New York |

Knife Skills for Comfort Food

by Kristen M. Ploetz

edited by Amy Shearn


she lines up the short carrot sticks

guillotines the roots to form tiny dice

a gamble of what can still go right

Chicken noodle soup in her mother’s kitchen. Butter is seven. Her mother moves silently along the peeling vinyl floor and tosses the lid into the sink, empties the can with a wet plop into a dented pot on the stove. Inconvenienced by Butter’s fever and being sent home early from school. Inconvenienced by the bare minimum it takes to care for someone. Her mother tilts some soup into a bowl, mostly broth and a few soft bits of carrot, still cold. Three drops land on the table when the bowl is set down. Her mother stares at her like she’s searching for another face, walks out without saying a word. Butter swings her pajama legs back and forth under her chair too afraid to trouble her mother for a spoon.

Rough chop

she plucks a potato from the bowl

forms a claw with her hand, FREE inked like a prayer above her knuckles

the heel of the knife moves up and down in an easy rhythm

wet chunks pile in the wake of her blade

Home fries at the diner. Eleventh grade (the second time), serving the regulars on a Saturday night but somehow it grows closer to Sunday morning and the talking to from her mother about consequences. The potatoes, the men—they are never boys—all vaguely similar but different on her tongue in their own subtle way, spiced and scented and greased into the weave of her clothes until she does the wash before her next shift. Another thing her mother covets, just like the cracked emerald ring Nana gave her before she died.


she places a large stalk of celery curved side down on the board

slices along the rib, stacks the long sticks two-by-two

woody-sweet squares cluster in a line

she scoops them into a mound as the head chef shouts the specials

Beef stew in Aunt Margot’s kitchen. Two nights after graduation. Two nights after she gives Vince that hand job in the back corner of the Russian Orthodox cemetery, thick as thieves in between rows of three-bar crosses hewn from granite slabs, telling him to enjoy it since it’ll be the last one because she doesn’t have time for that anymore. Two nights after her mother’s card arrives with a wrinkled twenty folded inside, Good job, Bette-Jo scrawled in blue ink at the bottom. Same night Aunt Margot stirs the mirepoix in the enameled pot and after her third Old Fashioned lets it slip that Butter has a half-brother somewhere up north where her mother might be.


she peels the papery shallot skin

points her knife into the striated purple flesh lengthwise then crosswise

neat narrow rows become neat little squares clinging together agminate on her damp board

she wipes her wet eyes with the back of her hand

House vinaigrette at the Chop House. Dijon mustard and cider vinegar like acetone in her nose. Felisa stands next to her pouring the virgin olive oil into the wide mouth of a glass jar set between them, holds Butter’s finger under the last drops to offer a taste. Butter cups bits of shallot and garlic into a tiny hill before shuttling them over on her glinting blade. She pinches her fingers into the salt cellar and thinks of her head in Felisa’s lap the night before, grit on the wood floor grinding into her knees as Felisa stroked her hair until she fell asleep. First roommates of circumstance and convenience and shared dreams of becoming famous for steak au poivre, now something a bit more. Eight brisk shakes of the jar—never seven, never nine, house rules—and Butter drains the dressing over two plates of spring greens. She practices her smile for the husband who will hit on her while his wife is in the bathroom, the one who will stare too long at her ass but leave enough twenties for her to round out her share of the rent.


she grips the carrot and feels the cold root press into her palm

resists the urge to drag her sleeve across her brow

slows the strike of her blade to even out the ends

Glazed carrots at the nursing home. Butter stops by on the way to the restaurant because Aunt Margot wants to see her. Their last meal together, though neither of them knows. Caramelized sugar melts on Butter’s tongue, last traces finger-cleaned from the edge of the non-slip, hi-lo cafeteria dish. She swipes her calloused thumb roughly across Aunt Margot’s glossy chin, tells her about the once-famous actress who comes for the half-price pot pie on Tuesday nights, tells her Felisa kicked her out, asks again what Aunt Margot remembers about her mother.

Candles in hot pink frosting

Potato Stix in a dented can

Fingers raked in damp sand

Claw marks from Mr. Jinx

Rails of coke in Jerry’s car

Matches from Hunt’s Tap

Tally marks counting days

Vitals on the toe tag

Sign Here  and Sign Here 


she pulls another potato from the bowl

cuts away the dingy peel, turns it on its side

her blade sticky with starch

thin circles fall like dominoes

Scalloped potatoes on her half-brother’s back porch. He needs her to sign some papers. Bedless, possibly jobless, and long past hopeless, she goes because she’s desperate for company who doesn’t expect anything in return. When he was appointed administrator of their mother’s feeble estate, Butter forced herself to find enough in common to make nice for a little while, those mutual affinities indelibly forged by their mother for things like gin rummy and rockabilly and Bill Bixby and an unapologetic pig-snort laugh. Tonight he asks her who gave her the nickname Butter but she doesn’t tell, saves that part of their mother for herself, that scab she won’t let heal into a scar. After her second Bordeaux she pulls her lips tight over the fork coated thick with milk and butter, savors the salt on her tongue then asks if she can crash on his couch. She doesn’t notice the envelope he tucked into her purse until she’s halfway to the bistro the next day, doesn’t notice the heft of inheritance until she reads the note inside: Mom would’ve wanted you to have this.


she pinches off six almond-shaped leaves of basil

stacks them gently, aligns them with intention, rolls them lengthwise

her blade emancipates their peppery scent

a summer perfume laced with promise

Caprese salad at Felisa’s new apartment. Butter shows up unannounced. A hunger surges against her sternum as she follows Felisa toward the kitchen where “Libertango” plays softly from an iPhone docked on the counter. She watches her drizzle olive oil and balsamic vinegar over a plate of mozzarella and yellow tomato. With a flick of ribboned basil and a crack of sea salt, Felisa finally says it: No rompas mi corazón otra vez. Butter thinks of the barbacks she still wants to kiss after the kitchen closes, when the smalls of their backs are damp under their black cotton shirts and their fingers are stained with Madeira. She thumbs the cracked emerald back and forth over her knuckle, says she can’t promise anything. They eat in silence. Two forks, one plate, no knives. After the prosecco runs out, Felisa tells her to stay, says she’ll make eggs Florentine for breakfast. Butter kisses her on the cheek and takes a metal bowl to the row of spinach in the garden. When she turns to come back inside, she sees the bedroom light has been turned on. Felisa’s silhouette is motionless and black in the window as she watches Butter. Butter pauses at the bottom of the stairs, steadies herself for this second attempt, the one that will cut deeper than the first.