In the realm of emotional bookkeeping, there is literally no number of doughnuts that equals the cost of picking up the check at a waterfront restaurant.
The first in a series called I’m Not Finished: Memoirs of an Eater.
My maternal grandfather, Carl Pilbeam, remarried when I was almost three years old. I have but one fleeting memory of that afternoon: a group of us under a huge shade tree in front of Grandpa’s farmhouse, outside Victor, in upstate New York. What I do remember, in much more vivid scraps, is a summer night outdoors at the same farm right around that time, a few glaring spotlights, clanging, laughing, and the smell of smoke. I remember it was a clam roast because it was the only clam roast my family has ever had. And because clams at a clam roast are incredibly delicious.
I knew my grandfather as a man of constants until he died at the age of 97. The only incident I ever saw him lose his temper over had to do with a game of gin rummy. He was incurably sociable, a Rotarian and Friday Fish-Fry guy, and incapable of traveling anywhere without running into someone who recognized his heavy-set frame topped with a Napa cap on his bald head. He was an eater, big hungry country boy division, who specialized in ice cream, fruit pies, and the type of doughnut called a fried cake. When Grandpa went to buy doughnuts in the morning, so the family catechism went, one dozen were for the family and one dozen were for Grandpa’s drive home in the truck.
The other constant was that Grandpa Pilbeam was a comfortable retiree. That relative affluence was, in fact, the result of an almost tectonic shift in his life, one that occurred during the earliest years of my life. Within a short period, he was widowed, remarried, and he sold nearly all of his 80 acres to a race-track company new to the Finger Lakes region. That sale transformed the life of a man born the ninth of twelve children, who had an eighth-grade education, and who spent most of his life working multiple jobs on small farms and as a machinist until he somehow bought a chunk of land with the then-unelectrified farmhouse my mother would grow up in. You might say that the sale afforded him, for the first time in his life, the pleasures of having a life-style. It included a small motorboat and many, many senior bus-tour trips.
The sale, a shrewd enough business deal, may have transformed his life but it didn’t transform the man. My grandfather stayed frugal even as the money allowed him to express his native hospitality. And it certainly fed his love of good eating. When I recall his face – calm, expectant — it is invariably positioned behind a large roast.
What I’m trying to say is this: The sale didn’t turn him into a guy who throws a lobster bake and is nonchalant about extra people showing up. Shellfish was another thing, altogether, from a Sunday ham. Or a Friday fish-fry, for that matter. In the realm of emotional bookkeeping, there is literally no number of doughnuts that equals the cost of picking up the check at a waterfront restaurant. Shellfish – clams, oysters, shrimp, crab, and the big mac-daddy of them all, lobster – were what rich people ate. Grandpa Pilbeam had some money but that didn’t make him anything but momentarily not-poor.
Shellfish function as a dandy dividing line between classes. Families like mine were indeed generous with the serving spoon and if someone “went away hungry” it was a disgrace to the person wielding the spoon. But my Grandpa also raised my mother, who continues to this day to carefully count out everybody’s shrimp in their holiday shrimp cocktail to make sure we all get the same number. It absolutely defies logic because any one of us could absorb the cost of a true shrimp toot, a spree of shrimp, a wild and madcap caution-to-the-shrimp-wind-er – but it feels wrong. It would feel wrong to say you’ve had enough shrimp. When you’ve really had enough shellfish, what is there left to want?
But Grandpa Pilbeam did indeed host a clam roast one summer night. It happened. I have to presume he got a deal on all those bushels of clams from a fellow Rotarian or maybe some city fellow from the racetrack was trying to grease the skids with melted butter in hopes of getting those last few acres. It doesn’t matter. It’s a pleasing mystery. A fragment of memory, just a taste. It was night and it was starry, someone leaned down and fed me a bit of buttery and smoke and salt, and later there would be ice cream, and all I wanted after that first taste was more.