Food Fight: These two words in combination typically evoke images of TV cooking competitions or the good-natured flinging of edibles between rowdy high-schoolers.
Less frequently brought to mind are the epic power struggles between well-meaning adults and vulnerable children, stand-offs which occurred commonly in the 50s and 60s, long before kids were king and had gained significant hand in decision-making regarding what they would or would not eat.
Kids back then, for example, did not suddenly denounce meat only to watch their parents scramble to provide vegetarian or even vegan diets. Decades of evolution had to occur before that even became a thing.
Gone are the days when the adage “children are to be seen and not heard” prevailed, days when mothers refused to run their kitchens like cafes preparing this for one, and that for another.
Dinner was dinner. If you didn’t like it, you could go to bed hungry. You would not be offered an alternative meal or even the opportunity to make one for yourself. Kids were expected to tow the line and consume what they were served, even if it was kinda gross.
The reason for this inflexibility (other than that we were just children, dammit!) eluded me. Like many, I vowed never to force a food on my future brood, a promise I’m happy to say I’ve kept. While I don’t run a restaurant out of my kitchen, I do, within reason, serve up multiple dishes as needed, to accommodate conflicting tastes and avoid inflicting trauma of the kind I ― and millions of Boomers ― endured. Which brings me to the subjects of ham, tongue and Borscht.
Having just polished off a jar of chilled pickled beets in one sitting, I marvel at how much can change in a half-century. Now I’m old and eat weird shit.
As a kid, I didn’t dislike beets. I didn’t even know beets. But I did detest Borscht, a thick red soup made from beets, which my mother without warning one evening produced for dinner.
Smack in the center of this unfamiliar fluid floated an island of sour cream. My eyes grew wide as I gazed upon this monstrosity, watching as the cream’s white edges slowly spread like tentacles, and even wider after tentatively tasting it. I’d have preferred starving over eating more but, for some reason infinitely beyond me, my mom had decided it was going down. Literally.
So my bowl and I remained in our floral wallpapered kitchen that evening as I tried and failed for an eternity to swallow the strange substance. I don’t recall precisely how the meal ever ended but am certain it wasn’t with dessert.
Fast forward 50 years. I’ve grown to love beets, the very stuff from which Borscht unbelievably is made...and sour cream! I adore the goop and would eat it off my finger (have eaten it off my finger). But tongue. Please. There are some things even time cannot change. I’m as averse to it today as I was the first time my mother brought it to our table.
Even more than my taste buds, it offended my sensibilities. Loving and knowing me as she did, I can’t begin to fathom why my mom insisted out of the blue one day that I ingest a thick tongue sandwich instead of the delicious deli she usually got. It was all I could do not to throw it up or say something “fresh” ― and I did what I could to (you guessed it) ― hold my tongue.
This should have, but didn’t, prepare me for The Ham Incident, which occurred at school one day gratis hot lunch. A shy and generally timid child, I was pretty invisible. Or so I thought. Picking at the slimy pink slab in the center of my plate and eating what I could around it, I figured I’d just dump the thing when lunch was over and go on my way.
But the lunchroom officials on duty that day had other ideas, deciding it was their mission to make me finish it ― whatever the cost. They insisted I sit there long after all the other students had left, making me miss my next class and worry ever more intensely that they might not ever actually spring me at all.
While I told them I really just couldn’t comply and that I would if I could, it never occurred to me to simply make up convincing excuses such as being vegetarian or kosher (I was neither) or having a terrible stomach ache (I didn’t). Naturally, I never thought to threaten that they’d be in a lot of trouble with my parents, something I wasn’t 100 percent certain was even true given their Borscht and tongue stance.
So I sat, begged for mercy, took tiny bites and tried not to puke. All the while I dwelled on the concept of injustice, though my 10-year-old brain couldn’t identify exactly what kind this was. I’ll surely never forget that grim cafeteria where I was held hostage by food police and eventually saved only by the bell.
And now, just as I like beets, I don’t at all hate ham, so long as it’s not slimy, shiny, fatty or pale. I say hooray for kids today having more clout when it comes to cuisine and for school cafeterias which are less like prisons than pubs.
I’m grateful to my parents for all the delicious eats they did provide, Borscht and tongue notwithstanding, and plan someday to buy some of that ruby red soup, float a fat dollop of sour cream on top and give it another go. I’m guessing I’ll like it very much and that I’ll think of my mother and smile.