Midsummer noon, just outside the knot of angular skyscrapers that mark downtown Houston, I pull up to a clapboard building across the street from a lumber dealer and release a burning steering wheel. Inside, in that familiar diner milieu with every surface scuffed and every color old-timey-faded or neon, I hold a cold bottle of cream soda and scan a menu. The burger with a fried egg calls to me. Its name: Cowboy Brunch.
I’m halfway through a day-long workshop on food writing; I’m here to flex my pen at unsuspecting french fries, draw turns of phrase from soda fountains. All the same, I hanker, like anyone else might, for lunch. The other workshop-goers opted for restaurants where you can sip mushroom soup before the entrée arrives, but after a morning spent considering the attributes of a Castelvetrano olive, I just want some chow. It is this simple hankering that I tap into. But my inner smartmouth won’t shut up entirely. I want sustenance, but more than that, I want truth.
Soon a mountain of burger lies freshly slain before me with a knife through its heart. Moments before, some valiant young man wielding skillet and spatula must have grappled the mound of lowing beef, the still-crunching sweet onions, the pickles not yet fried, into tender, sizzling submission, then hogtied the thing with bacon, loaded his prize onto pan-mottled Texas toast, and hauled it out to my table. Dead but not gone.
It dawns on me that I must conquer the beast all over again myself.
I survey the sandwich for a way in, perhaps a bite that actually contains burger. No such luck. I make do by burrowing, mouse mouth that I have, until I strike meat. The meat is good meat. I know I have reached the center of the burger when the yolk breaks, ensaucing all the rest with a glorious brook of warm runny egg. The crescent moon edge of the toast paints me from cheek to cheek with an extended smile of wet. I press on. Subdue tomato. Take out more toast. Gnash more beef. Crunch fried pickle. Corral it all down my gullet. Back, beast. Down into the pit. Down I tumble with it, like Gandalf with the Balrog. I flash between consciousness and a darkness that is only hunger.
In the end, I slow. I pause, dripping juices, the traumatized napkins piled too high. I try to resume. Then I stop, pushing aside the remains.
I am an ordinary human being. I don’t tuck away chili off of a chuckwagon before a long hard afternoon on the cattle trail; I don’t even need to carb up for my bike commute.
Perhaps cowboys once walked this part of the earth. Perhaps they still ride and wrangle on the outskirts of this huge city between trips into town for the yearly rodeo. I have seen men in chaps and hats swinging lassos and leaping from running horses onto terrified calves.
Even so I don’t believe in cowboys. They long ago ascended into legend. They glitter like old constellations in our collective memory and in our airport gift shops, macho and massive, their deeds great and their stomachs equally great. Perhaps eucharistically, we eat what they ate so that we may mimic their stature. The gut of the cowboy has no end; so shall our guts extend. Cowboys are not aware of their colons. They probably don’t even have colons.
But I do. And something tells me I’m not the only one.
Sarah Bronson edits science papers, writes for My Table Magazine, and wrangles other kinds of words as she finds them. Rough drafts are afraid of her. She lives in Houston and tweets from @usewordsbetter.
The Aesthetics of Food is a bi-monthly series where writers respond creatively to the sights, textures, smells, and sounds of food. Please send queries and submissions to email@example.com.