It struck me as odd, one recent evening, when I realized I have never seen the Big Two Hearted River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. And somewhat less odd that I have never eaten an Onion Sandwich, which is a thing, the Internet assures me. But these are the types of mysteries that are best contemplated in the company of one of my all time favorite beers, Two Hearted Ale from Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
I was introduced to this beer in the summer of 2009, while on a hiking trip on Isle Royale National Park, which sits a three hour boat ride away from the tip of Michigan’s UP (a sad-but-lovely town called Copper Harbor) in the middle of Lake Superior. The island is home to a population of moose, and also of wolves, and the relationship between the two has been the subject of one of the longest running studies of two species ever conducted (running since 1960).
I don’t want to mislead you into thinking I was on the island with one of those giant backpacks, heading off into the brush to peep wolves preying on moose through my field worn binoculars. I was there with my wife and our two peeps, ages six and eight at the time, who found the sight of Big Gus (the world’s largest chainsaw, which we drove past on the way up to Copper Harbor) only slightly less inexplicable than the amount of vomit their father can produce on a three hour boat ride in only slightly choppy waters.
We stayed in the park’s lodge – a utilitarian structure of cinder block walls – and headed out on the shorter trails each day. The first few miles of each hike were fresh-air experiences that postcard photographers look to capture. The last few were a combination of carrying and cajoling the kids to finish. Hey. Once you’re past halfway, it’s easier to finish.
The park also had a small restaurant with tasty food, and we would finish our evenings here, and this is where, drunk on a day’s worth of wind and the sound of cold waves crashing on a rocky shore, I was introduced to Two Hearted Ale.
Understand that I’m not a beer aficionado, and am unable to throw around the kinds of terms they prefer (lacing, white cap, lugubrious, etc.) so I will say this – Two Hearted is an IPA that manages to be heavy and light at once. It starts with a deep, hoppy flavor but finishes light, with a barely detectable floral or citrusy note – putting you back right where you started, only happier, and ready to dive in again. Also, it’s a strong beer. Drink two of them, and you will start speaking truth to power.
Needless to say, I was beyond pleased when this beer arrived in Ohio, where we certainly seem to be short on people who speak truth to power, people, I presume, like Nick Adams, who, like the river I have never seen, is a person I have never met.
Many of you may recall Nick Adams as the protagonist a handful of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories (collectively, if somewhat unimaginatively, dubbed the Nick Adams stories). Chief among them, IMHO, is Big Two-Hearted River Parts I and II, which made frequent appearances in the thick literature anthologies my professors compelled me to read but as an English major in the early 90s, back when there seemed to be an unwritten law that no anthology of literature written in English could contain less than 95% content by dead white guys, which I mention not to slag old Ernie, but because Big Two-Hearted River Parts I and II are really fine stories, which you can read here, and can be entirely summarized thusly:
This would be its logline, if Big-Two Hearted River were a film, which IMDb assures me it has not (although there is an episode of the Clifford the Big Red Dog cartoon called Big Hearted T-bone, for what that’s worth).
Adams speaks aloud only a few times in the story, and Hemingway only occasionally lets us in on his thoughts. Not surprisingly, we English Majors are taught to pounce on Hemingway’s careful descriptions of the landscapes – like the burned up grasshoppers Nick finds as he walks through the burnt-out town of Seney, which every Sophomore essay writer is breathless to state is representative of Nick’s internal state, having been burned up from the war.
As he smoked his legs stretched out in front of him, he noticed a grasshopper walk along the ground and up onto his woolen sock. The grasshopper was black. As he had walked along the road, climbing, he had started grasshoppers from with dust. They were all black. They were not the big grasshoppers with yellow and black or red and black wings whirring out from their black wing sheathing as they fly up. These were just ordinary hoppers, but all a sooty black in color. Nick had wondered about them as he walked without really thinking about them. Now, as he watched the black hopper that was nibbling at the wool of his sock with its four way lip he realized that they had all turned black from living in the I burned-over land. He realized that the fire must have come the year before, but the grasshoppers were all black now. He wondered how long they would stay that way.
Ahhh. The war. World War One, the Big Uno, in which Hemingway participated (and was wounded) as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross (having been turned down by the Army for his poor vision). While the story doesn’t mention the war once, we are left to infer that Adams is struggling with returning home after the war, relying a great deal on natural imagery and symbolism. Some call this Hemingway’s “Iceberg” theory of writing. On the surface, he tells us about Nick Adams going fishing and making some onion sandwiches, but the real story is well below the surface.
Carefully he reached his hand down and took hold of the hopper by the wings. He turned him up, all his legs walking in the air, and looked at his jointed belly. Yes, it was black too, iridescent where the back and head were dusty.
“Go on, hopper,” Nick said, speaking out loud for the first time “Fly away somewhere.”
He tossed the grasshopper up into the air and watched him sail away to a charcoal stump across the road.
If there is any development of Nick’s character by the end of these stories, my guess is that Nick realizes that he feels shitty inside, and has decided it is ok to feel shitty inside for a while. We presume this because while he has considered leaving the river to fish the swamp, after catching some fish, he decides against it, concluding, “(t)here were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.”
That’s it. It’s the type of story (indeed, the type of writing) that you either love or hate. But this business about deciding it’s OK to fish the swamp later? That’s exactly how you feel after your first Two Hearted Ale, that you’ve found a quiet but reliable friend to set a spell with and not deal with whatever life is insisting you deal with. It’s the pleasant idea that you can fish that swamp later, when you feel up for it. Which is why the transition to the second Two Hearted is so quick and pleasing, and why, when you do start speaking truth to power, you’re surprised by the sound of your own voice.
But that third Two Hearted, you’re half a six-pack in, now – this is where it gets cloudy – the things you’re thinking about, the things you feel like you have to say about them, the clarity you enjoyed just six ounces ago. You’re speaking what you perceive to be truth, now, to whoever is nearby, though to call them power, you realize, is absurd in the existential joke that is the universe. There is no truth.
Hemingway tells us that Nick Adams disembarked from the train in Seney, Michigan, a real town that has never suffered massive fire of the like described in the story. Fair enough. Poetic license. But then Nick walks from the town to the river, walks in a short amount of time to his campsite. He’s fishing before nightfall. And here’s the thing. Are you ready for the thing? I’m going to tell you the thing. Hang on. Hang on, now. Ready for the thing? Here it is:
It’s the Fox River. The Fucking. Fox. River. Not the Big Two Hearted at all!
Ernie! Ernie, Ernie, Ernie! What’re you doing to us, man? The only river you can walk to from Seney is the Fox. The Two Hearted, mellifluously named and indicative of Nick’s quiet existence, is a full 20 miles away! Why, Ernie, why?
And that’s your third Two Hearted Ale working, there. Cause this otherwise interesting fact – “Oh, Hemingway has Adams fishing in the Fox River even though he calls the story the Big Two Hearted” – which provokes an “Oh, really” or “Huh?” reaction during Big Two Hearteds One and Two suddenly becomes just too big for your third Two Hearted Mind to grapple with.
Which may be why there was never a Big Two-Hearted River: Part III.
In any case, I suspect Hemingway would have like Two Hearted Ale, its thick feel and throaty umph capped off with a floral flourish. I’m certain Nick Adams would have liked it, because it’s more or less no nonsense, like Nick himself. This is a man who eats a cold can of pork and beans and spaghetti, reasoning “I’ve got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I’m willing to carry it.” Like many of Hemingway’s protagonists, he’s tough and full-bodied on the surface, with just a hint of something else underneath. That’s Two Hearted in a nutshell, and Hemingway, for that matter. Hey, is that a floral note I detect? NONONO IT”S ALL MANLY I ASSURE YOU!
Did I mention that when Hemingway was a kiddo, his mother dressed him up as a girl? Like, a lot.
The part of the story that I always remembered over the years was when Nick is making coffee and trying to remember how his friend Hopkins used to make it.
“He could not remember which way he made coffee. He could remember an argument about it with Hopkins, but not which side he had taken. He decided to bring it to a boil. He remembered now that was Hopkins’s way. He had once argued about everything with Hopkins.”
I’m not sure why this part has stuck with me; I guess its because you don’t really know anything about Hopkins – what he looks like or what he does – but this little bit about his insistence on the right way to make coffee – it tells us so much. He’s that guy that will always go camping with you, but it’s kind of a mixed blessing because he’s always going on about how to do this or how to do that, and you’re just trying to find a bottle opener so you can dive into a Two Hearted and let the wind blow the shit from life out of your hair and into the trees.
Hopkins, old Hopkins A lovable A-hole, one that you’re sad to see go, for all his stick-up-the-assedness abut how to make coffee.
“Nick drank the coffee, the coffee according to Hopkins. The coffee was bitter. Nick laughed. It made a good ending to the story. ”
(As an aside, If I were a brewery, like Bell’s, and making a dark, thicker beer with a bitter note to it, you’d better believe I’d name it “Hopkins’s Way.” That’s a freebie, Bell’s, but send me a case or two if you use it, m’kay?)
In addition to the coffee and the apricots, over the course of the story Nick Adams also eats a can of beans, some fried spaghetti and an onion sandwich. Onion sandwiches haven’t been a thing in my life thus far, and after asking around, I learned that not many of my coworkers have tried one either. They sound all Depression era, to me, the kind of thing they are back in Hemingway’s day, but never made it past the 50s. The detail has always stuck out for me, probably because the sting of the onion seems to rise off the pages in an otherwise uneventful passage.
In the pack he found a big onion. He sliced it in two and peeled the silky outer skin. Then he cut one half into slices and made onion sandwiches.
But it occurred to me, in the way idiot ideas occur to bloggers with more time than budget, that I ought to try an onion sandwich. I ought to spend a few minutes in Nick Adams’s place before I judge the onion sandwich too harshly. It sounds, after all, like it might go really well with a Two Hearted Ale.
But what the hell? Is that it? I mean, is it on rye? So you put mustard on it? Was the “proper way to make an onion sandwich” common knowledge years and years ago, such that you can send someone to the wrong river alongside a non-burned down burned down town and say they ate an onion sandwich and everyone would get what you’re talking about?
Luckily, we have the Internet to help make up for Hemingway’s shortcomings. It tells us where the Big Two Hearted River is, and where Seney, Michigan is and that it never burned down. And if you search onion sandwich, one of the first stories you come across is the story of a 95-year-old postal carrier who credits an onion sandwich a day for his longevity.
And here’s the thing. OK? The thing? Are you ready for the thing? I’m going to tell you the thing. Hang on. Hang on, now. Ready for the thing? Here it is:
The postal carrier’s name is Nick Fucking Adams.
And also that’s not true at all.
Sorry. It’s the fourth Two Hearted talking, and if you’ve come this far into the six-pack with me, I should tell you that by the fourth two hearted, reality has broken down into a series of fragments that can be assembled into one of two ways: amusing or not-amusing. It’s less than intelligent, to be sure, but at least you’re not yelling at your neighbor from rural Ohio about common sense gun control anymore.
The postal carrier’s name was actually Chester Reed, which sounds like the kind of guy who would go camping with Nick Adams and old Hopkins and be totally chill about the whole thing, like if Hopkins started telling him he was making the coffee all wrong, he’d just shrug and do it Hopkins’s way, because it takes more energy to fight the a-hole.
Here’s what he says about the onion sandwich:
“You say, well, what’s an onion sandwich? You take two slices of bread; you put a lot of mayonnaise on both slices of bread, cut a great big slice of onion, and put it in between. It doesn’t make a difference if it’s a hot or sweet onion, but the vinegar in the mayonnaise will counteract the heat in the onion, and you won’t have a hot onion. So you take a sandwich, and you eat it, and they’re very healthful.”
So this past weekend, it was time to put Chester’s recipe to the test. With a six-pack of Two Hearted chilling in the fridge, I headed to the store in search of Vidalia onions. I’m not a big buyer of produce, but I am pretty sure that back in the days before genetic modification, onions were, uh, the size of onions. The Vidalias I found ranged between cow patty sizes to smallish basketballs. Yikes! And there were no Vidalias to be found in the organic section, so I selected the most onion-like Onion I could find, picked up some mayo and headed home to slice them up.
So to tell you about an onion sandwich, I pretty much have to start with a question: um, do you like onions? Cause pretty much your take on this sandwich is going to come down to this. Me? I’m fine with them, but I am definitely not an onion fanatic, which is what I think you have to be to enjoy an onion sandwich.
Old Chester is right, though. The mayo does keep the onion from having too much bite. But pretty much, the two come together to ensure there’s not too much flavor, either, except for onion. So I ate two of them, not finishing the second, and was pretty much content with that. I don’t think I’ll eat another Onion Sandwich unless I find myself in some sort of post-apocalyptic paranormal storyline and the only food I can find is wild onions.
The Two Hearted, though, kept me grounded. Like that reliable old friend, it was there to say, “Hey man, that onion sandwich experiment may not work out, but that’s OK. There’s always time to fish the swamp later.”
Old Hopkins would have liked that. It makes a good end to the story.