The Uprooting of the Bierock–Matthew Gavin Frank

When we prick the dough of our bierocks like this, we imagine the fork as a shovel, and we are digging for precious things like gold, like water.  We find beef and we find sauerkraut, and, in these, we try for something else—for escape, for all the way to China, for anything to remind us of anything other than our exile from Russia, from Germany, from Poland, to Kansas.  Our exile: another cow ground down to crumbs, another cabbage chiffonade allowed to ferment until hay-blonde, until the soft, unwashed hair of the daughters we were never destined to birth in Middle America.

*

Instead, my imaginary son Arlo asks about the intersection between algorithms and the weather.  Why Kansas has an earthquake index of 0.05 compared to the country’s average of 1.81.  A tornado index of 252.53 compared to the average 136.45.  A volcano index of 0.00.  I want to tell him to take comfort in the fact that the earth’s stuffing will never attack us.  We have no chance of being lit gloriously by upwardly spat fireballs.  He asks—and this is so cute—if it’s better to be wiped out by the earth’s hair dryer than its acid reflux.  I tell him, mussing his own hair, that there’s medicine for heartburn.  That to keep our hair wet just a little longer, all we need to do is unplug the machine from the wall.  Though I’m not sure exactly what we’re talking about, the meteorologist on TV talks about the high winds ripping off roofs in Topeka and, though I’m not sure what we’re talking about, my heart stutters when Arlo says, taking his first bite of bierock, this is lava hot.

*

The bierock, according to The Lawrence Journal’s Tom King, is like “the empanada, the calzone, the Hot Pocket,” is “almost always beef,” is almost always yellow onion and sauerkraut “wrapped in a bun of sweet leavened dough,” is “golden” is “palm-sized,” is portable, should be cradled in the hands or kept warm in one’s inside jacket pocket, where it can continue to steam, commune with its cousin, the pierogi, can dream of a life as other-than-dumpling, as other than a tight knot of sustenance that, in spite of its ability to keep its heat, “freezes,” according to Tom King, “great.”

*

I want to tell Arlo that lava can’t freeze, though I don’t know if this is true.  He asks me that, should our house flood again, if a bierock can be used as a raft, if he can float his paper cowboy dolls from carpet to prairie on the back of this sour, golden horse, which, it must be said, is far too big to fit into his palm.

*

Kansas is a stressor, a bird of prey.  It says, I flew once, but I’ve been pounded into my own ground by the bison.  It says, when I used to be singular, when I used to be the name of a semi-nomadic tribe called The People of the Wind, I was Kansa.  Now, I am plural, many.  What else can I do, but flood my banks?

*

We’re all wind here.  So many Winds.  When we get wet, we are the agent of our own drying-out.

*

To cool our bierocks, all we have to do is open our mouths, and blow.

*

Now, the land agitates its own river, and the river floods Manhattan and Wamego and Topeka and Lawrence.  Lecompton loses five of its six churches, barely recalls a time when it was known as Bald Eagle, Kansas.

*

Here, our crust is a shell, the intermediary between our mouths, and hot things that wish to burn them.

*

On the benches of Lecompton’s Riverview Park, overlooking the limestone bluffs of the Kaw Valley Basin, twelve picnickers today eat their bierocks, the sauerkraut waving like viscera in the wind after which the state was named.  Here, the wind can be the sort of predatory equation it takes a golden dough to solve.  The dough as levee, as saving us from releasing the sweet air in our lungs.

*

We can forget to cool things with our breath.  Forget about the panic inherent in each required inhale.  Here, two bald eagles scream as they couple over the river.  Their voices sound nothing like Kaw.

*

Nearly 100 years before the Great Flood of 1951, during which Harry Truman flew over Kansas in the airplane he privately nicknamed The Bald Eagle, staring down at the 1,074,000 flooded acres, his voice wavering as he spoke into the CB, “…one of the worst disasters this country has ever suffered from water…” the water of the Kansas, ran red, as the anti-slavery Free-Staters and pro-slavery Border Ruffians fought a proxy war along its banks, Northerners and Southerners immigrating to the territory in order to duke it out for their side.  Pistols and canes and rocks and broadswords later, men blinded by, and drowning in, the fluid that, just moments earlier was held inside them by levees of skin, the territory became known as Bleeding Kansas.

*

“Nostalgia,” says Tom King, “is a sublime seasoning.”

*

In Kansas, when we fall to the earth dying, we fall to seed and to root.  We stain with our bodies the stuff that once sustained us, bleed-out into the agriculture.  In this way, we become the blanket, the blemish, the outermost layer of the earth.  We tell ourselves, as we blink out, that we are keeping some essential filling at bay.  We imagine we are brushed with a little melted butter, that we are cooking at a breezy 350-375°.  Until we are bitten, we are exactly this golden.

*

The introduction of the bierock to Bleeding Kansas by Volga German-Russian-Polish-Mennonite immigrants coincided in 1861 with the end of the proxy war and the admission of the territory to the Union as a free state.  That this is an innocuous coincidence is obvious.   Less so: the early dough was flavored with the same red wheat seeds and peony roots that once collected so much of our blood.

*

The River Volga, Europe’s longest, is home to some of the world’s largest reservoirs.  The name Volga refers both to moisture (literally, wetness), and veins, blood vessels, a mythical juice.  As such, in Russian folklore, the river is both a waterway, and an animal.

*

Arlo tells me about his dream.  That addition became confused with subtraction.  That a drought, like a flood, is an addition to a landscape.  Just look at all that new brown—all that wheat and sorghum, all those sunflowers sloughing to dust, taken into the wind, adding gaps to the rows, the illusion of stars exiled to our state, whirling now, about twenty feet over our roofs, and rising.

*

Here, when the river breaches its banks, it sounds like slurred speech, a mispronunciation of the healthy flow.  I’m not sure what sort of medicine can solve this, but watch how the dough sponges the juice of the cabbage.  Watch how the heat, if not the lava, allows the wet to forget itself.

*

In a mispronounced incantation, is a false healing.

*

The Volga Delta, deep into Russia, supports anomaly.  Though the river is frozen for at least a quarter of each year, the Delta supports a thriving community of flamingoes and lotus flowers and the same red wheat seeds that once covered Bleeding Kansas, grew over our bodies.

*

Toward the Nebraska border, folks pronounce “bierock,” brook.  In this way, we allow our heaviest of foods a communion with the most benign of our waterways.  On the border, our mouths full, it is our babbling that we believe will protect us.

 

We give back.  In April 2012, the Volga basin flooded, forcing the villages of Saratov, Tambov, and Volgograd to declare states of emergency, to evacuate.  The waters devastated much of Tatarstan and the Republic of Mordovia.  One Moscow official, unnamed, perhaps mistranslated, said that urban planners have set about “building a golden shell” against such future disasters.

*

We eat our bierocks in Reading, close to the river named by the French explorers for the nearby marsh, and for our Trumpeter Swans, the river famous for its flash flooding, floods so powerful, we give them names like Big Water.  Before we officially settled on the French name, we called this river Old Aunt Mary.  We called every person she killed—over 100 in 1844, 86 in 1909, 60 in 1915, 39 in 1928, 35 in 1944, 28 in 1951, and 0 in 2007—Old Aunt Mary, too.

*

Eagles hunt swans, but swans fight back.

*

Arlo asks: How can so much water take so much away?  He tells me that in school, he leaned that the human body is mostly water.   He asks me if we’re always flooding on the inside.

*

I answer him.  I say, Nesho, Spring, Shoal, Cottonwood.  Verdigris, I say.  I say, Caney, Chikaskia.  I say Whitewater and Cow and Rattlesnake and Walnut.  I say, just to make him feel better, Little Walnut.

*

From our bierocks, we bake the water, if not the names of our rivers.  As Kansans, we want the cabbage to put up a fight.  We like, as Tom King likes, “some snap, not mush.”  We can always wet it down afterwards with a little spicy mustard.  In this way, we allow the dough to hold back mostly solid things, things whose forward movement we can stop with our bodies—our hands and mouths.

*

On special occasions, Arlo paints his bierock dough with red food coloring, and I try not to tell him about Bleeding Kansas.  Instead, as if recalling a better, if fictional, inheritance of statehood, he taps two finished bierocks together three times and, even while muttering There’s no place like home, looks disappointed in the kitchen, if not the entire spread of land beyond it.

*

We’re almost a perfect rectangle, Arlo says, and I imagine all of the twine-y things meandering through this almost perfect shell of a state.  I bite the upper right corner of the bierock.  All sorts of mutilated things pour out onto the napkin.

*

The rivers will split in two and flow around us.  Arlo calls us the barrette to the braid.

*

So: Logic dictates that I muss his hair after the bath, watch the water run from it to the towel on which a nondescript bird—certainly not an eagle or swan—reaches in vain for the beautiful fringe at the border.

*

For supper, we eat bierocks.  Two for Arlo, four for me.  Arlo: milk.  Me: dark ale.  Last winter, we pre-made 120 of them.  You should have seen all the yeast.  Arlo told me it felt like the entire kitchen was rising.

*

Along with the warm water, butter, flour, milk and salt, we add more than a pinch of sugar to the dough to recall the roots of the peonies.

*

We eat our bierocks and think of Paeon, the physician to the Greek gods, so deft with his healing practices that his tutor, Asclepius, god of medicine, became jealous and hatched a plan to eviscerate Paeon in his sleep with his snake-entwined staff.  Zeus caught wind of this and, in order to save Paeon from this bloody fate, turned the young healer into a flower, or, every peony.  We eat our bierocks and imagine that, with each bite, we are getting better.

*

Here, better does not necessarily mean, drier.  Our confusion is appropriate, I think.  Here, there are flamingoes in Russia.

*

Other names for the peony, depending on, among other things, the arrangement of the petals: Athena, Scarlet O’Hara, Madame Butterfly, Semi-Double Anemone, Paula Fay, Buckeye Belle, Bomb-Double Raspberry Sundae, Paul M. Wild, Shame Chamber, Lair of the Mischievous Nymphs, Ant Attractor, Dough Flower, Flower of Wet Riches, Flower of Dry Honor.

*

Drought, flood, drought, flood.  Which Athena and which the ant?  If the bierock is not a middle ground, it is nothing.

*

Middle ground is not necessarily higher ground.  We stuff our inheritances into dough in order to protect them.  When we bite through the shell, we’d like to imagine that, in the cascade of ground beef and yellow onion and sauerkraut, we are releasing some kind of flower into the world.

*

If this filling is a flower, it is another sort of anomaly, another pink bird with ice in its wings, wondering how the hell it woke up in Kansas.

*

I whisper now to Arlo.  I think I may be singing: Big Blue, Little Blue, Stranger, Mission.  When I say Buffalo, and Prairie Dog, and Beaver, and Wolf, he thinks I’m speaking of animals and not rivers.  When I say, Marais des Cygnes, he has no idea that I’m mispronouncing it.

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