I chat with my 6-year-old grandson, Bodhi Valhalla King, as we examine a “cruise ship” he constructs with short lengths of 1×2 pine.
We eat triple cream Brie with spoons. It’s 3 p.m., and I’m deep into another major league 70/30 vodka tonic; Bo sips a blend of sparkling water and Italian lime juice, on the rocks.
I respond to his question about the bite pressure of the cheetah.
“I don’t know the answer,” I say. “We’ll have to look it up.”
“God knows the answer,” says Bo. “God knows everything. He doesn’t have to look anything up.”
What is an Epicurean to do? Even one who picks Voltaire’s pocket, thinking that doubt is uncomfortable, but certainty absurd.
“Where did you hear that?” I ask the boy.
There is a glob of Brie at the corner of Bo’s mouth. He removes it with a swipe of the tongue, and says: “Mrs. Taylor. She told us all about god, and Jesus.”
Mrs. Taylor is Bo’s teacher, a skilled educator I have known for three decades. She is a fundamentalist Christian with a Happy Church habit, but unusual in that she exhibits a measure of restraint: it is a struggle, but she waits until the last week of class to jump the border between church and state, and insert her ideology in the public school curriculum. She can’t resist the opportunity, the volcanic pressure of her salvation demands release. She surrenders to a compulsion to testify and convert young minds open to ideas, deliver new stock and fresh genes to the flock.
What is an Epicurean to do?
“I realize that the late Bronze Age deity embraced by many folks has no need to speculate,” I say, “but, since I’m fallible, and you asked, I’m going to guess that the cheetah has a bite pressure of… but, wait, do we want to reckon it in Newtons?”
“How would god do it?”
“Beats me,” I respond, “but I’m pretty sure a credible god would opt for the metric system for most calculations. We’ll stick with the familiar when it comes to force, so I’m guessing two hundred-fifty pounds per square inch.”
We look it up.
Unlike Mrs. Taylor’s god, I am in error.
“Wonder what the T-Rex bite was?,” asks Bo.
“I have no idea. There were no humans around to deal with the T-Rex.”
“I don’t think god would know,” says Bo, “since Jesus wasn’t here yet.”
“You’re probably right.” I consider telling Bo there are quite a few blockheads who believe humans coexisted with giant reptiles, riding the beasts like ponies, off the edge of a flat earth. It’s a smooth transition from that to ridicule of an ark constructed somewhere in Kentucky or Tennessee, given that the owners recently attempted to collect on a flood insurance claim. But again I soften, not wanting to cloud the issue, and trouble the kid.
Bo continues to unpack an interesting Judeo-Christian timeline.
“When the dinosaurs went away,” he says, “god came, right after Jesus got here. Mrs. Taylor says that Jesus is always here now. I thought I saw him at the Fourth of July parade, but it was just a guy with long hair. Have you seen Jesus, Umpy?”
“I’ve seen plenty of paintings of Jesus, and if I go by them he was a blondish, Northern European fellow, probably around six-two in height. I’ve seen illustrations of what scientific types think he may have looked like, if he existed. You don’t see these images in churches and cathedrals; they don’t fit the mold, so there’s no selling them at the Vatican, and you won’t find one hanging in a frame on the wall of a Lutheran church.”
“Mrs. Taylor says you can talk to God,” says Bo, “so he talks American, like us. I bet he’s really loud. Have you ever talked to him, Umpy?”
“I called a few times, but no one picked up. There was no answering machine, or I would have left a message, and a call-back number.”
“He was probably busy making another planet.”
What is an Epicurean to do?
Propelled by my best friend Tito’s handmade vodka, I head for an exit: “You know what I think, Bo?”
“That you love me?”
“Well, yes, that’s always the first thing I think. What’s the second thing?”
“Pizza. Triple pepperoni.”
God goes on the back burner, to simmer there while pizza bakes. I prep another cocktail, and another sipper for Bo, and we get to work. Half the pepperoni, and most of the cheese, never makes it to the pizza. We’re sated before we light the oven.
God comes off the burner during Bo’s next visit, and we examine the contents of the pot. The boy is obsessed with powerful things, eager to add to his knowledge of big cats, dinosaurs, and the divine. I take a hefty pull from a substantial Manhattan; Bo works on a mix of grape juice and “fizzy water” (on the rocks). We chat.
“Mrs. Taylor says god is the biggest thing there is in the universe,” he tells me as we sort Legos for his next project. “You’re really fat, Umpy, but god is even bigger than you. Is god the biggest thing in the universe?” he asks.
“I’m sure some people believe that.”
“Do you?” he asks.
I take another hit of the barely-polluted bourbon. I’m whacked, so I ramble.
I respond: “Can’t say. I suppose most people are drawn to a notion of transcendence of some kind, lured by the promise of relief from the weight of their mortality, so the concept of god fits the task. I believe there is something greater than me, and I know I’m fat, so it must be large. The math tells me there has to be something, or some things, greater than me. The rest, I’m not sure about. Can’t say I know.”
“For me, things are rarely black or white, on-off, hot or cold. God is in the gray zone. I’m inclined to believe that, if there is a Prime Mover, there is an impassable gulf between the Mover and me. I can’t say I know it, though.”
A sip. “If you function with a binary scheme, and you think about god, you believe, or you don’t believe, two options only. I perch somewhere between the extremes. I try not to confuse belief and knowledge.”
A sip. “I don’t bet on belief, only on its political consequences.”
A substantial sip.
“We need to define belief and knowledge, ask how they differ. This gets dicey these days, what with attacks on the traditional understanding of fact. You meet a lot of allegedly well-educated folks who’ll tell you there is no objective knowledge, only opinion or belief, shaped by racial, social, and economic environments, gender and upbringing. This mumbo-jumbo dovetails in an odd way with old-fashioned, absolutist religious thought, with the belief in a personal god that requires no objective verification. I choose to bank on the existence of objective knowledge, so I tread lightly around those things that don’t partner up.”
I’m toasted. I ramble, get to my feet, gesture, and pace for effect. “Relative, indeed. The hydrogen bomb, a belief? Hardly. Ebola, an opinion? Gunshot wound, a belief? Arterial plaque, cardiac arrest?”
“Existence of a supreme being? A bit different, eh? When it comes to god I don’t know anything for sure, except that many people believe in the existence of supreme being — their supreme being, for comfort’s sake. If there is an Unmoved Mover, a First Cause, whatever, I suspect it is subject to the same eventual disintegration as I, that it makes no contact with me and, in fact, could care less about me, if it cares about anything. It’s not as clear-cut as a gunshot wound. Can’t say: It’s grey, I’m tepid, I need another cocktail.”
“Mrs. Taylor says there’s a god,” says Bo. “She knows him. She knows things, cause she’s a really good teacher. I love Mrs. Taylor.”
“As do I, Bo. I have cared for Mrs. Taylor, from a distance, for many years.” Many are the times I imagined a chink in her armor, wide enough to admit an Epicurean for a brief visit. I mix another Manhattan.
“Mrs. Taylor says if you don’t believe in god, and do what he says,” cautions Bo, “god does bad things to you.”
“Well, if true,” I say, “that’s not great news, since my motto is Difficile est bonum esse.”
“We’ll discuss that when you’re older.” I set my glass on a table to avoid spilling my drink as I gesture.
“What Mrs. Taylor says reveals a flaw in Happy Church reasoning. If god is all knowing, omnipresent, and all-powerful, by definition god knows that you will do bad things, as well as when you’ll do them, and why. If so, and god is also a loving god, why would god do bad things to you? After all, god made you, as you must be. A lot of people believe god gives you free will in order to test you, but that makes little sense if the higher power knows all. It makes the relationship a cruel game, doesn’t it? Like a cat torturing a mouse.”
Bo spots a Steller’s jay perched on the rim of a flower basket on the deck. The bird is more interesting than logic. Bo has reminded me many times that “Birds are really dinosaurs.”
“Why would a loving god wish to damage the creation?” I ask. “That’s like Leonardo attacking the Mona Lisa with a knife because Paolo, the lithe studio assistant, refuses to satisfy the master’s needs. Not to mention this question: Why is a helpless child left to starve, or an elderly innocent shot dead in a synagogue or a mosque?”
“Huh?” The jay flies away.
“Never mind,” I say. “I’m three cocktails into the afternoon, and I’m stretching things.”
Bo points to the box of Legos. “Hand me the big purple ones.”
“Hand me the big purple ones” tugs me back to a significant spiritual-like experience. It takes place in 1970, when the big purple ones are not Legos, but alleged access to things supernal, perhaps divine.
“These are incredible,” says Dave, eyes with blasted pupils wobbling behind the thick lenses of his specs, a curlicue of greasy hair plastered to his forehead.
“The best, man. Guaranteed, the best.” Dave reeks of patchouli oil and soiled underwear. He’s carved and inked a tattoo on his forearm, just above his wrist — a crude copy of an R. Crumb figure of a woman, with the word “Love” etched above it. The emblem is infected, oozing pus; he could lose his hand if he doesn’t bathe soon, and douse his graffiti with Bactine.
“Big Purple, the god powder,” says Dave, his bony fingers trembling as he drops two large capsules packed with purple powder to the palm of my hand. “Big Purple, the very best, ticket to the be-all of everything, my man … everything. Guaranteed.” He closes his eyes and tilts back his head a la Ravi Shankar at peak raga, breathes in, holds it, then exhales loudly through his mouth. His breath smells like unwashed socks.
Big Purple. Good enough for me. I’ve been smoking low-grade Columbian shake for nearly a month, and gobbling a bunch of crumbly whites every morning to maintain a decent mood. Big Purple seems promising.
It is an unusually long day, but I am enlightened.
I encounter god.
I realize at one point in my journey that god might be a plant, or an equation. Why should humans be made in god’s image? Is it possible we made god in ours? Does a god run a batch of simultaneous experiments, I wonder, a number of universes existing in a lab like bacteria in Petri dishes? Does a god sit back and watch what happens, a cosmic Skinner observing his baby in a box? Does god eat popcorn, and laugh?
Then again, god might be disguised as a drag queen friend of mine who comes to the house with his current lover. They arrive shortly after Big Purple takes effect, the duo wearing roller skates and spangly G-strings, toting an eight ball of cocaine, and a bouquet of balloons filled with nitrous oxide gas. If this is god, I think, I’ve got to admit god is a shitload of fun.
But, as is often the case with such experiences, fun soon wears thin, enlightenment replaced by a pain worse than a migraine.
I recover a day or so later, and when I do, my emotional connection with the divine is absent.
But not my intellectual link, since it is required of me. During the time I spend working as the worst part-time college instructor of philosophy in the history of American higher education, I relay to disinterested undergrads all of the traditional arguments for the existence of god, as well as the counter arguments. I’m obligated to do so: the topic is in the Introduction to Philosophy 100 syllabus. I introduce and analyze the philosopher’s god in the oxygen-poor atmosphere of the academy, in too-close proximity to freshmen, and tired, tenured colleagues.
I squander time and a great deal of money at the tables in Vegas in the company of my teaching assistant, Roger (Omar Sharif’s partner in high-stakes bridge games), so I am familiar with Pascal, and the wager strategy. I pore over Niebuhr, Tillich, and Buber. I examine the goods offered in the many shops at the Tanakh bazaar. I linger long hours with Nietzsche, and spend ten days in a barely heated house in an old mining town reading Kierkegaard, the irrelevance of objectivity when considering the condition of the soul made clear by the brooding Dane. I balance this by breathing thin, positivist air in the company of a Viennese drudge or three, then jettisoning them when I realize that Wittgenstein, despite his caution regarding the bewitchment of language, is a unique religious being.
When I bother to show up in the classroom, I lead students through a maze of notions, and only the most strident, contemporary Tertullian, his faith furnace running full blast, fails to emerge battered and a bit dizzy. All the while, I evolve as an Epicurean, partial to impulse, and pleasures of all kinds.
I consider exposing my youngest grandson to the traditional arguments for god’s existence, and their refutations. I can tell him about Anselm’s argument, and its refutation by Guanilo (substituting an imagined, perfect pizza for an imagined island). I can unpack the arguments of Aquinas.
Then, I remember Bo is six years old. He’s interested in dinosaurs, and the cheetah, the fastest land animal. I decide that, should I live another ten years still in possession of half a mind, I’ll lay it on him then.
Or, perhaps, I’ll bring him to the topic soon, relating the question of the existence of a supreme being to something he understands. I’ll take a detour around the language games deployed to support and defend faith, and hustle him to something familiar.
The connection is made obvious to me last Sunday.
Browbeaten and broken down over the course of a week by my wife, Kathy, I attend the annual Methodist Church choir lunch. Kathy has pounded the ivories for the local Methodists for many years — two services each Sunday, preludes, offertories, choir accompaniments, whatever. As a stranger to church services I am not sure of all that goes on in the sanctuary, other than I know that Kathy plays the piano, people sing, and my Methodist minister friend, Layton, delivers a sermon.
“It’s going to be a taco lunch, after the second service,” Kathy announces, using an assertive tone of voice and dramatic facial expressions to emphasize her desire that I attend.
“It’s going to be held at a beautiful ranch house next to the Navajo River,” she says. “It’ll be great: you’ll cook a couple of things, and the drive down to the ranch will be wonderful, like a traditional Sunday drive. I’ll check the list of the things people are bringing, and you can cook what’s missing. Everyone will think I did the work. It’ll be great.”
“What’s missing” are beans, and chile con queso.
“Don’t make either of them spicy,” warns Kathy. “These are Methodists, after all.”
So, the process begins on a sour note: frijoles and queso without heat, a shameful exercise for a prideful cook.
I prepare the food, struggling to remain moderate. At this juncture, I have reason to doubt the existence of god.
I soak a pound of dried pinto beans overnight, then drain and rinse them. I use my Instant Pot to cook the beans, first sautéing a rasher of bacon (in my non-Methodist version, I use lard), half an onion, minced (non-Metho, a full onion, chopped), and three cloves of microplaned garlic (non-Metho, a full head, half the cloves whole, half chopped). I cook this until the bacon seizes up, lets go its fat, and the onion is softened. In go the beans, enough water to cover, salt, pepper, a teaspoon of ground Chimayo red (non-Metho, at least two tablespoons, usually more), dried oregano and cumin, a bay leaf, and a tablespoon of chicken base. The beans cook for 25 minutes, and the pot is left to naturally depressurize. When the pot is opened, I reduce the liquid, and further soften the beans. I taste and re-season them (no additional red, since I am being moderate), let the beans cool, put them in a freezer bag, and store them in the fridge for reheating the next day, prior to the MethoMex Fiesta.
The chile con queso, as ordered, is an abomination, and yet another reason to doubt that a loving god is a reality. A decent queso, made in the style of my pal Ronnie, a New Mexico native, is a zippy affair. So zippy, in fact, it has reduced many a chile novice to a flushed, confused clod.
The queso can be extravagant, in terms of the kinds and quality of cheeses involved, or it can be unabashedly plebian, resulting from the use of Velveeta — the sole worthy application of the shelf-safe, ultra-processed wonder product with a half-life of 10,000 years.
This yellow-orange crap, invented at the end of the Edwardian Era, melts like nobody’s business. There’s nothing like it!
A rough magic occurs when other ingredients are tossed into the molten pseudo cheese. If the queso included only Velveeta and some chiles, once off the heat it would seize up, and be useful only as a filler at low-end auto body shops. Other ingredients must be included to weaken the powerful bonds existing at the core of Velveeta atoms.
For this, Ronnie uses something just as revolting as Velveeta — Campbell’s Cheddar Cheese Soup. An alchemical event occurs with the addition, as leaden Velveeta transmutes to gold. Ronnie pops in several other things as well, but I’m sworn to secrecy, and won’t reveal them.
I find the soup at the supermarket, but I can’t buy it. The Velveeta and the “no spice” rule bring me to my knees, the soup might prompt suicidal thoughts. I opt for condensed milk. A half can or so of the milk, and a can of Rotel tomatoes and green chiles (liquid included) will do the trick, loosening two pounds of the industrial super substance.
I dump the Rotel and the milk into a heavy casserole, over medium heat. I cube the rubbery “cheese,” and tumble the cubes into the pot. I add about a half-cup of chopped, hot Hatch green chile (two cups or more constitute a legit non-Metho load, with a smidge of Chimayo red a likely companion), and a clove of microplaned garlic, (three in the non-Metho version). A bit of salt and black pepper finish the job. I stir occasionally, until all is melted. I can’t bring myself to taste it.
I remove the sludge to a bowl, and store it in the fridge, to be warmed the next day at the extravaganza.
While these recipes amp up the odds that there might not be a god, I discover a more convincing reason to doubt the existence of a careful supreme being after I arrive at the Methodist Church Choir Taco Lunch.
The experience is colored by the fact I watch a television documentary series titled “Taco Chronicles.” I sit for three nights prior to the Methodist get-together captivated by episodes featuring al pastor, asada, barbacoa — the real deals, prepared by long-studied taqueras and taqueros, at authentic establishments located in the enchanting nation to the south so beloved by our current president, and a legion of frightened racists.
That the Methodist Taco Lunch will be a letdown is predetermined.
Does the Methodist feed feature al pastor, the cutlets of primo meat stacked and cooked on a vertical spit, in the tradition of Lebanese immigrants to Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries?
No, it does not.
Is there carne asada at the ready, the meat marinated, grilled medium rare before being hacked up, then dressed with cilantro, chopped white onion, and freshly made salsas, and bundled in a tortilla?
Not a chance.
Any lamb, roasted overnight in a pit?
I examine the items brought to the party by the devout warblers, and an image comes to mind: the Hindenburg, seconds after its ignition above the mooring mast at Lakehurst.
These are lovely people, but …
The meat for the Methodist tacos is plain, cooked ground beef, seasoned primarily with salt and pepper.
Or, should I say, meat for the tacos… had anyone brought tortillas.
That’s correct: no tortillas. Not even a clutch of those stale, brittle shells sold to white folks at the supermarket.
At a Taco Lunch.
An all-knowing god, you say?
What else? Packaged shredded cheese, loaded with anti-caking agents. Bottled salsa, produced somewhere in Iowa. Sour cream. A “party-size” bag of corn chips. Sliced red onion. Chopped, flavorless tomatoes.
Someone provides a batch of “Spanish rice.” It’s the best item on the board.
I warm up the spiceless frijoles, and the spiceless queso. I am embarrassed.
I do my best to muster a pleasant demeanor as I join the line at the buffet. I put some rice on my plate, top it with room-temp ground beef, sprinkle a bit of onion on the beef, slather the mound with a layer of zipless queso, plop a spoon’s worth of bland legumes to one side of the mound, and scatter a bunch of chips next to them.
The Methodists pray before we eat. It is one of the few times I figure prayer is appropriate.
I use the chips as a spoon.
The hosts are teetotalers, so there is no tequila, no mescal, no cerveza. Only water.
It is Taco Sunday, at the state penitentiary.
Or no god, as the case may be. At this point, the nays occupy the high ground.
My pleasure denied (a low point for an Epicurean, one might say the Epicurean hell), I sit on the deck of the ranch house, cornered by a woman who explains in detail the hospital procedures she undergoes to deal with her COPD and diabetes, and by another gal who tries to best Ms. COPD with a tale of debilitating osteoporosis brought on by early menopause. They are nice folks, but I can’t escape them, so I counter with stories about gout, cancer, and brain surgery. I win.
Kathy induces the other choir members to strike up a less-than-muscular version of a hymn as they gather beneath a tree in the yard. It is all very Norman Rockwell.
Some bright morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away
To that home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away
Oh, I think … if only I could fly away.
I attempt to buffer the blow of the meal by imagining that its centerpiece is a sophisticated take on tacos guisados: a deconstructed taco, from which more than three-quarters of the necessary ingredients are removed, to be supplied in the minds of imaginative diners who ate the real thing in another place, at another time. It’s akin to sampling vaporous scallop foam, instead of enjoying a half-pound of fat, seared, diver-fetched beauties. It is an intellectual exercise, absent culinary muscle and any satisfaction.
My effort to mitigate the pain fails; my imagination is not up to the task. I rummage in the memory box as I struggle to ignore the bland grease coating the roof of my mouth, the chatter about bone scans and hormone shots, the trill of elderly vocalists in the background. I remember tacos guisados, the ghost functioning like methadone for a junkie, tempering the absence of the real thing, until a dealer is located and a connection made.
I’ll fly away, oh glory…
With the memory, I return to the possibility of god, the Epicurean god, experienced in the company of intelligent pleasure. It is pleasure found with food, as Brillat-Savarin noted, first on the tongue; second, as the food leaves the tongue, moving to the back of the mouth, releasing a perfume, a rich, developing savor; and, third, most important, in reflection.
My first experience with guisados takes place at the home of my boyhood friend, Mark. I am 10 years old.
Mark’s mom makes fresh tortillas every day, most times more than once during a day. She braises meats and other ingredients to use as fillings for tacos — at breakfast, at lunch, as snacks. A short woman in a long dress, her hair caught in a braid that hangs to the small of her back, she hums and talks to herself as she cooks. I reflect on the smells, the tastes of the stewed beef, lamb, pork, chicken, vegetables, the chewy, pliable tortillas, the salsas, red and green, on the flavors that infiltrate the sinuses, that remain for hours on the palate, and exit on the breath. Mark’s mom speaks no English. She pats me on my head. She feeds me. Tacos guisados.
Perhaps, after all, there is a god.
Opt out of ontology, temper teleology, shit-can cosmology, abandon the bewitchment of language, and we find the Epicurean god in the pleasure of the braise, provided we don’t overindulge. Remember: intelligent pleasure.
We find it in a guisado, as it’s eaten, and in reflection.
Pick a protein: any meat, practically any part of an animal. Turn to vegetables and fruits: squash, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, tomatillos, carrots, cabbage and its cruciferous relatives, peppers. Consider the mushroom. Braise a number of ingredients long and slow in the company of aromatics, herbs, spices, and chiles — yes, by all means, chiles — the braising liquid anything from water to meaty stocks, wine, milk, or cream. Cook the mix down to a bubbling mass, not quite dry, amalgamate ingredients, urge them to a deeper, richer condition. Put the mixture in a warm tortilla, grace the creation with condiments, or don’t.
The braise gives up evidence of things great, if not divine, of kitchen wisdom created over generations, of the pleasurable profits that come from an investment of careful attention to ingredients and their preparation. There’s no need to seek an abstraction in order to provide a moment of relief from the weight of mortality. We find it in a pot, on the tongue, passing the palate, in the moment and in reflection.
In a taco.
It is possible… so long as we don’t forget the tortillas.
I think Bodhi might understand this.
Then again, he’ll probably want to know if dinosaurs ate tacos.