It Always Goes Back to the Botulism



I poured the oats into the wooden bowl and sprinkled on some cinnamon. I added pecan halves next, absentmindedly  breaking them in half again, noting how much crispier they were then the ones I had used in the granola the week before. Those were rubbery, softer. I wasn’t sure if I should have used them. They seemed a little off, but then I realized I had never actually thought about a pecan so carefully. Usually, I used almonds or walnuts in my granola.  I stopped after adding just a few and googled  “soft pecans.” Some descriptions of pecans used the adjectives ‘soft and buttery’. But I wasn’t sure if those were soft and buttery or soft and rancid. I ended up compromising and used just a few.

I didn’t even need to measure the coconut oil and maple syrup. Ever since I noticed that Sirjana only used her hands to measure things I learned little ways to be free. It was like tying my shoes, making this granola. Mostly thoughtless now, unless a  pecan threw me off.

I taught a kindergarten enrichment class one semester and we memorized a new poem each week. We read it over and over and practiced it every time we lined up. Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”  crawled around in our heads for a week straight, and then we said the poem all the time. The immediate access to lyrical words powerful, emboldening. Ready for the taking. Miles to go before we slept. The horse and the man, the words, the place became familiar company, a place to land our thoughts. We could say the poem anytime we wanted, without notes. The muscle memory a conduit to the reassurance of companionship, just as the scent of the cinnamon threaded itself through me, no need for distraction by checking a recipe’s notes. I knew it all by heart.  It feels so good to be good at something. Anything. To experience the seamlessness.

The kindergartners would freeze when they forgot a word as they practiced it out loud for the first time. Or a wrong word got them going on a different track.  A sudden realization of being lost. I would instruct them to “start back at the beginning.” And then they’d try again. I did that with the pecans at first. I reached into the five-pound bag to try again, to find a different one that would feel right, that belonged, like finding the right word. Was it rubbery or soft? One felt better, but then another one felt worse. It is hard to sit with discomfort. What is the right decision? Use the pecans or throw them away?

I traced it back easily, my worry of food. Such a well-worn path. I stood at what would be its trailhead at age seven on a hot August day. Our kitchen was a shepherd for tomatoes at different stages. Two baskets just picked, sat on the counter next to the sink.  Pulp and seeds pooled on the cutting board. Quartered ones were moved in handfuls to the tall pots on the stove. Ripe ones laid in wait-still tethered by ripped strips of old sheets- out back in the garden. A garden prolific with tomatoes, a testament to my mom’s farming blood.

There was nothing to do on those hot August days but watch the sweet and sticky dirty earth coat the countertops, make my mom sweat.  Her cotton kitchen rag plump with random seeds and streaks of red and pulp, stained. She cut out the rotten parts, pushing them down the disposal; my dad ground them through the food mill. I noticed the cut-out corners, the wormy parts that filled the compost. Maybe a worm only eats part of a tomato because it needs to crawl out for air, I thought, standing there, waiting for the tomatoes to finally stop growing in the garden.

I could finally see into the tall pots that held the final stage of sauce. They were cooling. My mom went to the basement to get more Mason jars, they were almost ready to be canned. It was the end of the day and my mom was tired, tired of tomatoes and bored children, the kitchen. She willingly took on the job to do it each year and I never questioned why; instead I soaked in her belief that homemade canned tomato sauce made us special in some important way. But I spent each August in a sort of misery, wondering about my future. Would I have to can tomatoes when I grew up?  I heard her coming up the steps and impulsively stuck my finger in, to try just a taste. The sharpness hit my tongue, unexpected sourness that made me take a step back. It reverberated forever. There my mom stood with jars in both hands.  She had always told me to stay back from the big heavy pots. I should have listened. I retreated as she puts the jars in the oven along with a thermometer that she balances on the rack.  

“Why are you doing that”, I asked, the sour taste of tomatoes lingering on my tongue. She explained to me about botulism, how jars need to be sterile, that cans have to be sealed so that germs can’t get in. “What is botulism?” I asked again, inside warning rising. Heartbeat in my head.

I looked at my finger and assembled the information, the incomplete puzzle of facts. I realized with dread that maybe I had contaminated the pot of cooling sauce. There would be botulism, there would be sickness then death. It would all be my fault. My arms went numb, the lump in my throat fell to the cavity of my stomach. My mom sighed, but not because she knew what I did. She sighed from weariness, from the want to get this last batch done. At least ten jars left. I stood paralyzed by the burden of decision, do I tell my mom I tasted the sauce? She had worked on those baskets of tomatoes all day. It seemed like an inconceivable waste to throw it all away. My thoughts swam around, back and forth as time disappeared.

She sealed the jars, I helped her carry them downstairs, my stomach sinking with each step. I wondered which jar the botulism would be in. I planned to try and keep track of the new batch. But she moved them in and around the shelves in the cold cellar. Ten, twenty, thirty jars looked like hundreds. For two winters that followed I watched my family eat homemade pizza and spaghetti, I waited for signs of botulism to appear, I wondered when we would all begin to die. It was lonely to keep such a burdensome secret. I made pleas to the universe to never do anything wrong again.

3 thoughts on “It Always Goes Back to the Botulism

  1. Megan, I am often reminded of this excerpt when I read your writing. I thought I would pass it on!

    Kim Helsel District Supervisor of English West Morris Regional High School Central: 908-879-5212 ext. 1501 Mendham: 973-543-2501 ext. 1501

    On Fri, Mar 31, 2017 at 1:50 PM, megan houston sager wrote:

    > megan sager posted: ” I poured thickly cut oats into the wooden bowl, > sprinkled on some cinnamon, some pecan halves. I absentmindedly began > breaking them in half again, noting how much crispier they were than the > ones I had used those in the granola the week before. Those we” >


    • Kim, that essay, year 1986, how did you ever remember it? What an insightful read, I am incredibly grateful that you sent it to me. Thank you.
      I listened to a podcast yesterday in the car -10 minute writing workshops–and one with Mario Batali who talked about food when he traveled, his quest to find dishes that “told him where he was,” the local expression. It reminds me a bit of what Paule Marshall is describing much more deeply–the quirks of individual kitchen conversations, of true local flavors and the potential of them as metaphors for the bigger experience of life. The duality of beautiful-ugly also struck me–how there is so much simultaneous pain and pleasure in ordinary experiences that echo into the future.


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