There are certain foods that my kids simply won’t eat. I don’t force them to eat everything I put before them, but I do insist that they have at least one bite before they reject it. Occasionally this backfires on me. Once when my daughter was three, I made her try “just one little bite of butternut squash.” She grudgingly acquiesced and then promptly threw up. Still streaming vomit, she whipped her head around to glare at me accusingly, and with an unmistakable note of triumph in her voice, she said, “SEE?!”
When unfortunate events such as this happen, the food is entered into the special Foods-That-Make-the-Kids-Gag category. My rule for these foods is that while I remove them from regular rotation, I make the kids try at least one teensy, tiny, miniscule bite of them once a year. This strategy has yielded some amazing breakthroughs! One of the foods they used to loathe was potatoes. We tried them in 2006. We tried them in 2007, and then: BINGO! In 2008 potatoes became one of their favorite foods. After years and years of trying, we still haven’t rounded the corner on tomatoes, but they’re on the schedule for summer 2013.
It’s hard for me to feel any great sympathy for my kids when they complain about the food I give them. Butternut squash? Potatoes? Tomatoes? PUH-LEEZE! I’m dealing far more charitably with my kids than my own parents ever did with me when it came to food. If we complained about what was put before us, my normally taciturn dad would bark, “If Mom puts a rock on your plate, YOU EAT IT!” And we did. Every single last bite of tripe, raw liver, or whatever else was being served up that day. We choked down some pretty challenging foods for kids growing up in America.
Between the ages of 5 and 8 I lived deep in the darkest heart of the American sticks, in a sleepy backwater town in Pennsylvania. To put things in perspective, Scranton – now practically a byword for shabby, benighted little townlet – was the glittering big city to our town. Reeking of kimchi and fermented soybeans, we might as well have been Martians when our family of six rolled into this microscopic, blindingly white village with a population of around 5,000 something.
The moment I first appeared on the playground of my new elementary school, the noisy chatter and laughter of children at play abruptly ceased, as if someone had pushed a magic mute button. Feverish whispering closely followed the eerie hush that had suddenly descended upon the playground. Little blond heads leaned in close together as the children conferred with each other in obvious bewilderment and consternation at the appearance of this alien in their midst. Innocently, they tried to work out how my face got so very flat, whether my eyes hurt all the time, or whether one would eventually get used to the pain of having eyes like mine…
I have no word of reproach for those children. During our four years in this town, we worked tirelessly, albeit unwittingly to reinforce our reputation as freakish interlopers. Our idiosyncratic approach to food did much to shape this profile. While our neighbors cultivated neat flower beds with nothing more exotic than the odd rose bush, our front yard burst forth with abundant harvests of bok choy and wild sesame. Our school projects were held together not with Elmer’s Glue, but with homemade glue made of water and rice. We kept a giant red Rubbermaid cooler filled with enough rice to put Elmer’s Glue out of business and end world hunger. Even when my parents embraced some culinary aspect of the culture we were living in, they would tweak it somehow so that it was still nonstandard. We would have salad, but it would be tossed with soy sauce, sesame seeds, and red pepper flakes. We’d have Neopolitan ice cream, but instead of scooping it out, my mom would put the carton on a chopping board, cut away the carton, and then slice up the block of ice cream with her largest butcher knife.
You could probably smell the contents of our refrigerator long before our house came into view. If you were to open the refrigerator, you might find vats of soup with rubbery strands of seaweed floating in murky liquid, pungent dishes of marinated bracken fern shoots, or jars crammed with tiny little salted baby shrimp staring out at you with millions of black unseeing eyes. For years we ate sea cucumbers thinking they were vegetables until my sister watched a movie in biology class and saw the dinner we’d had the night before propelling itself in grotesque slow motion like a gigantic, warty slug across the screen. From that day forward, if one of us asked what a certain dish was and the answer was: “Just eat it,” four forks would instantaneously and simultaneously fall onto the table with a loud clatter.
We began to make a weekly escape from our little town when my dad became the pastor of a Korean congregation, which met in a church on the corner of 76th Street and Broadway in New York City. When people from our town found out that we were voluntarily going to the Son of Sam’s lair they shook their heads in disbelief and real concern. But for us it was a blessed relief to hang around with other dark-haired people who understood that roasted seaweed and dried squid were delicious snack foods.
The heavy price we paid for our furlough was the two and a half hour drive to New York. Every Sunday morning at the crack of dawn we would pile into our light blue Chevy Malibu station wagon and head off to the big city. My two older sisters would occupy the bench seat, while my younger brother and I would roll around like a sack of potatoes in the cargo area. The car was not without amenities. There was a gigantic hole in the rusted out bottom of the car and if you lifted the floor mat, you could watch the highway rushing by. If it got too hot, you could always roll down the windows. It was even equipped with a dual-purpose coffee can that made an admirable puke bucket, and could serve as a toilet in a pinch.
On the way back from church we would break up the journey by stopping off at a grocery store to buy lunch. We would buy a loaf of bread, some salami, yogurt, and pickles. Usually we would sit in the parking lot of the Grand Union dining on this Grand Repast in our chariot of fire. When the weather was good, we would drive a little further to a rest area that had picnic tables. One day we sat at a picnic table somewhere on the interstate in our Sunday best, feasting on pickles and salami like kings and queens. My parents were gazing at the tall oak trees that surrounded us when they had a sudden brainstorm. Before we could lick the pickle juice off our fingers we were hustled over to gather acorns that had fallen from the trees. Travelers did double takes, squirrels glared resentfully as we stooped over to collect acorns, their acorns. Because, as everyone knows, squirrels eat acorns. So do Korean people. These acorns would later be peeled, puverized, and transformed into a tasteless, glistening, gelatinous substance. It’s a lot of effort, really, for not very much at all, and hardly worth it when you factor in the enormous psychological cost of having to steal food from squirrels in plain view of everyone traveling on I-80.
We eventually moved when my parents decided it was time to seek the company of like-minded fellow acorn-eaters in the far more populous and diverse suburbs of Washington, DC. I remember staring out the back window of the old rusted-out Malibu as we drove away, taking a final look at the place that had become our home, despite the intense sense of dislocation and alienation we had felt there for so much of the time. I may even have shed a few tears.
When I tell my kids, who have grown up on such innocuous foods as pasta, chicken nuggets, and pizza about my years in Pennsylvania, I tell them about real hardships and how they humbled, but also strengthened us. If we could make it there, we could make it anywhere, blah, blah, blah-buhty, blah…And let’s get real, kids: Do I make you eat raw organs? Am I dishing up sea slugs? Have I ever once made you eat squirrel jello?! So if Mom puts a tomato on your plate, YOU EAT IT!”