I was a very picky eater when I was young. In fact, to say that I was a picky eater is a lot like saying that the surface of the sun gets a little bit warm. I was such a picky eater that it is an absolute miracle that I survived long enough to learn to like food, which happened when I was twenty years old. It is a miracle not only because I was nutritionally challenged, but because my father was completely unable to grasp the concept of not eating anything that he had declared to be edible, and had absolutely no tolerance for the wasting of any kind of food. This caused a great deal of pain and confusion for me as a child, because when my mother cooked something and everybody in the house knew that I was not going to eat it, it seemed to me like the ‘waste factor’ had been written into the script, and I was predestined to have a very bad evening. The picture never varied; it repeated itself over and over, like some dreadful video on a continuous loop.
I can’t really blame my father for his regard for food. Dad spent his middle-to-late teen years on a farm in Southern Georgia during the Great Depression. There was enough food to eat but it was not a particularly varied diet, and any meat at all was the cheapest of cuts. The better cuts of meat were sold in order to keep the farm going, clothes on their backs and the expenses paid. Dad spoke of walking behind a mule-powered plow all day long and making packing crates for a half-penny each just to help the family get by. When he turned eighteen my father decided to try to get into the military and expand his possibilities.
In 1936 it was not so easy to get into the military. The United States had demobilized considerably after the first world war and the smaller personnel needs meant more competition for fewer slots. Dad chose to try to get into the Navy because that branch offered more travel opportunities, so one day my grandmother made him a sack lunch and he boarded a Greyhound Bus to Albany, which was a couple of hours from his home near Tifton. The Navy recruiting officer told the roomful of boys who showed up that day that there were openings for three recruits from that county. He wished them luck and then passed out the tests.
My father never told me what was in the test but whatever it was, it was material covered by the Tifton High School Blue Devil faculty because Dad was one of the top three. He never said where he placed in the exalted crowd of three and I don’t think he cared. The officer congratulated him for now being in the Navy, handed him a train ticket, and pointed in the direction of the station. Dad already knew where that station was and walked across Albany to await the train which ran north and east to Norfolk, Virginia.
Dad was pleased that he had been accepted and grateful for that train ticket, but he noticed right away that it was not accompanied by a meal ticket. Dad had already eaten whatever it was that Grandma had made for him; probably a cheese sandwich and a turnip, and he knew that Norfolk was a long way away. He was not about to jeopardize his escape from the Depression however by asking about meals, so he climbed aboard that train and settled into a seat, content to sleep or stare out the window or do whatever he could to keep his mind off of the hunger that was gnawing at his belly. The next day at close to midnight, a full day and a half since his skimpy lunch, the train pulled into Norfolk with my dad and a number of other recruits that it had picked up along the way. Exiting the train, the recruits were loaded onto a bus and driven to the Naval Training Center where one mess hall was brightly lit and bustling with activity in the kitchen and on the serving line. Upon arrival at the Center the recruits were taken off of the bus, put into some sort of order, and marched in a ragged line into that mess hall where they had as much spaghetti and salad and garlic bread and dessert as they wished to eat. Dad told me the story of that meal many times, and always with a gleam of appreciation still in his eye at the memory. In 2005 I cooked the last meal that I ever made for Dad: Spaghetti with salad and garlic bread and a glass of red wine. Dad could no longer taste food by that time and was only a few months from his death, but he could still remember. He ate a lot that day, sick as he was.
My father got his wish and traveled widely, mostly in the Pacific. He told me stories of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the Philippines, Burma (now Myanmar), Japan and China. Dad was in the Pacific before, during and after the second world war. One of the things which particularly struck him was the hunger that could be seen everywhere. People in Chinese port cities would row up to the garbage chutes of Navy ships in their sampans to collect the mixed-up scraps of food that the sailors threw away. I later saw a variation on that theme when I was in Vietnam, so I believe that what Dad said was true. It was therefore with authority that Dad could say “There are people starving in China who would love to have that food.” He knew. He had seen it.
And this brings us back to my family seated around the table at our home in San Diego. Mom has produced a fine meal of pork chops, rice and gravy, corn on the cob, and peas. The rice and gravy and corn I love. The pork chops are OK as long as there is a good half-inch of meat between what I eat and any piece of fat. Dad knows that my pickiness will result in the better part of an extra chop for him, and he’s just fine with that. But then there are the peas. I look at the couple of tablespoons of the hideous green things with a mix of fear and loathing. I loathe them because, well, they’re peas; they’re loathsome! I sense fear because I already know how this night will end.
Dad sees everything and knows everything at the table. He knows that I have nearly finished off all that I intend to eat when he growls “You’re not leaving the table until you eat your peas.” I know that this won’t happen and I cannot believe that Dad doesn’t know it too. “Just put them in your mouth and chew”. I reluctantly stick a few peas in my mouth and chew, feel the sliminess inside my mouth and nearly throw up. I chew, but I don’t swallow. “Take another spoonful” Dad commands, and a few more peas are added to their friends that preceded them into my reluctant maw. As the sad spectacle runs its predictable course my brother finishes his meal and is excused from the table. He will eat anything. Brad leaves the house; he doesn’t want to watch what he knows is coming with the certainty of death and taxes.
Mom sees the situation rising to a boiling point and begins to try to defuse the crisis, which incidentally she is responsible for! “I have ice cream. Just eat a few peas and I will dish you up a big bowl full.” I would love to have the ice cream but it would in no way compensate for swallowing the bolus of green muck which was growing by the minute in my cheek. Mom would finally sense the futility of her mission and join my brother somewhere else. Finally, the wad in my cheek and Dad’s boiling points would intersect at some critical juncture and the inevitable eruption would take place.
“POP!” Dad would reach out and smack me right in that bulging cheek which was carrying pea-mush much like a chipmunk carries nuts. I would swallow most of that mass, and within a few seconds I would be running down the hall towards the bathroom where the inevitable emesis event would shortly be taking place. Dad was right on my heels, frapping me about the head and shoulders for the wastage that he knew would soon be taking place. The punishment ended when I leaned over the toilet and ejected the peas as well as the pork chop, corn, and rice and gravy (which would have otherwise stayed where it belonged!). At that moment I didn’t give a flying damn about starving kids in China, and as I reflect back on those times I don’t think that at that moment my father really did either.
I have chronicled elsewhere how this war finally came to an end. I was eleven or twelve years old and on a trip to my father’s hometown of Tifton. My parents were unaware that I was awake and I heard Dad say “the kid can eat his grandmother’s cooking or he can starve.” At last I had been given an option which did not include getting boxed in the ears! I exercised that option and as we headed west nearly a month later, and I was lying listlessly on the back seat of our car suffering from diarrhea and malnutrition, I heard Dad say “If the kid will starve himself, I can’t win that fight.” The war was over, and when I entered the Army six or seven years later I was six feet tall and weighed a hundred and twenty eight pounds. I was skinny as a rail but I was a happy skinny, and to me that was all that mattered.