Saturday, April 14, 2007

James Dean: A Recipe and a Memory

A Recipe and Insight from the life of James Dean.

The Eclectic Sandwich Delight

(Ingredients vary depending on what is available)

Peanut Butter

Strawberry Jam

2 slices of bread

onion so thinly sliced you can see through it.

Tomato “ditto”

Lettuce “ditto”

One of the big, fat dill pickles also sliced very, very thin

Potato chips, crushed to the tiniest possible shreds

Ketchup for dipping mostly

Lightly toast the bread so there is no brown but it is just a little crisp. Slather on the peanut butter on one piece and the Strawberry Jam on the other. Layer on the onion and tomato so that the whole surface of the peanut butter is covered only once with each. Then sprinkle with the well crushed potato chips and cover with the very, very thin slices of pickle, and just enough pickle so that the surface is barely covered. Sprinkle lettuce with a touch of Ketchup on top and cover with the other slice of bread.

Jimmy cut his on the diagonal. I liked that. Served with lemonade and a small glass of milk.

I saw this sandwich prepared and assembled and then consumed by James Dean in the early 1950s. I was struck at how precise he was and how thin the tomato and onion were sliced. Jimmy and I both wore glasses nearly all the time so I tended to lean in close to watch and nearly got my nose trimmed. I was very young at the time.

Jimmy had dropped by at lunch time for a chat and most probably for a bite to eat. He was very skinny and Mom was sure he needed a meal. His Mom and my Mom had known each other before Jimmy's Mom died. Jimmy ate lunch sitting at my small table with me in the kitchen. Mom had already eaten, actually. Jimmy showed me how to peel up the top of my sandwich (Beanie, with just peanut butter and the jam) and sprinkle on the crushed potato chips. I loved it. Then he let me have a bite of his; interesting taste.

Jimmy had unusual tastes in food but when he assembled things it worked even when you thought it wouldn't.

(From my book, What Jimmy Taught me about Growing Up.)

After lunch we went into the back yard.

Mom was showing her roses to Jimmy, pointing out the colors and other details like aphids. The War of the Aphids was a theme that brought on updates at various times to all of us. I wandered off. I was not much interested in roses. I had been pushed into a small grove of them some months earlier and had not forgotten the experience of being a pin cushion.

I went off to play under the Avocado Tree while they talked. That was my favorite destination in the back yard for making mud pies. The Tree murmured, making comforting, familiar sounds as its leaves danced and wavered in the wind. Being under the Tree made me feel like there was a tent over head and under the Tree it was always cool.

For some reason the mud there was especially fine grained and therefore looked like chocolate. Didn't taste like chocolate though. I had already ascertained that on a previous occasion. As I made up hamburger patties of mud, folding these into other shapes suddenly an idea struck me.

I had something I wanted to show Jimmy. I knew he would like to see it; he would appreciate it as no one else would. They were just walking back into the house when I grabbed Jimmy's hand. I told him he had to come look at something – right now. My mother smiled and went in the house. Stevie had started to cry, I could hear him.

A tingle of excitement runs through me even now when I remember dragging Jimmy by the hand over the concrete pathway along the side of the garage. My arm was up at an angle because he was so much taller than me. I looked ahead to the rather dense and tall bush against the back fence. On one brief occasion I was off the ground because I was pulling so hard. Jimmy was going to be impressed, I just knew it.

I rounded the tall bush and pointed, triumphantly. The bush leaned slightly outward, creating a small alcove behind it. There was just a foot or so of space and there was my prize. I had been visiting it for weeks. I don't know how it got there. It certainly had not been ours. The dead Tortoise had been past all hope when I first found it there spread eagled on its back. I had been watching it being eaten by ants for these many weeks, never mentioning it to anyone. I tried to look every few days, although I knew that I should not tell Mom. She would remove it, I was pretty sure.

Jimmy looked at the Tortoise for a long time, just standing there. Then he squatted down to get a better look, pushing the bush aside. He looked at me and smiled, his eyes crinkling up at the corners, as I stood there waiting for his reaction. I have lived a long life but I have never again been so right about someone who was still nearly a stranger. Jimmy was delighted; he nodded. We understood each other.

Then Jimmy told me that he had watched the same process himself back in Fairmount only it was with a whole cow.

I shuddered. Cows were huge and without shells you could see much more. Jimmy was the first person with whom I discussed the physical process of mortality. Normally, when things like gold fish died they were immediately buried, usually in the toilet after a brief prayer. That did not allow me to check back and see how things were going.

I had yet to persuade my parents to let me bury a deceased goldfish in a Band aid box to be dug up later for minute examination. The tortoise came first. Jimmy filled me in on various aspects of the process with horrid expressions of face and gestures of hands as he made rubbery faces that made me laugh.

We had a cat then, Tiger Lady, later Tiger when his gender was correctly identified. Tiger was still a fluffy kittenish presence then. Mortality was an issue still past my horizon for anything but goldfish and the tortoise. I was curious about the physical process of death, but Jimmy did not leave it there. With Jimmy answers led inevitably to more questions.

Jimmy told me right then and there that the essence of the Tortoise was gone. Its form remained but the thing that had built it out of the raw materials of the Earth, just like we were built, had left its body and moved on.

With just a few words Jimmy had given me more things to think about. From the process of the deterioration of the physical body we had arrived at the question of the force that created and moves the body while it lives and the destination of that essence after death.

Those questions were revelations in themselves.

How were we built out of the Earth I wondered, looking down at the dirt? I put that thought away for another time. Now I wanted to know where the Tortoise had gone, if anyplace. I asked Jimmy. He paused, cocked his head to one side and looked right at me. He told me he did not know, exactly; he wondered himself if it was a place we could really understand while we were still in our bodies. Perhaps we would have to wait to know. He told me that if he found out he would tell me. He nodded as he said this. Jimmy did not mind admitting the limits of his knowledge.

The death and aftermath of the life of Tortoise opened up a series of conversations about the nature of the world to me that filled several of Jimmy's visits and spilled over into conversations with my father, too.

Death, Jimmy told me, was not the end of the life of a Tortoise any more than it was the end of our own lives when death came. The essence that made us what we are continued. When he told me this he pointed out that I could not see the wind, only the things the wind carries. I was only aware of the light when it was gone. But all of these things were far more tangible than the essence that created and moved the Tortoise. All continued; Death was transition and illusion.

I already accepted that Jimmy would not lie to me; that was part of the trust that came with his reaction to the Tortoise. But I had learned that people would tell me things that were not strictly factual and often thought this was funny. Jimmy didn't do that. Jimmy told me the truth as he saw it about everything that came up. Then he told me to think it out for myself and never, never accept what others say as the truth until I had done that.

That was the first lessons that Jimmy taught me. Death is not the end; the essence continues; question what you think is true; trust yourself. These were lessons I would carry with me always.