend lost his long battle with Parkinson’s Disease a few days ago.
If there is an afterlife, I hope the memory of that Blazing Saddles dinner will give him a little chuckle.
The following tale, extracted from The Digressions of Dr Sanscravat, features Tom as the knife-wielding savior.
Once, back around 1970, I was one of five people on a chartered sailboat in the Leeward Islands. Three, maybe four, of us had never been in the tropics before—and we were enchanted by possibilities that never existed in the frozen climes in which we had been raised.
Fruits were abundant and cheap—so we gobbled up mangoes, dark green-skinned oranges, coconuts, little native limes, and bananas. We learned that huge bunches of bananas, called ‘hands,’ could be purchased for practically nothing. The prospect was irresistible.
We found one that weighed about a hundred and fifty pounds, and lugged it back to the boat. The boat was a thirty-eight-foot ketch—out of Southhampton, England—and its galley, of course, was much too small for our prize. Looking around for a convenient spot—one that permitted easy access and allowed us to affect an appearance of casual tropical opulence—we decided to tie it across the stern of the boat. To celebrate, we each ripped off a few bananas and wolfed them down. Over the next few days, we gloried in our good fortune, eating bananas all day long. The tropical sun warmed us and gentle waves rocked us; life was good.
However, the tropical sun that warmed us also warmed the hand of bananas, causing them to ripen quickly. We had to eat faster just to keep up—sometimes swallowing as many as fifteen per person per day.
The gentle rocking of the boat waved the thick scent of the ripening fruit, like a perfumed handkerchief, distributing its heady aroma everywhere.
“Everywhere” is not a big place on a thirty-eight-foot boat. Even if we crawled, hand-over-hand, out to the end of the bowsprit, the stench of bananas was inescapable.
All day long, bananas. Our last conscious thought, as we rocked to sleep—on deck or below—bananas. The first thing sensed in the morning—even before we opened our eyes—bananas. There was nowhere we could go to escape the monster we had unleashed on ourselves.
Finally, one of us went astern—a knife in one hand while squeezing his nose with the other—cut the ropes, slid that oozing, fruit-fly-ridden mass over the fantail, and watched its horrid yellowness gradually fade in the boat’s wake.
Nearly five decades later, bananas have not regained much of their former appeal for me.
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