It was the early Sixties and I was about seven years old. My parents had bought a brand new house in the ‘burbs that was way beyond their means. Threadbare sheets hung limply from nails that hid the drapery hardware that would not hold real drapes for another ten years. The adults could be heard laughing at the dining table where red wine sparkled in clear glass goblets purchased from FEDCO for a pricey dollar a-piece. I normally sat with my two younger sisters at the open dishwasher door repurposed as the “kids’ table,” but they had finished and were off to their own devices.
I stared at the cold food on my plate. We were not allowed to ask to be excused until our plates were cleared and mine was still covered with the telltale signs of a finicky eater: cold green beans shimmering with the slime of margarine over canned vegetables, lumpy mashed potatoes dotted with flecks of pepper and parsley direct from the Betty Crocker box, and a pool of cold brown gravy glistening in all of its congealed glory right before my eyes. The white ribbons and veins of fat in the slice of meat had lost their once-transparent shine and instead reminded me of the thick greyish grease that stays in the pan after cooking bacon. I hated the food before me when it was warm but even more then because it was cold.
I scowled at the sound of the adults talking and slurping and clacking their forks and knives on their plates. There they were, sitting at The Big Table, enjoying conversation across a white lace tablecloth under a faux chandelier of red glass and brass trim. As I imagined their softly lighted space in the dining room, the table decorated with short white candles amid fresh pink camellias in hobnail milk glass bowls, I surveyed the contrasting avocado green appliances, the green tiled counter with its darker green grout, and the green—Blue Spruce!—stained cabinetry that made my kitchen prison an incongruously dark place for perfect happy moms in white aprons and smiling curly-haired kids in the TV ads. Those were surely not the same kids who were expected to be seen and not heard in my house.
The hard telephone books ground against the bones in my butt as I sat there, staring at the white rolling racks of the dishwasher which was walled in pale aqua-coloured plastic. My makeshift dining table was guaranteed to be sterilized before the next meal, so anything spilled was still edible. No excuses. Nowhere to stash tiny bits and pieces of rejected cuisine.
Time passed and the smell of that cold fat became overpowering. Its odour was turning rancid in my nostrils, making a tickle in my throat and turning my tongue sour. The mere thought of putting that square-cut bit of animal carcass into my mouth made my belly wrench and my intestines gurgle. I felt the last bit of barely swallowed gristly meat threaten to travel back up my throat and I gulped hard to hold it down. I cringed at the memory of vomiting on other similar nights: strong hands wrenching me out of my seat, my feet barely keeping up with my shoulders, as I found myself directed into the bathroom with the threat of a spanking shouted behind me. I would have to eat everything on that plate or I would spend the night sitting there in that marvellously modern kitchen, as it was the tour de force of the modern home for the modern family. Everything around me was shiny and I hated it every inch of it.
What in the world inspires a parent to force a child to eat what she does not want to eat? Is it really because we want to make sure the child is well fed, not starving, and not lacking for necessary nutrition? Is it because we want children to understand the great variety of available foods beyond the comfort of a predictable hot dog or a fried chicken TV dinner? Or is it because, as parents, we feel driven to be in charge, to set the standards, to enforce the rules? Is parenting about domination or can we accomplish these same things in other ways?
I do understand that frustration of dealing with a finicky eater, the kid who turns his or her nose up at every offering, especially when you are a dinner guest or in a restaurant where the only affirmative on the menu is the most costly item available. “No grilled cheese? No pancakes? No fried chicken? No pork chop? Lobster, you say? LOBSTER?”
As a parent, I have probably committed the power sin my fair share of times. “Eat your cereal or you can’t have McDonald’s for lunch.” “Eat your dinner or you can’t have dessert.” However, aren’t these reasonable compromises? In contrast, the face-off between a stubborn child and a cold unappetizing meal for even an hour past dinner must be far more scarring than leaving the child hungry for one night.
Adults in my generation – the now aging Baby Boomers whose families loved those avocado refrigerators and beyond-their-means housing tracts with two-car garages and brand new washing machines and dryers but no curtains – now face a number of debilitating health issues not manifested in previous generations: extreme obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, alcoholism, drug abuse, and diabetes. Why? Is it because we were trained to think of the starving children in China (and India and Africa and Mexico) if we “wasted” food already on the table? Is it because we were taught to ignore our body’s natural responses to certain foods or feelings of fullness in order to simply consume for consumption’s sake? Or is it because “modern” families were so busy working and paying for what the advertisers told us were the Necessities of Life that parents didn’t have time to eat with their children and know them, know their likes and dislikes, talk about food and vitamins, or converse about general health and happiness?
I am now 60, dangerously obese, and my happiness almost always includes food and alcohol. I celebrate with food and comfort myself with food. If I don’t like something, I may not eat all of it… especially if I am otherwise occupied with stimulating conversation or something interesting on television. But my deepest, earliest training informs my unconscious habits and, when alone, I will often clean the plate without even realizing it.
And I will rarely even think to myself, “That didn’t even taste good! Why did I eat it at all?”
Kata Alvidrez earned her MA in Creative Writing from Iowa State University but spends her days and nights teaching Freshman Composition at a community college in Bullhead City, Arizona. She has argued for years that there is never enough time in the week to write for herself, opting instead to spend her creative energy on students. One day it occurred to her that she could demonstrate what she was teaching by writing essays along with them; this is one.