It has come to my attention that within the dog-eat-dog underworld of the culinary industry, there is a clandestine movement afoot to discredit my food writing. The chief criticisms are that I don’t actually cook and my essays aren’t about food. This has gotten on my last nerve! I put forth that any creature in possession of an alimentary canal knows plenty about food. The basics are simple: If you don’t eat, you will die, and bacon tastes better than rice cakes. Nutrition is for the food writer as ornithology is for the birds!
To reassure the skeptics, my bona fides are as follows. For more than a decade I worked in seventeen different restaurants, cafés, and bars. My career began in Morehead, Kentucky, at a Burger Queen and ended at Doyle’s Cafe in Boston, Massachusetts. I worked as a dishwasher, busboy, prep cook, steward, breakfast cook, soda pop pourer, sandwich maker, barista, and waiter. I got fired often, although never for reasons related to job performance. The most common reason was a mysterious word—“insubordination”—essentially a pretext used by power-mad bosses to shed themselves of people they didn’t like. Or in my case, a person who resisted the lure of kissing the boss’s b-hole. Of all the professional sadness in the world, the most poignant is that of assistant managers at a restaurant. Their priority is scheduling shifts for a waitstaff that makes more money than managers. Their only recourse is firing people.
A deeply personal matter led to my decade in the restaurant business and subsequent “career” as a food writer. At age fifteen I met a girl. Nothing is as powerful as the extraordinary jolt of a teenager’s first love. It’s like seeing the world after a double-cataract surgery. Life is suddenly exquisite. Each leaf becomes the bearer of unbearable beauty. Romeo and Juliet were so deliriously happy that they embraced murder and suicide as an ideal solution. I didn’t go that far, but I fell deeply and totally in love with Kim. She was smart, pretty, and laughed at my jokes. I spent all my waking hours trying to talk to her, eventually moving up to walking around holding hands. Our six-week romance was the best of my life—virtuous, finite, and gloriously unprecedented. I never again knew such an all-encompassing joy.
We met doing summer stock theatre as part of a college recruitment program for promising high school students. This occurred before the advent of portable music devices, which meant we listened to the radio. Every lyric seemed to be about us, directed exclusively at the impermeable dome in which we lived. Our favorite song was “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band, in which he spoke of the pompitous of love. Neither Kim nor I knew exactly what the phrase meant, but we felt it described what we had, a kind of purity and truth. We were pompitous. Our love embodied pompitousness. We sought pompity.
In mid-August Kim returned home to western Kentucky, two hours away. We wrote each other daily, a pace that dwindled in frequency to weekly, then monthly. We called each other a few times, long spells with each of us clutching the receiver silently, content to know the other person was on the line. She visited me once, driving with a couple of her friends who clearly evaluated me as deficient: too short, too poor, non-athletic. Plus I was from the hills and looked it. I didn’t even own a car to reciprocate her visit. We stopped writing. I never saw Kim again, but I never forgot her.
Her grandfather was Fred Purnell, a former railroad man who founded Purnell’s “Old Folks” Sausage company in Simpsonville, Kentucky. According to family lore, Fred loved listening to the elderly talk, a trait that earned him the phenomenal nickname of “Old Folks.” I deeply envy his sobriquet. As a child I also enjoyed hearing tales of the old days. This has evolved into a secret desire that young people would be interested in hearing me talk. As it is, I can’t even get my wife to listen to a word I say. My nickname could readily be “Husby Ignored” or “He Who Talks Too Much.”
Purnell’s Sausage began as a family company and still maintains that status, which is quite unusual in the corporate era of Big Pork. For example, Smithfield Foods began as a family operation in Virginia and was America’s biggest pork company until it was bought by a Chinese corporation for seven billion dollars. (Yes, that’s 7,000,000,000 bucks!) Industrialized pork created a lucrative side business, the never-ending disposal of hog feces. If you can withstand the dreadful smell, it’s a wide-open field for a “manure entrepreneur.”
The packaging of Purnell’s sausage features a drawing of a cheerfully grinning pig’s face. It’s a great design: simple, bold, and memorable. At least as long as you ignore the obvious—what the hell does that pig have to be happy about? His entire family is encased in frozen wrappers for sale! Setting aside the complex emotional life of a hog, what enthralled me most was the slogan: “The Country Sausage that’s Going to Town!”
When I was a child living on a dirt road in the country, there was nothing better than going to the nearest town. Morehead had paved streets, multiple two-story buildings, and sidewalks. One building was rumored to contain an elevator. A ten-cent store sold model cars and Hot Wheels. The corner drugstore had comic books and nickel Cokes. The prospect of going to Morehead on Saturday sustained me throughout the tedious week of attending school. My mother’s greatest punishment was forbidding her kids from accompanying her to town. Merely the threat impelled me to prompt obedience. (The worst period of my life was being banned from Morehead for a month. After reading that Daniel Boone had stained his skin with walnut juice to pass as a Shawnee, I smeared the brown inner oil all over my body. It didn’t wash out.)
The phrase “going to town” has another, more generalized and colloquial definition. It means to carry out something with great enthusiasm, fully committed and doing the best you can—such as eating. That boy is going to town on that sausage! As a food slogan, it connotes the ambition of a country staple that’s heading out, putting the farm behind, eager for the bright lights. Maybe that’s why the pig was so happy. The enthusiasm for departure was a form of ignorance at the true destination—the bloody fate of a slaughterhouse. Like me in later years, that pig would often wish it had stayed home, safe in the hills.
I recently learned that the Purnell motto was discontinued sometime in the mid-1970s. The new slogan, currently in use on all their products, is bland and innocuous: “It’s Gooo-od.” The phrase is better utilized in a verbal fashion, drawing out the syllable for emphasis. Written, it’s harder to comprehend, leading one to mentally pronounce it as “gew-odd.” Still, it sounds less old-fashioned and is faster to say on TV and radio. (I guess they had to go with an elongated form of “good” because Tony the Tiger had already appropriated “They’re Gr-r-reat!” to endorse Frosted Flakes.) Most important, it’s true. Purnell’s sausage is the best sausage in the world.
I began wondering if the new motto was a business decision or a family mandate due to Kim’s interest in me around the same time. Maybe the Purnells didn’t want my country sausage coming to Louisville. It’s gooo-od that we got rid of that bumpkin early! Feeling rejected, I realized I could simply call Kim and ask her what motivated the new motto. I immediately became terrified that she wouldn’t remember me, or that she’d consider me a stalker with a forty-year delay. The best-case scenario would be if we talked for hours, met in person, fell in love, and I left my wife to move to Louisville and eat sausage forever. That would also be the worst-case scenario.
It took two days to generate the courage necessary to make the call, and I immediately ran into a problem—there were dozens of people with her name living in the U.S.A. I got in touch with a local private detective named “Larry,” who advised me of a cheap online search engine that he used to track down deadbeats and bail jumpers. My Internet sleuthing resulted in calling her father in Louisville, who said Kim was on vacation in the Bahamas, had two kids, and was celebrating her fortieth wedding anniversary. He said I could call back later and get Kim’s cell number from his wife. I thanked him and hung up.
While waiting impatiently, I received a telemarketer’s call, which irritated me with its rude intrusion. I then felt bad for bothering an old man at home. I decided to return to the Internet, that great fount of public knowledge. Kim had little online information aside from one designation as “homemaker.” Incidentally, my birth certificate lists the same occupation for my mother. Maybe it is nomenclature particular to Kentucky. I quickly ran a search on the term and learned that the actress Jennifer Garner might be “the perfect homemaker” because she organizes the schedules for her three kids and husband. On the same “news” site, I learned that Nicole Kidman still doesn’t know why it took her husband Keith Urban four months to ask her on a first date. (OMG!) And that there are at least eight “Royals” I should follow on Twitter.
Elsewhere, I found out that Kim’s husband was a successful businessman who owned a tractor dealership. Like a modern-day Game of Thrones episode, two prominent business families had merged—vehicles and sausage—and I wondered why they didn’t combine them into a car that ran on hog manure instead of gasoline. (Toyota is already on this with its recent production of the Mirai, an automobile that runs on hydrogen produced by cow dung.) From the looks of things, Kim had a nice life, a good husband who golfed, and grown kids with no criminal record.
For some unknown reason the whole thing made me feel sad. The search had been more enticing than achieving the goal, similar to the excitement of going to town. Once I got there, it was full of stores I couldn’t afford and people who knew I was from the bad part of the county, home to bootleggers, arson, and gunplay. In my melancholic state, I imagined that Kim was sad, too. Her life as a homemaker surrounded by golf equipment and tractors was unfulfilling. I understood that I was projecting my own sadness onto her, and I began feeling profound despair. It made no sense. Perhaps I was envious. Maybe I yearned less for her than the life I believed her family led—privileged, entitled, part of the social elite of western Kentucky.
I wanted box seats at the Kentucky Derby, a vacation home on the beach, and a fleet of luxury automobiles. I wanted a low golf handicap and an air-conditioned tractor cab. I wanted to be a happy pig smiling on the package, exuberant about going to town. What I really wanted was to be fifteen years old and walking around in the summer holding hands with a girl as innocent as I was, an innocence that would end quickly and harshly for me. That’s why I was sad. But one thing always makes me happy: eating Purnell’s “Old Folks” Sausage.
Later it occurred to me that my despondency was not new but refreshed, like a relapse, or in my case, “a re-sad.” It was the slippery sadness of knowing that at age fifteen, I’d inadvertently brushed against a world into which I could never fit. The “right way” of living life in America. A marriage of forty years. Money and tractors, trips to the Bahamas, tailored suits. I wasn’t cut out for that kind of life, but having grown up in the land of opportunity, I felt as if some part of it should be mine. Face-to-face with my own past and an imagined life that could have been, I underwent a terrible epiphany. I’d spent decades convinced that I didn’t want something simply because it wasn’t available to me. I’d persuaded myself that striving to live well in middle America was false and empty, not for me. But I hadn’t discarded those values, I’d been denied them in the first place. The lack of access made me judge the people who’d accomplished their version of the American dream. Now, like most of us, I was trapped with the life I’d made: car payments, sore back in the morning, worries about money. Instead of seeing what I had, everything that lay before me reminded me of my own failures. I would never own a tractor.
Later my wife told me I was too sensitive for the Internet. But it wasn’t the Internet, and it wasn’t Kim or the life I’d imagined for her. It wasn’t even sensitivity or sadness, but a kind of wistfulness, a yearning for something beyond reach. I’ve known many people who strove upward. They shed their accents and preferences, pressuring themselves to pass at what came easily for others. They lived under perpetual duress. They seemed brittle around the edges, tense through the neck and face, as if afraid of being found out—an imposter from the dirt living in the city. Too often they died young, the strain eventually getting the better of them. At least, I told myself, I’d get old!
Despite my romantic concept of love at fifteen, there had never been anything for me in Louisville, or any of the big villes. I was more likely to work in the slaughterhouse than in sales; wear coveralls, not a suit; judge pies at the county fair, not a Miss Kentucky contest. I was destined to remain perpetually on the outside of whatever side was in.
I decided not to call Kim. I couldn’t bring myself to tamper with the memory preserved. I needed the illusion of past perfection. What we had was puppy love, the stuff of movies and books. Over time she came to represent genteel society, socializing with elegant people in a gated community with a swimming pool. I’d have hated it. They would regard me as a “character” and I’d probably die young! What I really wanted was enough of a view into that world that I could discard it myself. As it was, I’d always felt barred from the upper-class order of niceties and etiquette, linen suits and bow ties.
I wouldn’t call Kim because the worst-case scenario had shifted. Now I had a new fear. She would tell me that she had never forgotten our summer and was willing to change her life for me like the sausage changed its slogan. I’d patiently explain that as much as I wanted to be part of her world, it was too late now. I’d be slumming at the country club the same way she’d been slumming in the hills all those years before. She found her life and I found mine. She was the only woman I’d loved who I hadn’t hurt. I couldn’t risk doing so now.
I resolved to never call her. I will live on my muddy acreage and drive my pickup truck and plant trees every fall. I will swing a sickle, not a golf club. I will wear my Carhartt jacket and my feed store cap. I will eat Purnell’s “Old Folks” Sausage twice a week. And I will always deeply miss the past, when every pork label proclaimed its glory: “The Country Sausage that’s Going to Town.”
Meet someone your own age.
Like that person more than anyone ever.
Hold hands in public.
Kiss in private.
Never do anything more.
Never see that person again.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.