The Texture of Generations

Browned liver and onions, turnips smothered in Mama’s well-seasoned black cast iron pan—these aren’t foods normally accepted by children, but I ate them doggedly, without complaint. I ate cauliflower covered with cheese and mayonnaise, a strange combination, only criticizing it when the mayo drowned the dish. I even ate the more adventurous Cajun dishes Mama made, such as fried alligator, turtle soup, boudin in a pig intestine casing, and hogshead cheese. I did balk at fried frog legs; they tasted ok, like the ubiquitous chicken, but still looked like frog legs. Chicken legs have a saving grace; by getting feathers plucked and feet cut off, the body part is disguised. Bonus: they’re a shape perfect for children to grasp, and even have a cute name—drumsticks. Fried frog legs are thin and hinged, and my overactive mind imagined the frog croaking while jumping with those very legs. My parents thought frog legs were a great delicacy, and with a “more for us” mentality, didn’t make me eat them.

*

Eli, my six-year-old son, has an extreme gag reflex, triggered by unwanted food colors, smells and textures. He is very choosy, to the point of only liking three or four things that could possibly be called healthy. Sometimes he becomes enamored with the idea that he likes special things cooked by someone he loves—his father’s dry-rubbed smoked ribs, his nana’s fried shrimp, his grandmomme’s lasagna. He rubs his tummy in anticipation at the cooking smells, and holds happy conversations with the cook about how he can’t wait to eat it. The cooks, various family members, love this small green-eyed boy desperately, and he loves them. He wants to love the foods they are preparing for him. He bravely lifts his fork and tries a bite so small it could almost be called a lick. He nods, smiles, and proclaims the goodness of the bite before turning to his roll or garlic bread. If I encourage him to try more of the yummy food, he says he isn’t that hungry today. He doesn’t want to admit that his love for the cook got mixed up with his feelings for their food, which isn’t love or desire. I am the only cook whose feelings he is not afraid to hurt. He sits down at my dinner and immediately declares his unhappiness with his plate, filled with food he hates. Maybe this is because he knows that I know better than anyone else the foods he actually loves; maybe it is because I am the main dispenser of food. Maybe it is because I fed him in my womb for nine months, then from my breasts for 36 more. The closeness breeds openness. I should know what foods he likes, I should provide him with them, and if I do not, he will show his displeasure.

*

There was only one food I really could not handle as a child—tomatoes. I could eat cooked tomatoes in spaghetti sauce. But I could not eat the fresh raw tomato slices and wedges my parents served, just picked from my daddy’s garden, organic before organic was cool. They looked repulsive—the slimy tan seeds with mucous green coating living in segmented pink rooms with red paper-thin outer walls. They smelled sickly sweet with earthy, primal undertones, like vegetable body odor. The mere feel on my tongue triggered my gag reflex. My parents were puzzled but determined to be firm on the issue. They refused to raise picky children, and reasoned the best way to overcome an aversion is when you are young, before it really gets going. My parents stopped serving me a normal serving, which would be a waste, and served me one small scarlet slice or wedge every time we had the loathsome things. I was supposed to stay at the table until I had eaten it. As an adult, I’ve wondered if I could have held my nose and quickly swallowed it—but my mental dread was too great for that to be possible. I would sit with my tomato for a half-hour, cutting small slivers off with a butter knife and working myself up mentally to placing them on my tongue. Then came uncontrollable gagging, complete with streaming eyes. My parents suspected I did this purposely to garner sympathy, but I tried desperately to get over my tomato hatred. I would usually only eat half before my mama, shaking her head with disappointment, would excuse me from the table. When they told me that tomatoes were actually fruit, all it meant to me was that tomatoes were lying imposters, trying to trick their way into the fruit kingdom with the disguise of cherry hue and apple shape.

*

I usually require a “no thank you” bite from my children—a single bite swallowed before they are allowed to give up on that particular food for that meal. Otherwise, they claim they hate things they have never tried, or tried a year ago. I would never require one of those innocents to try my food nemesis, however. I realize their own food nemesis could be a different one, and worry I am letting them out of too many “no thank you” bites because I think that food could be the one they really cannot handle. I struggle the most with Eli, who is the youngest, and his texture issues, which my daughters do not have. I remember, too strongly, dry heaving with the tomato on my tongue. I leave Eli’s food issues to my husband, and he leaves other unwanted kid issues to me—vomit, urine-soaked mattresses. I am strong enough to deal with these.

*

In my early preteen years, my parents realized I could not be forced to like tomatoes. I was allowed to pick out the lettuce, onion, and cucumbers from the salad bowl, avoiding the tomatoes. I never ate a raw tomato by itself again. It took me a long time to try pico de gallo; I feared the tiny red morsels mixed in with the onions and cilantro. In pico, the onions, lime juice and cilantro mostly cover the tomato flavor. I don’t eat it unless it unexpectedly comes garnishing my enchiladas, and I scrape off the most obnoxiously large tomato morsels. When my husband offers me a bite of his burger, I examine it for a corner without the offensive red sticking out. Bruschetta and insalata caprese are out of the realm of possibility. I never serve fresh tomatoes at home—my husband knows he won’t find them in the fridge for his sandwich unless he has bought them himself. Sometimes I cut tomatoes up for birthday party burgers. I make a big deal of my magnanimous sacrifice of touching them and getting slimy fingers. I repeatedly tell my husband, as I slice away, to never doubt my love.

*

If we have a dessert, I use it as a weapon during the dinner battle. I tell my children that they must eat “enough” to get some dessert. How much is enough varies with the child and their capabilities to handle the food being served. My girls are pretty good eaters, so I require more to be eaten if it is a food they just don’t like much but can actually swallow with no problems. If they really hate it, a “no thank you” bite suffices. Eli hates most foods so much that he doesn’t care if he gets dessert or not. All he wants is a grilled-cheese-sandwich-with-ketchup, peanut-butter-spoon, banana-with-peanut-butter, or chicken-nuggets-with-ketchup to fill his empty tummy instead of the chicken pot pie, meatball spaghetti, or tacos I have prepared. I’m not a gourmet cook—these are things most kids like. You can see a theme here; everything he eats involves ketchup or peanut butter.

*

My husband thinks Eli will give in and eat dinner if I refuse to feed him anything else but what the family eats. My mama, the previous Tomato Enforcer, currently Eli’s nana, is horrified at the small number of foods he accepts readily. I know my boy’s stubbornness though. He will go to bed with his tummy growling and gnawing rather than give in, and I can’t handle that. I rationalize that peanut butter is protein and banana is fruit, and I give it to him. He doesn’t ask for dessert, but his eyes, huge as an anime character, watch my fork slice the cake and come up to my mouth, and go back down again to the plate. When his father leaves the table, I call Eli with a whisper, nestle him in my lap and feed him bites of my dessert, off my fork or off my fingers, because he is my last baby bird and feeding him is my job.

Sarah Broussard Weaver is a mother of four and a senior undergraduate at the University of Portland.

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1 Response to The Texture of Generations

  1. Man, can I identify with the snotty tomato repulsion…. mama loved them…they made me gag! Great story! Thanks for writing and sharing. Tomatoes to you!!!

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