“You’d eat it if you were on the field of battle,” Dad said when I displayed preferences regarding the food he prepared. “You’d eat it if you were hungry, but you’ve never known hunger, not in the sense that others have.”
Convincing children to show appreciation for food is a time-honored concern that dates back to the cavemen. When the caveman’s children stated they were tired of eating Mammoth, their mother probably felt compelled to remind them of the sacrifice and danger their father faced to provide them with their meal of the day. In those days, acquiring food was much more perilous than a drive to the grocery store. We can assume what the tales were like, those stories of peril the hunters went through, but we can also assume that the stories eventually bored the children. Later in the timeline, parents informed their children of the lack of available preservation techniques: “Eat it all, or it will go bad.” Modern technology provides safer and easier access to food, as well as preservation techniques that have become so common for so many generations that most parents have never been hungry, not in the sense that others have, and they’ve taken food for granted for the whole of their lives too.
The trick to convincing children to appreciate food is more difficult today than ever before. Some parents inform their children of the plight of third-world children, hoping to instill appreciation for what’s on their plates. My dad knew little of that, but he knew the life of a military man. He knew C-rations, and he learned about the scarcity some endured during the Great Depression secondhand. He attempted to use that knowledge to stoke appreciation for food in his boys.
The theme of Dad’s stories was that the manner in which one eats is a window into their soul. He also believed it a testament to manliness and anyone who questioned his manliness need only look to the girth he carried for much of his life for answers. He was a human garbage disposal, and he expected as much from his sons.
“I never had to worry about you eating,” Dad said. “Your brother caused me some concern. He’s finicky.” That would prove to be one of the greatest compliments my dad ever gave me.
Finicky was the only F-word in my dad’s vocabulary. A finicky eater, to him, was that certain someone who thought they were so special that they took matters for granted. He considered them oddballs, and he viewed them in an unkind manner. My brother’s finicky nature reared its ugly head most often when onions appeared on his plate. His open disdain for them was a constant source of embarrassment for our dad.
Dad was Old World. He lived in an era when the gravest insult a man could heap upon a host was to leave a morsel of food on their plate. Most descendants of Depression-era-parents, the last American era in which food could was even remotely scarce, learned of the value of food. Any grown man that dared to display an eating preference disgusted them, because they could recite stories when such a luxury was not available to most. They also experienced their own limited selection in the military and the wars, and they hoped to instill an appreciation of food in the next generation. Our dad may have been more diligent in his efforts than others’, bordering on obsessed, but he considered it his legacy to pass this knowledge along to his boys.
Other than his concerns regarding my brother’s finicky nature, our dad was also concerned with the fact that he didn’t pay as much attention to his meal as our father felt was necessary. My brother was prone to pausing while he ate. He also enjoyed talking during meals, and he even had the audacity to glance at the TV set while we dined. This was anathema to our dad. When food was on the table, we were to nourish ourselves without distraction. Doing so, paid homage to all that went into the various lines of production that led to our bountiful meal food. An individual seated at my father’s table was to eat with time constraints similar to those of a soldier’s, who appreciates the fact that he has a limited amount of time to get the nutrients contained in those humble C-rations into his body if he wants the energize required to take on the day. He didn’t necessarily want us to eat fast, as much as he required diligence, because he believed it made a statement, a cherished response to eat as if we didn’t know where our next meal was coming from. Consuming food in that manner, at Dad’s table meant that we had deep respect and appreciation of those who gave up their lives to provide us the freedom to eat whatever we wanted.
He never had a problem with me in this regard, as I said, but my brother needed constant reminders. Dad tried everything to get through to his boy. Along with all of the aforementioned techniques, he endeavored to instill appreciation in my brother by informing him of the preparation process involved in the meal before him. My brother was not disobedient or rebellious, nor was he unappreciative or ungrateful. He tried to remain focused on his meal and he attempted to finish it to adhere to that paternal guidance, but he inevitably fell back to his methodical approach to eating. This provided our dad such consternation over the years that he developed a bit of a ballad, what we called the “Eat, Tono, Eat” song. This song, much to my father’s consternation, would become something of hit among friends and family, and it had the following lyrics.
“Eat, Tono, eat.
Eat, Tono, eat.
Eat, Tono, eat.
Oh … eat, Tono, eat.”
Anyone eavesdropping on one of his limited engagements might have mistaken Dad’s “Oh” crescendo with a pleasing and creative bridge to the fourth stanza, but aesthetics did not motivate the man. He was a former military man and tool man. He created utility to fulfill need. He composed no other lyrics for the song, and once it served its purpose and my brother began eating again, dad never sang it again. He may have sang the song a couple times, but the threat of it loomed forever more. He didn’t intend to be humorous, unless using humor furthered his goal of getting my brother to eat. As long he achieved that, my favorite single of all time could whither on the vine for all he cared. Whether or not a listener enjoyed the tune was on them, as far as Dad was concerned, but they would find themselves wanting if they called for an encore.
Taste did matter to dad. He enjoyed well-prepared, flavorful meals as much as the next guy, but anyone can eat a meal that tastes delicious. What separated one man from another, in my father’s worldview, was what that man did to a meal that was less than flavorful. Based upon his internal sliding scale of characterization, eating a foul-tasting, poorly prepared meal was a tribute to our ancestors who 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 who came before him arrived in the form of a flavorless, bare bones sandwich. This hallowed sandwich consisted of one slice of the cheapest bologna mankind has been able to produce, between two slices of bread so flavorless that I doubt any competitors in bread industry knew the manufacturer’s name.
Mustard and mayonnaise didn’t make it on dad’s sandwich either, for condiments were luxuries our ancestors never knew about, “back when times were hard”. My father wasn’t the type to pound a point home with a joke, but the thrust of his philosophical approach to eating was that if a man could eat a cheap, flavorless bologna sandwich, sans, condiments, it would put hair on their chest.
On the subject of humor, the reader might infer that part of Dad’s philosophical approach to eating involved at least humorous subtext. While many aspects of Dad’s philosophical approach to life were subject to interpretation that could lead to some unintentional humor, I can say without fear of refutation on this one subject, that the methods he utilized to pass on his deep appreciation of food were never funny to him.
With such a strict, uncompromising mindset drilled into one’s head over decades, one cannot help but feel disgust for those who display preferences. I didn’t draw a direct correlation to my dad’s philosophy for many-a-year, as we do not make connections to the conditioned responses we have. It did become an undeniable source of Dad’s repetitious conditioning, however, when it disgusted me that my brother and his wife allowed my nephew to subsist on a diet of macaroni and cheese, carbohydrates, and sugary sweets. I didn’t expect the young child to make informed, diverse choices, but I expected more of the grown man, my brother, inundated by our father’s unrelenting lessons and philosophical exercises. My concern was not limited to health, though that was part of it, but I couldn’t believe that my brother allowed his father’s grandchild to limit his diet to such a narrow list. I expected my brother, a student of our father’s no-excuses approach, to teach his son how to eat, and to drill into his son’s head the variations of what that meant. My nephew’s excessively short list of preferences disgusted me, but the idea that my brother allowed it percolated inside me until I had to say something.
Some part of me wanted to pass on the entire cannon of Dad’s philosophy, but I didn’t want to insult my brother in front of his wife and son. I bottled up most of the comments I wanted to make, and I drilled it down to one simple comment, “You don’t know how to eat.”
As soon as the words slipped out, I wanted to take them back. I wanted every thought and motivation behind that comment expunged from the record. Those words, along with the act of actually saying them, contradicted the worldview it took me decades to build. I abided by my father’s wishes, but I never did so in silence. I questioned him, analyzed his philosophies with words that could pierce and deflate, and often followed that up with ridicule and mockery.
I was the rebel in the household that swore my father’s ways were wrong, antiquated, and heavy handed. My life’s mission was to juxtapose myself to everything my father stood for, yet here I was attempting to pass on the most sacred tenet of my father’s gospel to his grandson. It was the most powerful encounter I would experience with the power of conditioning, and I shuddered within it.
Although my father never offered a philosophical pivot point for his beliefs on food in general or on and the appreciation thereof, I believe it all centered on individual preferences. Preferences, in his view, were an ostentatious display of luxury, and he chose to deprive himself, in a manner equivalent to a man who buys a moderate sedan when he could easily afford a luxury vehicle.
Another aspect of Dad’s code involved never calling another man out on his preferences. He recited tales of men with preferences, but he did so in the privacy of his own home, for the sole purpose of providing parables, to instill crucial lessons in his boys so we wouldn’t grow up to be like them. 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 it as one seeking some form of superiority. When I dared to evaluate others failure to live up to dad’s credo, he scolded me for calling another man out like that.
That confused me, as I assumed that the mockery of others helped define the ideals our dad tried to teach us, but he would have none of it. “What a man does in the privacy of his own home is his business,” he said. Those days of appreciating the sanctity of one’s privacy are so far in the rear-view mirror now that no one remembers them anymore. In its place are endless lists of preferences and proselytizing of preferences, until one achieves the desired state of superiority.
This consideration for those beyond our address did not extend to his sons, however, for when we displayed preferences, his honesty was blunt, so much so that it might have appeared brutal to anyone outside our walls. Dad believed that what he did in his own home was his business.
The one asterisk in my dad’s otherwise strict and uncompromising rules on eating was that we could exhibit some preferences, as long as we preferred things in conjunction with an appreciation for the luxury afforded to do so. 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 superiority and wander onto a plane of disgust for those of us who had no such luxury, he permitted our few discerning tastes.
“Those who had real-world concerns of the onslaught of Adolf Hitler and the subsequent spread of communism didn’t have the luxury of preferences,” Dad said on more than one occasion. “They had real-world concerns that plagued them to the point that anyone who engaged in such theoretical nonsense would be ostracized and castigated for the eggheads they were in my time.
“A person who engages in such trivialities has never known true scarcity and sacrifice. He leads the life of blissful ignorance, and we cannot blame him 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 who don’t share his preferences but also those who might not have had the same luxuries afforded to him.”