Here’s another short essay I wrote for my family about the little everyday happenings that I hope will make those long-ago times come alive again. I call this one “Peas, Carrots, and Cold Mashed Potatoes.”
Peas and carrots! To this day, the thought of peas and carrots served together makes my gorge rise and my blood pressure soar. Peas and carrots were an early battleground in the long war between my mother’s taste and my own.
To my mother, raised poor during the Depression and WW2, being able to buy already canned vegetables was a mark of luxury. She could open a can, pour the contents into a pan and just heat it on the stove. What a miracle! No picking, washing, shelling, peeling, chopping, boiling, bottling or capping. No sweating in a hot kitchen on a summer afternoon. Just poof and abracadabra, your children are served a nourishing vegetable in a mere five minutes.
In the sixties no one cared about any sodium or preservatives packed into those cans. No one cared, either, how awful they tasted. At least our mother didn’t seem to care, because no matter how much my brothers and I complained, canned vegetables appeared on the dinner table every night. Canned green beans that tasted like soft tin, canned creamed corn that tasted like gritty mush, canned beets that stained your teeth, canned spinach with a dark metallic taste and the texture of slug slime, and my least favorite of all, the dreaded canned peas and carrots medley.
The mushy, pillowy peas were bad enough, but the carrots – no words can describe their awful texture and worse taste. Even their shape was nauseating – tiny uniform cubes that could never have come from a real carrot.
I hid peas and carrots underneath my mashed potatoes; I swept them surreptitiously into my napkin; I fed them to the dog (which never worked because as soon as they hit his mouth he spit them out on the floor – he was no dummy); I transferred them to my brother’s plate and threatened him with evil looks that promised torture if he complained; and finally, when she just would not stop serving those cubes and pillows of hell, I graduated to outright rebellion. I simply refused to eat them, no matter what. I made a principle out of canned peas and carrots, a principle I defended with 10-year-old fervor.
I even wrote a story about a girl who died rather than betray her right to her own individual taste. It was an affecting story, heavy on funeral details. The poor child lay nestled in a small pink coffin, surrounded by pink rosebuds. Beside the coffin sat her mother, weeping over her dead child, so sorry now that she had ruined her daughter’s short life by making her eat canned peas and carrots.
My brothers Mike and Steve had their own food issues, but they didn’t have food fights like Mom and I did. Mike just smiled his charming smile that always worked for him (dammit), and left whatever he didn’t like on his plate. Or he’d find enjoyment in poking fun at the food – I remember him banging an undercooked chicken leg on the table, using it as a literal drumstick, and chortling with glee. His laughter was so infectious that even Mom would have to laugh. Then he’d go eat at his friends’ houses, or eat snacks of what he did like out of the refrigerator.
By the time my youngest brother Steve was old enough to have food tastes, Mom had become more aware of nutrition issues, and he drove her absolutely crazy because when he was 5-6-7-8 years old, he refused to eat anything for dinner except cold mashed potatoes with no butter or seasoning of any kind. He even specified that they couldn’t be mashed when served to him – he had to mash them himself on his plate. They had to be peeled, of course – god forbid he should get any nutrients from the potato skins. His invariable routine at the dinner table was this: he pushed the meat and vegetables off to one side of the plate, then he’d mash the plain boiled potatoes with his fork, then he’d sit there looking at them until they were stone cold, and then finally he’d eat them – the potatoes only, never anything else. Sometimes he’d relent and drink a glass of milk. I think this was Steve’s way of waging a food fight with Mom; not as in-your-face as my way, but very effective.
It’s amazing how much you can tell about a person’s personality by knowing their tastes in food, isn’t it?