A Seat at the Table

Festive!

Once upon a time, most of my extended family lived within a few miles of each other. If your family is fun, I recommend this. My childhood holidays were, without fail, happy and lively affairs.

Different relatives divvied up hosting duties. My Auntie Susan covered Easter. Grandma Dacey covered Christmas. And Thanksgiving was hosted at our house, under the ruthless supervision of Mom. When I was a kid, Mom didn’t trust me to do anything that involved cooking—which was wise—so she did everything herself. My role was to be on call for assorted bits of unskilled labor.

“Get the big bowl. You know the one,” Mom yelled over the roar of the hand mixer.

I reached for a bowl.

“No, not that bowl. The big bowl.”

I reached for a big bowl.

No, the other big bowl. The yellow one. It’s in the lower cabinet.”

I reached for the cabinet knob.  

“The other lower cabinet. To your left. Your other left. No! Look! Look where I’m pointing. Am I pointing there? Really? You think I’m pointing there?! Then I’m going to tell Santa to get you a trip to the eye doctor because I’m not pointing anywhere ne— Oh, for God sakes! Never mind, I’ll get it!”

Then Mom ordered me out to set the dining room table.

Our dining room table was large under any circumstances, but grew to mammoth proportions after I locked the two wooden leaves into place. It still wasn’t nearly big enough to accommodate all the relatives, however, so Mom sent me to fetch the card table. This I would wedge against the end of the real table to make one, super long mega-mammoth table. The seats around this hasty addition were reserved for the youngest in the family: Cousin Celeste, Cousin Jason, and me.

And oh, how I hated sitting there. Not because of Celeste or Jason; I loved talking to those two. It was the crummy table, which was shorter and wobblier than the Real Table. Sitting there made me feel like a second-class citizen.

It was a classic case of the Haves and Have-Nots. The adults, the Haves, had a nice cherry wood table from Ethan Allen with matching chairs that were both stately and comfy. They had a real tablecloth, that is to say it was actually made from some kind of cloth. They used the good China and the real silverware.

Celeste, Jason, and I , on the other hand, sat our skinny butts on folding chairs; rested our elbows on one of those crinkly, papery, plastic-y table cloths; and ate on and with the same crummy dishes and flatware that I used every ding-dang day.

So I seethed with outrage.

This was my house, too, I reasoned. Shouldn’t I have a spot at the Good Table? Heck, Mom made me polish the silverware. Shouldn’t I at least be stabbing my turkey with a classy fork?

Year after year, I took my meals in the culinary ghetto. By the time I turned nine I had had enough. I begged Mom to find me a spot at the Good Table.

“There’s no more room,” she replied.

“I could switch spots with someone!”

“Who?”

“Dad!” I announced. It seemed logical. Dad was clumsy, slow, and weirdly passive aggressive about performing household chores; he always found a way to screw them up somehow. Dad was totally a card-table guy.

But Mom was unconvinced. She was Old School; to her way of thinking, a kid could never, ever, in any way, outrank an adult—even if the adult in question just brought home yet another leaky carton of milk.

“You can get a spot at the table when you’re older.” she replied.

What Mom meant by this was, “You can get a spot at the table when somebody dies.”

So as I took my place at the card table that Thanksgiving, I sullenly surveyed the Ethan Allen Aristocracy to my immediate left.

Shameful thoughts tiptoed across my mind.

To be clear, I wasn’t wishing anyone dead. I loved these people. I was just…checking them out. Just because. Just to see.

Aunt Marion looked a little paler than usual. That was interesting. And Uncle Bill seemed to be having a little more trouble getting around. And Grandma Allegra was always saying things like, “I won’t be around much longer.” And wasn’t she like a thousand years old?

These thoughts were suddenly interrupted by an unpleasant shiver firing up my spine.

What was I doing?!

Thanksgiving wasn’t a day to covet what you don’t have; it was a day to show gratitude for what you do have. And I had plenty! More than most! I had a roof over my head and a soft bed and a backyard and an awesome family and a great meal and about a zillion other things that I took for granted every day.

And I was fixated on this?! Really?!

Ugh. How spoiled. How petty. I felt the shame wash over me.

So I shoved the idea out of my head. I returned to my food. It was delicious.

I asked for someone to pass the gravy boat.

Dad reached for it. And then he dropped it. Because of course he did.

As a half dozen napkins darted toward the nasty brown stain seeping into the tablecloth, I caught Mom’s eye. Her expression was impossible to misinterpret.

And I smiled. Because I knew for a fact that this time next year Dad and I would be switching seats.

And I was thankful.  

Sprout Story

Terrible, just terrible.
Terrible, just terrible.

Sometimes a person can just look at a food and know he’s going to hate it. I’ve had this gift my entire life. It’s sort of a Picky Eater ESP.

Unfortunately, my mom had a blind spot when it came to my sixth sense. She could never wrap her brain around the idea that horrible foods can telegraph their horribleness without ever having to come in contact with my mouth.

“How do you know you hate it if you’ve never tried it?” Mom asked me time and time again.

“I just do.”

“Well I just don’t,” she fired back.

Then she’d say, “Michael. Eat. Now.”

Once Mom started talking in one-word sentences, the discussion was over — if I knew what was good for me.

So I’d grit my teeth and fill my fork with the squash or the asparagus or the green beans or whatever else. As soon as the juices hit my tongue, my throat would shut down and set up detour signs.

“Oh, ya want ta get that outta your mouth, do ya?” my throat would ask with the brassy indifference of a New York Transit Authority employee. “Well, it’s goin’ out the way it come in, pal.”

Then the rest of my body would start to fail me. My tongue would quiver. My head would spin. My ears would sweat. The dry heave machine would switch on.

Sometimes, by sheer force of will, I’d be able to push the morsel past the esophageal gatekeeper, but not always.

“Michael? Did you just spit your squash into a napkin?” Mom asked, her eyes narrowing.

I couldn’t answer her immediately for I was too busy gargling orange juice. When I finally did respond, I found myself hung up on Mom’s choice of pronoun.

“It’s not my squash. Not anymore.”

When my parents forced me to eat a pre-hated food, I was never pleasantly surprised. Never in my life did I say, “Oh! That tasted better than I thought!”

It always tasted exactly as bad as I thought — and if it wasn’t exactly as bad, then it was worse.

Fortunately, Mom did not belong to the Clean Your Plate Club. She was a member of the Eat Three Bites And You Don’t Have To Eat It Anymore Club, which is just about as good as I could have hoped for in that particular parenting era.

Eventually Mom ran out of new horrible foods I had to eat three bites of. As a consequence, the number of times I turned beet red at the dinner table dwindled to zero.

Once this happened, a little something in my older sister died. Gina just loved to watch me gag on food. So, a few years ago, when she took over Thanksgiving responsibilities, she seemed to make it her mission to come up with at least one bewildering, un-Thanksgiving-y side dish that would make me go “Ew.”

“Will you join us for the artichoke course?” She’d ask me with a wide smile. (Not only was Gina serving artichokes — a certified Mike Allegra gag food — she dedicated an entire course to eating them.)

Fortunately I am a grown up. So, in the giving spirit of the holiday, I could tell her where she could stick her artichokes. Then everyone would laugh – with no one laughing harder than Gina.

This year Gina outdid herself. As usual, she put out an amazing Thanksgiving spread. And, as usual, there was a curious new side dish. In fact, Gina so eagerly anticipated the debut of this side dish, she felt the need to call me up the week before Thanksgiving to tell me about it.

“I’m making Brussels sprouts!” she announced.

“You gotta be kidding me.”

I had never tasted Brussels sprouts — Mom wouldn’t have ever dreamed of serving them — but I knew I hated them. I knew I hated them more that anything else in the world. I could tell. They were evil. It was obvious.

“No, Michael, listen,” Gina went on. “I don’t like Brussels sprouts either, but a few months ago I made this new Brussels sprouts recipe with honey and cranberries and, I swear to God, Michael, we fought for the last serving.”

“That is something,” I said.

“I swear to God,” she replied. “We fought over it. Swear to God.”

“That is something,” I repeated.

“Promise me you’ll try it.”

“No.”

“You gotta try it.”

“I don’t gotta.”

“You’re gonna love it.”

“I’m not gonna.”

Gina and I went back and forth like this for a little while longer before moving on to other, more pleasant, non-sprout-related matters.

After I hung up, I remained a bit unsettled by Gina’s call. This wasn’t Gina’s typical culinary abuse. This was a different Gina, one I hadn’t seen before. She really, sincerely, wanted me to give the sprouts a try. Not because she wanted to see me gag, but because she genuinely thought I might like them. I didn’t know what to make of this.

Gina crowed about the Brussels sprouts to other family members, too.

“Did you hear about the Brussels sprouts?” my Auntie Susie asked me a few days later when she called to wish me a happy birthday.

“Yeah,” I replied. “You gonna eat them?”

“I don’t like sprouts,” she said, “but I promised Gina I’d try them.”

“Well, I didn’t promise,” I said with smug defiance.

“She really swears by them. So who knows?” Auntie Susie always had a “Hey, why not?” quality to her, a trait both charming and — at times like these — irksome.

Gina had also persuaded my wife, Ellen, to give the sprouts a try. Ellen, unlike me, actually knew what Brussels sprouts tasted liked – and she hated them, so this was no small achievement. My parents also were willing to give the new side dish a go.

What is going on here? My brain bellowed. Why is the entire family thumbing their nose at common sense? When are these sheeple gonna wake up?

The night before Thanksgiving – and I swear I am not making this up – I dreamed about Brussels sprouts. I didn’t eat them in the dream, instead I dreamed that I refused to eat them. I sang my refusal to the melody of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

“But I stiiiiiiill will not eeeeeeeeat…

Your damn Brussells sprooooooouts…”

Clearly this sprout business had crept its way into my subconscious.

Thanksgiving arrived. Ellen, Alex and I watched the parade on TV and marveled at the ugliness of the Paddington Bear balloon.

“There should be a Sarah Hale balloon,” Alex announced with indignation.

I love my son.

Ellen made her famous corn casserole and baked brie and then, at the last possible moment, we all changed out of our jammies and drove off to Gina’s house. Gina knows how to throw a great dinner party — and this day was no exception. The choices were plentiful, the drink options vast, and even the white meat on the turkey was moist and in need of no gravy support system.

But, sitting there in the  center of the table, was the metaphorical 600-pound gorilla.  Peering up from their glossy cranberry glaze those infamous sprouts stared at me. It wasn’t long before a reluctant ladle dug into it. Auntie Susie was true to her word; she was going to try them.

Auntie Susie is one of the louder family members, so her surprised, delighted, “Ooh! This is really good!” attracted some serious attention.

“I know, right?” Gina exclaimed, matching Auntie Susie’s decibel level. “It’s amazing!”

This lively exchange encouraged more ladle activity. More plates welcomed sprouts, which led to more praise, which led to more ladling.

One by one the number of sprout converts was growing. I was beginning to feel like a heathen at a tent revival.

With each new wave of kudos, came a new round of pressure for me to give the sprouts a try.

“Mike, you have to try these!”

“They’re really good!”

“They’re wonderful.”

“You’re gonna love them!”

Ellen knows me well enough to realize that this type of peer pressure might make me uncomfortable, but it will never persuade me to try anything. She took a different tactic.

“Oh, just eat it, you baby.”

I turned to face her and found a way-too-large forkful of Brussels sprouts poised an inch from my mouth.

Ugh.

I sighed. And she shoved it in.

The normally raucous Thanksgiving table grew silent as the family watched me chew. There was not a person present at that table who was unaware of my picky eating habits. Everyone there had either seen or heard about the infamous Green Bean Incident of 1981, when Mom and Dad were convinced I was about to pass out.

I chewed and chewed and chewed some more.

Then I swallowed.

There was a long pause. The family awaited the verdict.

“Oh!” I said at last. “It tasted better than I thought.”

And the people around table did everything short of giving me a standing ovation.

And I have to be honest; for the first time in my life one of my pre-hated foods was better than I had thought. Because I thought I was going to die.

But, just to be safe, I am never, ever, ever taking my chances with another forkful.

Never. Ever. Ever.