Friday, November 4, 2011

Operation Pig's Foot

When I learned the news this week concerning the consumption of black licorice and a certain drug therein called glycyrrhizin—which the FDA says lowers potassium levels that in turn can cause abnormal heart rhythms, high blood pressure, edema, and congestive heart failure—I heaved a huge sigh of relief. I don’t like black licorice. But interestingly enough, when I have consumed black licorice in the past, it always gave me a headache. I didn’t, though, realize I was a couple of pieces away from a coronary thrombosis.

Happily, from where I sit, red licorice was not included in this indictment. For it was red licorice that I used to buy as a penny candy in Pat Mitchell’s Irish Food Center in the old neighborhood during that simpler snapshot in time known as the 1970s. I recall Pat’s brother Mike thumbing through and pulling apart individual pieces from a super-sized pack of Twizzler’s red licorice. Ten red licorice strips cost a dime—a bargain if ever there was one. And it didn’t matter to we wide-eyed youths that Mike had been both making sandwiches and change all day long without washing his hands. I can’t ever recall getting sick from a piece of Pat Mitchell’s red licorice.

Funny, though, how this contemporary black licorice story resurrected memories of a little man named Mike from Pat Mitchell’s. He was a pleasant enough leprechaun. My friends and I had nicknamed him “Eh,” because, you see, he calculated customer tabs in his head with lots of expressed “ums” and “ehs” before arriving at a sum total. When the math became a little too involved, Mike—and all the Pat Mitchell employees for that matter—added up figures on paper bags. Plastic grocery bags didn’t yet exist.

In fact, my brother and I used to imitate Mike in his thick but agreeable Irish brogue saying this line: “Three papers…um…eh…dollar-five.” Ah...those were the days...when the Sunday New York Daily News cost thirty-five cents. Store clerk “Eh” even became part of a comic strip I created as a teen. I dubbed him “Eugene Herbert Mitchell,” turning his ubiquitous “eh” mutterings into initials. And, finally, while remembering “Eh,” I would be remiss if I didn’t recount “Operation Pig’s Foot.”

On the countertop at Pat Mitchell’s were jars containing pigs’ feet, which I always found supremely revolting for a variety of reasons. My father used to eat them—or whatever it is one did with them. Perhaps "gnaw on them" is a more apt description. Anyway, I had never witnessed a single person through the years purchase a single pig’s foot…and wondered what a transaction would look like. And so “Operation Pig’s Foot” was hatched. I went into Pat Mitchell’s with a tape recorder concealed in a paper bag and ordered a pig’s foot. This was the technology of the time—no Flip cams or iPhones. Mike, aka “Eh,” placed a piece of wax paper down on the counter, opened the jar, and reached into the cloudy brine with his bare hand. He plucked a healthy sized pig’s foot out and, dripping brine all over the place, laid it on the wax paper and wrapped it up tight. The recording for posterity of “Operation Pigs Foot” sounded mostly like a crinkling bag. But I had at long last witnessed the incredible: a pig’s foot purchase. And pity the poor boy or girl who came in after me to buy red licorice strips.

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