“You’d eat it if you were on the field of battle,” my Dad would tell me when I displayed preferences for the food he had prepared. “You’d eat it if it was part of your C-rations, and you’d eat it if you were hungry, but you’ve never been hungry … not in the sense that others have known hunger.”
Getting children to show appreciation for food is a time-honored concern that dates back to the cavemen. When the first children stated that they were sick of eating Mammoth, their mother probably felt compelled to remind her children of the sacrifice, and danger, their father faced to provide them with their meal of the day. Those days of acquiring food were much more perilous, and we can assume the kids knew that, but we can also assume that the kids still didn’t care. Later in the timeline, parents informed their children of the lack of preservation techniques available for their food, and how the children would have to eat up all their food, or it would go bad. Modern technology has provided safer and easier access to food, and it’s provided preservation techniques that have become so common, for so many generations of Americans, that even most parents have taken food for granted for the whole of their lives. We’ve never been hungry … not in the sense that others have known hunger.
The trick to getting children to appreciate food is more difficult today than it’s ever been. Some parents inform their children of third-world children, third-world hunters and gatherers, and third-world preservation techniques to try to get their children to appreciate their food more. My dad knew nothing about all that. My dad knew military life, he knew C-rations, he knew the depression secondhand, he had some knowledge of scarcity, seeing it secondhand, and he attempted to use that knowledge to stoke appreciation for food in his boys.
My dad believed eating was a testament to manliness, and anyone that questioned his manliness need only look to the girth he carried for much of his life for answers. He was the human garbage disposal, and he expected as much from his sons.
This led to one of the best compliments I ever received from the man:
“I never had to worry about you eating. Your brother was the one that caused us worry. He was finicky.”
Finicky was the ‘F’ word in my dad’s vocabulary. A finicky eater was that certain someone that thought they were special, that took matters for granted, that would prove to be an oddball that people noticed in an unkind manner, and that exhibited characteristics that were less than macho. My brother’s finicky nature reared its ugly head when onions appeared on his plate. He abhorred them. This was a constant source of embarrassment for our dad.
My dad was old world. He lived in an era when the gravest insult a man could provide his host was to leave food on their plate. Most descendants of depression era parents –the last era in America when food could be associated with the term scarce– learned of the value of food. The horror stories they heard taught them to appreciate resources and the idea of scarcity, even if they never experienced it firsthand. They appreciated food, and they learned to be grateful whenever it was before them. Most of them grew up disgusted by grown men that displayed preferences because they could recite stories when such luxuries were not available to most. They also experienced their own limited selection in the military and the wars, and they hoped to instill this appreciation of food in the next generation. My dad might have been more diligent in his efforts that yours (see obsessed), but he considered passing this knowledge along to his boys a part-time job, and a vital element of his heritage.
My brother’s finicky nature was the primary concern of my dad’s life, but he was also concerned with the fact that my brother didn’t pay as much attention to his meal as my dad felt was necessary. My brother would pause to think about things while he ate. He would talk during a meal. He even looked at the television set while eating. This was anathema to our dad. When food was on the table, the individual was to eat it without distraction, and by doing so, they were paying homage to all that went into the preparation of the food one had before them. An individual seated at my father’s table was to eat with time constraints similar to those of a prison inmate’s, or in a manner of a soldier appreciating the nutrients contained in C-rations, that the soldier knew was just enough to get them through the day. It said something about an individual, if they ate as if they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from at my dad’s table. It said that they appreciated those that came before them that gave up their lives to provide us this opportunity to eat.
Taste mattered to my dad. He enjoyed a well-prepared, flavorful meal as much as the next guy, but anyone could eat a meal that tasted delicious. What separated one man from another, in my dad’s worldview, was what he did to a meal that was less than flavorful. In his internal, sliding scale of characterization, eating a foul tasting, poorly prepared meal was a tribute to those ancestors that could afford little more than a meal of pork and beans on buttered bread. The pièce de résistance of his personal campaign to honor those that came before him arrived in the form of a sandwich. A sandwich that was otherwise flavorless and bare bones. This sandwich contained one slice of the cheapest slice of bologna he could find in the store, between two slices of the most flavorless bread that market forces had not defeated to the point of oblivion yet. There was no mustard, or mayonnaise, on this sandwich, for condiments were a luxury that his ancestors knew nothing of “when times were hard”. He wasn’t the type to suggest that eating in this manner put hair on one’s chest, but that was the thrust of his philosophical approach to food and eating.
Readers might infer that a part of my dad’s philosophical approach to eating involved a subtext of humor. While many aspects of my dad’s approach to life are subject to debate, I can say without any fear of refutation on this one subject, that this was never funny to the man.
He never had a problem with me, as I said. My brother, on the other hand, needed constant reminders to eat. Dad tried everything to get through to the boy. He tried the techniques listed above, and he tried to instill appreciation in my brother by informing him of the preparation process involved in the particular meal before him. It wasn’t that my brother was disobedient or rebellious, and he wasn’t unappreciative or ungrateful either. He tried to remain focused on his meal, and he tried to finish the meal in the manner that our dad dictated, but he couldn’t help falling back into his ways. It provided our dad such consternation, over the years, that he developed a song that the family called the Eat Tono Eat song.
The lyrics are as follows: “Eat Tono eat. Eat Tono eat. Eat Tono eat. Oh, eat Tono eat.” The emphasis he placed on the ‘Oh’ portion of the song might have been intended to allow the listener a pleasing bridge to the fourth repetition of the refrain, but my dad wasn’t one to create anything for aesthetic reasons. He was a former military man, and a former tool man, that created for the sole purpose of fulfilling a need. He composed no other lyrics for this song, and I think he may have sang this song one other time. Once it served its purpose, he had no plans of ever discussing it again. That purpose, again, had nothing to do with humor, unless that unintended humor furthered his goal of getting my brother to eat. If that was achieved, the song could whither on the vine for all he cared. The listener could enjoy the song if they wanted, that was on them, but they would be left wanting if they had any desire for an encore.
With such a mindset drilled into one’s head, over so many decades, one can’t help but be disgusted by those with preferences. I didn’t draw a direct correlation to my dad’s philosophy for many a year, as most things that we are conditioned to do, do not come with immediate connections. It became an undeniable source of my Dad’s repetitious conditioning, however, when my nephew limited his diet to macaroni and cheese, carbohydrates, and sugary sweets, and it disgusted me. It boiled up inside me, until I had to say something. That something I said to instill an appreciation for food in my nephew was:
“You don’t know how to eat.”
The reason I put those words in quotes is that it was an exact quote from my dad to me and my brother. I shuddered a little in the aftermath of those words. I wasn’t disgusted with my nephew for his young, uninformed choices, however, for I understood that his preferences were those of a young, unformed child, but I felt the need to inform him that I was disgusted by the general practice of displaying preferences.
Although my dad never had a philosophical pivot point for his beliefs on food in general, and the appreciation thereof, I believe that it all centered on these preferences we all have. Preferences for food was an ostentatious display of luxury to my dad that he chose to deprive himself of, in a manner equivalent to a man that buys a moderate sedan when he can afford a luxury vehicle.
Another aspect of my dad’s code involved never calling another man out on his preferences. He might recite tales of men with preferences, but he did so in the privacy of his own home, and for the sole purpose of the lessons that he wanted to illustrate for his sons. He was the product of an era that did not permit one man to comment on the ways and means of another, lest anyone interpret that as one seeking some form of superiority over another. When I would comment on another’s ways, for the purpose of humor, and that other person’s ways placed them in line with my dad’s teachings, he scold me for calling another man out like that. Those days are so far in the rear-view mirror now, that no one remembers them anymore. In its place, are the endless lists of preferences, and proselytizing of preferences, until one achieves their desired state of superiority.
This considerate nature did not extend to his sons, however, for when we displayed preferences, his honesty could appear brutal to the outside world. He would allow some preferences as long as we appreciated the luxury afforded to us, as long as we didn’t indulge in what he considered elitist preferences, and as long as we didn’t indulge in our preferences to achieve a superior plane of disgust for those of us that have no preferences.
“Those that had real world concerns of the onslaught of Adolf Hitler, and the subsequent spread of communism didn’t have the luxury of preferences,” my dad would say to us. “They had real world concerns that plagued them to the point that anyone that engaged in such theoretical nonsense would be ostracized and castigated for the eggheads that they were in my time.”
A man that engages in such trivialities has never known true scarcity, and sacrifice. He leads the life of blissful ignorance, and we cannot blame them for that. He is a product of his time, but it is his parents’, and grandparents’, responsibility to inform him that his self-anointed superiority condemns not only those that don’t share his preferences but those people might not have had the same luxuries afforded to him.