LIVING ALONE was a joy. I learned to enjoy privacy and isolation without ever feeling lonely. My furnished efficiency apartment was one of 20 built by the United Mine Workers Union to house the incoming staff of doctors and nurses. Ten adjacent apartments on the top floor and an equal number below were reached by outside metal corridors. It was difficult to sneak in without being heard; it was a struggle not to hear your neighbors through the thin walls. The windows looked toward the grounds and creek behind the hospital and beyond to the mountains. Sipping Southern Comfort on the rocks as I shook my feet out of hospital shoes and into warm slippers, I felt positively ante-bellum.
My tiny kitchen offered me new experiences of the joy of cooking. One is not raised in an Italian family without appreciating food and wine. Fine eating was part of my heritage. Discovering how to produce it on my own became a passion.
When I first arrived in Kentucky, my new wealth made me want to accumulate even more. I learned how to cook cheaply. One of my favorite creations was a stew made from browned chicken necks, wings, and backs, simmered with fresh carrots, celery, and onions. Perked by wine and herbs and served over steamed rice it became an elegant meal -- especially when accompanied by the Rhine wine I had recently discovered. I enjoy it to this day, although I have never served it to anyone else. How many of the sophisticated friends of my retirement years would really enjoy a meal made from such humble chicken parts?
Pizza was unknown in Appalachia. I made the dough from flour and yeast. The standard toppings of tomato, olive oil, garlic, and mozzarella cheese melted sensuously over the homemade brown crust. The strange smell seeped through the windows and doors and drew an assortment of curious -- and hungry -- neighbors, who were more than willing to experiment with a food that produced such an enticing aroma.
I, too, learned to eat unusual and sometimes eccentric foods. Sam, a male nurse from Harlan, Kentucky, so enjoyed his first experience with pizza that he invited me home to sample his family's "special dish." He refused to tell me more because he wanted it to be a complete surprise.
Sam and his wife, Polly, greeted me at their home enthusiastically. (The sincerity and friendship of the people of eastern Kentucky has never been surpassed by any others I have known around the world. I accepted this hospitality humbly and always felt regally treated.)
Home-brewed beer was the harbinger of local entertainment. A frothy, heady start it was. One taste and a lifelong love affair with malt ensued. I brew small cauldrons to this day, but selfishly hoard the distillation in my private stash. It never tastes like its Kentucky ancestor. The flavors added by the huge outdoor stills and lack of sterility are missing, as well as the savored joy imbued by the excitement of hiding from government revenuers. (Fortunately, I never developed a taste for illegal home-distilled spirits, or White Lightning -- a vile and dangerous concoction reserved for serious consumption. A sip burned the pillars of the tongue, singed the esophagus, and came to a final rest in a liver whose cells gave up their lives for the owner's drunken pleasures.)
I was on my third beer when Polly proudly graced the table with the favorite dish. An enticing, hearty odor rose from the country crock, which held a hunter's stew of muskrat, raccoon, and squirrel. This would normally have shaken me. Dishes using these animal ingredients did not exist in any of my recipe files. However, the appetizing odors, mixed with the softening effects of the beer, made the meal more than memorable. I was happily bread-mopping the remaining sauce when Sam joyfully presented me with a special treat. As guest of honor, I was offered the squirrel's skull to suck out what was considered the best part of the meal: the squirrel's brains. I could not do it. I could not raise that tiny white head to my lips and suck the contents through the eye socket. In an eternal second my mental computers analyzed all acceptable and courteous denials.
They all failed.
"I am so sorry," was my pitiful response, "I am just too full."
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 5/15/98