"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, October 4, 2014

You’ll Eat What I Put In Front Of You!

Growing up in Connecticut in the Fifties meant that my mother made absolutely sure that everyone ate every last scrap of her tacky meatloaf, gluey mashed potatoes, and hard, pebbly peas.

My sister was a whiner, and whenever she took her place at the table, she sniffed at the food, made a face, and said, “This is disgusting.  I won’t eat it”.

My mother stood over her, shook the ladle still dripping with gravy and said, “You’ll eat what I put in front of you!”

According to my mother, as far as the rest of the New Brighton was concerned,  they all ate what their mothers cooked without coercion, scraped their plates clean, and always asked for more. There would be no armistice there.  

I never thought I would ever want to hear “You’ll eat what I put in front of you” again; but it seems that more and more guests invited for dinner have long and detailed lists of dietary restrictions.

 “I don’t eat red meat”, said one. “I only eat kosher”, said another. “I can’t eat mushrooms or nuts…I don’t do dairy…If possible, I would appreciate organic.”

I understand the fact that there are a  few people who might break out in hives if they eat Swiss chard, get a constricted throat from lentils, or choke if they eat a strawberry; but appreciate those who behave like the more considerate and well-mannered guests around the table who offer a polite “No thank you” when the serving dish comes around.

However, for the ninety-nine percent of people who are simply being fussy, picky, environmentally correct and rude and ungracious and complain loudly, I say, “Eat what I put in front of you.”

I was not prepared for this recent trend of dietary restrictions.  One couple actually sent a written list by email.  He and his wife had different food constraints, so putting them in writing, he said, “will help you prepare”. I wrote back, advised him of the menu du jour, and let him know that if this did not suit him, perhaps we could arrange another time or venue.

Growing up Catholic meant eating meat on Friday, and Father Brophy took the injunction very, very seriously. He made no distinction between adultery and eating a slice of ham.  “The slippery road of sin goes only one place”, he said, “and that is to the agonizing torment of Hell.”  A zero-tolerance policy. Ignore the miscreants who jump onto the subway platform without paying, and worse crimes will follow.

In any case my mother would never serve roast beef to good Catholics on Friday or pork chops to Jews even though she questioned the practice. “Why do the Jews believe that?”, she asked. “As long as you cook it long enough, there’s no problem. We’re not living on Noah’s Ark”.

I once asked a vegetarian friend if she had ever eaten meat. “Never”, she said. “It isn’t so much the cooked meat that bothers me, it’s the image of bloody, striated muscle, sinew, gristle, and veins before it is cooked”; so if I knew that a Gujarati – a real vegetarian, the kind who has never eaten meat and who finds the whole idea cruel, inhumane, and senseless - was coming to dinner, I would always prepare vegetarian dishes.

If I got a note from a vegetarian convert who I know has never articulated any reasons for doing so except for vague concerns about animals or the environment, I send the same reply of demurral - perhaps another time.  My guest list is not what it once was, but those who come appreciate meat, potatoes, gravy, Southern BBQ, and Spaghetti with Spicy Squid.

Alabama BBQ

My most accommodating dinner companion ever was a Chinese exchange student. I took him for long walks on the C&O Canal, and along the way we would see snakes, lizards, fish, squirrels, chipmunks, wading birds, crickets, and turtles.  Each time he would see one, he would say, “That good to eat”.

I told him that I didn’t know much about Chinese cooking but was impressed with its variety and unusual ingredients. “If Chinese can catch it, Chinese eat it”, he said.  He loved everything I cooked - Vermicelli with Garlic and Anchovies; Grilled Squid with caramelized water chestnuts; kidneys, sweetbreads, brains, udder, testicles, and Scrapple.

Wang Chen loved my cooking, and no matter how bizarre the dish or mysterious the ingredients; no matter whether it was vegetarian, meat, fish, or fowl, he tucked in like a starving man. “You very good cook”, he said.

I worked for the World Bank in the early 80s, long before organic vegetarian food at the cafeteria was even a pipe dream; and the real vegetarians – Gujaratis, Tamils, and Malayalams – were forced to eat side dishes much like my mother’s.  Marbly peas, gluey mashed potatoes, and frozen string beans. The Bank's offerings, however, had nothing on them.  No butter, seasoned salt, or tomato sauce.

I felt sorry for Mr. Tejpal who rattled his peas around the cafeteria plate; or Sri Sivaramakrishnan who covered his Lima beans with ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise.  In India they would have eaten a delicious tiffin for lunch – dhal, vegetable curry, raita, puris, steamed rice, and mango chutney – prepared by their wives, entrusted to dabbawallas who delivered the food to their offices at lunchtime.

Vegetable side dishes today are far cries from those a few decades ago - rich, tasty preparations as sophisticated and appealing as the main course. The point is any vegetarian – faux or serious – can enjoy a full meal without meat.

Except for true vegetarians who are viscerally repulsed by the idea of meat, everyone else can swallow haram once in a while.  God will forgive the odd piece of lobster, tripe, or eel. And for those friends of the environment, no one outside of the intimate dinner table coterie I have assembled has to know that the chicken was not free-range, the asparagus definitely not local but from Chile. My dinner guests do not have to spread the word that nothing on the table was organic; or that all desserts were made with lots of butter, fresh cream, and refined sugar.

In short, and in memory of my mother, “You’ll eat what I put in front of you!”

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