This tale was inspired by incessant Passover food dreams combined with a good friend’s (this guy) call for short stories from his friends. The topic: any phrase randomly generated by a site that opens browser tabs of “noise” in order to fill now-legal internet user databases with irrelevant information. Looking to scratch a creative itch? Pick the first phrase that comes up, write about it and damn the man.
My phrase was “grain bribery.” Let’s fast-forward seven years to Passover, 2024.
Of the great number of plants that would no longer flower and fruit, grain had by far the harshest impact on the American people. Half of their population might as well have thought that soft, pliable, uniformly loaf-shaped tubes were harvested from fields in their final stage by migrant workers. As a result, the rough, toothsome bread made from the hardiest surviving barley and rye by an ever-dwindling number of skilled individuals was rejected disdainfully, until it too was consumed with ravenous urgency before ceasing to exist.
As I swept the corners between the stairs and risers, I imagined the last slice I’d eaten, six months before, whose dough had been fermented with a starter fed by my family for three generations. I lit a match in memorium while watching the sticky blob’s bubbles pop for the final time.
Why was I cleaning my house before abandoning it? It wasn’t to erase the proof that I had once lived there — in fact, I harbored hope that someone, however many years from now, would cross the threshold and compliment my “austerity chic” style of interior decorating. And it certainly wasn’t for the same reasons my mother would “clean up for the cleaning lady.” That occupation had gone the way of “the person who hires a cleaning lady.” The last professional of this nature could no longer be persuaded to continue tidying, given the uselessness of things previously of value. Besides, bartering was best left to people who knew what they were doing — people for whom transactions had been little more than bartering long before bread disappeared.
I was, in fact, cleaning for Passover. Operation Chametz, my grandmother called it. I was not even remotely observant, but so few symbolic traditions even existed anymore, and I had time to pass scrubbing the house of leavened grain. A knock at the door startled me out of my dream of brisket and noodle pudding.
Through the peephole, I saw two uniformed officers, one male and one female.
“Pride Of The American Heartland Task Force,” the man barked.
I was not surprised to hear this, in fact I’d been waiting months for this day. These officers were dispatched to search homes most likely to have a cache of grain, any grain, hidden away — farmers, agricultural scientists, and former chefs, bakers and, as I had been, food journalists. Hand it over, and you would receive enough ration booklets to see you and yours through three months or more. Refuse, and your house would be thoroughly searched. If they found so much as a cookie crumb, you’d be brought before the Austerity Committee’s disciplinary board, convicted of hoarding and shipped to a contamination cleanup region. So perhaps that was my other reason for scouring.
The reason for this task force’s existence was that the President refused to hear things like “There is no more bread,” just as he refused to eat most foods unless coated in the dried, powdered corpse of bread then fried to near-black in vegetable oil (the price of which had risen to a thousand dollars a quart). This fried sustenance had, in the span of two years, become the very pinnacle of luxurious fine dining. Ironically, duck liver, fish eggs and venison loin were now nutrient-rich survival foods for those who could extract them from the wild.
I reminisced momentarily on my studies of Eleanor Roosevelt’s sober White House kitchen, and wondered what the President would do if served bean and tomato stew or chipped beef on toast.
“Please come in,” I replied, “and wipe your boots on the mat, if you would.”
They ignored both requests, remaining firmly planted on the porch just outside the door.
“Do you have any grain in your house?” the man questioned.
“I do,” I replied.
“Bring it out in a sturdy container, please, nothing that will rip or tear,” he ordered.
“You should have brought it to the Bureau of the Pride of the American Heartland months ago,” the female officer added, behind wide sunglasses. She looked as though she were addressing her rifle.
“I liked having it around,” I replied, then left them to retrieve the half-pound of heirloom stone-ground red fife wheat hidden in a long-empty tampon box under the sink in the guest bathroom. I transferred it carefully to a plastic container and sealed its lid.
“What it is?” The man asked, as I handed it over.
“Red fife wheat — it’s the heritage strain most modern kinds were descended from,” I said, with a surge of confidence from the knowledge I was once deemed useful for retaining. He scribbled a few words on his clipboard and took the container.
“Put it in the box that’s going to the mill,” the woman said to her partner. As he walked back to their vehicle, she added “I was a big fan of your magazine back in the day. You should know they’re going to come back and search anyway, so if you have anything else for us, now’s the time.”
I shook my head with a tight smile and whispered, “it’s already been to the mill.” She turned around to join her partner in the vehicle.
Once the truck was safely down the road, I went back to the guest bathroom to reclaim my last treasure: A cup of buckwheat groats — kasha, my grandmother called it. We’d have that on Passover too, tossed with bow-tie pasta, caramelized onions and schmaltz. I transferred the tiny brown pyramids to a small glass jar and screwed on its lid, then went to the backyard and buried it by the skeletal gingko tree whose small green fans would not unfold.
“Next year in Jerusalem,” I said, patting the earth around the hole, and scattering a few handfuls of decaying debris around it.