…though of course we ate it anyway. Why wouldn’t we? And we knew it was bad for us, make no mistake. Not, maybe, in the deeper, more quote-unquote informed way that we or at least I would come to know these things later, as an adult – I mean we didn’t know for instance that the word “brown” when describing food may as well be a place-holder for “carcinogenic,” probably didn’t even know what “carcinogenic” meant, probably indeed had only the vaguest understanding of what a tumour might be or even what death was – you know, capital-D Death, as in the end, finito, that’s all folks. But we did have at least have some notions of nutrition, albeit as provisional as you’d expect from eight- and twelve-year olds, such as for instance the relationship between carrots and good eyes, between a tall glass of milk and strong bones, or between the bitter green sludge of our mother’s over-steamed spinach goulash and a putative musculature that never quite seemed to manifest. But in truth it was probably that they were bad for us that made them so appealing; one wonders if they’d have been half so enjoyable, so unctuously seductive, if they hadn’t boasted 242 nutrient-free calories a pop – I mean, however one might try imagine them perhaps julienned, perhaps crested on sprigs of arugula served au jus and splashed with mottles of balsamic reduction, the idea is, let’s face it, a sad karaoke of the bun-and-mustard dog. So we went to, father’s spatula – that stainless-steel Excalibur of caramelized pig fat and carbonic hamburger patties – scraping the AWOL Schneider’s Country Naturals from where they’d fallen on the deck and sliding them back onto our outstretched plates, snuggling each dog into its doughy bed sans hesitation, sans foresight, sans analysis of any kind, our gluttony punctuated only by the odd spritz of grease.
Dining sur le sol was emblematic of my father’s attitude towards not just food but in fact most consumer goods: toilet paper, kitchen appliances, TV sets, so on, and he had a penchant for redistribution after use, which in the case of the toilet paper meant frequent moppings of one’s tomato sauce-blotted lower lip with the same crumpled rag of tissue he’d carried in his pocket all day, the contents of which were unknown but hardly mysterious. The foothills of emptied and cleaned mason jars in my parents’ basement were small booby traps for the third-grader who attempted to spelunk his household’s depths without a flashlight. My mother’s evenings were often spent darning holes in dollar-store tube socks, my father chatting amiably on the telephone with neighbours and relatives…
— Say, a stereo set? Hell we’ve got an extra one, why don’t I drive it over tomorrow morning before work?
WASTE NOT WANT NOT, said the crocheted tapestry above the kitchen sink. The origin of this neurotic little phrase is difficult to trace, but never has yarn embroidery so haunted the memories of a man as this sign has mine. Most scholars trace it back to a 1772 letter written by John Wesley, the founder of English Methodism, chastising his brother Alexander for his (i.e., Alexander’s) mistrust of a fellow preacher, Peter Jaco. Of Jaco, Wesley writes: “He will waste nothing; but he must want nothing.” So the original form of “Waste not, want not,” is commandment, not catechism, which is certainly how it felt in our house. An afternoon’s PB & J was always fully crusted, gristle from steaks and chicken wings were set in pots to be boiled for stock – and you damn well finished your plate; this whole “two piles” business that some of my friends’ parents did, in which the child is meant to pick one to pile of food to finish while the other is scraped into compost was simply not on in my household. Leftovers were kept to an absolute minimum, and where they were incurred, my mother would alchemically transform them into something else entirely.
In fact, the preparation and consumption of food in general lay for my family somewhere beyond nutrition and fuel, beyond even the standard dining-as-family-ritual, somewhere in the shadowy swamplands land of obsession. Days were constructed with mealtimes as rivets, and the activities that filled them – school, work, cleaning, reading, watching TV, etc. – simply existed to occupy the space between when you last ate and when you could conceivably eat again. No expense was spared; steaks were nearly always certified Canada Prime (with the occasional Triple-A, for guests requesting “well done”), chickens came big-breasted, and bacon cut a thick, meaty 0.46cm/slice. The hot summers of my childhood had the consistency of partially melted butter, they smelled of aforementioned wieners cooked over mesquite and the evenings ran sweet and sticky with melted ice-cream (Häagen–Dazs, by the way; my father would accept nothing less). Winters were done stove-stop and finished in the oven; tomatoes out of season? Not for my folks. Our rib-sticking spaghetti sauces were all imported San Marzano tomatoes and Californian garlic. This made the relatively hum-drum Schneider’s Country Naturals all the more special – so rarely did we indulge in campfire food that to waste them because of a simple spill was just not feasible.
I suppose it was for this reason that the oldest and perhaps deepest schism between my father and myself was largely due to the conjunction of a meal and a political choice; in fact in this sense you can see almost our whole relationship thrown upon the wall, a shadow-play, silent but for the piano score. I was a sixteen-year-old wanting either charm or tact, a statistically awkward 6′ 2″-tall, good grades, just a few months shy of emerging shiny-toothed from a six-year orthodontic chrysalis, and I’d just started dating a girl who was an inch taller even than I and possessed a far more splendid eggshell cheek, who was as they say une belle esprit and for whom I’d learned the half-hearted French you see bespotting the text here. I remember her sheaf of golden hair and the way her natural fibre underwear felt against my thigh; I remember the deep sense of having been engulfed entirely into some much larger animal, relinquishing sense-of-self entirely; my hand within her hand, my tongue doing exploratory surgery within her oropharyngeal cavity. I was consumed, taken in, broken down and transformed. A better hair cut. More sophisticated sneakers. A Ben Sherman shoulder bag in place of the backpack from Zellers. Then:
— We need to talk.
— Uh oh.
— No no not like that.
— No no.
— I’ve decided…
— To become a vegetarian.
— I think you should become one too.
— Because it would be something that’s so great to do, no wait sec so great to do together, think…
— But why?
— You know I was just…
— You don’t like meat?
— I guess I was just really hoping you’d do this for me.
Et voila. Sans hesitation, sans foresight, sans analysis of any kind. What can I say? I was young and in love; this was my matrix, my medium, it’s not that the bigger picture didn’t matter it’s just that I couldn’t even see it, I was blinded by the immediate, when you’re sixteen everything just feels so immediate. That said, vegetarianism was slow going for me at first; Wendy’s newfound fad to follow was not the dietary asceticism I enjoy now but a kind of watered-down locavorousness in which we’d only eat meat products “ethically produced” by local farms independent of corporate esurience (though, true, we never did manage to come up with a really consistent system of determining what constituted “ethically produced,” especially given that for every kilogram of animal protein produced, livestock have to be fed about 6kgs of plant protein, and 25 times more fossil fuels are required to produce a single calorie of beef versus a single calorie of corn, and given that about 925 million people in the world [or one in every seven] were even then starving to death; but these were realizations that would only come to me many years later).
We strutted through those early, heady days with a moral righteousness unleavened by wisdom or empathy for those whose ethical priorities diverged from ours. In the cloudless skies of hindsight I can see that a more sophisticated, more mature, more “ethical” young man than I would have sat his mother down at the kitchen table immediately upon making this kind of decision and respectfully explain to her in hushed, pastel tones that the meals which had been the glue and bonding agent of so many childhood memories were not being reproached, that they belonged to specific times and places and cherished pasts that would never be lost nor repudiated, and that the love and attention and thankless mothers’ work they represented were not just valued but prized, adored, honoured and admired, and that as mother and son moved down these new corridors of degustatory difference both would always remember those bonds between them yet unbroken, yet cemented by unconditional love and respect beyond words, beyond food, beyond imagining.
This is not what I did…