Frances Lefkowitz

Perhaps Bitter is Not Poison After All

You have to teach a child to eat arti­chokes, demon­strate the peel­ing of each leaf which is real­ly a petal, the glean­ing of the ten­der, the dis­card­ing of the shell. Still, what would make a tod­dler eat this? Everything about her, from taste buds to gri­mace to savan­nah his­to­ry, knows that bit­ter is poi­son. Why would her instincts be wrong? She scrapes that cake out with the peb­bles that pass for teeth, then swal­lows. She adjusts to all condi­ments: may­on­naise, melt­ed but­ter, even­tu­al­ly vinai­grette. She grows up to be a woman who does not need very much to be happy.


The Smell of Prowess

If you have a ket­tle in your genet­ics, you will feel guilt at drop­ping even a speck. This is not a dain­ty her­itage; it is one that wheezes and growls, that squats and lifts oxen-drawn carts in a rage or on a dare, send­ing clouds of poul­try feath­ers back to the ranch. Five towns over the milk maids know your fam­i­ly name, pro­nounce it with a pleas­ant trep­i­da­tion while sit­ting on the wood­en stool, a cramp threat­en­ing their palms, the smell of prowess in the air. But now you are on a new con­ti­nent in a new age, with a name that shares just a first syl­la­ble with your old one, as if more than half of you had jumped over­board on the cross­ing. “I’m in sales,” you say to the woman who is so blonde to your dark that your his­to­ries can­not speak the same lan­guage. If she made it a point to tell the truth with­out dress­ing it up, she would tell you that your mus­cles are suf­fo­cat­ing, that they were not made for sit­ting or suits or seal­ing up flat expen­sive pack­ages for FedEx. Instead, she says, “Aren’t we all?” You have been with plen­ty of women, but this one has irony, and you won­der if she bleeds. You decide to leave and to lie, walk out with a limp, in search of your cane, your per­son­al arrow, pin­ning you to a past you have heard about only in rumors.


Gathering and Hunting

She was pick­ing slugs out of the let­tuce. It was the least she could do. Everyone else was off at war, some­times called work. The anec­do­tal evi­dence sug­gests man must work and the birds fly. The foren­sic evi­dence sug­gests man must fight over bar­ley, over elk, over fuel. She watched a demon­stra­tion once, an arche­ol­o­gist show­ing how to make an arrow­head, audi­ence sti­fling yawns. Instead of obsid­i­an, he used the thick bot­tom of a jug wine bot­tle,  more read­i­ly avail­able nowa­days than the black vol­canic glass. His hands were bloody, his pride was high. This was not a man who would stay home to gath­er, to sub­tly light fires to make seeds bloom more fer­vent­ly next year in a man­ner that was not quite gar­den­ing, but still implied inti­ma­cy and fore­thought. Neither would he bend over wood­en box­es, reach unblood­ied fin­gers between shards of let­tuce, feel for the round slime. Some of the slugs are dots, full of poten­tial; oth­ers have length­ened, even repro­duced. She is del­i­cate in her scoop, to avoid bruis­ing the greens and reds, the frills, the tongues of all those edi­bles. Then she smash­es, with stone, stick, or those unblood­ied fin­gers. But per­haps they now have blood on them.


Frances Lefkowitz is the author of To Have Not, named one of five “Best Memoirs of 2010″ by She has been nom­i­nat­ed for twice for the Pushcart Prize, once forBest American Essays, and once for the James Beard Award for Food Writing, among oth­er near-awards. She is at home here.