The beet chip story from a few days ago forces my hand toward another story. It’s not one which ends with a grand moral observation, though, unless it’s a reminder for everyone to avoid being ‘food stupid,’ as I call it.
To assist you to better understand my youth, you can observe through the picture that while food scarcity was sometimes a problem for me, starvation was the least of my worries. It wasn’t until the end of my 9th grade year that I managed to break away from my intense infatuation with food. I probably should say ‘temporarily breakup’ given my adulthood. That’s my mom with her arms over my shoulders. She’d been drinking when my Aunt Ardith snapped this picture.
I wish I had been drinking heavily, especially if I had known I’d be writing about the herpes of the vegetable world: raw celery.
I mean no disrespect toward the current food waste programs. Teachers do difficult jobs and those involved in USDA-related food programs emphasize giving students control and also encourage eating what’s taken and taking only what one plans to eat. I went to elementary school 40 years ago, about the time that fire was discovered. What’s true now was definitely not true then.
Today, I listened to a story about food waste in schools. Most of the arguments were well reasoned and supported. They were so proud of the food waste reduction and that kids were now squirreling away leftover food instead of throwing it away at school. I knew immediately that at least one school kid was going to get his revenge on these well-intentioned people as they patted themselves on the back for reducing food waste. We not only don’t learn from history, but we also tend to amplify our egregiousness with even greater folly. I laughed as I imagined that imaginary and gleeful child puking all over the high heels of his well-intentioned teacher.
Thanks to my grandma, I was spoiled by food. Even though her type of cuisine leaned toward the basic, there was nothing as delicious in my mind as elbow macaroni soup, collard and mustard greens, green beans, corn in any form, tomatoes, okra, or potatoes. Unlike my parents, my grandparents were compassionate about food, even though they were children of the Great Depression. Both money and food were always held in high esteem. In my case, they didn’t care what I put on my plate as long as I ate it all. Wasting food was simply not something one could do. On the other hand, they didn’t threaten me for disliking food or force me to eat something for my own good. They weren’t “food stupid” as so many modern people are. They asked me to try everything before deciding whether I liked it or not. And I did, even things such as sardines and salt pork. I never rejected a food without trying it. My grandma knew that overall I was going to get much more than I needed, especially since I was known to eat more vegetables than any other 5 kids combined. I don’t know how harsh grandma was to other grandkids (because I was her favorite) but I do know that she would never have forced me to eat something I clearly indicated I didn’t like. In my defense, it would have never occurred to me to lie to her about it, either. I found out at a young age that I didn’t like beets, which puzzled my grandma.
At home, my parents were tyrants about food. I ate some of the worst, most ill-prepared foods known to man, many times under the guise of not being wasteful. This particular line of logic confused me, given that dollar for dollar, most of their money was spent on alcohol, cigarettes, or replacing broken furniture each time they decided to practice their ever-widening domestic violence reactions. Wherever we lived, most evenings threatened to turn into WWE nights, without referee or ropes. Never mind that because mom chain-smoked her entire life I had never eaten potatoes at home that didn’t look peppered already. Mom also put onions in everything. I mean that literally. I kept expecting to find several peeled onions in her bathwater. Because of dad, mom would often prepare the nastiest meats; large slabs of beef nonsense, barely cooked, smelling of old paper and blood. When she could, mom would buy large volumes of sliced ham, the kind that reminded of what a toilet smells like when seldom flushed. It’s one of the reasons to do this day that I dislike ham, and more so when it is sliced into slivers of hell like deli meat. Mom also made me eat potted meat and Vienna sausages, which as we learned from Karl in “Sling Blade”, is nothing more than brains and beef peckers.
I was content with noodles, soup, or vegetables. I was a simple kid and easily satisfied. Give me a soda, basic food, a book – and stop beating on me, and I could make a good day out it. As I’ve written about before, I also acquired an intense LIKE for over-cooked and burned food.
Even though it seems unlikely, it was because of my parents that I went years without eating much meat voluntarily. I wasn’t sure that meat could be prepared in an appetizing manner, so I’d eat salads, bread, and vegetables – or the tablecloth if it kept me from getting ill or having to force down food better suited to be thrown from a moving car at one’s enemies. Forays to other people’s houses showed me that the food at home versus out in the world were wildly different animals and that I was trapped in a culinary hell from which there would be no escape. It should be noted that no green leafy vegetables, much less lettuce, were kept at my house growing up. It was when I was older and had access to an unlimited amount of salad from a popular eatery in Tontitown and from a distant cousin we lived with that I found a love for lettuce.
Since I grew up in small-town Arkansas, I heard the phrase, “Boy, you don’t know what’s good” with such regularity that it lost all meaning. This phrase was considered to be the height of culinary comparative arguments. On one occasion, my Uncle Harold was chiding me for not wanting to eat any of whatever dead carcass flesh was being offered and proudly yelled, “Boy, you don’t what’s good!” Uncle Harold was one of the good guys, too. My grandma laughed and said, “Harold, why are you sitting there picking on the boy when you know darn well you wouldn’t eat a lot of things growing up?”
As for retaliation, for each gesture of love and kindness from my grandma, my dad would be capable of the most brutal reprisals for not wanting to eat whatever he wanted me to. I took beatings night and day. If I told him I didn’t want fried chicken or a slab of whatever animal carcass of the day he had, I would get hit by a fist, belt, spatula, or item he found nearby. He was like the Wile E. Coyote of food beatings. His creativity toward brutality was endless. To him, eating, especially meat eating was a characteristic of all real men. It incensed him that I had no desire whatsoever to eat what he dictated. Deer, frog legs, snake, gizzards, cow livers, boiled beef tongue, rabbit, and squirrel: all of these were required eating. I hated them all and don’t eat them willingly today. His cruelty expanded to other areas, too. Once, he forced me to try raw forest-gathered mushrooms at my Uncle Buck’s house. They tasted like a deer’s anus. When I started to throw up, he punched me. He then forced more of them into my mouth. Crying, I forced what I could down. He made me agree that I loved them. As soon as possible, I went outside and threw it all up on the next-door neighbor’s side of the house. This same scenario was re-enacted many times in my youth. (I often think I could have painted the house with vomit with sufficient time to do so.)
It is strange looking back, because despite having been in prison and falsely claiming he could eat anything, the truth is that my dad hated a lot of food, especially the healthy stuff. I’m not sure why food granted him such an expansive outlook on cruelty towards me. He never missed a chance, though, and I got it much, much worse than my siblings did. I often daydreamed of sautéing him a skillet full of wild mushrooms and steak – and then bashing him over the head with it.
In school, I learned that people would willingly barter with me, and happily, for my dessert or milk in exchange for whatever concoction of vegetables the school was inflicting on us that day. One of the most common was peas or one of the ten varieties of mixed vegetables that generally got boiled in huge cauldrons on the industrial stoves. Countless times, I would press my tray against that of a schoolmate and swap for something better. At home, I would eat green beans, corn, and tomatoes directly from the can – something I often do even now. While I looked like I traded for desserts, the opposite was usually true.
One day during elementary school, our teacher proudly explained that we would be graded on what we ate. “What fresh hell was this?” I asked myself. I figured there was some kind of error or that all the teachers had lost their minds. Unlike my fellow classmates, my world viewpoint didn’t preclude adults acting as if they had lost their minds at any given moment. At that school, we didn’t choose what we wanted. The school workers plopped, flung and threw whatever the next item was more or less into the segregated concavities of our food trays. There were things I simply couldn’t eat. Make no mistake, unlike most of my schoolmates; I overall REALLY enjoyed school lunches. They simply were miles above the consistency and content of what I could expect at home. Just like at home, I couldn’t always determine what the food was supposed to be. Unlike home, however, I could be reasonably certain it wasn’t poisonous, given the likelihood of dead children all over the concrete block cafeteria if things went terribly awry.
In those days, it was almost impossible to explain to your teachers that you were accustomed to being tortured by your dad if you said you didn’t like something. They didn’t know that if I wet the bed, I’d have stripes across my back and legs for a week if my dad had a hangover or was simply bored. I knew that with time, the school’s ill-advised plan to judge what I chose to eat or didn’t eat would cause a problem.
It was the same week that the food grading system started that I met my lifelong nemesis: Raw Celery. On a dozen previous occasions, I had attempted to eat this abomination without throwing up. I was scoreless against the impulse. It was puzzling, given my love of all things vegetable. If given a choice between licking the under-rim of a bus station bathroom toilet and eating celery, I would unflinchingly opt for the toilet, even if someone was sitting on it at the time. Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I will demonstrate this if ever given the choice between death and celery. If foreign terrorists ever capture me, all they’ll need to do is force me to eat celery in order to get a confession from me.
I don’t remember a lot about the lunch grading starting, honestly, other than dreading it. When I went up to put my tray on the conveyor, the teacher told me to eat my celery or get a reduced grade. As I was fearful of almost all teachers when controversy arose, I told her that I was fine with that. She got mad at me and reversed course. She insisted that I eat it – a reduced grade was no longer at stake. A paddle was in my future. I told her that I would get sick if I tried to eat the celery. She forced me to take a bite anyway and I spit it back out immediately. She let me go, through a clenched jaw. I knew the battle lines were drawn and that just like at home I had no artillery with which to fight back.
A few days later, celery once again made its disgusting appearance on the menu. They must have purchased a truckload of it from the local Satanic Distributor. I traded my celery and dessert for another boy’s mixed vegetables. He ate the celery with glee, as I did his vegetables. Soon enough, the Gestapo teacher doing lunch duty came over and told us we were forbidden to trade food. Therefore, I got another reduced grade, even though I had eaten more vegetables by trading for a serving of mixed vegetables compared to a slice of celery stalk.
How much later it was, I’m not sure, but the day came when celery was once again served. Except another horrific layer was added: they put peanut butter on the stalk. While I was okay with peanut butter, the only thing worse than a celery stalk with peanut butter on it would be if a large diseased bird pooped on it first. The teacher didn’t even wait for my reaction this time. She insisted I eat it, that everyone liked peanut butter and celery. Having forgotten the exact words, I’m sure she ranted off a list of reasons why I was being a little jerk for not wanting to eat the celery. Since I wasn’t getting out alive, she also insisted that I drink my carton of milk, something that I often didn’t touch. However, I held my nose and drank the milk quickly.
“Now eat the celery. You and I both know you are pretending you don’t like it.” The teacher glared at me. Having been shamed and beaten by experts way beyond her level of cruelty, I didn’t really care about getting a paddling. A paddling from someone at school was comparable to a pat on the back from Attila the Hun at home. The teacher, seeing my reluctance, came around next to me, picked up the celery stalk, and put it in my hand, then dragging my hand holding the celery toward my face. I unwillingly took a bite, immediately feeling the urge to vomit. “Keep going. You’ll see it won’t kill you.” The teacher stepped away at the end of the table. I took another bite – and that’s when the universe shifted.
The mix of peanut butter and raw celery triggered something in my mind. It might have been the last time my dad held my face into my plate and forced me to get a mouthful of whatever man-making garbage he wanted me to eat. Whatever it was, it was powerful. From my nose and mouth came a simultaneous torrent of milk and lunch remnants. It went across the table and onto the floor, splashing across to the table on the next aisle of seating. I flooded my plate with it, knocking over my milk carton. I heaved and expelled everything I had eaten for the last 10 meals, or so it seemed. Moreover, I then put my head down into the mess, feeling a massive wave of nausea and dizziness. Keeping my head up wasn’t an option.
This story would be much better if I remembered what sort of shocked reaction the teacher had on her face after seeing me projectile vomit. However, I don’t know. I was too sick.
Another teacher came and helped me to the restroom to clean up. I enjoyed several exceptional teachers. Like so many others growing up, I also had a few who somehow seemed to know that I was an easy victim. My secret shame from my tortured home life must have registered in some instinctive corner of their brains.
We didn’t do lunch grading for very long. I don’t remember why that it ended but I do know that my fantasy is that the teacher who was so intent on being totalitarian in regard to what I ate or didn’t eat was so sickened by my volcanic eruption of vomit that she insisted that the program be abandoned. While I don’t remember exactly which teacher was the mean one, I could figure it out, if I really wanted to. I won’t though because I might be tempted to go to her house with an array or reprehensible food and force her to eat them all, one by one until vomit ejects from her ear canals. I’ll start with beet chips and celery filled with tripe and livers.
She did me one favor, though: unlike so many other foods I grew to like or at least tolerate, raw celery to me is no better than raw sewage – and I’d drink a cup of the latter before I’d ever eat a stalk of celery.
If I every develop super-villain powers just spray me down with raw celery.