"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I’ve always thought it would be fun to eat a heart. As a kid, the beet was my favorite vegetable because biting into the firm garnet flesh allowed me to imagine I was eating a heart. I don’t think my childhood relish stemmed from a deep-seated hatred of humanity or a serious interest in cannibalism, and, in my defense, a morbid fascination with the heart pervades all human cultures. In fact, I probably got the idea while touring Mayan and Aztec ruins; I was fascinated by the Bonampak frescoes: faded murals of heart sacrifice beneath a starry dawn sky.
Ten thousand years ago, Cro-Magnon hunters etched hearts in stone. Eight thousand years later, Egyptians would revere the heart as the cradle of intelligence, wisdom and memory, an organ that guarded or revealed moral shortcomings: After the deceased had crossed the dangerous country between the land of the living and the land of the dead, he or she entered the Hall of Two Truths, where the jackal god Anubis weighed the hearts of the dead. Anubis placed a heart on one side of a scale and an ostrich feather on the other. The feather symbolized truth, and only a heart of the same weight was worthy of the fields of heaven. (The jackal god tossed unworthy hearts to “the gobbler,” a crocodilian monster that waited at the base of the scales.)
Aristotle identified the heart as the most important organ in the body, and in the second century, the Roman physician Galen described the heart as the body’s hearthstone. He wrote, “The heart is a hard flesh, not easily injured. In hardness, tension, general strength, and resistance to injury, the fibers of the heart far surpass all others, for no other instrument performs such continuous, hard work as the heart.”
During the Middle Ages, the heart, which inhabited the upper and more pure part of the body, was an icon of clarity and sincerity. By this time, the heart was also linked to romantic love — in one 13th century romance, a woman’s jealous husband forces her to eat the embalmed heart of her lover, who has died in the Crusades. On the less tawdry end of the symbolic spectrum, Christians came to see the heart as a symbol of their savior’s love for humanity. In 1674, a nun named Margaret Mary professed visions of the sacred heart of Jesus, an event that cemented the burning heart’s place in the Catholic pantheon.
My own interest in the heart is not based on science or romance or spirituality, but rather my consuming obsession with food. My friend Rachel Mercer is well aware of my interest in cooking odd or free items, and promised me a heart from one of her lambs. Rachel’s lambs are the most delicious I’ve ever tasted, so I eagerly awaited the arrival of the frozen heart.
A few days before Rachel’s visit, I was perusing the grocery aisle thinking of what to cook for her; she was bringing a friend, and obviously one lamb’s heart is not going to feed four people. I had hearts on my mind, and I couldn’t resist checking to see if the store had any to offer. Sure enough, packets of chicken hearts were on quick sale. For only 93 cents I was the proud owner of 30 of them.
Rachel arrived from eastern Washington, bringing a gift of sheep’s milk cheese, ripe yellow tomatoes from her garden, the frozen sheep heart, and her friend Ali, who was from Morocco by way of Portland. Neither guest seemed surprised or disgusted by a dinner of pasta tossed with kale chive pesto, summer squash, tomatoes and sautéed chicken hearts; Rachel grew up on a farm and Ali said he used to eat chicken hearts all the time because they were cheap. He grumbled that the prices have gone up; probably, we agreed a result of organ meat becoming popular with hipster gourmands.
Rachel and Ali seemed to enjoy the meal, but I was its most vocal proponent—the sautéed hearts didn’t taste anything taste anything like chicken livers (my fear). Instead they tasted and felt like chunks of succulent dark meat. If I had closed my eyes, I would have guessed I was eating chunks of chicken thigh, my favorite part of the bird.
My husband, Rich, didn’t try the pasta until the next day. He was eating it happily when I asked him how he liked the chicken hearts. He froze, dropping a heart from his fork.
“I thought they were mushrooms,” he said weakly. (This is a true testament to the power of suggestion. Although the hearts look somewhat like morels, the texture is much firmer and the flavor tastes like, uh, chicken.) Although he dutifully ate one more heart, I could tell he was now unable to enjoy the meal. Clearly when it was time for the lamb heart, I was going to have do something to disguise it.
I had imagined stuffing the lamb heart with sheep feta, basil and wild salal berries, but when I unwrapped the white paper I discovered that the butcher had trimmed away the excess fat and the arteries; the heart was in two clean pieces. Although this development interfered with my plan to fulfill my childhood notion of biting into a whole heart, I saw an upside: At least now Rich wasn’t going be able to tell what he was eating.
I didn’t feel weird about touching or eating the heart until I cut into the organ. Suddenly it was very clear that the dark mass wasn’t just any cut of meat. I was reminded of Leonard Da Vinci: “The heart is of such density that fire can scarcely damage it.” On that note, I couldn’t resist making my incisions in the form of a cross, which I stuffed with basil and salal berries.
While fir branches burned down to coals in my grill, I blended a barbecue sauce of blackberries, red wine and garlic. I added a dash of cayenne to make the flavor pop. The sauce was good: thick and bright. Over the shimmering coals, the heart seared quickly. The pieces shrank and grew darker, and minutes later I was removing the smoking meat from the grill. I sliced the heart (part of the subterfuge) and served it with cucumber kale salad from our garden and homemade biscuits stuffed with Rachel’s merlot sheep cheese and onion chives.
My first bite was a disappointment. There was an echo of liver to the flavor and, as with tongue, the texture was vaguely disconcerting. The second bite was better; the liver flavor seemed to diminish and I was left with ultra-tender and succulent meat, swathed in the tart, sweet essence of summer berries and wine. Rich was suspicious from the get-go and only ate a few token pieces, focusing on the cheese-filled biscuits. He didn’t seem too surprised when I confessed that he was eating lamb heart. I should have lied about the chicken hearts.
Like the ancient Egyptians, our modern culture sees the heart as an arbiter of truth. We have the pure of heart, the heavy of heart and the black of heart. We are counseled to look into our hearts to understand ourselves. We speak from the heart, our hearts are warmed, our hearts are crushed, our hearts are in the balance. During my time writing this series, my heart has been subject to the verbs listed above. When I wrote my first piece about my struggle to put food on the table, I hesitated before submitting it to Salon. Like most low-income people, I’m not exactly proud of my financial status and spilling my trials in a public forum seemed embarrassing. But pretending that everything was OK wasn’t getting me anywhere either. I’d gotten so harried by the vagaries of life that when I sat down to write, a story of my tribulations was the only thing that spilled forth.
I was surprised, pleased and alarmed when my editor invited me to write a regular series about my adventures cooking on an unpredictable budget. I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to get paid for writing, but I was still leery about putting my financial troubles and life decisions in a spotlight. That said, the choice was clear. I swallowed my pride and began work on the scavenger series.
A year of scavenging for food has been incredibly rewarding: I feel a more powerful connection to the world around me, to the changing seasons and the grace of nature. I see other animals as competition and weeds as potential. Gathering food has kept my senses sharp. Scrambling up slippery logs and ducking through thorny thickets has made me agile. I made it through a year out here, and I put a decent dinner on the table every night, no matter how broke we were. As far as I know, I’m in better health than when I started, and I’ve learned a lot.
Writing about the experience has been equally rewarding but occasionally harrowing: Salon has a lively comments section, and it’s not easy to have your existence parsed on a regular basis. I’ve been called every name in the book and then some. Broadcasting my tribulations to the world put me in the weird position of feeling defensive or guilty every time I did have a little money. On the other hand, I’ve developed a thicker skin. The stories and recipes and words of wisdom from thoughtful readers have more than made up for the vitriol. I am deeply thankful for the kindness of strangers.
While wild ingredients are seemingly endless, the philosophical potential of a column about being broke is not. I’ll continue to write for Salon, and I’ll continue to forage. I’ll probably continue to struggle financially. But Scavenger as a regular series is over. As a wise sage once said, “I’m done. Stick a fork in me. It’s been grand!”
Blackberry Barbecue Sauce
Kale Chive Pesto
Summer Pasta With Chicken Hearts
Felisa Rogers studied history and nonfiction writing at the Evergreen State College and went on to teach writing to kids for five years. She lives in Oregon’s coast range, where she works as a freelance writer and editor.More Felisa Rogers.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)