As a child, I used to wonder why my grandmother never ate butter. Not only would she carefully check all her meals for any trace of the offending diary product, she would refuse, even to have it in the house. One Christmas she explained why. Decades before, when she was a little girl, her own mother had sent her to the store with a list of groceries, which included butter. On the way home, she became curious. The block of butter the grocery clerk had placed inside the cloth sack looked and smelled so appetizing that she opened up the paper wrapping, stuck her finger inside, scooped out a small piece, and ate it. It was wonderful. How in the world had she turned out to be so lucky to be alone with such a magically delicious, creamy hunk of churned and fermented cream? She ate another finger full, then another, then another. Finally she sat down on the curb and ate the rest of it with her hands, all of it, an entire pound of butter, a meal that probably amounted to something like 10,000 calories. Needless to say, by the time she got home, she was violently sick. Add to that the beating she took for stealing – my grandmother’s severe German American family enthusiastically practiced corporeal punishment for even the slightest infraction of discipline – and it was enough to put her off butter for the rest of her life.
For some reason, she had no trouble using margarine.
Proust began to write Remembrance of Things Past after a taste of a Madeleine cookie brought back his childhood so vividly it was no longer the past. I had not thought about my grandmother’s refusal to eat butter for decades, probably not since she died in 1977. Today at my job as a dishwasher I was exceptionally busy. On weekends, I normally have a helper come in from five to midnight. On Wednesday, when it’s usually quiet, however, I man the dish washing station all by myself. Tonight, it was not quiet. Table after table was served. Pile after pile of dishes were sent back my way to be cleaned. I have no problem with dishes, or pots and pans, or even large grill tops that have been used to fry meat for hours and hours, but there is one thing that I find almost impossible to clean. Every table gets a small tin cup full of butter, fatty, unhealthy, delicious churned and fermented cream right from the cow, so rich and so appetizing it almost looks like ice cream. Very few of the health conscious, bourgeois clientele, however, consume the whole tin. This I do not understand. Why pay for an expensive meal in an Americanized French bistro specializing in food that would cause a vegan to have an emotional breakdown if you’re not going to eat the butter?
In any event, my job requires me to spray the dishes with soap and hot water, then run them through a sanitizer. When I have time, I put the little tins of butter in a plastic jar of hot water, shake them up, then pour the melted butter into the grease catcher. When things start getting busy, however, when waitress after waitress comes back with pile after pile of dirty dishes, and the head chef starts looking at me with an indulgent yet commanding expression — she’s very good at indulgent yet commanding expressions — I often lose track of what I’m blasting with scalding water. Hunks of butter often get mixed in with the other dishes. Two or three tins of the stuff melted into the dirty dish water, and you’d just as soon be washing the dishes with salad oil. You fall further behind. The waitresses bring more dishes. The head chef’s gaze becomes even more indulgent and more commanding. Eventually, you want to throw up your hands in despair and quit. When the Mexican guy who had proceeded you in the job, and who had very recently promoted to fry cook, sighs angrily, curses to himself in Spanish — which you actually understand because you’ve been studying it for the past three years — then comes back to help, saving the entire kitchen from your butter induced incompetence, you realize you have not only failed as a human being, you have failed as a dishwasher.
Then you remember the old story about how your grandmother was beaten for eating a whole a pound of butter on the way home from the store, and suddenly you understand what it must have felt like, her ass dripping with greasy fat as her father applied the leather strap, her stomach feeling as if it would come up out of her throat, her soul crying in despair to God – or the devil – that if he let her live, never again would she touch those creamy curds of hell, or even allow them in the house.