Sunday, September 25, 2011

Butter Days

It’s hard to trust a six-year-old with something important. They can generally only be counted on to ask a question hauntingly poignant in its innocence or make sure Tom Cruise and Renee Zellwegger wind up together, and I wasn’t even very good at those things when I was six. My questions didn’t get much more poignant than “Why do I have to go outside when Full House is on?” and I was still years away from knowing who Tom Cruise was, his appearances on Full House being few and far between.

Still, my parents were good parents, and they understood the importance of teaching me responsibility at a relatively early age. And so it was that, in the midst of enjoying my carefree life staging historically inaccurate battles between plastic dinosaurs in the family room, I was called into the kitchen for my sobering entry into the working world.

“Eddie,” my dad said methodically, “do you see this?” He was holding up a butter dish.

“Yes,” I said.

“Good. From now on, it’s going to be your responsibility to put it on the table every night when we’re getting ready for dinner, ok? Can you handle that?”

I had to think for a second. This was the first job my parents were asking me to do with any sort of regularity, and there were all sorts of implications to consider. The main one was, “What is the fastest way I can end this conversation and get back to playing with dinosaurs?” So I said, “Yes.”

“Good,” my dad responded, breaking out into a benevolent smile. “So tonight, when your mom and I call you into the kitchen for dinner, what are you going to do before you sit down?”

“Put the butter dish on the table,” I said anxiously, as countless thoughts about all the fun things my dinosaurs were probably doing without me ran through my head.

“Exactly!” my dad exclaimed, his benevolence turning into pride. “Do you have any questions?”

“No.” They’re probably in a rocket ship right now. I’m going to go back in the family room, and my dinosaurs won’t be there because they all got on a rocket ship as soon as I left the room. I’ll bet it’s payback for letting my sister play with the stegosaurus last week.

“Ok, then. I guess we’ll see you at dinner.”

My dad turned around, and I dashed back into the family room, relieved to find that my dinosaurs were still insentient and immobile.

Life continued on as normal until 6:00 that evening. My dad called out “Dinner!” and I walked into the kitchen, ready to sit down like I always did. Then I saw my dad’s knowing smile and the butter dish sitting all by itself on the counter. I abruptly changed course, grabbed the dish, and set it on the table before I sat down.

“Thank you, Eddie,” my mom said, beaming with delight. “That was excellent!”

My dad remained silent apart from a nod of approval, but it was enough to make it clear that he was pleased, too. We then said grace and began eating. Or, more accurately, my mom, dad, and sister began eating, and I began moving the food around on my plate and eyeing it warily.

To say I was a picky eater at this age is an understatement akin to saying that Hitler was not particularly fond of the Jews. I didn’t become a picky eater until around age nine. At age six, it was more accurate to say I legitimately disliked food. The concept of eating was something I did not look forward to on good days and dreaded on bad days. This typically made dinner a very unpleasant occasion. The most notorious of these had occurred a few months earlier when I took a bite of chicken and decided afterwards that I could stomach neither swallowing it nor spitting it out. It remained in saliva soaked purgatory for a good 20 minutes, by which point the rest of my family had already finished eating and was devoting all of their energy to exasperatedly coaxing me to swallow. Their efforts eventually proved successful, but I emerged from the situation so scarred that I had to avoid chicken for the next three days, at which point my mom served it for dinner again and I ate it, my memory at age six not being particularly long lasting.

There were, however, a few golden exceptions to my aversion to food, and butter was among them. Peanut butter was still a little too intimidating for me at such a young age, and peanut butter and jelly was outright terrifying, but a nice simple slice of white bread with some nice simple butter spread over it always made for a very tasty part of a meal. And as I bit into the first of two slices of buttered bread I was allowed at every meal while attempting to ignore the rest of the food into nonexistence, it suddenly dawned on me: the bread itself is not what tastes so good. The reason this bread is so tasty is because it has butter on it.

And I’m in control of the butter now!

It may have been only for the few seconds that it took me to walk from the kitchen counter to the kitchen table, but for those few seconds I had near total authority over one of the few items of food I unabashedly enjoyed. So soon I got to thinking: what does butter taste like? Because if it makes bread taste so delicious, it must taste pretty good by itself, too.

This curiosity gradually turned into an obsession over my first few weeks of dutiful butter carrying. Plain butter was no longer something that “must taste pretty good by itself;” it was something that undoubtedly tasted better than anything else in the world. By not tasting the butter even though I was in charge of it, I was both disrespecting my position and depriving myself of the only possible source of enjoyment I could ever take from food. It was my right, my obligation, my goddamn patriotic duty to find out what it tasted like by itself.

But first I had to ask my mom.

“No,” she said.


“No,” she repeated. “That’s disgusting.”


“Go watch TV or something,” she said, one of the few times she ever uttered that phrase and the only time I was disappointed to hear it. My mother had just doomed me to live my life wondering what butter tasted like instead of finding out.

Or had she?

Sure, my mom had told me I couldn’t taste the butter, but she hadn’t revoked my responsibility. I still held the dish all by myself for about three seconds each night, which in theory gave me free reign to do with it whatever I felt was necessary, regardless of parental consent. And figuring out what it tasted like was something that I had recently decided was very, very necessary.

It took a few more weeks before I actually worked up the nerve to try it. Disobeying my parents was something that did not come naturally to me, to the point where sneaking into the kitchen to taste the butter when they weren’t there never even occurred to me. But eventually, curiosity overcame me, and I woke up one morning determined that tonight would be the night I solved the mystery.

My mom, dad and sister went about their business for the day as usual. Those poor fools in their perfect little bubbles had no idea what was about to happen just a few hours from now. I was fairly certain they never would either, as my sizable streak of incident-free butter carrying meant that my supervision had become very lax.

The evening started out normally enough. My dad called out “Dinner!” at 6:00 like he always did. I walked in towards the counter like I always did. I grabbed the butter dish like I always did, only this time I walked to the table at a slightly slower pace than usual, determined to maximize the amount of potential taste-testing time I would have. And then I slowly, slowly opened my mouth, stuck out the tip of my tongue, and touched it to the butter.

It tasted ok. At least, I think it did. My gustatory memories are slightly overshadowed by the shocked and disappointed cry of “Eddie!” coming out of my mom’s mouth immediately after I made contact. In retrospect, I don’t know why I thought I would be able to get away with licking butter when I was in the same room as two people who had made it clear they did not want me to lick butter. Chalk it up to youthful exuberance. Or, more aptly, stupidity.

My parents were crestfallen. Their first attempt to give their son responsibility had failed. Instead of ennobling him, it had corrupted him. They weren’t raising an Abraham Lincoln; they were raising a Richard Nixon. The only course of action was to dishonorably discharge me from this duty and assign me one that was less edible.

I was ashamed as well. At least, back then I was. But now that we’re in an age where fried butter is the latest craze at state fairs, I’m starting to think I was just ahead of my time.

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