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Summer Stories: ‘Heart is Where the Home is’

July 10, 2022 Updated Mon., July 11, 2022 at 2:35 p.m.

By Kate Lebo

The heart in my home is in the freezer. Yes, there are hearts in each of the humans who share this house, and in the one cat, and in every freeloading insect that lives with us. But there is only one heart I can show off with little mess and no butchery.

It’s a lamb heart. When I ordered it from Ramstead Ranch, I’d had an idea that it was time to try eating organ meats. Lots of vitamins and minerals in the heart, they say. A delicacy, which is a word for what we find delicious and other people find disgusting. When our lamb arrived, I tetrised choice cuts into the basement freezer and saved the smaller, weirder bits for the upstairs, everyday freezer, where I could not forget to use them.

This was a year ago. The heart is still in the freezer.

I don’t want to eat the heart, but I can’t throw it away. That would be wasteful.

I can’t thaw it – then I’d have to eat it.

Nor have I figured out how to make the heart delicious. I am too busy researching how many hearts an earthworm has. An octopus has three. A cuttlefish has two. So does a hagfish. Cockroaches have one heart, but that one heart has 13 chambers. The other organisms that live with us – the mold and yeast and bacteria – do not have hearts. They’re called “simple organisms” even though they live in and on us, and sometimes complicate our lives.

The heart in my freezer is the size of a fist. It gets smaller when the butcher paper’s off. Next to it, I’ve stored the last three ounces of breast milk I pumped before my son stopped nursing. The heart is labeled “HEART,” but the breast milk is labeled only with a date. I won’t forget what it is: the last milk I’ll ever make. By now, it is freezer burned.

For 18 months I stored my placenta (Cy’s placenta?) in the freezer, too, in a plastic tub wrapped in an opaque green plastic bag. The bag allowed me to forget what was inside it while reaching for a frozen dish of chicken parm. When I finally defrosted the placenta, I kept it in the bag, in the fridge. I kept it there for a week – long enough to start worrying that it was going to go bad. I was steeling myself to cut the placenta in two. The plan was to put one half with a pear sapling and one with a quince to help the trees grow big and strong. It would be a fertility blessing from our family, and for it. The plan was to hedge my bets –what if the fruit tree planted with Cy’s/my placenta died? What would the magic of our organ mean then?

I put the problem out of my mind until planting day. The trees arrived in the mail, bare as babies. I cleared the lawn and dug the holes. But I could not bring myself to cut the placenta in two. It was meat, but it was me. It fed my son. Cutting it into pieces felt like cutting myself.

When I tipped the organ out of its tub, it smelled fine. If it hadn’t, that would have been fine. It was going to rot down there anyway. The placenta was a rich red-brown, the same color as the lamb heart. I settled it into the hole where the quince tree was going to go, patted it, and thanked it for its service. Then I covered it with soil and wiped my gardening gloves on the lawn to get the blood off.

I know what food I do not have a relationship with – and what food I have too close a relationship with – by what rots in the refrigerator or burns in the freezer, and by the jars that stack up in my basement. There are foods I make because I’m drowning in excess produce and the recipe sounds interesting. The “Gingered Zucchini Marmalade” from The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, for example, seemed like a brilliant way to use up garden zucchini – and it was, if you think spending extra time and ingredients on zucchini and storing it for several years before throwing it away is a good idea. There are foods I make just because I can. My first homemade preserves were pickled watermelon rinds – a food I knew existed, but had never eaten. The recipe allowed me to reproduce the dish, but it couldn’t tell me why I’d want to eat it in the first place. That’s not always a problem. But in this case, my curiosity did not transform into a craving. The preserved rinds sat in the cupboard, uneaten, until they turned gray.

Sometimes I preserve food because I’ll never see its like again. Sometimes by saving it, I ruin it. Down in the underworld of my house there are dusty towers of honeyed kumquats and quince jellies I’m reserving for a special occasion that will never come. Mystery plums steeped with black tea and bittersweet lemon marmalade so thick I can cut it in slices and serve it on a cheese plate, which sounds good, but isn’t.

Each morsel of uneaten food is a moment from a living thing’s life for which I feel responsible, especially when it’s unappetizing. So we share a home, sometimes for years. The preserves, at least, are pretty, their apricots and rhubarb glinting in the dim. The breast milk is a cold white lump, and probably unidentifiable to anyone but me. It’s not even food anymore. It’s more like a talisman or a photograph. Something that captures the most nutritious meal I’ll ever make, but is itself no longer edible. I have a feeling I’ll know what to do with this milk once I’m ready to admit the baby is no longer a baby.

The heart in my home will live with us, too, until I get a little braver. Cut the fat from the top, I read, and remove the tubes. Slice the heart into steaks and sear it, or braise it, or roast it. Add parsley or lovage. Serve with potatoes or pasta. Serve with greens. Serve alone, while standing at the counter. Eat it while it’s hot.

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