Family Dinner: the battlefield of my childhood

Picture this: after a long commute home from his job in the city, a father walks through the front door to the smell of pot roast. The house explodes with excitement. Kids run through the house yelling, “Daddy’s home! Daddy’s home!” and greet him with hugs and kisses. Dogs bark welcoming yaps. Mom’s ass gets a loving pat as she finishes up meal preparations. Dad changes out of his constrictive suit and relaxes into home life, and the family gathers at the dinner table to a spread most people don’t even get to eat on Sunday after church: lusciously tender beef slow-cooked for hours, buttery mashed potatoes with lakes of rich gravy, chopped spinach studded with butter, a crisp salad tossed in homemade dressing, tall glasses of cold whole milk.

This was my childhood. Or at least, how I mostly remember it. We ate dinner as a family every night. Even on weekends. We ate, we talked, we spent valuable family time together.

A happy kid at the dinner table, mostly

Spend some more time with my family at that dinner table, though, and you’ll see this memory might not be as romantic as it seems. An errant elbow on the table garnered a shocking smack across the arm. A picky eater was forced to eat icky things. A dog was sneakily fed under the table. Dinnertime could be a battlefield as often as not. My father regularly used it as a place to float new family policies. There was the time he announced that he wanted us to address him with “Yes sir, father dear.” Once, he assigned oral presentations. My brother and I were each given a topic that we had to research and then present on at dinner. He fancied us Kennedys in training, I guess. As my dad lorded over the dinner table, he surely induced agita in my mother, who generally suffered in silence, doing her best to keep the dinner table peace.

Then there was our ongoing mano y mano battle over food. Most nights, there was something on the table that I liked. My mom was an excellent cook, but I was picky. I loved tomatoes (ate them whole like apples), mayonnaise (layered an inch thick between two slices of wonder bread), carrots, pickles, homemade spaghetti sauce, steak (cooked medium rare and salted to within an inch of its life). But there was plenty I couldn’t abide, like broccoli, green peppers, and most especially brussels sprouts. Anything that had a hint of bitterness overwhelmed my sensitive palate, and I would wretch and gag like I was being forced to eat live tadpoles (something my dad challenged the neighborhood kids to. He said he’d give a $100 bill to anyone who would crush one between their front teeth and swallow it. He was weird). We got to a point where there was one rule: you had to try it or at least eat one bite. My father relished putting two tiny, bitter brussels sprouts (frozen, blech) on my plate whenever they made an appearance. I learned to eat them first, to get it over with and get that horrible taste out of my mouth.

My father, a meat and potatoes guy, dined out a lot. As a salesman with an expense account, he spent plenty of time at the steak houses and oyster bars of New York and other big cities, slurping down oysters and sipping whiskey while demolishing a porterhouse. He liked to eat what he liked to eat. And he thought we should like to eat what he liked to eat too. And this is where we come to the infamous oyster incident, an epic battle between father and daughter that finally exposed our nightly dinner showdown as the absurd power struggle that it was.

Father dear took great pleasure in exposing us to delicacies, fancy things like caviar, frog’s legs, mussels marinara, etc.. The night he brought home oysters my mom was serving macaroni and cheese. Yep, mac and cheese. A Southern girl, mom had spent her time in the Northeast expanding her repertoire. Her grandmother-in-law taught her to make Slavic specialties like stuffed peppers and chicken paprikash. Her Italian neighbor introduced her to fresh mozzarella, Bolognese sauce, and basil. On this night, she was taking her classic Southern mac and cheese and slathering it in stewed tomatoes, a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition she’d picked up when living in Philly.

I couldn’t be sure at the time, but I had an inkling that oysters and cheesy noodles just weren’t a good pairing. My stupid brother, of course, slurped his oysters down with gusto. He ate everything and anything, setting me up to fight my food battles all alone. My mother refused to eat an oyster, because she didn’t like them, but my father invoked the rule: you have to try one. The thing — raw, shucked, sitting in some slimy liquid in a white Corelle bowl — sat there taunting me. I stopped eating the mac and cheese, my favorite dinner, and stared at the chunk of flesh. Surely it had been lopped off of somebody’s body. It looked gross. Like a frog embryo. A giant’s misshapen ear. A witch’s nipple. My imagination filled me in on how this thing would feel in my mouth: slimy, wet, alive. I just knew it would activate and grow bigger and bigger as I tried to gag it down. My mac and cheese grew cold. My mother started strategizing ways to prevent the inevitable, trying to appeal to my father’s own picky tendencies. “Remember as a kid, you ate everything with ketchup because you hated vegetables so much.” He dug in. “She’s going to eat it. Even if we have to sit here all night.”

I said nothing. My mac and cheese congealed. My brother went outside to play. My mother, my sweet sweet mother, left us. My father and I sat. And sat. And sat. And sat. It must’ve been hours. He knew better than to leave me alone at the table. I had learned how to let my dog lick my plate just enough so that it looked like I ate it myself. Sometimes, I would dig down into the trash to scrape the offending food from my plate and hide it from plain sight. One night, I didn’t eat something and was sent to bed immediately after dinner. I cried and cried until my mother came down to comfort me. As she soothed me to sleep, I could hear the bedroom upstairs getting trashed. The next morning, it looked as if a hurricane had swept through, lamps were broken, furniture was overturned. This battle between me and my father over food was some serious shit.

Just look at how gross they look out of the shell

As the oyster grew warm and hairy, dad’s fury and my stubbornness swirled into a stalemate. Neither of us budged. It grew dark. My brother went to bed. My mother, finally, came to my rescue. In her robe and pajamas, she swept into the darkened kitchen, picked up the offending bowl of oyster goo and said, “Enough. This is ridiculous. At least eat your macaroni and cheese.” I smugly smiled. I had won. My dad grunted angrily and in one furious move lifted up the table and flipped it across the room, end over end. The dinner dishes, glasses, silverware, clattered into the back door in a shocking rebuke. He was pissed. I don’t remember what happened next, but I’m sure I retreated in victory to my bedroom. Hungry but triumphant.

The next day, we sidled by the overturned table and tried not to step on the shards of broken dishes as we got ready for school. My mother refused to clean up the mess, and I don’t remember seeing my father do it. It stayed there a while. But I do remember that the disgusting clump of flesh-colored jello ended up in the trash, and our dinnertime battlefield never again reached such an epic state of crazy.

Still friends despite the food battles

Today, my dad and I share a love of oysters. We go to the our favorite oyster bar to sit at the raw bar and slurp down platters of the raw delicacy and laugh about the oyster incident. Funny thing is, he probably thinks his crazy rules about food are responsible for me being a well-versed eater today. I hate to break it to him, but that has more to do with my mom than him. Her love of food and her devotion to watching cooking shows and trying new techniques and ingredients did more to expose me to good food than trying to force a raw oyster down my gullet.

I was reminded of this childhood food battle by the recent story on Slate by Amanda Marcotte, “Let’s Stop Idealizing Family Dinners.” Her point was that making dinner is more stressful than not for families, particularly mothers. I think my mother might agree with that sentiment.

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