Edging as I am past middle-age, I take my Saturday nights slow and easy. Content to enjoy occasional dinners with friends, a bluegrass concert or a book, I prefer weekends to be relaxed and spontaneous, an approach that differs considerably from the more disciplined social routine of my parents.
In our long-ago household, Friday night meant dining out, often at the Masonic Lodge, where dinner was followed by music and dancing to a live band. Sunday night was set aside for television – the news program See It Now, then Disney and Kraft Television Theater.
But if Friday and Sunday nights were for family, Saturday was reserved for my parents and their bridge club. The games rotated from home to home, with the first cards shuffled at 7:00 p.m. The game ended at 10:00 p.m., or as soon after that as the last hand allowed. After scores were tallied and the winners declared, coffee and dessert were served. Then, the couples headed home to rescue their baby-sitters.
When my parents hosted the club, furniture in the living and dining rooms was pushed back to make room for card tables. Each table held playing cards, score cards, pencils and coasters. There weren’t any rule books. They weren’t needed. It wasn’t that the players were lax about the rules – quite the contrary. They knew them so well a rule book would have been redundant.
They were serious about their bridge, but not obsessive. Now and then they laughed about the duplicate players in town who never allowed eating or drinking during their games. In my folks’ circle, bridge night was munchie night. The corners of the tables held mixed nuts, peanuts, pretzels, and the ubiquitous Chex mix that was the gold standard of 1950’s snacking.
Salty and crisp were the criteria – snacks needed to complement the drinks. During that era of hard liquor and a well-stocked bar, men drank beer during football games or after mowing the lawn, while champagnes and wines were reserved for special occasions. The bridge club drank Old Fashioneds, a Tom Collins or two, whiskey sours and Manhattans – serious drinks for serious players.
When the ladies played their weekly game on Thursday afternoons, there was less liquor and more chit-chat. They nibbled on blanched peanuts, chocolate-covered raisins, tiny pastel mints and Jordan almonds. They sipped lemonade or iced tea, giggled a bit when they lost track of the score and, at the end of their game, indulged in piles of marvelous sandwiches.
Often, the bread was shaped with cutters into playing card symbols – clubs, hearts, diamonds and spades. Sometimes, the sandwiches were trimmed of their crusts and cut into triangles. In either case, they were the very essence of midwestern chic and, as with all sandwiches, it was the filling that counted. Cream cheese and olives, cream cheese mixed with chopped dates and pecans, cucumber slices with dill and thin-sliced ham spread with tangy horseradish – all of them were good, even by the standards of children who generally preferred peanut-butter-and-jelly.
Unfortunately, my mother and her friends missed the pleasure of one of the world’s best sandwiches – homemade pimento cheese on plain white bread. I encountered this staple of the American South only after moving to Texas. What they do in Alabama and Mississippi I can’t say, but in Texas, pimento cheese is perfectly acceptable for weddings, funerals, Saturday afternoon domino parties and lazy afternoons on the porch . You might serve a pickle with it, or add a little cayenne or jalapeno, or even doll it up with just a touch of garlic, but the rich, satisfying flavor always is enough to pin people next to the sandwich tray until it’s been emptied.
When I asked a Texas-born-and-bred woman why I never saw pimento cheese served on whole wheat, nine grain, or any of the artisan breads so popular today, she looked me over with bemused tolerance and said, “Why, darlin ‘, I don’t know. It’s just the way we do it. I don’t guess different bread would be wrong, if that’s what you want. After all, it’s what’s in the middle that counts.”
More often than we imagine, it’s what’s in the middle that counts.
In her book Annie Leibovitz at Work, the photographer tells the story of her first significant political assignment, recording the departure of Richard Nixon from the White House. On the morning after Nixon’s resignation, as he stood on the steps of the helicopter that was preparing to whisk him away, other White House pool photographers shot his “V” salute at the top of the steps and then began turning away.
Rather than focusing on the President boarding the helicopter, Leibovitz turned her attention to guards rolling up the red carpet as the helicopter lifted off, managing to capture the image before the helicopter was fully aloft. The combination of an absent Nixon, an unwieldy red carpet and the entirely human sight of US Army guards attempting to hold onto their hats in the rotor wash was what Leibovitz calls an “in between moment”, a bit of captured life that manages to add piquancy and flavor to the bigger events of the day.
Reviewers of Leibovitz’ work refer again and again to her knack for capturing this “life in the middle”. “A lot can be told in those moments between the main moments,” she says, Her photos of the carpet being rolled up after Nixon’s resignation, of people crowding around the murder site during O.J. Simpson’s trial or of Barack Obama waiting in the wings during a primary campaign appearance all are marked by unusual details and a remarkable sense of presence. This is where her news photos gain their power – in her ability to tell a story by fleshing out the oft-ignored middle.
Even in literature, where it’s a given that stories should have a beginning, a middle and an end, the issue of the missing middle is real. “There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts,” said Charles Dickens. His words are no less true today.
Part of the fault lies with authors who depend on formulaic writing, who believe the public prefers “easy reads”, and who accept advice to “write down” to an increasingly poorly-schooled and non-critical audience. On the other hand, there also is evidence that people who primarily utilize texts, tweets, wall postings and status updates as forms of communication begin not only to neglect the disciplines basic to reading and writing, but also forget the pleasures that lie between a story’s beginning and its end.
While children still plead, “Tell me a story,” adults increasingly demand, “Just tell me what happened.” We have so little patience, so little willingness to wait, to dawdle, to lie suspended in the stream of language and allow its flow to carry us where it will. Unless, as readers and writers, we regain the courage to re-enter that flow, we may be left with stories reduced to little more than, “Once upon a time, they lived happily ever after.”
Without a middle, without a good dollop of tension, humor, ambiguity and drama spread between its beginning and its end, a story remains dry and tasteless as a cracker sandwich. While we could survive on saltines encased in white bread – at least for a time – we wouldn’t enjoy it, and we certainly wouldn’t be well nourished.
The question, of course, is why anyone would choose such dry, tasteless fare when so much more has been set out on the table to enjoy. It’s well past time for readers to stop accepting cracker sandwiches and for all of us – however much or little we write – to get out the old recipes and stir up some pimento prose. After all, whether it’s a story or a sandwich, it’s what’s in the middle that counts.