I wrote this piece in 2003, when I was toying with the idea of writing a book about my early childhood. I didn’t get very far and soon lost interest in completing it. This piece of writing has never been posted online… until now. The events in piece of writing took place in the late 1970s.
I read “We Eat in Front of the TV Now” on episode 25 of my Words of Jen podcast.
For a long time, it was important to my dad that we “eat at the table like a normal family”. I was about 5 years old, my sister was 3, my brother was 1, my youngest brother did not exist yet, and it was the late 1970s.
Dinner usually consisted of some kind of meat, some kind of veggie, and a glass of milk. The details varied, but that’s about what it all broke down to. No matter what it was, my dad was not really happy about it. Something was always too cold. This was probably because it takes a long time to get a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old, and a 1-year-old to all sit down at the table and eat at the same time.
Meat was always a scary proposition when it came from my mom’s kitchen. Sometimes, my mom would forget to take it out of the freezer that day, and it wouldn’t be thawed out all the way when she decided to start cooking it.
If you have never tried to do this, two things tend to happen. If the meat was a chunk of ice when she started cooking it, the outside would end up a charred black while the inside was still kind of raw (or made up of little chunks of ice). If the meat was a little thawed, but not quite done thawing, it would end up looking more or less like it was supposed to when she was done cooking it. But, it would taste a lot like chewy cardboard. This was long before we had a microwave oven that might have helped save us from this mess.
This was not the only problem with the meat from my mom’s kitchen. Sometimes, when my parents were done grocery shopping, my mom would put some meat into the refrigerator instead of the freezer, thinking she would use it for dinner that night. Then, she would promptly forget about it.
If I happened to be in the kitchen when she started to fix dinner, she would hold up some meat and ask, “Does this smell ok?” or “Can you see a date on this?” My mom was a woman blessed with neither good eyesight, nor a good sense of smell. Fortunately, I could read, and I would make her throw away everything that wasn’t from the night before. I also developed a talent for determining when food would go bad by the smell.
Sometimes, I wasn’t so lucky, and she would fix dinner before I could stop her. I have had food poisoning more times than I can count.
If all went “well”, we would have “edible” meat at dinner that night. Again, my mom had limited vision, so she simply cooked things until “it matches the bottom of the pan.” All meat was burned to a crisp on the outside. I learned to really like ketchup on everything.
So, we would be eating dinner at the table, and my dad would be complaining about whatever was cold, or about the still-frozen meat. My sister and brother were extremely picky about what they would eat – and they both hated meat. My mom would cut food into tiny pieces for my brother and sister, and then the games would begin.
Both sides would start negotiations about just how much meat had to be eaten before permission to leave the table would be granted. My sister and brother would ask for lots of mashed potatoes, which they would hide the little pieces of meat underneath.
It was a pretty well thought out plan for preschoolers. It gave the illusion that they actually had eaten the agreed upon number of pieces of meat. They got to eat their fill of mashed potatoes, and leave the table. My parents were never the wiser about their trick.
This worked until one day there was something really good on TV. We were all rushing to get done eating so we could leave the kitchen and watch whatever show was coming on. When dinner was done, my dad – unexpectedly – decided to help my mom clear the leftovers from the plates into the garbage. That is when he discovered the hidden meat – and that was the end of that trick.
The next strategy my sister came up with was more complex than the first one. We could not leave the table until we had eaten enough food to make my dad happy. But, we could leave to go to the bathroom.
Eventually, my sister would finish the food that she actually liked to eat. She would then stuff her cheeks with the little pieces of meat that my mom cut up for her, and ask if she could go to the bathroom. She had chipmunk cheeks, which hid the food quite nicely, and she always talked in a quiet voice.
My parents were unaware that she was up to something.
My sister would be granted permission to leave the table. Later, we would hear the toilet flush, and my sister would return to the table with a smile on her face. None of us were aware, at the time, that she was going up to the bathroom, spitting out the food she didn’t like, and then flushing.
My dad was of the impression that my sister and brother were eating all the meat he had requested. He started increasing the required number of pieces of meat they had to eat before they could leave the table. My sister solved this problem by asking to go to the bathroom not once, but twice, during dinner.
My brother was too little to be fully potty trained, so everyone was surprised when he asked to “go potty”. My mom stood up to go with him, but he said “no”. He returned, and forgot to flush, so my mom got up to take care of that. She discovered that my brother had spit little pieces of meat into the toilet, and deduced that he had learned it from my sister. After that, none of us were allowed to leave the table during dinner without having a parent check our mouths for food first.
My sister and my brother now felt like they were in this together. One night, they insisted to sit in different chairs than they had before. This put my sister and brother at the longer ends of the table. My parents didn’t care where they sat, as long as they were eating. This became our new seating arrangement for several dinners.
My dad commented to my mom that it seemed like my sister and brother ate more food when they got to sit where they wanted to. The two of them often had “clean plates” before they asked to leave the table, and they stopped negotiating about the number of little pieces of meat they were required to eat. My mom guessed that the two of them had outgrown that phase.
One day, someone accidentally kicked the table. We all heard the sounds of small things hitting the floor, but didn’t know why. My sister and brother got really quiet and still. One look at the floor, and their secret plan was blown. The long sides of the table had ledges underneath that no one knew about except them. Each had been putting the food they didn’t want to eat on those ledges.
My dad, disgusted by this discovery, started yelling at my sister and brother. He demanded they pick up the food and throw it away, and he left the kitchen. I couldn’t stop laughing after I put together what had happened. This bizarre situation was hysterically funny to five-year-old me.
The next night, we started eating dinner in front of the TV in the living room.