What follows was my contribution to a reading called “Eat the Past,” held last night at the Arts Center in Troy and hosted by food writer Steve Barnes. (Note: Those of you who signed up for thoughtful essays on atheist parenting will have to suffer through the occasional food essay. Those of you who signed up for amusing food essays, hey: you’re in luck.)
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Child Number 2 finally takes a bite and says encouragingly, “It’s not that bad.”
Child Number 3, oblivious to the fact that we were this close to stopping at two kids, wore a look on her face that said, “Do I have to?”
“Do I have to?” she asked.
No matter how often I hear the chorus of complaint—no matter how many desserts I have withheld as a result—I still find it shocking. I myself, a Child Number 2, remember complaining about dinner precisely once. My mom was a rock solid dinner-on-the-table cook, and we enjoyed a regular, slowly evolving rotation of family favorites. Occasionally she tried something new—something clipped from the newspaper or discovered in the encouraging pages of The Silver Palate. One night, Mom served us a new dish called “Indian Potatoes,” which (as I remember it) somehow compelled Children 1, 2, and 3 simultaneously to put down our forks and shake our heads. (Could it have been burned garlic? Rancid mustard seeds? The adult cook in me asks; the child eater in me won’t say.)
Perhaps because we never complained, Mom looked abashed and did not make us finish our dinners. An error had occurred, and that was that.
Things were not so simple with my father. Daddy didn’t cook the daily meals; he made big weekend breakfasts and he fried things. French fries, onion rings, scallion pancakes, donuts. If anything fried emerged from my parents’ kitchen, he was behind it, in an explosion of dishes, on a dusting of flour, getting batter on everything he touched.
Big mess, big food, big gesture. And because he cooked to treat us, not just to feed us, he expected a big, enthusiastic response. One year Daddy found a recipe that suited his twin impulses for drama and generosity: Wellskringle. This was a sort of batter you spread onto a baking sheet and baked into a pastry, which you then drizzled with icing. You could even spread the dough into the shape of a letter; that’s why Daddy decided it was the perfect birthday treat.
It turns out that food should never be chosen on the basis of whether or not you can write with it.
Wellskringle was awful: gooey and eggy and bland and right in the nauseating noodle-kugel no man’s land between sweet and not sweet.
Children 1, 2, and 3—my sisters and I—all hated it. Actually, Child 1 recently told me that she had liked it . . . sort of. She may be telling the truth. But as I recall, in a cruel reversal of the Santa effect, just the smell of Wellskringle baking on our special day could keep us in bed a little longer.
But we didn’t dare complain. We thought that rejecting Wellskringle would be like rejecting Daddy—that he would take it personally. So we grinned thanked him when he presented—ta-da!—the steaming platter of A, K, or S. We glanced at each other quickly for support, ate the drier edges where the icing pooled, and declared ourselves full.
Why didn’t he notice that Wellskringle was disgusting? He refused to eat it because he didn’t like eggs. I wish I were allowed not to like eggs, I thought at the time. But food refusal was a privilege reserved for grownups.
Eventually, after years had passed, and when it was no one’s birthday, Children 1, 2, and 3 managed to allow that Wellskringle wasn’t our absolute favorite thing. I was an extravagantly well-behaved child; I’m pretty sure that was my rebellion.
My father, in case you’re wondering, survived the attack. He still fries things for us and now he makes us martinis, too.
Meanwhile I have become a very good home cook—with my mom’s reliability and my dad’s sense of adventure. I have also become a parent, and my parents obviously influenced that, too. My kids are expected to eat, to try new things, and to value the dinner party as the highest expression of domestic endeavor. What’s harder to teach is that fine line between honesty and rudeness: what I call the “no offense” line.
To judge from the results of my parenting, I have erred on the side where they feel entitled to say “yuck.” I don’t always have the energy to punish them for complaining about dinner. But I try never to get offended. I don’t want my children to choke down something they hate for fear of hurting my feelings. I want them to choke down something they hate because they know they are lucky to have food placed before them.
And because their mother has the fortitude to sit calmly and say sweetly to the little girl who really has no idea she almost didn’t exist, “Yes, dear, you have to.”