On the Exegesis of the Soul Or: Why I Love Beef Stick [The Ryan Dixon Line]

INTRODUCTION TO THE 2012 EDITION

“May I try a free sample?”

After speaking those six simple words, the ritual would always be the same: A smiling gray-haired clerk at a Hickory Farms Christmas stand in one of the many Western Pennsylvania malls I visited during my childhood would poke a toothpick into a delicately cut square of meat, hand it to me and the door to paradise would open…

I love Hickory Farms Beef Stick.

Like that Christmas Eve story Grandpa always told that became longer and more convoluted as the years went on, the time has once again arrived for my ever-growing annual holiday column on Hickory Farms Beef Stick (or, as it’s unfortunately known now, “Summer Sausage”). If George Lucas can give us approximately 18,281 Special Editions of Star Wars, there’s no reason why I can’t write an additional hundred words or so each year, expanding on the joys and sorrows experienced while eating the greatest of the great American foods.

(Attention conspiracy theorists: Just because I’ve written and spoken at length about my McRib addiction and am now once more delving into a hagiography of Hickory Farms Beef Stick does not mean that I’m on the American Meat Institute’s payroll. Of course, if anyone from the American Meat Institute is reading this post, I would actually very much like to be on the payroll. Feel free to tweet me up at @ryanbdixon.)

And so, dear readers, Fierce and Nerdy is proud to present:

ON THE EXEGESIS OF THE SOUL OR: WHY I LOVE BEEF STICK:

REVISED and EXPANDED EDITION with a SLIGHTLY NEW, or more accurately, NEWLY REVISED INTRODUCTION (Which You Just Read) and a BRAND NEW (And Very Tragic) EPILOGUE

1: BEEF STICK, LORD OF THE MEMORY PALACE

There is a popular dinner party question that goes something like this: Would you give up a year of your life to relive your favorite day?

My answer is usually no, but when I stop for a moment to seriously consider the question, one exception comes to mind: Any Christmas Day where Beef Stick was served.

Christmas. Beef Stick. Beef Stick. Christmas.

Writing those words sends my memory drifting back into the specter of adolescence… There I am, age eleven, ignoring my unopened copy of Super Mario Bros. 3 and staring instead at a Beef Stick in my hand. My mother, seeing a concerned look on my face, approaches and whispers in my ear, “Honey, it’s okay. Your uncle doesn’t know any better. Next year I’ll tell him to get you a Ninja Turtle.”

Little does she know that I’m not bemoaning the fact that my Uncle got me a piece of processed meat product for Christmas, but actually asking myself the question that will haunt me for the rest of my life: Do I want to savor the Beef Stick over several days or eat it all now? On that Christmas I eat it all, blissfully unaware that my caloric innocence will one day end.

And backwards we fall again, to yet another December 25th…Since no adult had the presence of mind to buy me a Beef Stick for Christmas, my ten year-old eyes zero in on my parents opening their gifts. I’m hoping so-so-so much that the wrapping paper being torn apart will reveal the iconic packaging of the Hickory Farms Gift PackWait. Is that a slither of the Hickory Farms’ red cardboard I see underneath the wrapping paper? It is!

Finally, we land inside a cozy little house in a Pittsburgh suburb… I am eight years-old, still wearing my footed pajamas, in a post-presents state of euphoria, and continually re-entering Baba’s* kitchen to gobble up, slice by succulent slice, an entire 3lb Beef Stick. (If anyone’s counting that’s 4560 calories, 384g of fat, 16g of carbs and 216g of protein in one 3lb Beef Stick.)

An hour passes. I return to the kitchen and find myself face-to-face with one final two-inch, end slice. I reach for it, my mouth already opening, preparing to stuff it inside, when a voice, unrecognizable, yet distantly familiar, as if spoken through the melancholic echo chambers of time by a much older version of myself, fills my head with one word– Remember.

I turn back to the living room. Not knowing what I should be remembering, I scan the room, silently watching my little sisters play Candy Land at the feet of my parents who are laughing at how Buffy the cat has gotten herself entangled in refuse wrapping. I glance over to see my grandfather sipping on an Old Fashioned while he discretely holds hands with Baba, who uses her free hand to inhale a Now 100 cigarette.

Bored by the prosaic image of my family doing the same thing that they had done every Christmas for my entire eight years of existence, I’m about to turn away when the voice, much more urgent this time, returns.

Remember.

I continue to stare,  focusing in on every sight, smell and sound. Another moment passes. Finally feeling that I have gleaned every detail possible from this familiar familial tableaux, I  turn away from the living room unaware that I will be forever thankful for this eternal memory.  Christmas would never really be the same– over the next few years my parents divorced, my sisters stopped playing Candy Land and started to play with boys, and health problems forced my grandparents to sell their house and move into a retirement home.

My eyes go back to that final slice of Beef Stick. Instead of gulping it down in total, I sit down at the small kitchen table, gently pick the slice up and roll it around in my hands, feeling its rubbery texture, inhaling its smoky scent. I then begin to take slow, small bites as the hazy magic hour glow representing the last light of Christmas Day shines through the kitchen window, painting us into a perfect moment in time.*

*Katherine S.  Libbey (April 30, 1922 – April 27, 2008) — Despite imparting many wonderful life lessons and being the first person outside of my parents to give me a bath, the fondest memories I have of my maternal grandmother revolve around her introducing me to the three food items that became the pillars of my diet: chewy jelly candy, Kraft Easy Cheese and, of course, Hickory Farms Beef Stick. Yet somehow, as a child, I never thought of spraying the Easy Cheese over the Beef Stick. This tragic oversight remains, outside of the time I chickened out and didn’t try to kiss Lisa Griffith on Valentine’s Day 1992 while we waited for our trombone lesson,  the major regret of my childhood.

2: BEEF STICK AND THE COMMUNION OF THE DEAD

My father was many things: Teacher. Golf pro. Cross country track and basketball coach. DJ extraordinaire. Lip-syncing super star. Car show impresario. Slot-machine kingpin. All-around Raconteur. Son. Grandfather. Husband (four times).

And Beef Stick lover.

Eating a Beef Stick was us having a game of catch. During my childhood, it was around our kitchen table at Christmastime, and not on any diamond or field, that we’d bond over the stories, songs and life lessons that would flow from his mouth in between bites of Beef Stick.

When he removed the plastic packaging and started carving up the Beef Stick, I’d always ask him to remind me how the “Imperial March” from The Empire Strikes Back went. And as he broke into a vigorous humming of the melody–Bum, Bum, Bum, Bum bumbum, Bum bumbum– I’d fantasize that we were actually eating a rare alien delicacy on an Imperial Star Destroyer.  While making “B.S.” sandwiches with Ritz crackers and mustard, he would re-tell one of my favorite vignettes from his experience in Boot Camp:  standing guard every night as his drill sergeant took a shit in the woods. And as we split the final piece, he’d unwrap his haunting holiday tale of a Christmas Eve in 1896 when a carriage and the family of four traveling inside sank into the foggy depths of the river that bordered our property, never to be seen again.

Best of all was when he’d reveal the secret histories of the golfers who were members of the public course our family owned. Hearing these character sketches was when I first learned one of the key tenants of good writing: people contained far more depth than the one-dimensional caricatures they often presented to the outside world. The jolly man who always gave me a piece of candy before teeing off was abusive to his own children. The misanthropic loner who refused to join others to make a foursome on busy days had lost both his wife and only child to cancer.

And while there will be Beef Stick on the table this holiday, I’ll be eating it alone. My father was devoured by cancer in July 2010 at age sixty-three. Along with all the other emotional tribulations that attend Christmases yet to come without loved ones, his death created a new holiday tradition for me: peripatetic existence.

Last Christmas my family and I stayed in the half-finished home of a friend in Pennsylvania; close enough to our old property that each trip down the road was endowed with a modicum of heartbreak. This year I will remain in Los Angeles for the holidays, away from all vestiges of home. The only snow I’ll see is the fake stuff that falls at The Grove.

Next Christmas? Perhaps I will return to Pennsylvania — my mother, sisters and step family still live there, scattered across the state — but it will be just that, a return, not a homecoming. When my father passed away, his house, the final relic of what once was a grand estate with two other houses, hundreds of acres of property, and the golf course — plenty of space for our family and the multitudinous mass of step members — was sold off.

No matter where I stay, it can’t change the fact that I no longer have a place called home. Or a father. They now only exist in my mind. And in every future first bite of Beef Stick I take.

3: BEEF STICK, MASTER OF THE QUIET MONSTER

I know love because I know Beef Stick, but I also know rage and the uncontrollable hunger that haunts only the most destitute of drug addicts because I know Beef Stick. More than once, it has pushed my relationships with loved ones and friends to the breaking point. Here is just one example:

Is a cylinder of processed meat worth a ten-year friendship?

Two years ago, my roommate Zac had purchased two 14oz. Beef Sticks from Target to serve as a continuing late night snack. Thus, as the clock struck midnight, we dug in. Never had our friendship felt so close as it did that night, when we reminisced about a college-aged trip to a local abandoned insane asylum over a few slices of B.S. Around 2am, Zac went to sleep and I was left alone with the kitchen mere feet away…

Cut To: The Next Evening. Around Midnight, Again.

As I sat typing on my laptop in the dining room, Zac entered the kitchen for another late night snack. But, instead of encountering meat to feed his stomach and soul, he was confronted by nothing but my guilty gaze. I broke down and confessed: I had eaten the rest of the first stick and the entirety of the other the previous night, after he had gone to bed. Although we have made small strides in regaining some semblance of trust, when I think of how Beef Stick affected our never-to-be-the-same friendship I am haunted by the words of Tennessee Williams, “How beautiful it was and how easily it can be broken.”

4: WHAT A PIECE OF WORK IS BEEF STICK

It’s called “Beef Stick.” What part of a cow or a pig looks remotely like a stick? Officially, Beef Stick is a summer sausage, which, according to Wikipedia, is any sort of sausage that can be kept fresh without the aid of a refrigerator. Beef Stick, a subspecies of said meat medley, is made from a flesh potpourri of leftover scrap and organ meat that would otherwise be wasted. Alas, how my soul weeps when I think of the suffering involved in the creation of one Beef Stick, the primal cries of those poor animals as their soft, innocent flesh is sliced open–

Who am I kidding? F&%K the animals. I love Beef Stick and I always will. As a Christmas tradition, it’s far tastier than Mistletoe, eggnog and the virgin birth. Like Mandy Patinkin, Steven Spielberg, Gore Vidal, Stephen King, Christopher Hitchens, my teachers and my parents, Hickory Farms Beef Stick, for better or worse, remains one of the great influences of my life and has helped to make me the person I am.

Yet, as the aging winds wither me away, I am forced  to reckon with one unpleasant, immutable fact: many of those glorious totems that made me who I am no longer exist.  With abject heartbreak, I must now add Beef Stick to that tragic roll…

5. EPILOGUE: THE BEEF STICK IN WINTER, SUMMER SAUSAGE ASCENDANT

Every tragedy grows from a small seed of discovery. And so it was last year, while at a friend’s Christmas party, I made a startling realization:  I had just left several slices of beef stick uneaten on the buffet table.

When the jovial host drunkenly stumbled past, he put an arm on my shoulder and slurred, “Having a good time?”

I nodded enthusiastically, then added, “Thanks for getting Beef Stick.”

The host opened his mouth, ready to reply, then paused. I assumed he was drifting away from the present party into the hazy ether where several cups of mulled wine with whiskey shots take you, but he eventually responded, “What’s Beef Stick?”

In Greek Tragedy, the term anagnorisis refers to the hero’s sudden awareness of a real situation, the realization of things as they stood, and finally, the hero’s insight into a relationship with an often antagonistic character. That was the moment of my own anagnorisis, when I became a very reluctant protagonist in my own unforeseen tragedy. Hadn’t several other people at the party besides my host given me quizzical looks when I mentioned “Beef Stick”? And hadn’t they responded, after I explained what it was, by asking, “You mean summer sausage?”

I didn’t mean just summer sausage. I meant Hickory Farms Beef Stick. Saying it was just summer sausage was like to saying Allagash Curieux was just beer or Rick Perry was just an idiot.

The gnawing fear that had been lurking in the back of my mind roared forth. What if the fleshy wonders stuffed within the faux intestinal casing before me wasn’t actually Beef Stick? For the first time in years, I looked at the label. It said “Hickory Farms Beef Summer Sausage.”

I ignored this ominous omen, theorizing that Hickory Farms had finally realized that some segments of the Vox populi were not all that inclined to eat something with the words “Beef” and “Stick” situated next to each other. A re-branding and re-design I could handle. But what if it was new recipe?

I emailed Hickory Farms as soon as I arrived home, demanding confirmation that even though the name and packaging had changed, the magical elixir that was Hickory Farms’ own proprietary recipe was still the same.

A few weeks later, I read the true crime book of the year:

Dear Mr. Dixon:

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us regarding Our Signature Beef Summer Sausage, and for allowing us to be part of your holiday traditions. You are correct, we have made adjustments to our former Original Beef Stick recipe along with the name change. I apologize if you were disappointed with our new recipe. As a company we strive to offer only the most premium products to our customers, and it appears we have disappointed you in this instance.

Please know that we have shared your comments with our Vice President of Marketing, and that they will be taken into consideration while planning for our next season.

Again, I apologize if we have disappointed you by changing our Summer Sausage recipe and I hope we can better serve you in the future.

Best,

Lindsay

Beef Stick as I knew and loved it was gone. I would never taste its wonders again.

Yet, as this year has progressed, I’ve slowly come to realize that not tasting again, not seeing again, not doing again and not loving again is all a natural part of aging. In youth, each singular loss is an unbearable, mighty blow that threatens to shatter our very being.  As we grow older our emotional armor strengthens so that losses, despite piling up at an ever increasing rate, have the dully throbbing, ever present pain of an ontological toothache.

This Christmas season, as you think of lost love ones, think too of Hickory Farms Beef Stick.  Mourn that you will never know its gastro glories again. Then smile, for once eaten, Beef Stick stays with you forever. A deliciously eternal icon to the true spirit of Christmas.

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featured image credit: iwantamonkey