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I heard my children talking about their food at the table and I was transported back in time. “Is that a chicken or a cow?” my daughter Beth asked. The meals my mother made us when we were kids would invariably consist of a pattie of meat, a vegetable, and what she would refer to as fresh fruit even though it was served out of a can. This was not a meat patty she lovingly shaped with her hands, but rather a pattie of dubious content that was mechanically crammed into a shape best representing what it was supposed to be. Lest the shape of the thing not answer your questions, as could often be the case, the box usually included some kind of play on words to let you know the basic animal it should have come from. Like the “Cluckin Patties” or “Moo-in Meat Patties.” “Chicken, I think,” Wayne said. As the oldest he feels like the authority on just about anything, not unlike my older sister did. “Then mine is missing a wing,” Beth said. “No wonder your chicken ended up on some kid’s plate. He ain’t got no danged wing,” Wilkins said.
“Do not comment on the food,” I said, echoing the exact words my mother had said to me years and years ago. My mom usually didn’t sit with us after putting our meal on the table. Instead, she would stand before the sink, staring at nothing out the window. A lot of times I find myself doing the same thing. Wilkins lowered his voice. “Poor guy was probably trying to fly away but since he’s only got one wing he was flying in a circle and the Cluckin Pattie people got him.” “You mean these chickens we’re eating had families?” Beth asked. “It didn’t have a family,” Wayne said. “That’s not even a real chicken. It is processed chicken.” “What’s processed chicken?” Jacks asked. My wife could hear them, even from the other room. “Wing or no wing, you will eat those Cluckin’ Patties right now. EAT THEM!” This happened all the time at our dinner table. Same as it did when I was a kid. Simple questions about a missing wing, or the origin of a lima bean, would only be tolerated for a time. My mother would try to rein us in, try to keep us on task, just like my wife does now. Then those simple questions would grow more complex, like if you shoved a lima bean up your nose could a lima bean tree grow up there? Then the mother explodes, yelling at all about the starving children in Africa who would kill to have our Cluckin’ Patties and to finish eating, standing over us while we did so.
As a parent, now I can fully understand and sympathize with my mother. Trying to prepare meals that cater to my kid’s own finicky tastes, I always know what they’re going to eat, and what they’ll leave on the plate before I even serve it. The sheer monotony of the task can make you crazy, day after day, an assembly line of subpar food from the kitchen, to the table, then back again. Put away the leftovers worth keeping so they cannot eat it another night. Chunk the rest of it. Then the dishes to the dishwasher. Clean up the table. Marvel at how much food ended up under the table as you sweep that up. Take out the trash. And, when all of that is done, someone will wander into the kitchen and tell you how STARVED they are. As kids, we always thought that when mom yelled at us at dinner she must have been having a bad day. It never occurred to us that we had anything to do with it. We just thought that sometimes mom brought her personal issues to the dinner table. So we thought something was really out of whack on the day we reported from the breakfast table that the sausage tasted funny. There was no reminding of the rules. No frustrated sighs. Not even anything about the starving children in Africa. She just screamed, “You will EAT IT! EAT IT NOW!” Then she stood over us, watching, while we choked down every bite. It was one of those rare moments you know you will remember forever. Like the first time I had sex, or when I shoplifted cigarette lighters on a dare. I knew I was doing something terribly wrong. Just like I knew that something was terribly wrong with that sausage.
Sure enough, all three of us started vomiting at school, and she had to come to pick us up one by one. “Must be a little touch of something going around,” my mother said as she signed me out. I looked at her like she was crazy. Here her child was on death’s doorstep, as a direct result of her actions, and she’s telling the school staff it was a virus. The lady behind the desk sympathized with my mother, not the green kid standing beside her. “Cleaning up after them when they’re sick like that is exhausting,” the woman said. “You’d think the little rats would learn to wash their hands,” my mom said. Now it was my fault? “But I don’t have a virus, Mom. It was that crappy sausage you screamed at us to eat.” My mother made that dismissive gesture with her hand she sometimes made when her kids embarrassed her with the truth, then she herded me out of the office. My sisters told me she used the same virus line when she came to pick them up at their school, but neither of them called her on it. Now my mother makes elaborate meals for the extended family, then she’ll come to the dinner table with a tiny pile of rice and one or two peas. Rice and peas that are not available to the rest of us. It’s like she doesn’t fully trust herself since that summer sausage incident.
My wife has always thought the story about mom nearly killing us with the sausage was much ado about nothing. Bethany has never had food poisoning. She has the constitution of Dirty Harry. A rubber tire could roll up in the yard, we could put barbeque sauce on it, and my wife would eat it. She might say, “It’s kind of chewy” or “It tastes a little like road kill” but she would get it down no problem. That’s not because her family ate any better. It’s because they’ve gone through most of their lives with little or no regard for those “best to use before” dates you find on most containers of food. No one warned me about this little peculiarity when we were dating. It was my first time to visit her house. We were there for the weekend. I was trying to make the adjustment to being in someone else’s kitchen at breakfast. So I made myself some toast, put a little butter on the top, jammed it in my mouth and wowser, did something taste like shit! There were only two ingredients. I checked the bread. Looked ok. Then I checked the margarine. It was in a tub. It looked all right. Smelled all right. Then I saw the date. Best before August 12, 1991. I was eating the margarine in December of 1995. About that time Bethany’s father came into the kitchen wearing a pair of running shorts so tiny they might have been a tank top in their previous life. He took the tub of butter from my hands, slathered a bunch of it on my second piece of toast, and stared at me while he ate it. Did he notice that it tasted like the Bubonic Plague on wheat? You’d never know it from looking at him. He just stood there, watching me, as he chewed that four year old butter and chased it down with weak coffee.
Intimidation is something Southern dads have to do. Her brothers got to do it as well, but it is mainly the job of the dad to intimidate and scare his daughter’s new suitor. They might do this by frequenting cleaning handguns while you’re sitting around the house, getting out the family picture album and showing you shots of Guido the family hitman, or simply staring at you while they are eating something so vile it shows that they are a gastric ironman and are tougher than you in every sense of the word. Uncomfortably leggy shorts aside, I was on firmer ground here. This is a perfectly natural, Darwinian process. If you run away, then it is proof that you were no good for his daughter. But, while I was somewhat relieved to discover we weren’t going the handgun route, that butter really tasted like crap. I felt like saying, “Dude, spit that shit out. Her virtue isn’t worth it. Trust me, we’ve been through college. Her virtue had already seen its fair share of challenges way before I entered her life.” But I didn’t say anything. I let his little farce run its course. That’s when it hit me. I was dealing with a professional intimidator. This man was determined to make sure I was the right fit for his daughter and what he perceived to be her impeccable reputation. After all, who would leave that kind of stuff in their fridge on purpose? It had to be staged, right? Wrong. Over the years I learned that the fridge in their house was a condiment prison. It was Leavenworth for mayonnaise. Taking something out of the main part of it was ok. Taking something out of the door, where all the little condiments were, that was like gastric Russian roulette.
It took me a while to accept that these people could simply eat shitty butter, or congealed yogurt, and barely blink. I even went through a phase where I took great joy in discreetly showing my wife the best before dates when we visited. “These olives are seven years out of date,” I’d say. “Like olives can go bad,” my wife said. “There are living organisms swimming around with these olives. Is that natural?” This is not to say that my in laws keep a dirty kitchen. The thing is spotless, and my wife picked up some cleaning habits from her mother, which is basically, if it isn’t nailed down, then you throw it away. It just seemed like no one ever thought to inspect the condiments. Like it never occurred to them that the little containers in the door might go bad. One night my mother in law cleaned out the fridge, including some large chunk of meat that my father in law was marinating for a cook out. The next day, when it came time to cook that meat, my father in law discovered his meat was gone. When his wife told him she had chunked it, he retrieved the meat out of the garbage can, cooked it, and served it to his friends. This was perfectly normal for him, and not even worthy of comment. In his mind it was still marinating. Only instead of marinating in the fridge, it was marinating in a Hefty Bag in the garbage can. Big friggin deal for a guy who can stomach eight year old margarine. Over time my mother in law caught me inspecting the best before dates on her condiments and got a little sensitive to it. She’s a smart woman and she somehow turned the
tables. Like it says something bad about me that I was so eager to nose through their fridge and see which decade they bought their honey mustard in. And maybe she did, or maybe she didn’t, call me a “weenie ass” one time when I had a little stomach bug. I would like to think we’ve moved past that now. I hate to admit it, but my wife and I occasionally serve our kids the same processed pattie crap my mom put in front of us when there’s no time to put together something decent. We haven’t poisoned anyone yet, but it is only a matter of time. We don’t allow criticism from the dinner table either, and someday we’ll do just what my mother did, invoking the starving children of Africa and screaming at our kids to EAT IT ALL, when something might have been a few days, or weeks, or even years, out of date. That’s when we’ll get to see what kind of kids we’ve got. Did they inherit their Dad’s somewhat delicate digestive system? Or their Mom’s bad ass belly? Say what you want, but I’ve come full circle on the in-laws and their out of date condiments. I’ve come to admire their rock hard guts. It says that they are headstrong. That they might frown at bad taste, but they don’t complain. Dates telling them what they are supposed to do are best ignored. That’s because my in laws are tough and independent. They are eaters of raw or overcooked, out of date, garbage can meat. They are valiant protectors of tarnished virtue, connoisseurs of weak coffee, and literally able to stomach anything life throws their way. That’s just who they are.