Food for Thought

you are what you've eaten

When I was a child, the World was new... unexplainable, and sometimes frightening. Let's start with food.

To begin with, I learned that certain foods were eaten at certain times, and this almost never varied. In the morning I ate either breakfast cereal or some version of "eggs" (usually scrambled). At lunch it was more often than not a sandwich, or maybe a bowl of soup on the few days of the year that the temperature dipped below the 70s in Southern California, indicating an indoor play day.

Dinner always seemed to involve much more drama than I thought was necessary. I couldn't wear my "play clothes", and I was reminded numerous times that "dinner was almost ready", even though I knew that "almost" came to mean anytime in the next hour or two.

The dinner menu was usually some treatment of meat, along with either peas, corn, or mashed potatoes. The mashed "potatoes" were instant, and the peas and corn were canned. Often there was a dessert choice of ice cream, which led to a dilemma while being admonished by my father to "eat all of your dinner", my mom chimed in with "leave room for dessert", which seemed impossible to me. If I ate everything on my dinner plate [not a pleasant thought], then I wouldn't have room for anything else for a day or more.

An unwritten (but rigidly enforced) rule was that breakfast foods were only to be eaten at breakfast time, lunch foods only at lunch time, and dinner foods only at dinner time. The reasoning for this was never fully understood. Many a time I could have made it through dinner with only a baloney sandwich, but the situation never materialized.

The way certain foods were combined and others weren't never made sense either. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich was OK, but a peanut butter and mashed potato sandwich was not, even though I could eat both of them separately during the same day. And why did a sandwich containing both peanut butter and jelly become more acceptable than one containing only jelley?

While we're talking about bread-related foods, how come trimming off the crust was OK, because it was, after all, "burned" bread, but serving the entire piece of bread as "toast" was OK too, in which all the bread was burned?

One practice at the kitchen table made absolutely no sense to me, and never has. We were never, and I mean never, allowed to take a spoonful of anything and put it into our mouths "upside down". My reasoning was that, although I had no hard proof of this in 6th grade, there were more taste buds (whatever they were) on my tongue than on the roof of my mouth, therefore instead of having the spoon come in contact with my tastebud-laden tongue, I chose to let the food have that opportunity, so that I might derive more flavor from the boring food at my disposal. My reasoning fell on deaf ears, and it wasn't until I moved away from home did I get a chance to practice my upside-down skills.

Let's see... what other rules were enforced during my formative years? Obviously we weren't allowed to drink out of the bottle or carton that resided in the fridge, and as long as there were no parents around that law was quickly forgotten. Putting a carton of ice cream back in the freezer with only a teaspoon of ice cream left used to enrage my father, and my brothers and I fell victim to that rage more often than not. If we were having meat, mashed potatoes, and either corn or peas for dinner (which was the case 99% of the time) it was a cardinal sin to allow anything to come in contact with anything else on our plate. Scooping a spoonful of creamed corn, for example, onto the mashed potatoes and eaten together would, if noticed by our parents, bring down wrath upon us.

During the 50s and 60s, the folding tray began to take the place of the kitchen table on more and more occassions. The idea was that we could then presumably watch TV while we were eating dinner. As innocent as this practice seemed, it ended up that the only thing on during the "dinner hour" were news programs, and it was difficult to enjoy a nice dinner while watching student protestors getting tear gassed or images of the Vietnam War. Not only that, but the flimsy trays were a disaster waiting to happen when you had to get up to either get more food or go to the bathroom. Extricating oneself from behind a fully-loaded tray was often met with an unfortunate ending, as my foot would gently caress to willowy leg of the tray and down onto the carpet would spill my dinner plate and milk glass.

As far as food-related incidents go, the incident by which all incidents are judged by occured when I was in high school and was invited to a friend's house for Thanksgiving Dinner. I approached this with about as much fear and loathing as getting up in front of class to read a report or something. I had to assemble my best clothes (i.e. clothes I hardly ever wore) and brush all of my teeth, which was normally reserved for a "date night". I combed my hair enough to make Alfalfa proud, and tried to remember what my friend's parents names were.

Arriving at what I thought was fashionably early, I was surprised to see that there were several other friends-of-my-friend already there. What I imagined to be a quiet, relaxed dinner was now looking like a movie set the table was about 10' long and covered with a fancy table cloth, upon which were place settings consisting of at least 11 different kinds of forks, knives, and spoons. Two or three glasses of different sizes, extra plates, napkins big enough to double as beach towels, and various covered pans with who knows what inside. We were called to the table, our seating arrangement pointed out, and we engaged in nervous small talk. Seated across from several of my school mates I had to stifle the urge to revert to our usual locker-room vernacular when we spoke.

At last a place was cleared in the center of the table, my hosts mom (whose name escaped me) came in from the kitchen and ceremoniously placed a huge covered platter down with great pomp and circumstance. All eyes were on the center of the table... all conversations stopped, and the cover was slowly lifted revealing... something unrecognizable!

All conversation stopped. All thoughts stopped. All eyes were focussed on the center of the table. Gradually I realized that the football-sized object on the platter was not a turkey (as expected) but a giant tongue. Our Thanksgiving Dinner, a tradition probably even more American than apple pie, was being bastardized with a huge cow's tongue.

Up until that time, while I had never really seen a real cow's tongue, I'd seen plenty in movies and cartoons, but this one was different. I imagined it was similar to an iceberg, where only a fraction was exposed above water, with the majority laying hidden in the depths below. If that were true, than the cow's tongue must have been rooted in its stomach, because this one was far larger that I imagined.

Nervous conversation ensued while my friend's mom proceeded to cut slices off the tongue and plop them on everyone's plate. I had to look away during this phase, becuse watching someone cut a slice off some turkey's body was one thing, but slicing up a tongue, which in many ways looked like my own tongue, only much larger... that was personal. You could even see whatever inner body parts that made up the tongue hanging there in plain sight, sort of like when a bulldozer cuts away a hillside, revealing all of the rock strata that existed underground, but wasn't visible from the surface.

In the next few minutes I would be faced with possibly the most difficult thing I had to do in my life possibly even more difficult than buying condoms at the drugstore. I would have to take a bite of the tongue. I tried to clear my mind and think only of the task at hand, but thoughts of what the cow did with that tongue during an average day in a pasture kept creeping up. Looking around the table, I saw that I was not alone, as the expressions of my friends showed intense trepidation as well. Finally welling up enough courage to actually take one of the forks in hand (and secretly wishing that it was the right one) I plunged it into the slice on my plate, took a knife (again wishing that it was the right one), and cut off a reasonably-sized piece.

Raising it to my mouth, I paused for a slit-second to see if my friends would follow suit, but they just sat transfixed, as though I was a world-renowned surgeon and they were my students observing a delicate operation. Too late now to back down, I committed the piece to my mouth, fully expecting to have to chew it for several minutes as if it were a slice of rubber off a tire, but to my surprise it almost, but not quite, "melted" in my mouth, sort of like eating liver. Between everyone else at the table and me, I don't know who was more relieved, and thereafter my friends joined in, showering my host's mother with glowing descriptions of how good the dinner was.

It was all downhill for the rest of the evening, and as far as I know, there were no gastronomic incidents afterward. We all remained friends possibly even more so than before the dinner, for we faced an obstacle as one and conquered it. Nobody talked specifically about the dinner in the time to come, but I always felt that each year, when Thanksgiving rolled around, we all would remember the event and smile, knowing that if we made it through that dinner, than we could make it through any dinner.

In the years to come I moved away from home and enjoyed the freedom of picking and choosing the food that I ate. I never purchased tongue or any meat products, because I became a vegetarian and reaped the benefits of a healthier diet, a lower food bill, and the knowledge that the vegetables I ate didn't do anything weird to themselves while they were in the garden.