MEMOIR from The Terrible Strain and Other Stories ...
Of Smoked Eels and Cat Burgers ...
Remembering now the smokehouse my dad made out of an old refrigerator. He drilled holes in the top. Cadged a pile of hickory sticks from his landscaper brother. He fastened the dead eels by a bent wire slung through their tidy mouths. He then hung them from a grill he rigged at the top of the fridge. Dad tindered the wood with some splinters of pine and when it was fired-up the smell of hickory smoke and fishy eels filled the neighborhood. Those eels were dee-licious. I couldn't stand any other kind of seafood, it all tasted like poop to me. But the eels, with some cold beer, c'mon, that was heaven.
For a while we got supplemental foods from welfare. One of these generic victuals was a kind of potted meat that was supposed to resemble burger but I suspect it was a hash. Dad would pop open a couple cans, slurp it out of the container and slice then into burger-sized servings. These he cooked on a stone fireplace he built in the backyard. The black kids from the front house (we lived between two streets and the "front house" was one of three places my grandparents sold out to a slumlord who broke them up; they were supposed to be mortgaged to my folks) ... Anyway, Doc, Nel and Johnny would smell the meat cooking. Those kids didn't get much food and Dad liked them; he had a soft spot for people who went through hard times, him growing up with nine brothers and sisters in a 5-room shack in the woods, when there were woods, on Long Island. The three boys would sneak stealthily behind the big hedges on the north side of the house and Doc, the oldest, would get up the gumption to call out: "What-chew cookin' Missa Crawfit" ... My father got a kick out of this. He knew they were there. He knew things before they happened.
"Cat burgers. You wanna eat some cat?" We had a thousand leg-rubbing cats in those days some indoor most outdoor all mewling and ravenous and circling around us like furry sharks while we sat in front of the fireplace, careful to avoid the dry cess pit cover where "Puff the Magic Dragon" lived, according to Dad. He was always worried I would fall down there. "You eat yo' own cats?" Nel asked, not surprised necessarily. They were farm boys and they'd seen a lot of barnyard gore. Why not cats? "Sure, they're good for your brains," Dad said. The boys were so shy about asking for food but they couldn't help themselves; the smell of cooking meat just put a spell on them. Finally Dad would tell them to quit hiding in the bushes and come into the yard. The burger buns were already toasting and we had plenty of "Cat burgers" to spare and they each got one smeared with ketchup and mustard, sometimes sweet pickles.
"How you skin them so they ain't no fur on the meat?" Doc asked. He was beginning to doubt the cat meat story. "Well, son, there is more than one way to do it," and Dad laughed at his own joke.
The three boys ate and got all happy, doing a crazy food-dance. It was probably the first real sustenance that hit their bellies all day besides their own welfare peanut butter and raisins (we had those too). "Dang, this cat meat is good Missa Crawfit!" said Johnny, the youngest and spindliest (they were the sons of an Alabama sharecropper and you can bet I talked like them a few months into our companionship). Dad would smile his tight, amused-with-himself-and-the-world smile. Then it was our turn for some cat burgers and I felt bad because we both got two apiece. Mom wouldn't have them nor my sis. I think my brother was the only one who braved the mystery meat when he was around, usually a hot, late summer afternoon. Dad told the boys it was time to skedaddle and they did, always asking when we were gonna be making cat burger barbecue again. "Soon as we fatten up and skin a couple more of these devils," Dad said. "You can come back next time." The boys were delighted. And they had politeness beat into them, I'd seen it. They each thanked Dad for the food and tore off for home.
"Those poor kids don't get nothing to eat up at that house," Dad said, making a plate for me and one for himself.