The Rice Pudding Incident

I once caused a scene at the home of family friends. I was six or seven at the time, and having dinner at their house. The mother, a very nice but very proper British woman named Jane, presided over an old-fashioned table. Children talked in low voices, held their silverware correctly, and asked to be excused when they were done.

I ate the main part of the meal, whatever it was. Then Jane served rice pudding for dessert. I was familiar with the stuff — my grandmother had tried to get me to like it, and failed — so I politely declined. I was, in general, a polite child. I did not want to disclose my true feelings about rice pudding (“yuck!”) and instead put a hand on my stomach to indicate that I was full. However, Jane would not let me go. She said, with some menace, “Finish what’s put in front of you.”

I found this bewildering. No one had ever made me eat dessert before. Dessert was decidedly optional, at my house. Even discouraged. I simply couldn’t understand the lesson Jane was trying to teach me. She did not mention starving children, or her own childhood in the war, or any kind of guiding story or reason. So I was left to feel the clash in my own head between normal, sane practice — dessert optional — and the irrational force-feeding methods of other people.

I objected, “But it’s dessert! It’s full of sugar.”

She said, “Eat up, or you’re not leaving the table.”

Her children eyed me over their heaping spoonfuls of pudding, waiting to see what I would do. I crossed my arms and said, “Thank you very much for dinner, but I’ll wait for my dad to pick me up.”

There was a stand-off. A long, tension-filled stand-off. The other children finished their plates and were allowed to leave. I stayed in my place, with Jane continuing to sit with me, her eyes boring into the top of my head.

Finally, after several eons had passed, my father came to pick me up. I said nothing. Jane explained the situation, expecting my father to take her side. She nudged him to give me a lecture about behaving in other people’s houses. I half expected something of the sort myself. The world was growing increasingly bizarre and unfair, so it would only be par for the course. But at the end of Jane’s little speech, my dad said, “Why on earth would anyone force a person to eat dessert?”

I jumped up and hugged my dad. In that moment, we were more of a pair than we had ever been.