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The Accidental Oracle

The Accidental Oracle by Kurt Strahm

Dear Oracle:

I keep hearing how “sun dried tomatoes” is a high class thing to eat, so I bought some. They were not only as chewy as shoe leather, but they smelled like day old socks smothered in catsup. What’s up with that smell?

—Bernard Fonzerelli, Anti-Missile Missile Guidance Software Engineer Level II,
Orlando, Florida

Dear Bernard:

“What’s up” is that dried tomatoes must be stomped flat by peasants in the rural south of Italy, and it hurts their feet!

The peasants used to stomp dried tomatoes and wine grapes, but the grape crop died off in the 1930s and the wineries closed, leaving the stompers without their daily wine ration (one nutritious gallon for breakfast and another for lunch; vats were built tall and narrow to keep stompers upright).

Because stomping dried tomatoes is too painful to do barefoot and sober, stompers took to wearing the thickest socks they could find. And being poverty stricken peasants, they wear socks “till they can’t be worn no more,” then patch and wear them again.

Thus the tomatoes’ slight eau de foot aroma.

Stomper weddings are colorful affairs, with both the pregnant bride and drunken groom proudly shod in thick, tomato stained Calzini di Oro—Socks of Gold—handed down from their grandparents, who then retire to the village square to air their huge, swollen feet and cluck at young people who’ve forsaken stomping: “Well isn’t she just the Empress of China with those pretty little feet!”

Note that stomping olives is too slippery and dangerous for us bipods, so horses have done it since the Greeks. Olive growers nail huge shoes on a spirited horse and lower it into the olive vat, then soak a specially bred Albanian “agitator” tarantula in espresso and put it on the horse’s back, to get it to buck like a bronco and stomp the olives. If you ever wondered what gives some olive oils that complex and indescribable scent, now you know.

And by the way, Bernard, just how is it you know that shoe leather is “chewy”?

—A. O.

Dear Oracle:

What are the “Isles of Pancreas?”

I have to write a report, but my computer died and my dad says we can’t buy a new one until he talks Uncle Tim into signing over his life insurance. It’s like we can’t afford for me to be smart any more! He says I can use the computers at school or go to the library…

As if!! Like I’m gonna sit with the poor nerds and catch their cooties? Hel-lo?!

—Latashanisha McNichols, 12, San Francisco, California

Dear Latashanisha:

Yes, of course I can locate the Isles of Pancreas for you. They are a chain of islands just off the Southern California coast known for their massive guano mines, worked by one eyed brutes spawned in a cloning lab from a genetic cocktail of the frozen essences of Britney Spears, Charlton Heston and a howler monkey.

Sorry, Latashanisha… just kidding! I know I shouldn’t do that, but sometimes the weight of responsibility gets to me, and I have to let off steam. By the way, why do I get so many letters from kids like you? Are your parents and teachers so afraid of you that I’m the only adult with the nerve to contradict your reckless friends?

Seriously, I am worried about you kids. And though I naturally have more insight into the problems boys face, that may change soon: I was shocked to find that all the soy products I’ve been eating contain massive amounts of estrogen! I have no desire to find out what cramps and bloating feel like, so of course I’m going to quit, but I’ve heard such horror stories about “hot flashes” that I’m afraid to quit cold turkey (and besides, I still have $15 worth of “tofurky” in the refrigerator).

I was going to scold you for picking on poor nerds, Latashanisha, but you will understand suffering soon enough, when you start barreling over the hormonal waterfalls all young people face.

Though you don’t mention your mother, I hope you have a female role model, perhaps a gym teacher, who’s explained the “facts of life” to you? Too many young women find out too late that boys will say anything to get what they want, then leave the girl holding the bag—that is, the baby—whose face will remind her every single day of the honey dripping weasel who wormed his way into her “baby cave” (they still use that term in health class, don’t they?), then triggered a rockslide and left her to dig herself out.

And even the rare adolescent male who is ethical seems as unthinking as ever, happy to let life be something that just happens to him—so all he has to worry about is putting one foot in front of the other like a mule moving rocks over a scorched desert mountain, maybe fixated on getting that next drink of water, but not once in its life considering what it means to be a mule, a long eared genetic dead end!

Excuse me, Latashanisha, I guess this is getting a little too philosophical for someone your age, but my point is that you kids—with your brains stewing in hormones, fast food grease and acne medication—can’t think straight. And just when you should be deeply immersed in thought, preparing for adulthood, because there is no true experience of life without the awareness thought provides. (Of course you will have to short-circuit that paralyzing awareness just to function at some point, but that’s what “substance abuse” and corporate careers are for.)

The truth, Latashanisha, is that the Isles of Pancreas are those bright specks you see after looking into the spotlight they shine in your mouth at the dentist’s office. The Isles are named after Saint Pancreas, the leader of a scientifically inclined priestly order dispatched to Brazil in the 16th century, and the father of modern dentistry.

When the priest-scientists were not testing methods of salvation powerful enough to pierce the most savage native heart—e.g., baptism by keelhauling; baptism by being towed across a piranha pool on a slab of beef; baptism by burial to the neck in a red ant mound, with salt poured on the head to attract wild cattle with rough tongues—they ran clinical trials to confirm the painkilling power of faith, by comparing the average number of times converts passed out while having all their teeth pulled (6), to the average for a “control group” of kidnapped heathens (7).

Thanks to Saint Pancreas, countless natives were Saved (and introduced to the soothing benefits of a gummable, meat-free diet) and dentistry escaped the dark ages.

Also note that the drug novacaine is named after a Brazilian novitiate and dental assistant named Heather Caine. Some claim that the drug cocaine was named for her sister Coco, a Manaus Opera diva who fell in love with the son of a rubber baron and disappeared up the Amazon to the foothills of Peru.

It’s said that the couple soon “went native,” and that their cocaine-addicted descendants still dart through the jungle, buzzing like excited flies as they watch enormous bulldozers groan through the steaming trees, scraping off everything but a few inches of mud—ready to yield a few years of cattle grazing before it hardens to impermeable clay—and raking the cut lawn that used to be the Amazon into a nice neat pile at the foot of the Andes.

So think of Saint Pancreas and the Amazon the next time you bite into a hamburger, Latashanisha—both its beef, and your teeth, would not be the same without them. As for me, I’ll think of your name every time I leave the dentist’s office and need to work the novacaine out of my jaw.

—A. O.


Kurt Strahm


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2007

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