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Home: The Toast


At our last session, Sarah suggests I join group of like-minded people. Maybe that way, she tells me, I could meet friends who aren’t necessarily colleagues and possibly one of those new-found friends might have a friend of her own that she might consider worthy of my company, and maybe she’d introduce us, and it might be awkward at first, as these things so often are, but perhaps after a drink or a movie, or what have you, the two of us would start emailing, eventually with greater frequency, and meeting up for bike rides here and there, perhaps we’d take a drive out to St. Louis to hear the symphony or, at the very least, stock up on dried fruit and frozen ethnic food at Trader Joe’s, organize a dinner party together, and, before I knew it, I’d be in a relationship. That’s how these things work out sometimes, Sarah tells me. You can’t necessarily plan for them to happen, but you can fertilize the terrain, so to speak.

Sarah’s metaphors always grate on my nerves. I couldn’t tell, this time, if I was more put off by the horticultural references or the misplaced sexual innuendo of the whole thing. Sarah means well. She too arrived in Missouri with hopes and expectations, and dreams of returning to the wild west of her youth, but then a few years later, she met Jim and, as the story goes, set down her roots. 

I search in vain for a badminton club or a pottery studio in the area and then consider joining a cooking group since I’ve just purchased a new food processor. Maybe I’m not the only one in Columbia, Missouri with a bright red Cuisinart?

I happen upon the local Slow Food Katy Trail group website and immediately add my name to their mailing list. Ten minutes later, an automated message invites me to contribute a 25$ membership fee, and twenty minutes later, I receive an Evite to a fall event – the annual Chestnut Roast Festival in New Franklin, Missouri. 

I click the ‘yes’ button, eager for a new beginning.  

But what does one wear to a culinary and agricultural festival? How do I plan for this activity I never thought I’d embark upon? I look through my wardrobe, hoping something will jump out at me, the way it did a few months ago, when I went to a potluck at Sandra’s house, but it turned out I had wasted my time planning an outfit since I was the only single person under the age of 50 (except for the dozen or so children). Nobody noticed that my burgundy tights exactly matched the silk collar of my sweater, which, in turn, offered a muted reflection of the stripes on my skirt. It was an outfit my mother would have been proud of, except for my choice of shoes, which were, as usual, bolder than the ensemble called for, but which I envisioned as a demonstration of the fact that I had a sense of humor, and could, on occasion, be spontaneous. In retrospect, I don’t regret the choice of red patent leather clogs, even though they attracted stares from the balding colleague of Sandra’s who must have been waiting weeks for the chance to discuss his ex-wife’s wrongdoings, at length. I smiled, listened patiently, reluctantly gave him my phone number and wished I hadn’t spent so much time planning my outfit. 

I pick out the same clogs this time. They go with everything, the saleswoman told me. She probably said that about every pair of shoes she sold that day, but her authoritative tone made me believe her. A deliberate nod accompanied her claim. 

I opt for the new pair of jeans I’d just bought and a charcoal sweater with an orange and pink hued silk scarf. I know the colors don’t exactly match my red clogs, but they do echo one another’s brightness, and I figure I can get away with it. Before leaving my apartment, I add a touch of lipstick. 

I’m not sure how I’ll be able to recognize Lori, the woman who emailed me a hand-drawn map with directions to New Franklin, Missouri – she hadn’t provided me with any personal details beyond a few generic words of thanks for my membership fee and a vague promise of meeting up at some point in the future. I interpret the pink cursive of her email signature and the accompanying heart as a sign that here might be potential for something Sarah would be proud of. 

I tell myself there’s no way that Lori will not be instantly visible to me at the roast. Anybody in charge of a slow food group already sounds like someone I’d like to befriend. I imagine her greeting me at the entrance with a bag of freshly roasted chestnuts, the kind I once tried to roast myself by carving a cross into the underbelly of the chestnut, according to a diagram from an old cookbook, and ended up setting off the smoke alarm. I’m not sure if more accurately carved crosses would have made a difference. A few weeks later, I tossed the burnt and moldy chestnuts out of my fridge.

When I cross-reference Lori’s map with Google Maps, I find a more straightforward path to New Franklin. A 45-minute journey along Interstate 70 toward Kansas City, 40 West toward Fayette and then county road 5 north for the last three minutes. A year ago, these highway numbers had sounded like nothing but numbers; now they have mental markers associated with them. Lori’s map adds a few side streets to the journey and has me winding along the county road for longer than Google Maps recommends, but in the end, I privilege for her convoluted directions, since I imagine she would want me to travel along a route that will likely pass through a series of picturesque quaint towns. Lori knows I’m aching to encounter a Missouri landscape that might feel like home. 

I’m driving through a one-street town with a requisite church and gas station, adjusting my scarf and wondering whether Lori has a family. Maybe she’ll invite me for Thanksgiving and I could make bread and chestnut stuffing. I don’t notice that the speed limit has lowered, and I fail to see the policeman until he’s pulling me over.

“Ma’am, you’re speeding,” he says at my window, “do you realize that you were driving 50 in a 25 zone?”

I stare at him. I know he’s right – since I did see the sign, 25 in bold, sans serif font – but I didn’t know at the time because the number hadn’t registered.

“Where are you off to in such a hurry?”

“An organic chestnut roast.”

“A what?”

“I’ll show you.” I hand him Lori’s invitation and hand-drawn, clumsy map with windy roads and names instead of numbers. I’d been gripping the wheel with the invitation in my left hand. It was crumpled and the finger marks had smudged the printer ink. He takes the paper, turns the map one way, then the other, looks over at me, shaking his head. He walks back to his car while I watch him in my rearview mirror. I see him stare intently, then scribble something. A ticket?

He approaches again. “You’ll never get to New Franklin if you follow this map,” he says. “Here’s what my GPS told me.” He hands back the invitation with a new set of directions on the back. Exactly what Google Maps had suggested a few hours earlier.

“Thanks, officer.”

“What’s a chestnut roast anyhow?”

“It’s a slow food event – a culinary and agricultural festival.”

“A what?”

“A gathering of people who believe in the intrinsic value of eating food that isn’t processed.” I’ve never been asked to define slow food before and realize that I’m not sure what is exactly the point of this particular gathering. 

“I’ll tell you what. I’ll let you go this time. Have fun with the chestnuts and drive safely. I don’t ever want to see you driving 50 in a 25 zone again.” I was glad to have worn the lipstick.

My Honda Civic and I escape the policeman and, following his directions, drive straight to the University of Missouri’s school of agriculture affiliate campus. A grassy area has been converted into a parking lot for the event. I park next to a Subaru station wagon and watch a family of five emerge. They’ve brought baskets and bags with them to carry home their loot. I smile at them and wonder if the baseball-capped mother could be Lori. We have barely made eye contact, when I see her husband drape an arm around her shoulder and hear him call her Anne.

I stand in line for a sample of roasted chestnuts. The mixture of steam and spiced smoke rising from the concave roasting pans makes my eyes water, the way it did years ago, on walks with my father, when we stopped to inhale the scent of autumn leaves burning in neighborhood backyards. 

I wrestle the chestnuts from their shells and eat them, one after the other. Once they burst open, the edges of the shells are like shards and I manage to scratch my hands on them. They are the first thing I’ve eaten all day and I chew the nuts carefully, enjoying their malleable texture. I hadn’t considered the word chestnut before, but today their name makes sense – they resemble nuts emerging from chests, even though I know the tree itself has a Latin name.

I’m craving conversation and end up buying five pounds of freshly harvested chestnuts from a hefty woman wearing a Missouri Tigers sweatshirt and a red bandana in her hair. 

“How do I roast the…?”

“Here’s an information sheet that explains everything,” she interrupts, and turns to the next customer.

Under the wall-less white tent, there is face painting, a chestnut themed raffle, a dressed up cowboy strumming his guitar and singing country tunes with a harmonica player, a man in a tiger suit roaming the crowd and handing out free key chains. I walk from booth to booth, collecting recipes and consoling myself with purchases of free-range eggs and frozen venison steaks. Buying directly from farmers makes me feel like the one who is engaging in manual labor, doing something positive with my life. I add my name to a dozen farmers’ mailing lists. Nothing wrong with extra emails in my inbox or surplus meat in my freezer.

After about an hour, I give up the search for Lori. She could be any of the dozens of moms herding their kids through the face painting stations or wiping their hands clean with Purell or telling them to be careful, that chestnut is hot, it could burn your tongue. I locate the Katy Trail Slow Food display table, but save for the brochures and membership information, which I have already filled out online, it’s empty. There’s a seasonal Christmas-pudding tasting party advertised for December 20th, but I will have escaped Columbia, Missouri by then, at least for a few weeks. I’m not sure I’d go even if I were in town.

I walk back to my car, load the meat, chestnuts and farming pamphlets into the trunk and seat the eggs in the passenger seat. I start the car, and slowly make my way out of the grassy parking lot and onto the country road where I’d barely escaped getting a ticket an hour and a half ago. As I roll through town, driving exactly 25, a pickup truck passes me, and the driver gives me the finger. By the time I’ve reached the interstate, there’s a line of cars behind me. I watch as each of them passes me as soon as we clear the ramp, a stamp of incongruity and bewilderment on their faces. 

I had planned to write Lori a thank you note and had even selected a card from my collection for the occasion – Autumn in Algonquin Park, a painting by Tom Thomson. I wanted personalize the thank you card with an image that not only reflected our day together but also illuminated a little bit of my own Canadian history. I haven’t yet forgotten the text I composed in my mind on my drive to New Franklin:

Dear Lori, Thank you for showing me a side of Missouri I hadn’t seen before, for reinvigorating my appreciation for chestnuts, introducing me to your friends and family, sharing your recipes with me, and, most of all, providing me with an opportunity to experience delicious food in great company. You know, sometimes things do get a little lonely and monotonous in a life where I shuttle back and forth between my apartment and my departmental office; thank you, also, for breaking up my routine.

The end now sounds melodramatic and I’m relieved there’s no reason to send the note.

Nobody knows I was gone. Nobody knows where I went. Nobody knows I’m coming home with five pounds of chestnuts. I turn the key and see that nobody called. Chances are my email inbox will be empty. Not a word about organic cabbage or humanely raised goat. Only my Honda witnessed my encounter with the cop. Before entering my apartment, I stop to scrape the dirt off my red clogs.

Julia Zarankin's nonfiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review, PRISM International, and the Antioch Review. In her past life, which ended in 2008, she taught Russian literature at the University of Missouri. Now she lives, writes and watches birds with gusto in Toronto.

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