Shiva Near the Corned Beef by
(40 Stories)

Prompted By Banned Books

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Banned books?

I’d rather write about banned deli meats.

In particular, corned beef.

My resident diet nazi banned corned beef from the house.  I have to sneak it by her vigilant eye in an unmarked paper bag topped off with apples. Then wolf it down surreptitiously in my study on the pretext of taking a nap.

“Honey,” she asks when I emerge, “are you ready for dinner?  I made some nice steamed veggies and farro?”

“Yes dear, sounds delicious…”

“Honey, what’s that yellow smear on your cheek?”

“What?  Oh nothing.”

“Honey, is that mustard?”

“Oh no. No, no. I was highlighting with a yellow marker…”

And there is also the occasional shiva spread, cold cuts, pickles, potato salad, rye bread, the works.  In my limited recent experience, under the cloud of COVID, I’d say healthy eating has not yet contaminated shiva spreads.  The old ways seem to sooth the grief better.  “Dad liked a good corned beef sandwich.  To his dying day.  I wish he were here to enjoy this…”

I sidle up to the place at the table closest to the corned beef platter.  In reach of pickles and mustard.  I stand there, holding my ground against the ebb and flow of grievers, schnorrers, luntsmen, and grandchildren, and fix myself a nice plate.  I eat there, standing near the corned beef platter.  Guarding it, you might say.

From time to time as I’ve contemplated what else I could do other than what I do, I’ve thought about taking a fling as a funeral parlor usher.  Wearing a somber face, and a dark suit.  Slightly stooped.  Speaking quietly, murmuring.  Helping with the casket, helping with the old ladies, nodding my acceptance of the sadness of the moment.  I could do that job, I say.  I could do it well. That’s my demeanor as I do shiva, near the corned beef.

As to banned books, a couple of thoughts to spread mustard on.

Many of the formative books of my life have come off the banned list, including Ulysses by James Joyce, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence, and Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (in addition to the ridiculous, ignorant and contemptible bannings—mostly short-lived and imposed only in fringe outposts of civilization—of Maus by Art Spiegelman, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger).

My guess (maybe my conceit) is that most banners have not read the object of their attack, except for maybe selected dirty pages, and are like a non-swimmer thrashing at sea when meeting new or alien ideas.  In panic mode.

I suppose not unlike a lifelong meat eater confronted with a vegetarian buffet.   An angry vegetarian buffet intent upon justice for all the murdered milk-fed calves, all the suffering pigs, all the sentient souls herded into an abattoir and murdered because they were born into the wrong species.

One person’s meat is another person’s poison, as the saying goes.  One person’s banned book is another person’s bible.

Which is to say, even in my steadfast and irate opposition to those who want to control the body of my thoughts, I recognize that all bannings are not the handiwork of the ignoramus class.  For example, Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler was banned in Germany after WWII.  I think that was a good banning.

PS:  My Featured Image for this story is the cover of Roger Angell’s essay collection, This Old Man (subtitle: All in Pieces) (2015).  This wonderful book has nothing directly to do with deli meat or banned books.  Inclusion is my genuflection to Roger, who was scooped by the Great Banner—the One Who Bans Access To All His Future Work—on May 20, at age 101.  He brung me joy, in his lyric odes to the Red Sox and far beyond that, especially in the vigor and wisdom of his prose as he passed through old age.

I recognize that all bannings are not the handiwork of the ignoramus class.
Profile photo of jonathancanter jonathancanter
Here is what I said about myself on the back page of my 2020 humor/drama/politico novel "The Debutante (and the Bomb Factory)" (edited here, for clarity):

"Jonathan Canter Is a retIred attorney; widower; devoted father and grandfather (sounds like my obit); lifelong resident of Greater Boston; graduate of Harvard College (where he was an editor of The Harvard Lampoon); fan of waves and wolves; sporadic writer of dry and sometimes dark humor (see "Lucky Leonardo" (Sourcebooks, 2004), funny to the edge of tears); gamesman (see "A Crapshooter’s Companion"(2019), existential thriller and life manual); and part-time student of various ephemeral things."

The Deb and Lucky are available on Amazon. The Crapshooter is available by request to the author in exchange for a dinner invitation.

Characterizations: been there, funny, well written


  1. Laurie Levy says:

    Thanks for a very different take on this prompt. I agree that most banners have not read the books they oppose, only the “good parts.” Reminds me of my childhood, sneaking the books my mother tried to hide. My friends would give me the page numbers to check out. As to the corned beef, not good for the body but maybe an occasional sandwich is good for the soul.

  2. Jonathan, since yesterday my husband has been mourning Roger Angell, 101 years was not enough, he says.
    And at shivas it does seem food is part of the consolation!

    Yes I agree Mein Kampt was a good banning.
    Now the conservative zealots are banning books but defending hate speech. – that’s what we’re up against.

  3. Let’s hear it for corned beef and for Roger Angell, and for Ed Figueroa–one of the ball players he wrote about in one of his books where he admitted his fascination with names of players. (He was thrilled to find a name containing all 5 vowels–setting aside the Y.)

    • I don’t think the Y counts as a true vowel. Sort of a part timer.
      Roger’s love of good baseball names was noted in a wonderful eulogy in TNY by David Remnick, no slouch himself in the smooth prose department.. As I recall, John Train took joy from a good name.

  4. Thanks, Jonathan, for the whole of this, especially for the banned food analogy. And sitting Shiva by your corned beef, indeed. Hilarious, the lengths we go to read our banned books or our banned corned beef on rye.

    Extremists of any ilk, beloveds or not, lose perspective. It’s fear-driven, don’t you think? And thinking is not clear within fear. Afraid Whites, mainstream morality, and other norms will be erased–that CHANGE, the boogeyman, will arrive. Afraid our veins will clog us into a heart attack. Afraid women will actually be able to make decisions over their own body, and break free from male control. Afraid. Trump plays that fear like a virtuoso. We’re a fearful race.

    FDR said it once and it still appeals. All we have to fear is fear itself. That is an invitation to courage, openness, and curiosity.

    • Ugh, a lot of ugly problems. A lot of fear.
      I agree that there is a connection between banning books and banning corned beef.

    • Dave Ventre says:

      I just read a study (fNMR based, if I recall) that found that “conservatives” brains are especially sensitive to reacting to change as an existential threat. They see an independent woman or a brown person, but their brain reacts like it’s 1,000,000 BCE and they are being stalked by a sabretooth cat. Change, strangers, etc is seen as mortal danger

      This makes sense, since most of the (too numerous) right-wingsters I am forced to deal with are so SELECTIVELY stupid. Of course, WHY certain things are seen as threats probably comes down to more complex social and childhood influences. You need to somehow be taught that the change represented by a new taqueria on the corner is dangerous rather than merely delicious.

  5. Suzy says:

    I love your ode to corned beef, although it is a deli meat I have never been fond of. Still, you almost make me want to try it again. And I must confess that I am glad you did get around to talking about banned books, even though you started by suggesting that you didn’t want to. Retrospect stories don’t have to relate to the prompt topic, but I feel so much better when they do.

  6. Khati Hendry says:

    Your corn beef riff was indeed hilarious. I also liked the image of the non-swimmers thrashing at sea. Good question about when free speech does not include shouting fire in a crowded theatre, ie hate speech—and now the social media algorithms that promote it. Often a fine line, but freedom of press and ideas is the first to fall to anti-democratic forces, so the discussion is important.

  7. Betsy Pfau says:

    Wonderful rumination, Jonathan. Will you hate me if I confess that I’ve eaten very little meat in years, but there is SOMETHING to a good reuben sandwich. I think we’ve already discussed what delis we like (we frequent Barry’s these days; we remember the good old days when Coolidge Corner had really good ones, but those days are gone). And yes, shiva platters tend to be full of good deli, so enjoy that corned beef and mustard!

    I knew immediately why your Featured photo was Roger Angell, writer supreme (particularly Baseball, but all things erudite). We can sit shiva for him. Enjoy the corned beef (even if he was pure WASP and step-son of E.B. White, who’s “Charlotte’s Web” was one of my favorite childhood books; I still have my copy).

    The “old classic” banned books are off the list now. Now books about gender and race are banned. That’s the boogey man now.

    • My Boston area deli of choice is Mammalah’s on Beacon Street, a hammish friendly joint, w a great whitefish bagel 🥯, and my hypothetical go-to for deli meats which I actually don’t indulge in except in fictionalized accounts. And except when circumstances require indulgence.
      I think the tags WASP and erudite are really unfair to Roger, as he could (and did) do vernacular with the best of them, and was a very classy guy but I don’t think known as a snob. If you never read anything else about creeping (creaky) old age, I urge you to read his story This Old Man, in TNY archives but also in his book the cover of which was my story’s pic to click. And in general his life story is quite a (low key but incisive) saga.
      As to the books they ban today compared to the books they banned yesterday, I think the same fearful folks are doing the banning.

    • Dave Ventre says:

      Boogey men change, but the need for them in some people’s minds is eternal.

    • Dave Ventre says:

      A good Reuben is amazing, and seems to contain some 10,000 calories….

  8. Dave Ventre says:

    My personal dietary fascist has managed to shave over 30 lbs from my frame over the last 14 months, so there can be an up side to benevolent authoritarianism….

    Is there a culture that doesn’t have a post-funeral feast? In our family (we were the Lutheran drop in a sea of Catholics) we called it the “afterglow” for unknown reasons.

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