August 2003

Iris Benaroia

nonfiction

Fried Butter by Abe Opincar

There are those that bemoan the tastelessness of artificially fattened fruit, the disappointment of a petrified pistachio, the putrefaction of cheese. And those that rejoice over fresh figs, vibrant saffron, and homecooked eggs fried in butter. Some people, sadly, don't give food much thought - but not San Diego writer/epicurist Abe Opincar. His aptly titled memoir, Fried Butter, is essentially a 164-page exploration of twin loves: food and people.

Opincar has an impressive travel log. He's been to Istanbul and Tijuana, schooled in France at fifteen and lived in Jerusalem and Japan. And his knowledge and love of international cuisine shows. His book, peppered with the characters of the landscapes he has visited, makes the memoir as much about travel and different cultures as food. The vignettes are sad (and sometimes humorous) little sketches of remembrances of things past - the melancholic musings of a divorced man reflecting on his life. In Paris, one friend feeds him black radishes while waiting for her brutish drunkard husband to return. In another, Fernanda, pregnant in Mexico City, becomes an entrepreneur of chorizo because she has "no particular faith" in her husband's potential. (Her success is derived from the mysterious spice - cinnamon - she adds to the meat mix.)

The pastiche of people appearing in a book as short as this is almost as overwhelming as keeping track of the names in a Russian novel, or Marquez's family tree in One Hundred Years of Solitude. But the brevity of the chapters make it manageable and loveable, once you figure out that the characters won't reappear. Like a traveller's diary, these are the people one meets in life's uprooted moments - or from childhood, friends and family. (Don't become attached to them, though you will want to since they are eccentrics spicier than Habanero chiles.)

Food lore is an essential ingredient flavoring Fried Butter. For instance, avocado, which comes from "the Aztec for testicle," explains Opincar, was cultivated as early as 6000 B.C. and connected to cannibalism. Wealthy merchants apparently paid to sacrifice slaves at the temple. "After his still-beating heart was offered to the gods, the unfortunate body was tossed down the temple's many steps. The body tumbled down to priests waiting to hack it to pieces." After the body was collected, family and friends of the wealthy person were served a portion of "human stew." Opincar links the modern kitchen with its past. Evidently, cannibals enjoyed the same guacamole devoured at Super Bowl parties - now there's food for thought.

In a similar historical vein, there's the disquieting account of how Jews during the Spanish Inquisition were monitored to make sure they were eating pig as a testament to their faith in Christianity. This is pretty common knowledge, but Opincar delves further: "European folklore explained that Jews did not eat pork because Jews were pigs in disguise. Jews forced to convert to Christianity were called Marranos, or swine...In Regensburg, Germany, a carving on the cathedral's exterior depicts Jews sucking a pig's teats...and well into the eighteenth century, one of the gates leading into Frankfurt was decorated with a painted relief showing a Jew sucking shit from a pig's ass."

A master of snappy openers, you can tell Opincar is a seasoned journalist used to vying for attention. "Poison has fallen out of favor..." begins Chapter Fourteen in a discussion about strychnine as he fantasizes about killing his sister-in-law, but instead sedates her with tryptophan-rich meals that induce sleep. He opens Chapter Fifteen with, "Not long before Dalia died she sent to buy a bottle of Chateau d'Yquem." Dalia is a beloved family friend who in his youth "underwrote" his education overseas. Despite the chapter's brevity, Opincar manages to achieve a haunting, poignant portrait of his benefactress. Cancer-ridden, but feisty, she tells him: "Sin in haste," and "repent at leisure." We don't know much about her, except for short passages such as these, but we understand why he misses her.

Opincar's readable style is to introduce characters as though they've already made an appearance. Sentences are pithy, compressed, devoid of too much exposition, showing he trusts his readers. A gifted storyteller, he has the knack for tugging at your emotions in the matter of a few pages. In the story of Jim and Raymond, friends who buy land and raise orange trees, he offers only their brief history, and is clearly fond of his characters: endearing Jim who overwaters the orange trees that grow much better after he dies of a heart attack while watering. Distraught after his death, one day Raymond writes, "To Whom It May Concern: I don't want this house" and leaves. Such a sad tale, the stuff of folklore, really - what becomes of traumatized Raymond who abandons his own home? Yes, this is a book more than about sustenance. It's about connections to people, historical periods and purloined moments revisited in memory. Vivid and dense, Fried Butter nourishes both the spirit and the palate.

Fried Butter by Abe Opincar
Soho Press
ISBN: 156947334X
152 Pages