I never shared Avery’s pain at having to finish my plate. Instead of forcing everyone to stay seated at the table until our sauces were dried and crusted onto our otherwise empty plates like my absurdly picky sister, I just ate the questionable things first. Mindlessly eat the canned, steamed, or microwaved veggies first, leaving more time to savor homemade mashed potatoes and low-and-slow cooked pot roast. My mom knew exactly what I was doing, and she loved me for it. I was a genius.
If I left anything on my plate, especially on a meat and potatoes kind of night, it was a single blob of inedible fat. And most nights, I went back for seconds, finishing round two before my younger sister Avery worked up the courage to touch the mushy green sides. If the diced tomatoes in the spaghetti sauce were too chunky, she slid them to the perimeter of her plate. Diced onions, green peppers, mushrooms– if they were big enough to find, they were similarly exiled.
Back then, mom still served bread at every meal. She used it as a bargaining tool with Avery.
“You can have another piece when you finish your meat,” she said. Avery pouted her puffy bottom lip and let out her signature, exasperated huff. The sighing was tolerated, but if those eyes rolled to the top of her head, she got out of finishing her plate by getting her rear-end popped.
I just kept eating. I didn’t know how to help her, because I couldn’t comprehend her resistance to food. I was older, so I was supposed to be bigger. There were only two and a half years between us, but nearly twenty pounds distinguished me from her. She was a gymnast, and I was a mediocre soccer and basketball player. Despite years of Dad trying to coach my skills to overcome my emotions, I still came out of my grade school years with a pat on the back for effort and my family’s insistence that I ran “like a Barbie”. The problem with this accusation (aside from the embarrassment) is the insinuation that I was physically flawless. I don’t remember feeling athletic or thin as a kid, and looking at team pictures reaffirms my memory. The roundness of my soft face accentuated by round wire frames, and my neck folded too noticeably under my chin. I was never the big girl on any team, but I was the fluffy one who couldn’t run (and who certainly did not resemble Barbie).
By the time I reached high school, the TV stayed on during dinner. “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” replaced our table’s “One More Bite” game. Pubescent Avery still managed to dig onions out of a monotone spaghetti sauce, dragging the translucent enemies to the sidelines of her plate and leaving thin trails of red in their wake.
“I’ve got the first question,” she always said clearly over the sound of Regis Philbin introducing the next hot seat contestant.
We sat at the table as mom handed our plates through the open wall behind my seat. Avery’s seat was to the left of me, Dad’s on my right, and Mom across from me. I sat squarely facing the TV. I don’t remember ever choosing my spot at the table based on anything but its proximity to the stovetop. All I had to do was turn 90 degrees right or left, and my plate could be full again. Or my fork could be in the mashed potatoes, my spoon in the chili, my hand on the Parmesan asparagus.
At that point I just wanted to be full to make my mother happy; I wanted my plate to be clean to make my father happy. And I wanted to answer correctly more than the first question Regis read to Avery. To make my father happy.
Ninth grade was the year I abandoned basketballs for pom-poms. I knew it was an inevitable decision, but my dad’s eyes told me I was throwing all of his coaching efforts away. He couldn’t correct my form, practice with me in the backyard. But if I could answer the $25,000 question scrolling across the TV while all but licking my plate clean, Dad might forget I was as disappointing as a fruitless Phone-A-Friend.
At Grandnancy’s house (my dad’s mother), there was no “kids’ table.” The dining room table accommodated ten chairs and place settings with just enough elbowroom for most adults. French glass doors let the sun shine in and bounce off of Grandnancy’s silver tableware. The ornate spoon, fork, and knife handles that matched the delicate butter knife and the big two-pronged fork used to cut, stab, and serve the turkey. Even in November the crystal water glasses perspired on the white linen placemats. By the end of the meal, those little dewdrops would be replaced by greasy, sticky fingerprints and several shades of lipstick: rosy, translucent pink from my mother and fluorescent violet from Grandnancy.
Sitting at the adult table meant eating like an adult. At least this is how Grandnancy saw it. Mushy cornbread dressing, sliced cranberry jelly still shaped like the can it plopped out of, asparagus with mystery hollandaise sauce. If we wanted macaroni and cheese or warm yeast rolls or anything made without cream of something soup, we had no choice but taste it all.
“Just a taste,” my mother said, loud enough for us to hear as we all watched Grandnancy scoop mounds of food on top of more food on my plate and Avery’s. She piled every casserole and overcooked vegetable and gelatinous dressing right onto our plates without regard for what was touching or running together—or what we actually wanted to eat.
Inevitably, Avery’s eyes would start leaking with fear and disgust. As Dad recited, “Bless us thy lord for these gifts we are about to receive,” I counted the number of bites I would have to force down to be finished. This wasn’t a normal meat-starch-veggie dinner around our safe four-person table that faced the television. Avery might have been gagging in an effort to swallow one more bite, and I might have eaten enough to see white shining space again. While Mom teetered on the line between sympathy for Avery and “taking her to the bathroom” (code for straighten up or I’ll give you something to really cry about), I felt accomplished.
It didn’t matter to Grandnancy, whose voice I still hear when I’m sitting at any table. “Your plate’s not clean. You didn’t even touch your broccoli or sweet potato casserole. Are you going to dump all of that in the trash?”
Suddenly the clean white spots on my plate were covered again. She didn’t give me more, but I saw that there was more. Those single bites didn’t satisfy her, even though she knew my mother’s rule: “Just one bite.”
“I taught your daddy the importance of never being wasteful. When they were growing up, my kids ate everything on their plates at every meal.” She glared at me, her eyes forcing my fork to my mouth. Avery cried and Mom rubbed her back, half pitying her and half making sure she wasn’t actually choking.
I watched my dad reach for more bread, more butter. He didn’t disagree with his mother. I just shoveled in more until he and Grandnancy agreed: “Good girl.”
Avery and I would have traded our equally as mountainous dessert plates for a kids’ table on Thanksgiving Day. Grandnancy’s eyes still would have found our wastefulness, but we might have gotten away with a smaller plate.
I imagine my dad’s earliest memories of sitting at a dinner table in their Brooklyn apartment, before they sought refuge in Alabama: his mother’s makeup failing to hide another bruise; his little brother crying because there wasn’t enough on his plate; and Dad watching his father sip bourbon whiskey in front of a black and white TV set, the courtesy of setting his plate on the dinner table going to waste.
Today, when my mother leaves town for work, my dad is alone with our dachshund Gus. Lucky for Gus, there is only one meal he has to worry about, and it is guaranteed to be scooped out of the same Rubbermaid storage container every day, twice a day. While that plastic cylinder with the broken blue lid is certainly full, the pantry where it rests is sure to be bare. When mom is out of town, dad resorts to scavenging in his own home.
“When Payton is gone,” he’ll boast to anyone in earshot, “I don’t have to buy groceries or take out the trash every week. I hardly ever run the dish washer, and I don’t have to replace the toilet paper rolls constantly.”
If Mom doesn’t prep and freeze chicken enchiladas or store a pot of chili in the outside fridge before traveling, Dad survives on the random things hiding behind the desirable contents of the pantry shelves—old boxes of bowtie pasta, canned cranberry sauce, nearly empty and certainly stale Cheez-Its, a banana moon pie from Mardi Gras three years ago. The fridge is full of expired salad dressings and mystery plastic containers.
He’ll find something. And, he’ll boast about it when we tease him later.
“I fried that last egg and slathered some’a that horseradish mustard on top. Put it on the two ends of a loaf, toasted it, and had a little sandwich.”
Or one of his prouder concoctions: “I had a few flour tortillas left and some’a that spicy cheese. So I just tossed that cheese in the tortilla, nuked it in the microwave for a minute, and had a dang good quesadilla.”
We might live in Alabama now, but my dad’s accent is more of an impression of the southern twang surrounding us. He was born in Long Island, grew up in Brooklyn, went to high school in Mobile and college in Kansas. So his voice doesn’t reveal anything until he starts “yappin.’” The words run together or get chopped off just like those of his southern-tongued friends, but it’s not harsh or unpolished.
To this day, he cannot fully accept the fact that Avery and I are hungry (or nearly starving, really) for lunch by 1:00 when we “just ate breakfast” at 8 a.m. His voice echoes in my head every time my stomach growls: “I’m hungry,” my body says. To which my father’s voice replies, “Again?” I can even see the incredulity on his face, his lightly spotted skin and perfectly moussed hair all cocked to the side like a confused puppy’s.
On a ten-hour road trip to Texas, Dad, Avery, my boyfriend Alex, and I rode together in Dad’s Corolla. At every stop Alex asked Dad, “Are you sure you don’t want to take a break, let me drive a while?”
And every time he met the same resistance. “Oh no, I can’t sleep in the car.” In other words, “No way in hell am I handing over the wheel. If something goes wrong and someone gets hurts, it will be my fault. My fault because I wasn’t driving.”
This is how he thinks about hunger, too. If he eats too much before everyone else, it will be his fault that someone is left hungry.
So, when everyone has left the table, dishes are stacked in the sink awaiting willing hands, and wine glasses are refilled, Dad is standing over the leftovers on the kitchen island forking in a few more bites. No plate, no napkin, and sometimes just his fingers. At home this is normal and acceptable. In someone else’s kitchen, it’s a little embarrassing. He is the last to make a plate and the first to scavenge for whatever is left.
Watching Dad hunched over his plate at a mediocre restaurant, shoveling in over-dressed salad and slathering his bread in the leftover pools of oil and vinegar and dried herbs, I thought about empty plates. His clear glass salad plate had been full and empty at least twice before our entrees arrived. When they did come, I watched mine with disgust as each little bite I tried made the contents of the plate multiple. If I nibbled at the gelatinous risotto, the pile of sticky once individual noodles spread closer to the edge of my growing plate. If I ate one undercooked slice of squash from the pathetically grilled vegetable kabob, three more raw inedible morsels appeared on the stick.
Dad doesn’t want to savor the distinct flavors of each bite. He doesn’t care what the spices do to first his taste buds then his mind. He wants to be physically satisfied. He wants to eat until he is full and the amount of food he consumed is comparable to the dollar amounts listed on the menu.
Food is still a necessity, not a luxury or a hobby or an art. For him. But maybe for me, too.
As hard as I’ve tried to develop a discerning palate, one that refuses to finish a meal that is not satiating or rewarding or nourishing to more than my stomach, the guilt of leaving a morsel behind lingers. The hands that prepared the overcooked filet, the chef who struggles to keep the kitchen stocked, the waitress who depends on our tips to feed her kids. The money that is thrown away if I don’t take the last few bites. The feelings and culinary confidence jeopardized if I didn’t enjoy someone’s home-cooked meal.
After college, my seat was waiting for me at the kitchen table, and the TV played more loudly during meals than I remembered. I took advantage of not having to pay for the groceries by exploring my knack for turning a recipe into a pleasurable meal. I cooked my parents’ dinner. I was a college graduate with more time for food than planning for the future. I cooked Mom’s oatmeal, packed my lunch and hers, sweated for an hour at bootcamp class, showered, and opened the store I managed before 10:00 AM. Most nights I would make it home and have dinner on the stove before my parents were met at the back door by our yapping wiener dog.
We ate and watched “our shows,” the ones Dad was recording anyway so he could re-watch tomorrow. He’d need to assure himself that the sound of my voice didn’t drown out a pivotal revelation of plot or character, or that mom hadn’t blocked the exposed killer from episodes three through seven when she got up to put her plate in the sink.
Most of our family dinners were easy. Easy for them because I cooked and cleaned; easy for me because I didn’t know what else to do. Avery wasn’t there to throw a fit over cilantro or too much red pepper (her palate had matured slightly since childhood). Mom could always be counted on for a glass of wine (or three) every night of the week. And Dad was happy, too, as long as I didn’t say anything controversial.
“How was your day, Dad?” turns into a debate about healthcare. Watching the 6:00 PM news together, incites a flurry of ear-piercing epithets: dumb broad, bunch ‘o ‘mos (homosexuals), niggers and niglets.
“Why is this water bottle’s label written in Spanish?” boils my blood and leads to a drowned plate.
I hear the words stammering out of me nearly as shaky as my hands on the plate’s perimeter. “What do you mean why?”
The lines in the corners of his eyes deepen, one side of his mouth turns up in snarlish incredulity. He squints at the half empty plastic bottle. “This is America. We speak English here. If you’re drinking out of this water bottle you should speak English.”
He knew what he was inciting, provoking, antagonizing. He was already blocking out the sound of my slamming door, forgetting my overreaction, buttering another piece of bread.
“That’s one of the most racist things you have ever said, and you know you said it on purpose. You knew exactly how I was going to react to that statement. Fuck you, Dad.”
It used to be easy. Eat more than Avery; say something intelligent. Now bringing my rational open mind to my father’s table along with the food caused me more pain than those few bites of green bean once caused Avery. Sometimes I imagine what really goes through his head when I talk about literature or war or religion. Is he picturing us back in our driveway shooting basketballs into a now dilapidated net? Does he imagine what would have been different and easier if I had been a boy? Does he wish I was still his naïve little girl?
It was easier for us to hug each other before I understood “love thy neighbor” as more than a religious commandment. And it was easier to finish my plate at his table before his intolerance was as evident of his love of bread.
Since graduating from the low-residency MFA program at the University of Tampa in 2016, Ashley has been reading, writing, and submitting as persistently as the shampoo bottle’s mantra “lather, rinse, repeat.” She lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her husband, their puppy, and a growing collection of 3D printers. Currently, she works for Hoffman Media on Southern Lady magazine.