By Melanie LaForce
“Can I turn the heat down?” Dave asked.
I looked at him. There was an irritating innocence to his voice, though he already knew the answer to his question. We were speeding up I-94 in our teal 1998 Honda Civic. In the passenger seat, I wore my winter coat, buttoned up, and had a blanket tucked around my legs. Dave had stripped down to a T-shirt.
“No,” I said. “The dogs will get cold.”
I glanced at the brown and the black lumps in the backseat, who couldn’t give two shits about the temperature. We had fed each dog a peanut-butter-wrapped Benadryl this morning, and they were now fast asleep.
All dairy is vital to the Midwest. Our top exports include John Stamos butter sculptures and jalapeño-spiked cheese curds. But butter is particularly special.
It was the Friday before Pulaski Day when I still worked as a researcher at Chicago Public Schools. CPS employees got a bounty of paid holidays over the course of the winter to honor various dudes. These holidays included Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents’ Day, Lincoln’s Birthday, and Pulaski Day. Pulaski Day falls on the first Monday of March and celebrates the life and death of Polish-born general Casimir Pulaski, who trained patriot soldiers during the Revolutionary War. Chicago has one of the largest Polish diasporas in the world, so Pulaski Day is a relatively big deal.
It was one of the years when I decided that Dave and I were too superior for the pedestrian Valentine’s Day and must therefore skip it. I determined that we would instead celebrate our love on a non-traditional day, i.e., the birthday of an Eastern European mercenary. For Pulaski Day, we rented two nights in a tiny log cabin in Black River Falls, Wisconsin (population: 3,600). Wisconsin is a popular getaway destination for Chicagoans. It’s close, has trees, and you can engage in fond Midwestern activities such as grilling brats, breathing smog-free air, and starting bar fights with Packers fans.
We were really looking forward to this weekend. Getaways for us were rare; I had only finished my dissertation the previous year so I was still getting used to this thing called “leisure time.” The weekend promised winter hikes, snuggling under blankets, and cabin sex. But mostly, I was excited for Wisconsin’s primary export: DAIRY.
For the life of me, I cannot empathize whatsoever with people who say that they “aren’t into food.” Food truly controls life — like gravity, but tastier. LaForces plan vacations around the promise of continuous eating. At Thanksgiving we sit down and plan our Christmas meals. Before a summer destination is chosen, a grocery list is drafted. And prior to visiting my parents, my mother will pepper me with meal planning texts:
Mom: Can you believe that April the Giraffe has not had her baby yet?
Me: I totally forgot! Wow.
Mom: You will be here at 7 tomorrow night, right? I am thinking about making quiche for that night. Also planning Catfish Cajun tacos, crab, and roast chicken.
Me: You know I’m coming alone, right? For like 24 hours?
To be clear, loving food doesn’t always mean that I eat like a bougie food critic, shucking fresh oysters in the sun and sipping on freshly squeezed grapefruit juice. No. One of my life’s biggest struggles is that I am a lazy foodie. (The word “foodie” is arguably the worst. I’m sorry.) Luckily, I got contractually bound to a man who loves to cook and is pretty great at it. Recently, while munching some stale tortilla chips because he wouldn’t make me dinner already, I wondered out loud.
“I wonder,” I said, holding a chip high, “how long a human being could last eating solely tortilla chips.”
“I don’t know,” Dave replied. “But if we ever get divorced I’m sure you’ll find out.”
This is what Dave cooked us for dinner last night: A salad of parboiled curly kale with roasted beets, baked tofu, chickpeas, white onion, tomato, peanuts, toasted sesame seeds, basil, cilantro, and sesame dressing from scratch.
This is what I made myself for dinner the night prior, when Dave wasn’t home to cook for me: Butter sandwiches with a side of stale Easter candy.
Butter is a staple.
All dairy is vital to the Midwest. Our top exports include John Stamos butter sculptures and jalapeño-spiked cheese curds. But butter is particularly special. Although raised during the era of margarine, I became a devout worshiper of the butter gods in my adult years. When I was young, butter was widely accepted as evil. Ingesting a tablespoon of butter would not only cause you to immediately gain 13 pounds, it would also clog your arteries faster than a tampon in the toilet. The norm was margarine. We actually sprayed chemically liquefied margarine out of a plastic pump bottle onto our food. The occasional spread of real butter became a guilty thrill, reserved for adults’ birthdays and church potlucks. Nothing was more exhilarating than a sinful pat of butter spread sexily across a slice of church potluck bread.
Gradually, science showed us the danger of trans fats and the relative innocuity of dairy butter. (If you’re still eating margarine, you are clearly a monster. The next major comic-book villain will be powered by margarine, no doubt.) Thankfully, by the late ’90s we were able to hop once again onto the butter train.
The Honda’s windows were steamy with dog breath. I rubbed my hands together and Dave shifted awkwardly in the driver’s seat.
“OK, fine, turn down the goddamn heat,” I said.
He compromisingly clicked the dial down a single notch. Snow thickened as the Honda trudged further north. We were almost to Black River Falls when I spotted a cute general store on the side of the road and insisted we stop for wine. Deep in the wilderness abyss of the Wisconsin northwoods, opportunities to purchase liquor are few.
Inside, Dave examined wine labels while I scanned the dairy cooler. Cheese curds, cheese curds, cheese curds, as far as the eye could see.
A two-pound brick of local, fresh, salted butter sat innocently in the corner of the cooler. Was it my imagination, or was it throbbing? Pulsating slightly, as though alive? My hands grasped it. I felt its pleasing weight, its firm yet permissive softness through the chilled wax paper.
It was mine. Dave pushed back on the purchase, given the sheer size of the butter, but I persisted.
“How often do we have the chance to buy fresh, local, happy cow butter?” I asked. “It’s worth any price. JUST LET ME HAVE IT.”
Dave was mildly taken aback by my frantic begging, which was usually reserved for more rare delicacies, like the last weed brownie, or the sole remaining string cheese. He conceded.
Shortly afterwards, we arrived at our cabin. Our dog children burst from the Honda and ran circles through fresh snow. The log cabin was as adorably American Gothic as the vacation rental photos promised. Inside, moderately comfortable log furniture filled out the small space, and a narrow ladder led upstairs to the sleeping loft. The concrete floor was radiantly warmed by hot water pipes below. Dave and I placed The Butter on the wood-block kitchen counter to unwrap and examine.
Never had I laid eyes on such an amazing specimen of lactose. Like the sun just before it sets, The Butter’s color was a deep, warm yellow, with a vague hint of orange.
Never had I laid eyes on such an amazing specimen of lactose. Like the sun just before it sets, The Butter’s color was a deep, warm yellow, with a vague hint of orange. It smelled as clean and tangy as a newborn baby. Similes and metaphors continued to inundate my brain as I gazed, without words, at the finest product ever to come out of a cow’s teat. Tenderly, Dave cut off a slim slice and smiled as he placed it on my tongue. (It was romantic as fuck.) The Butter was so rich and earthy, it had the mouthfeel of a delicate, fancy-person artisanal cheese.
It was late by the time we arrived, so we lovingly rewrapped The Butter and placed it in the fridge. Cabin sex and stress-free slumber ensued.
Upon rising the next morning, I immediately checked the fridge to ensure The Butter was still there and sliced off a small hunk to warm on the counter while we got ready. After donning snowpants and industrial winter boots, Dave and I spread The Butter and local blackberry jam on a baguette for late breakfast-slash-lunch.
The next several hours were spent chasing our insubordinate dogs through deep snow in the Black River Forest. Back at the cabin, The Butter quietly waited for us.
“Why don’t we fucking own snowshoes?” I huffed at Dave, running as Elsie again disappeared from my sight.
“This is the first year I could even get you to wear a scarf,” Dave said, running alongside me.
A loud echoey pop suddenly filled the air. I stopped running.
“Is it hunting season?” I asked, realizing that we were woefully unprepared. “Are we all going to get shot? Should we have dressed the dogs in little reflective coats? IS THIS THE DAY WE ALL DIE TOGETHER?”
“Maybe it’s time to head back,” Dave said calmly.
One of the many nice things about Dave is that it’s really difficult to panic him. Even with a threat of possible maiming, he barely flinches. Once he and I were hiking deep in a Honduran forest and accidentally stumbled upon an illegal logging operation. Our homestay host had, of course, just finished telling us about the murders prevalent in the illegal logging industry. We had trapped ourselves, with no way around the logging site back to the homestay. The loggers hadn’t yet spotted us, but I had panicked. I laid down on a rock, certain that we were about to die in a gory death-by-machete massacre. Dave calmly tucked his pants into his boots, then mine, and took my hand to lead me across a deep river, away from the loggers. The water was rough, up to our chests, and almost knocked us under several times. Dave just held the backpack high over his head and hummed a Talking Heads song while I sobbed, helplessly holding his shirt. That dude will be just fine when the zombie apocalypse comes.
While the panic of being fatally mistaken for a family of deer flowed through me, Dave tackled Emma, rolling her onto her back. Her stupid tongue lolled out of her mouth and he laughed. We finally lured Elsie back with the false promise of treats. We leashed up both assholes quickly and rushed out of the snowy woods before getting shot. I felt comfort in knowing that I would soon be away from the guns and in the presence of The Butter again.
Back at the cabin, my heart rate slowed to normal—I’d nibbled on The Butter and chugged a few glasses of panic wine. Dave and I changed out of snowpants for dinner. We drove around for an hour, realizing that all but one of the restaurants in Black River Falls was closed on Sunday night. The sole open restaurant was the Howard Johnson’s Motel buffet. Starving and cranky from blaming each other about the lack of available establishments, we pulled the Honda into the HoJo parking lot. A giant, orange, fiberglass moose greeted us—in retrospect, a bad omen.
Dave and I seated ourselves at a faded maroon velvet booth. Fluorescent bulbs flickered. The only two other patrons, an elderly, flannel-clad couple, stared at us from several tables away. A despondent teen appeared out of nowhere and handed us laminated menus. The entire scene was not the romantic dinner I had hoped for, though vaguely Lynchian. Dave and I, as “mostly vegetarian,”2 found little on the menu. There was, however, a 12-foot salad bar. The lettuce greens were wilted, but everything else looked edible—for a reasonable $8.95 per person. We ate an uneventful, dissatisfying dinner.
That night I had a series of bad nightmares. You know how when you’re sick, you have increasingly uncomfortable night- mares? The dream will start with something common like you’re running late for work. Then you realize you can’t get into the office because your legs have become mozzarella sticks. And then a gang of feral cats start eating your mozzarella stick legs. And then you collapse into a swimming pool full of Gatorade. Sick dreams are the worst. I woke abruptly with a stomach full of acid. Because of the narrow space in the sleeping loft, I was tucked tightly in corner of the mattress; Dave and the dogs had me hemmed in on all sides. Normally being surrounded by cuddly mammals would soothe me back to sleep, but I couldn’t ignore my gut.
My stomach lurched again and again, more and more urgently. And then that dreaded moment when you have to decide if SOMETHING IS HAPPENING and if you need to get out of bed.
It was, and I did.
I barely made it down the ladder to the cabin’s tiny bathroom before the eruption. I think I pooped myself slightly; it is difficult to remember the exact moment the deluge began. Seated on the icy toilet, I became violently ill, sickness and salad coming out of all orifices save my ears and peehole.
Food poisoning is very scary, almost like a panic attack. Death felt imminent, and the situation felt wholly unjust. WHY ISN’T DAVE’S ASSHOLE ROCKETING LIQUID SHIT? I thought, THAT FUCKER MADE A DEAL WITH THE DEVIL. He slept soundly all night.
After a painful hour in the cabin’s bathroom, I limped to the rigid log sofa in the living room. The sleeping loft was out of the question, the ladder far too precarious and complicated for the certain additional urgent bathroom trips. I couldn’t get comfortable. The log sofa was too small to fit my entire body. Finally, I took a wool, moose-printed blanket from the sofa and curled into a ball on the heated concrete floor. Every 20 minutes or so I was required to run and vomit in either the toilet or the adorably rustic wooden trash can next to the TV. I fell in and out of nightmares; a looming orange fiberglass moose with a sadistic clown smile appeared repeatedly in my subconscious.
“JUST TAKE ME, YOU GIANT ORANGE BASTARD,” I cried.
The next morning, the inner storm slowed enough for me to speak to my husband.
“Do you think it was The Butter?” Dave asked, attempting a comforting stroke of my cheek.
I swatted his stupid hand away.
“No!” I snapped, on the verge of tears.
It was bad enough that I was violently ill. Could it be that The Butter Gods had served up some sort of wrathful karma? What was my sin? I wondered, thinking guiltily back to making eyes at a hot blond dad in the Black River Falls general store.
“It was probably the salad bar,” Dave said soothingly but keeping his distance. He raised his hand in the air as if to pet me from afar. To prove his point, he cut off a large hunk of The Butter and ate it plain.
“Now we’ll see,” he said matter-of-factly.
I was too weak to get upset about the size of butter he was basically wasting to prove his point. But the Butter Gods smiled on us that day. Dave didn’t get sick, and the godforsaken HoJo bacteria evacuated itself fully from my body by evening. After one more day, I was finally again able to eat The Butter.
I viewed The Butter as a mythical gift; it had stayed with me through the Howard Johnson Disaster of 2008 — it was somehow both a harbinger and a savior. All through the rest of March, The Butter rooted itself in my consciousness. When I was away at work, I wondered if The Butter was lonely.
I woke up each morning for The Butter, spreading a tiny bit on a stale tortilla chip. I snapped viciously at Dave when I thought he was sneaking The Butter behind my back. I became like Kino in Steinbeck’s The Pearl, waking up late at night to sneak down to the fridge and stroke The Butter tenderly.
We managed to make The Butter last until the final snow of early April, keeping it frozen in several small chunks to ensure not a single molecule spoiled and went to waste. (We gave it ample time to warm to room temperature because cold butter is Satan.)
A quiet weekend in March tuned me deeper into my Butter Religion. That Pulaski Day weekend, like Moses crossing the desert, I was comforted during my tumult by the presence of my Lord and Savior: the small-batch, sunset-hued, salty Butter of Wisconsin. In addition to The Butter, that weekend gave me a deeper appreciation for Dave. The worst situations make me realize how great he is. He and the dumb dogs are my team. (And by “team” I mean that Dave is the adult coach, I’m the sobbing five-year-old right fielder, and the dogs are the drunk dads in the bleachers.) Dave always sticks by my side. When I was younger, I imagined marriage and love differently than what it turned out to be. I was certain that my future husband and I would have endless romantic moments. And really, we do. The romance is just a little different than I expected. Romance is not necessarily candles and flowers, or even cabin sex. Romance isn’t showering together or long walks on the beach. Romance isn’t even Netflix and cold pizza together. The most romantic gesture possible is getting a hug and a kiss even when you smell like diarrhea and are throwing a tantrum over a brick of butter.
Like The Butter, I hope Dave sticks around.
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Banner photo via Pixabay/MariaEnz
Dr. Melanie LaForce was born in Northeast Ohio and currently lives in Logan Square, Chicago. In addition to her writing, LaForce is a researcher at the University of Chicago and adjunct faculty at Northwestern University. Her hobbies include petting dogs, napping, stage comedy, and flirting. Follow her on Twitter @rileycoyote.