A bologna that burned a place in my memory
WOOD COUNTY, Wis. — It was so cold it took almost an hour to put on enough clothes to go outside. Most of that was spent trying to pull on my snow boots over three or four layers of wool socks. I was 7. This would be the first time I was allowed to join my dad, uncle, and grandfather as they wandered in the woods hunting deer.
My dad never shot at the broad side of a barn as far as I know, but even that target might have proved elusive to him. An actual deer could just as well have stared him down and started giggling if my dad had aimed a rifle at it.
The only time I can remember anyone in the hunting party ever bringing home a buck was when my uncle Jim shot one with a bow and arrow. I didn’t get to eat much of it, but my mouth still waters thinking about homemade venison summer sausage. But this isn’t a story about venison.
Struggling with my boots that morning I was proud that I would finally be going out with the men on their ritual, but I couldn’t really work up any enthusiasm for the mission. I thought deer were beautiful and I didn’t want to shoot one. In a pursuit that required absolute silence, I was howling with laughter as I pushed over trees that had died but not yet fallen, my dad cringing at every noisy crash. There was no way we were even going to see a deer that day, let alone get close enough to shoot one. After a couple of hours those wool socks proved inadequate. I was shivering, and whining about my frozen toes. Dad had to be regretting the decision to bring me along. He ignored me every time I asked him why he was peeling strips of dead bark off the birch trees and stuffing them in his pockets. And then I started in on how hungry I was. Becoming a fearsome slayer of wild game was not my destiny.
We stopped in a clearing around noon and my dad kicked away the leaves from a patch of dirt. He’d been gathering some twigs, too, as he walked and he pulled those out along with the birch bark. The small fire started quickly, and he let me add some sticks to it, and then a small log. Then he pulled lunch out of his small backpack. It was an uninspiring loaf of French bread and a ring of Oscar Mayer bologna.
My dad worked near the Oscar Mayer factory in Madison. You could smell the place a long way off and it was not a pleasant smell. Riding in the car past the factory with my dad on the way to his office was always a good time to see how long I could hold my breath. I never wanted to eat Oscar Mayer meats because all I could think of was the stinging stench from the factory.
But this day was cold, and I was hungry. We didn’t carry any cooking supplies with us. No utensils, no plates, no condiments. My dad tossed the ring of bologna on the fire and sliced open the bread with his hunting knife. When one side of the bologna was burnt, he flipped it with a stick and burned the other side.
The first smoky bite there in the frigid forest was shocking. Something so simple, from such a suspect source, shouldn’t have tasted so sublime. But it did. My toes were warming up by the fire, juice was dripping off my chin, and my dad had a smile for me. Forty years later, it’s still the best lunch I’ve ever had.