By Nicole Walker
Featured Art: Houses at Murnau by Vasily Kandinsky
We had been in Michigan only five months when we heard the people we sold our house to back in Salt Lake City had decided not just to remodel but to start completely over. They were tearing it down.
Erik had painted every wall of that house. He painted the moldings with enamel paint—hard enough to last forever. That’s the house Zoe was born in. It’s the house where Erik first brought me oysters and the house where I first made him salmon. It’s the house we brought Zoe home to—where I first nursed her and where I first fed her puréed sweet potatoes. That house was where I learned to make cassoulet and where I made my mom her favorite vichyssoise.
This is where I’d made beef Jello, as my husband refers to it. It was one of the last meals I made at that house. My mom and sister Val like to challenge their tastebuds but neither my husband nor my sister’s husband thinks eating organ meats or strange amalgamations of regular meat is a good idea. But I promised them transubstantiation. Thanks to the bones the butcher whose market I had just discovered down the street gave me, I would make a cow turn into complete liquid and then I would reconstitute her as aspic. The husbands made me promise we’d order pizza if everything went wrong.
But everything did not go wrong. We ate the aspic with crème fraiche out on the back patio. The sun beat warmly enough to continue to grow the tomatoes and make me feel a little bad about my brown, water-conserving lawn, but did not beat so hot as to melt the aspic. Val’s husband said, “This is actually good.” Erik nodded, saying, “And I don’t even like Jello.” I felt a little triumphant that I had won the husbands over. And I couldn’t bear the thought that we would be moving to Michigan in the next few weeks. If I had known that I really could not come back, I wonder if I would have managed to leave that patio, my tomatoes, that family, that house.
Every bit of evidence of that life is gone—it has been carted off to the landfill in dump truck loads—the hard, glossy paint, the countertops stained with beet juice, the hood filters shiny with frying grease, the wallpaper where the smell of seared meat lingered.
We tried not to take it as a commentary on our life—that it was somehow worthless and disposable—but it was hard to remember a place whose memory no longer attached to the thing. Now, the memories seemed in danger of being blown away like so much gypsum from broken sheetrock. What do I remember now about Z’s first year? What do I remember about Erik’s first visit? Less and less, and now I can’t drive by the old house in order to jog the memory.
The house the new owners demolished had not been perfect. At 900 square feet it was barely big enough for the three of us. The basement had been finished but was too cold from October to May to spend much time in. The driveway was narrow. The kitchen small. But it was our house and the yard was deep and the garden grew perfect tomatoes. Salt Lake is the perfect place to grow tomatoes—the summers are long and dry. The water piped from reservoirs and mountain springs was hard and mineral-filled, giving the tomatoes a specific Utah-flavor, a kind of terroir. When I had lived in Portland, wet, short summers made for green, soft tomatoes.
Where we had moved—Michigan—we wouldn’t end up staying long enough to plant tomatoes. And where we moved next—Flagstaff, at 7,000 feet elevation, with windy days and freezing nights, even in the summer—tomatoes were hard to grow.
So I missed Salt Lake—for the tomatoes, the hot summers, garden hoses, and the fact that that’s where I had lived most of my life. It’s also the place where I learned to cook and possibly more importantly, learned to shop for food.
Walking in the Avenues, just a year or so before we moved from Salt Lake, I saw a cinder block building with 1950s font letters attached to the side, and assumed it was just an empty relic. I expected to see boarded up windows or, in front of the door, a steel gate. But there was no metal or plywood barricading my entrance.
Inside, I saw a light—fluorescent and flickering. A sign warned entering shoppers “Caution Automatic Door,” just like my regular grocery chain store, but this door swung rather than slid. In fact, it swung so fast that it had already opened, like it sensed me coming from far away. Like it could snap me into the building and make me inhale the Aqua Net from a thousand housewives ago. Through the open door, I saw aisles, stocked.
There was someone standing at the bagging station but she looked out a window instead of through the door at me. I tried to remember if my regular grocery had windows. No. The window the bagger stared through looked out toward City Creek—the tops of the brown hills turning green in the narrow V where the river ran. To imagine scenery through a grocery store window made me feel like I was someplace else—out of the city, in the mountains, near a river, although in my imaginings the river was wide and the hills alongside were not parched brown. Maybe the bagger in her black sweatshirt and lip ring was also imagining the mountain greening. She smacked her gum. Maybe not.
I moved from the soft, rubber pad welcoming me in and put both feet inside on the scratched Armstrong tile and I suddenly remembered the IGA my grandma worked at in Evanston, Wyoming before I was born, an IGA that managed to survive oil booms and busts until the third boom came and brought Walmart. In fact, that place smelled like my grandma’s house—a little like her bathroom, a little like the old Freon that escaped from her refrigerator. Also like saltines and Jello: foods I ate only at her house when she was watching me while my parents went out for steak dinner.
Walking the aisles was like walking through my grandmother’s pantry and my mother’s childhood. Among the Total cereal and Oreo cookies, Cheetoes and Rice-a-Roni, I found packages for food stuffs I only vaguely remembered: Mr Salty Veri-Thin Pretzel Sticks, Postum, Carnation Instant Breakfast, Tang, Royal Shake-a-Pudding, Ovaltine, Spam, Mother’s cookies, Chef-Boy-Ardee, Knorr Beef Noodle Soup, as well as all the mixtures of Knorr products like hollandaise and Hot & Sour I used to find so easily and liked to pass off as homemade. I didn’t have a cart so I loaded my arms with Knorr. Knorr made a beef gravy that rivaled my grandmother’s, au jus that tasted like prime rib. Knorr, I asked aloud, where have you gone? How could McCormick’s brand beat you out, I asked the aisle. No one was there with me. I could talk to the groceries all I liked. I clutched the packages tightly to my chest, taking my haul, planning to find some gum and head to the cashier before anyone questioned my looting of the ready-mix department.
I looked at choices of gum—Extra right next to Bazooka, Orbitz next to Chiclets—and jumped when the man behind the meat counter asked if he could help me. I wondered if I jumped because I didn’t know he was there or because at the Smith’s down the road, I had to practice my semaphore skills to get the butcher to notice me and this butcher was waving me over. This guy was gruff. He didn’t smile when he asked but since he went to all the trouble to ask if he could help, I felt compelled to order from him. I tried to think of something I could make for dinner—something I had all the ingredients for, except the meat—even though I was suspicious of the would-be quality of this meat in this store.
But I took a chance, because this guy reminded me of my mom’s old butcher. We lived then on the far end of the Salt Lake, in between the mouths of Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons. We could walk to the rivers that supplied more than half of the city with drinking water. And water for my dad’s prize tomatoes that he’d water with a garden hose. In the summer, to shop for something to go with those tomatoes, my mom would take me to Meier’s Meat Market, where, after bypassing the aisles filled with packages of Knorr, Rice-a-Roni, Postum, Carnation Instant Breakfast, Spam, Mother’s cookies, Chef-Boy-Ardee, my mom would approach the meat man who would wrap packages of hamburger, of sirloin, of chicken breasts, of cube steak, in pure, white butcher paper. We went there weekly. My mom knew the butcher’s name.
Back on 8th Avenue, in my newly-discovered store, with my newly-discovered butcher, I noticed that this meat counter smelled like the Meier’s meat counter—clean, a little metallic—which meant there was a chance the meat would be good.
“Do you have any tenderloin?” I asked, thinking this would be a safe bet because I was pretty sure that store would never have tenderloin—the only other people in the store besides me, the bagger and the butcher was a man in a hard hat buying a single onion and a woman in a hair net comparing the boxes of Wheat Thins and Triscuits. They were both past their sell-by dates, I wanted to tell her. If he had no tenderloin, I could shrug and walk away and not have to tempt fate.
He asked me what I want the tenderloin for.
I was affronted. Who cares what I want it for? I told him anyway. “Stroganoff.”
“You don’t want tenderloin for stroganoff,” he said. He threw down a slice of butcher paper and slapped a tenderloin up on the metal of the display case. “See here, the sinews. They’re short. Good for quick cooking. Stroganoff, it stews a bit. It lets the collagen melt, turn to gel.” The meat on the counter made my mouth water. I’d never seen meat this color—not the red of oxidized meat. Not the pink of plastic-wrapped. It was almost blue, like the blood just barely left it. When the butcher pressed his finger into it, the muscle snapped back like it still had some reason to stand up straight and get itself together.
“Sirloin’s good enough for stroganoff. Stew meat would work too, but you look like the type that only trusts an upsell.” It was true. I would rather buy up than down. I realized I knew nothing about meat except for perhaps the cost per pound.
“Come back next week. I’ve got an order for skirt steak coming in. It’s like flank but better. I promise, I’ll charge you too much for it.” He wrapped me up some sirloin and tucked the tenderloin away for someone more aware of the relative merits of long and short sinew.
When I got home with my Knorr products and neighborhood-market bought sirloin, I realized I didn’t have any shitake mushrooms. Or cream. Or tarragon. The Martha Stewart recipe calls for tenderloin and shitakes. She also wanted me to use saffron in the noodles. Martha is, sometimes, out of control. And since all I had was sirloin, sour cream and button mushrooms, I threw Martha’s recipe out the window and tried to remember my mom’s. I pictured her at Meier’s Meat Market, buying stew meat, checking the date on sour cream. I knew the recipe from her shopping list. I ran into a syllogistic problem though: If tenderloin is already tender and therefore, unlike a more sinewy cut, doesn’t need to be stewed or marinated—in fact, Martha said to brown the meat one minute per side— then should a less tender cut like sirloin be cooked slower or faster? Or must I be resigned to toughness? Or would the acid in the sour cream work to loosen the collagen? I was pretty sure my mom used stew meat. Did she cook the stroganoff all day? Wouldn’t the sour cream curdle?
In the end, I salted and peppered the hell out of the sirloin and seared it in a gallon of butter. Adding half a pound of butter to a sirloin does a tender loin make. The sour cream did its part too and the whole thing was melt-in-your-mouth goodness that made me thank the butcher on 8th Avenue for saving me seven bucks a pound and for reminding me of the power of butter, sour cream, and mothers’ shopping list and recipe.
The nice thing about my mom’s recipes—I can take them anywhere. They’re indelibly printed on my brain. And those kinds of ingredients should be available in the smallest of towns because that’s where she perfected them. Even in Grand Rapids.
I was sad to leave Grand Rapids—despite snow so deep it seemed as if the clouds had gathered up Lake Michigan and dumped it in frozen form on top of our house. I would have liked to stay and grow tomatoes. I would have liked to hunt mushrooms too but we left in April, right before what was to be one of the best morel springs of the decade.
In Flagstaff, I have to rely exclusively on grocery stores and farmer’s markets. Vegetables are grown down the hill in well-irrigated and always warm Phoenix. I have no garden. If I had to live on food grown in my backyard, without irrigation, what could I grow? If I had to live off the land here, I would most likely starve.
There are no blackberries or asparagus or watercress in the forest wilds to guide my planting season or my seed choices. The neighbors say the ground is so full of limestone that they have to import dirt to get anything, even penstemons, which are native wildflowers in some parts of the area but not apparently in our backyard, to grow. And, even though it’s mountainous and monsoony, the air and dirt are still very dry. I would have to import water too from the reservoir, through the pipes, into my hose, just like I had to in Salt Lake. But unlike in Salt Lake where summer nights are mild, nights here, even in July, can drop below freezing. In Salt Lake, the wind doesn’t reach hurricane levels worthy of blowing whole trees over, let alone tomato plants.
There’s a reason Flagstaff wasn’t settled by white people until 1882—the ability to transport earth and water had to come first. Before that, the Anasazi, Pueblo, Hopi, Yavapai and Havasupai that settled around the area were much more flexible about the plants they grew. They went to the small patches of ground that held more soil than rock, to the springs where the water already was. They were mobile in ways my two-hundred pound couch and I are not.
Visiting some of the ruins built in the 1200s at elevations below Flagstaff, where there’s less limestone but more basalt and malapai, I shake my head the same way I shake my head at the city of Phoenix. It is dry as a bone here. Cacti grow. A few grasses. There is no obvious way to stockpile water.
However, the infrastructure of the Wupatki ruins seems strong—thin, sandstone rocks mortared in layers to form walls, the walls built into the landscape upon a secure, gigantic red rock foundation. I can see where they would have built their fires, where the draft would have come in as a bellows and would have gone out to vent the smoke, where the food stores would have been kept. But I can’t see where the water would have been. The park literature describes an old spring that dried up long ago.
Perhaps, after a long, dry fall and a cold, frozen winter, the woman who carried the water from the little spring a hundred meters from the house went out in May to break off the thin ice and found there was no ice to break, just a layer of cold mud. She waited it out another couple of days or weeks until tribal memory kicked in from the last time that this happened: once the spring is dry, it is dry and she might as well climb those twenty miles back up hill toward the Peaks to see if a creek was running. She packed up husbands and papooses because that spring was done. Goodbye house that took six years to build. Goodbye little plot of land that, in this desert plain, held the one plot of humus-y goodness thanks to the nearby stream, the dung of buffalo and the compost of a few hundred pounds of composted corn husk and tomato vine. Goodbye beans and squash. Goodbye tomatoes and potatoes. See you in the old world.
If one learns how to move one’s house to a more ideal kind of home—the kind where water is, where tomatoes grow, and where on the way one might find some mushrooms, the more likely one is to survive the droughts and privations. Sometimes, home means “an ability to move” and find what you need when you get there.
Mushrooms grow everywhere—somewhat like people. They’re not one of those, we’ll-have-to-grow-them-so-we’ll-survive kind of things but they do count as food and they are a sign of water. They keep it in their pores—boletes do it best in the sponge-like gill-tubes that make their caps thick and meaty. Unlike water, mushrooms don’t need to accumulate to be usable. It’s hard to extract one drop of rain from the edge of a leaf, but one mushroom shooting up from the sea of mycelium percolating under the ground holds ounces of water. The tiniest amount of rain can make that mycelium bloom like popcorn.
Prehistoric humans ate mushrooms. The food timeline suggests that in the order of humans’ ability to fend for themselves, first they gathered water, then salt, then they learned to fish. Right after that, they collected mushrooms—not wild wheat, not wild tubers, but mushrooms. They are ubiquitous. You can find them in high-altitude and lowland forests. You can find them in marshes and plains and meadows. You can find them on a rock, growing on dead trees, or in your carpet. They are meaty when there is no meat. People often think mushrooms have no food value but they are full of protein, amino acids, some B vitamins. They make soup worth its salt. They sauté nicely with fish.
My mother-in-law, El, came to visit us in Flagstaff. Driving up with El and Zoe, my three-year-old, toward the ski resort, we moved into something familiar—ferns reminded me of Hood River, Oregon, the aspens reminded me of Alta, Utah. We could see no rivers—the peaks had sloughed off their snow into the ground and the canyons months ago—but the dirt looked dark and loamy.
The Humphries Peak trail began under the chairlift, then took a sharp left into already-dark woods. Before we even left behind the whirring sound of the lift that hauls tourists up the mountain to try to squint out the Grand Canyon, we saw evidence of fungal activity. Zoe, being close to the ground, spotted the most. We saw shrimp mushrooms and puffballs and little brown mushrooms. El, who had never been mushroom hunting, brought me sample after sample—we had one bag to carry specimens and we reserved one bag to carry what we hoped turned out to be edibles.
Unlike Oregon, where mushroom hunting reminded me most of swimming and the raindrops, though tiny, fell in the thousands per square inch and soaked every inch of cotton clothing, here the sun shone in a sharp blue sky. The moss was emerald.
El offered Z a gummy bear to hike up just one more hill, then pointed to something crenulated and undulating off to the left. Chanterelles. In not Oregon. In the middle of what is mostly desert, we found the most moisture-loving of mushrooms. We offered Zoe another gummy bear. She climbed over basalt and malapai, underneath ferns as big as her head until we filled the bag with the most edible of mushrooms—mahogany buffed King Boletes that I’d never found in Oregon’s coast range, and umbrella’d chanterelles that I used to find all autumn long.
Perhaps home is never the ideal or perfect place.
I’ve lost a lot in moving—a house, a close family, a place to grow tomatoes. I wonder if what I’ve gained has been worth it.
I’ve found a new butcher in Flagstaff, just down the road. He doesn’t have aisles of products. There are no pretzels or Ovaltine, Rice-a-Roni or Knorr products. Here, there really is just meat. The butcher, whose name I don’t know yet, knows me. When I ask him about the difference between skirt steak and flank steak, he explains that “The skirt steak is the diaphragm muscle. It is a long, flat piece of meat, with a tendency toward toughness. But it has good flavor. The flank steak is the traditional cut used for London Broil. It is long, thin, and full of tough connective tissue.” He says “Use the skirt steak for carne asada and fajitas.” Instead of picking up a skirt steak though, he holds up a flank steak. “Here. I’ve cut it in half and tenderized it.”
He doesn’t tell me what to do with it. He trusts me. It’s like he’s known me for years.
When I take it home, I dither. I plan to just make normal, barbecued flank steak with a Korean marinade. But I have fontina in the fridge and carrots and red bell peppers. I julienne the peppers and carrots. I grate some cheese, tuck the cheese and vegetables into the meat, roll it up, and grill it. I make something new.
Now, I just need to find a place that sells Knorr products. I need to learn to grow tomatoes. Although Flagstaff may be a little dry, a little windy, and a little bit too much in Arizona, it’s not a bad place to call home for now.
I’m trying to learn the lesson of the Wupatki—take your home, in the form of recipes, shopping lists, mushrooms, with you. Learn to compromise on the amount of water nearby, but not on the proximity of a good butcher.
Nicole Walker is the author of the essay collections The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet, Sustainability: A Love Story, Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, and Quench Your Thirst with Salt and a book of poems, This Noisy Egg.
Originally published in NOR 6