To say I was born to love meat is an understatement; I was born into a family of sacrosanct carnivores, raised on the bible of broken-down gristle. I was taught that, above all else, unflavored meat is a sin on par with lust and sloth. (In my house, gluttony was never mentioned).
My father, for instance, was and still is a man of the chicken, the beef, and the pork. As such, few foods anger him more than chicken drier than sandpaper in Tucson or beef with the flavor profile of a monastery. In other words, for him, the act of marination is on par with a saintly miracle.
As a child, I remember rising early on weekend mornings and hearing him clamor in the kitchen for gallon-sized Ziploc bags, mixing bowls, whisks, and whatever herbs and spices he was employing that day in his meaty alchemy. On special occasions, he’d prepare a whole chicken, first drowning the bird overnight in a mixture of buttermilk, rosemary, garlic, and salt (always Kosher). I remember opening the fridge door for a late-night snack, only to find the bird pressed up against the Ziploc, the milk-white liquid working its way into the heart of bone and fat.
Thanksgiving Butterballs were especially tender. In addition to brining the turkey overnight, he’d inject the meat with a syringe containing a marinade of herbs de Provence, butter, onion powder, garlic powder, Worcestershire sauce, and water. Like a surgeon or executioner (I could never decide which), he’d stick the bird in the thighs and breasts, smiling as his thumb forced the savory marinade into the meat. He enjoyed wielding a cooking syringe. And why not? Using a syringe in cooking is perhaps the safest, most enjoyable way to employ the tool. You don’t have to find the right vein for anesthesia; you must only hit the general area with butter.
I don’t recall when my father became absorbed with tenderizing meat. Growing up in West Virginia, he lived and worked around hard men with harder lives, men who enjoyed turning up their grills to lessen the thought of their struggles. Men like my grandfather who worked nightshift at the Monsanto plant in Nitro and who turned to alcohol to soften his own tough gristle. Men like his best friend Kurt Casto who died in a snowmobiling accident the same year as my mother. Men like Stank and Too Tough Muff and Rodney Gordon who occupied the same barstool each Friday and Saturday night at the local beer shack. These were men who liked meat with gravy and potatoes. If their lives were dry, by god, their pork roasts wouldn’t be.
And so, my father became fascinated by marinating meat early on. And after my mother died in 1996 on a dark highway north of Memphis, he became obsessed with that which could break down whatever had hardened inside of him.
Anyone who’s strolled down the sauce aisle at their local grocery has seen the plastic marinade bottles lining the shelf like elixirs dreamed up by a chemist with a penchant for flavor. Herb and Garlic. Hawaiian with Tropical Fruit Juices. Teriyaki. Whatever Sweet Baby Ray’s passes off for North Carolina-style barbecue sauce. Each is relatively foolproof. All one must do is douse their meat (or veggies) with a chosen flavor and voila . . . they have captured the “tastes” of a tropical paradise or urban brasserie. Of course, the taste is a simulacrum, a Disneyfied version of homemade Steak Diane. Yet, for a family penny-pinched or short on time or simply looking for a less-labor intensive way to transform dry chicken into gold, bottled marinades will often do the trick.
The marination process works the same way regardless of whether you’re using Lowry’s Garlic and Parmesan marinade or a homemade garlic-parmesan concoction. In fact, the bottled stuff is simply the latest iteration of the process of tissue breakdown stretching back to at least the ancient Egyptians. Central and South American pre-Columbian cultures were known to tenderize their meats with papaya, and Asian cuisine’s historical use of soy sauce is well documented. In the 14th century, the French began marinating their foods, but it wasn’t until the early Renaissance that marinating food functioned less as an act of preservation (after all, the world lacked refrigeration) and more as an act of flavor enhancement.
According to some sources, the verb “marinate” first appeared in English in the 17th century, stemming from “mare,” the Latin word for “the sea.” Given marination’s historical relationship with “brining,” the process of using brine or salt to tenderize meat, marination’s origins in sea-faring communities seems particularly apt. The noun “marinade” didn’t appear in English until a century later.
In sauces, as with most things, the act of doing precedes the recognition of the object. In times of grief and joy, one often goes through “the motions” before naming the experience. This is especially true of traumatic episodes. My mother has been dead for almost 30 years, yet after a few stiff drinks, the glaze in my father’s eyes signals his return to the mangled scene: the ambulance’s red lights pulsing beneath the starless night in Memphis. Alcohol, too, is a potent marinade.
If brining meat and seafood simply involves using brine or salt to boost flavor, marinating takes the process a step further by introducing acid–usually in the form of vinegar or lemon juice. One can also use enzymatic foods such as yogurt or ginger. Both categories accomplish the same objective: the breakdown of protein. By doing so, the marinade tenderizes the meat while increasing the juiciness.
And it is this juiciness that the cook is after. Unsurprisingly, then, the word “marinate” has escaped the provincial purview of the kitchen. Like many people, I enjoy letting ideas “marinate.” Whether I’m attempting to tie together the final couplet of a sonnet or deciding on how to tell a friend a hard, but necessary, truth, the marinade of time often releases more vibrant, stronger juices.
Few people understood this better than the classical Roman poet Horace. In “Ars Poetica,” Horace argues that after writing a poem, the poet should lock the poem away for a period no less than nine years. By doing so, the poet can help their poems “be tender and affecting, and bear away the soul of the auditor whithersoever they please” (“Ars Poetica”). Of course, Horace is (probably) being facetious when it comes to the near decade of “poetic marination.” The point is that time can enhance the vibrancy of the line as much as the subtly sweet texture of the pork.
Interestingly though, if culinary marination involves breaking down tissue for edibility and flavor, the marination of thought seeks to build ideas, to (re)formulate a response to the world’s stimuli. Sentences that marinate, especially in narrative writing, often emerge soaking in more a truthful serum. Unlike Lowry’s Teriyaki, truth is a marinade best left unbottled.
Case in point: last semester, a strong student writer in my class used an anecdote, told to her by her anatomy professor, in an essay about facing her mother’s death. The story went that her professor once took his class to the university morgue to study a body donated to science. After the mortician pulled back the sheet, revealing a frail woman in her late eighties, a young woman in the back let out a loud gasp. Holy shit! the student replied. That’s my grandmother!
Regardless of the veracity of the story, I could see why my student used it to frame her own experience of facing death. Yet the connections between the shocked student peering at her preserved family member and my student’s attempt to understand her mother’s death were still limp as boiled asparagus. On her essay, I circled the anecdote and wrote, strong moment, but let this idea marinate. That night, I realized I hadn’t taken my advice to heart; I’d never let my own mother’s death marinate in my empty morgue of words. Neither had my father.
A couple of Easters ago, I decided to marinate several flank steaks for 48-hours. I’d never let anything soak that long, but given flank steak’s notorious toughness, I figured a multi-day marination would transform the cut’s chewy sinews into the sublime. The recipe I was following called for a simple marinade of beer, garlic, honey, soy sauce, pepper sauce, and Dijon mustard. After trimming the steaks’ fat, I placed the meat in Ziploc bags and stored them in my cluttered fridge. I told myself to forget the meat for the rest of the weekend.
However, appetites, when coupled with curiosity and impatience, often lead to derailed plans. After 24-hours, I grew fearful that the steaks would turn mushy, would lose their primeval “steaky” taste. I opened the bags and sauteed the steaks with onions and butter. The meal was warm and delicious, but, for all the steaks’ spectacular honey-Dijon flavors, I felt remorse. What if I had let the meat marinate for the full 48-hours? Would the flavor have reached a savory apex? Who knows.
I often think about this story when I’m trying to write about my mother’s death. Though I’ve written many poems and essays centering what I witnessed that night in Memphis – the shattered Jeep Cherokee’s windows, my father standing zombie-like on the side of the road, the onslaught of first responders rushing over the hill to strap me and my brother into the ambulance–the writing often feels as dry as an unsalted chicken breast. It’s been nearly 30 years since the drunk driver hit us, but I can’t help but wonder if the memory requires much more time to marinate. Perhaps it requires another decade. Maybe some memories can never fully marinate in the Ziploc of the mind.
As for my father, the wreck remains immediate and unprocessed. Like me, my father struggles with alcohol. If you don’t have the disease, it’s nearly impossible to describe the insatiable urge to consume one drink after another. Once you pour one drink down your gullet, the booze overpowers your mind. You find yourself telling yourself no as you uncork the next bottle of wine. You find yourself slipping, slipping, slipping down into a pit until nothing else matters but reaching for the next drink. Your family and friends notice. At first, they don’t say anything. After a while, they do. Much later, they realize that words alone can’t keep the disease at bay. Though I know I have the disease, I continue to drink–as does my father. Perhaps therapy and AA are equally powerful marinades of the soul. I have given serious thought to both.
When my father drinks–really drinks–everything is fine for the first few rounds. Then, at a certain point, he enters the unholy time machine and is transported back to 1996. For him, the boozy marinade first tenderizes before turning him into something unrecognizable. Like steak left to marinade for too long, he becomes discolored and tough. He becomes unknowable. Then, the next day he becomes repentant, flavorful again. This process is a marinade that is never finished.
When I set out to write an essay on marinades, I didn’t intend to examine Horace or my student’s macabre anecdote. I didn’t intend to write about my mother’s death or my father’s alcoholism. But that is precisely the beauty of marinades–the transformation of the dry into the edible. Sometimes, letting the idea marinate releases its succulent, savory juices. Other times, the idea can never rise to the surface. I may be able to flavor the chewy exterior of my mother’s death, but I don’t know if I’ll ever enter the deepest tissues. Perhaps I’ll always be like the student who pulled back the cover on her dead grandmother–gasping and trying to make meaning, but ultimately losing words.
When my daughter is old enough to handle a whisk, I hope to teach her the joys of mixing soy sauce and mustard, garlic powder and butter. Then, like my father taught me, we will pour the mixture over what needs tenderizing–be it meat or veggies or even the inedible, that which resides in the tough sinews of the heart, dry and difficult to reach.
Horace. “Ars Poetica.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69381/ars-poetica
Joshua Martin is an assistant professor of English at Tusculum University. The winner of the 2023 Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize from the North Carolina Writers Network, as well as a scholarship from the Sewanee Writer's Conference, his poems, essays, and reviews have been published in Rattle, The Bitter Southerner, storySouth, Baltimore Review, Carolina Quarterly, Nashville Review, Atlanta Review, and elsewhere. His first book, Earth of Inedible Things, won the 2020 Jacar Press first book award.