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Fried Butter by Abe Opincar

"A way for me to take control"

I was ushered into Ms. Reichl’s sixth-floor office overlooking Times Square. She and her executive editor threw their hands in the air and said, “We loved your book!” An hour or so later I was outside calling my mother.
  • I was ushered into Ms. Reichl’s sixth-floor office overlooking Times Square. She and her executive editor threw their hands in the air and said, “We loved your book!” An hour or so later I was outside calling my mother.

Fried Butter: A Food Memoir

Soho Press; April 2003; 165 pages; $18.

"Your first book’s being published and you’re almost 42. Isn’t it a little late in the game to embark on a 'literary career'?"

"Well, it’s not like I’ve suddenly decided to dedicate my life to ballet or cheerleading. I’ve supported myself as a writer since I was 20, mostly here at the Reader. The book’s just an extension of what I’ve always done. Besides, the physical fitness requirements for being a writer are pretty minimal. In fact, now that I’m middle-aged. I’m probably in better shape to be a writer than I was at 20."

"How so?"

"Over the past year or so, I’ve gained 30 pounds, but little of it settled around my waist. It’s like being assigned one of those Emotional Support Animals — those dogs they issue to people with psychiatric disabilities. It’s always at my heels. A constant companion."

"So, you’ve long had an equivocal relationship with food. Did this play into your decision to write the pieces that make up your book?"

"Perhaps indirectly. I know that I started to become curious about food, in an intellectual way, in the early 1990s when I read a New York Times review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed. I still have the clipping somewhere. The book was an extended rant about the excesses of the Reagan era. It wasn’t about food. But the reviewer, a professor of medicine at the City University of New York, used his first paragraph to grouse about “yuppies who fattened themselves on walnut oil and creme fraiche.

"This interested me. Having lived in France a couple of times, I knew that walnut oil and crime fraiche (a kind of sour cream) were common in French kitchens and that the French didn’t attach any particular significance to eating them. I also knew that, ounce per ounce, calorie per calorie, walnut oil and crime fraiche weren’t magically more fattening than vegetable oil or plain old American sour cream.

"But I’d also lived in Israel, where I spent several years studying at yeshiva. I was familiar enough with Jewish dietary law, and the commentary on Jewish dietary law, to have a feel for the complicated reasons why people might choose to eat and drink some things and reject others. People make rules about food. These rules tell the stories that people use to make sense of their lives.

"Since that Times review appeared in 1990,1 tried to pay attention to what people were really talking about when they talked about food. Fried Butter is a collection of some of the stories I’ve told myself, and of stories that others have told me.

"Because I’ve traveled a bit, and because I know a lot of different people, these stories take place all over the world — China, Japan, Italy, Turkey, Iran, France, Israel, England, Mexico. A few even take place right here in San Diego."

"These pieces originally appeared in a weekly column in the Reader, 'Tip of My Tongue, ' written under the pseudonym Max Nash. How did they come together as a collection?"

"My brother died. Suddenly. He died when my family — or what was left of it — was just beginning to make peace with my father’s death, which had happened several years earlier.

"Not long after my brother’s death, a chronic health problem of mine became acute. Then came financial troubles. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to pay my mortgage. I had no money. Then my ex-wife published a book in which she devoted a chapter to her version of our brief and not altogether successful marriage. I haven’t read the book, but I understand that in it I appear as an unappealing cross between Ted Bundy and the Galloping Gourmet.

"At the time, my friends kept saying, “Abe, can’t you see the humor in all this?” I tried. The bank was calling and asking insinuating questions about why my mortgage payments were late. Also, my family was falling apart. My mother, sister-in-law, and nephew were spiraling into despair. I had to step in and play Big Daddy, start issuing orders, making decisions for them. When I wasn’t doing that, I was in bed. I was either in bed, or I was at the doctor’s office. Mostly, I was in bed. I was convinced that if I were to lie very, very still, nothing else bad would happen. I was right.

"Nothing else bad happened. But, since I was staying in bed 18 hours a day, nothing good happened either. In fact, nothing happened. After several months of playing Sleeping Beauty, I realized I had to get some forward motion going. I had to do something, anything. Even if I failed, I had to have something to look forward to, a reason to get out of bed.

"I’d written these pieces for 'Tip of My Tongue.' Almost everyone enjoyed them, and a few people had in the past suggested they might make a nice collection. I gathered up several and sent them to Juris Jurjevics at Soho Press in New York. I’d met Juris many years earlier. He’d always been nice to me. But he’d been James Baldwin’s editor at Dial Press. Juris is respected in New York as sort of an ambassador from a more thoughtful, writerly era in publishing. I was hesitant to let a literary guy like him see my work. But I figured that a rejection from Juris would at least be an elegant one. Something worth remembering.

"A few mornings after I sent Juris my pieces, FedEx knocked at my door. Juris had written me a page-long letter praising my work, saying that he would be delighted to fashion them into some sort of collection.

"This great, good thing was in some ways more difficult to bear than all the bad that preceded it. Of course, it’s true that you can’t apprehend happiness until you’ve known grief. What’s not often said is that the opposite is also true.

"I think I took almost two weeks to respond to Juris’s letter."

"Was your weight gain related to your brother’s death?"

"I’m glad we can finally return to the subject of my weight. I was starting to feel a little self-important, yammering on and on like that about my book.

"But, no. I wouldn’t so much relate my weight gain to my brother’s death as I would to lots of brandy and lactose-free milk. I drank a great deal of the two, mixed together with crushed ice, while I was ill. It seemed to be the only thing I could ingest that didn’t cause hours of agony. I didn’t tell my gastroenterologist about this — he’s not big on alternative medicine. But I’ve always figured that if you listen to your body, it will never steer you wrong."

"In a cunning — albeit charming — way, you 're avoiding the subject of your body and the ways it might have influenced your work. Why?"

"I just read that 30 percent of American kids are obese. When I was little, obese children were not in vogue. There wasn’t a fat kid on every street comer. When I was in grade school, being an obese child made it difficult to make friends.

"Any sane person would want to forget an experience like that. But you can’t. It colors the rest of your life. And there’s something humiliating about that, about having your life so influenced by something that’s beyond your control. It’s emasculating."

"Emasculating?"

"Men are supposed to be masters of their own destiny. We’re supposed to be in control. Women, on the other hand, talk all the time about how they’re undone, thwarted, bushwhacked by their bodies, by food. For women it’s an acceptable source of humor and irony. For men, to be so vulnerable is a sign of weakness.

"It’s logical, then, that I would want to portray my book as being the product of my interests and thoughts and not as a symptom of my unhappy childhood.

"But maybe it’s not so black and white. Given my past, it’s only normal that I should be very conscious of food and of the ways in which other people and I think about it. My writing about food was perhaps a way for me, at long last, to take control. By getting the book published, it was a way of showing myself that I was in control of my destiny. It was a way of trying to give myself a happy ending. Has it been a happy ending?

"The book could very well be published and then disappear from sight. I’ve had some surprisingly positive reviews in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle. But there’s a good possibility that no one will buy it and that I’ll never write another book again. Or it could be a minor success and I could contract a fatal, disfiguring disease. I hate to speculate. I was raised among Romanians, the most superstitious people on earth. I was taught that even smiling a little too broadly can tempt the Evil Eye.

"It just occurred to me that there might be a very real question as to just why I know how to say “Evil Eye” in five languages other than English. I don’t think normal well-adjusted people run around with that sort of information in their head. I do. It’s part of my brain chemistry.

"So, the most my brain will allow me to say is that having the book published has not been, nor could it have been, an across-the-board happy ending. But there have been some pleasant moments."

"Such as?"

"One was fairly early on in the whole process. Juris had just gotten my manuscript back from his copy editor. Soho Press is so small that they contract out their copy editing. Juris called me to say that in all his years at Soho, the copy editing bill for my manuscript was the lowest he’d ever received. My manuscript was squeaky clean.

"On the fundamental level of writing as work, that was a very gratifying thing to hear."

"So, what with the good reviews, the modest copy editing bill—you're not letting all this go to your head, are you?"

"Let me just say that not long ago, while I was in New York, Ruth Reichl, editor in chief of Gourmet magazine, invited me to talk with her about Fried Butter. So, I went to the Conde Nast building at 4 Times Square. I was ushered into Ms. Reichl’s sixth-floor office overlooking Times Square. When I walked in the room, she and her executive editor, John Willoughby, threw their hands in the air and said, “We loved your book!” An hour or so later I was outside at a pay phone, calling my mother, telling her what had happened. The experience had a pleasant cinematic quality.

"But later that afternoon, a friend took me to the City Bakery, a sort of very upscale cafeteria on West 18th Street. I was excited at being in the big city, at this famous restaurant. I was still kind of addled about my meeting at Gourmet. But while I was waiting in line to pay, a woman standing behind me leaned over, looked at the food on my tray, and said, 'My, oh, my! Big boy’s having a big meal, isn’t he?'

"Her husband, who was standing behind her, laughed. And the two of them stood there cackling as if what she’d said was the most hilarious thing they’d ever heard in their lives.

"Of all the millions of people in New York, of all the tens of thousands of visitors to the city, this couple had found their way to stand behind me at City Bakery.

"It was eerie. You can run, you see, but you can’t hide. Your past is always at your heels."

"Yes, well, that must have been disturbing. At any rate, since pure joy seems out of the question, let's try a different angle. Do you have any regrets about being a first-time author?"

"Regret. Yes. That’s something I’m more comfortable discussing. Regret repels the Evil Eye.

"My father and brother seem very serious about staying dead.

"I know that other people hear all the time, in one way or another, from their dearly departed. Disembodied voices. Chairs sliding across floors. Footsteps in the attic. Teacups rattling in the cupboard. A 'funny feeling' in the hallway.

"My father and brother don’t even bother appearing to me in my dreams, which is something that you’d think would be comparatively easy for a dead person to arrange, since it doesn’t involve any physical activity. But no. They don’t even visit me in my dreams.

"So, I regret that they’re not here. It’s nice to have a first book published, and I know that they would have been proud of me. I know that they would have been happy for me. I know that parts of my book would have made them laugh. My father and brother had wonderful senses of humor. I miss my father and brother. I long for them. I will miss them forever."

On Tuesday, June 24, at 7:30 p.m., Abe Opincar will discuss and sign Fried Butter at Warwick's, 7812 Girard Avenue, La Jolla.

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