Food and Drink

A Clean Plate

If there are certain foods that trigger nostalgia and console us, there must also be foods that that make us uneasy, foods that bring us back to scenes of discord or simply of being alone. If there is comfort food, there must be discomfort food as well.

Mine is my mother’s sausage and peppers. Her recipe was simple: she would fry links of fennel-spiced sausages in a pan and then, once the meat had cooked and released its fat, fry the peppers in the same grease until they softened into pulp and their skins turned to paper. I didn’t like fennel and I didn’t like grease, and the combination was nearly inedible.

I wasn’t a particularly finicky eater as a child and even liked most vegetables at an early age. I might have cut off chunks of fat from pork chops, calling them gristle so as not to be seen wasting food, but otherwise I was pretty much an omnivore in my mother’s kitchen. Even “good eaters”, however, don’t like everything they’re given to eat.  I’d squeeze as much grease as I could out of the peppers and tilt my plate so that the grease would collect on one side. Even after I had picked out the fennel seeds from the meat, it was a chore for me to eat.

But I couldn’t not eat it. My mother cut no slack for good behavior and expected me to eat whatever she cooked, and all of it. She had what my brother and I call a clean-plate fixation.

She would appeal first to my sense of guilt, which, as a good Catholic boy, I had large stores of. “There are children starving in China right now, and you’re going to waste this food?” she’d say. I couldn’t imagine how my mother would know something like this but I also couldn’t see how my not eating something made the Chinese kids’ situation any better.

“Then maybe they should be eating this instead of me,” I finally said. I regretted it immediately, and not only because I would have to confess it as a sin later on the week, lumped together with other instances of cheekiness under the general category of disobeying my parents. I could see that she was angry.

“If you keep this up, maybe I’ll send you to the Mary Hammond Home and see how much you like it there,” she said. There was an edge to her voice that suggested that if pushed a little more, she’d really do it, if only for a day.

The Home was a reddish sandstone row house up the block, a place, we’d been told, for children who had no home of their own. It wasn’t clear to us how the kids got there and whether they were orphans or just so delinquent that their parents could no longer care for them. This ambiguity over the admission criteria for the home suited my mother fine; she thought it gave teeth to her threat. I didn’t really think she would ever do such a thing but the threat was disturbing nonetheless. It said that she could stop loving me. Because of food. And so I would steel myself and finish the rest of the sausage and peppers on my plate.

I grew up in a family where food was supremely important. It was a currency in which love was meted out and eating was the tribute we paid in exchange. Achievement was rewarded with favorite foods and Tollhouse chocolate-chip cookies; in turn, my mother’s achievement as cook and homemaker were rewarded by our finishing everything off our plate. Eating was the discharge of an obligation as much as it was an act of nourishment.  A plate of food half eaten was an offering rejected. Hence the clean-plate fixation.

It didn’t help that my brothers and I were all on the skinny side, though for reasons of metabolism and not, of course, for a failure to eat. However, the contrast between us and our beefier cousins was not lost on either my mother or her family, and she came in for some teasing because of it. I imagine her feeling that in some small way she was responsible, if only for ensuring that the disparity be remedied.

If that was so, she was faced with a challenge in the case of my youngest brother. He was a notoriously difficult eater. There were things he liked—bacon sandwiches and applesauce and Sloppy Joes come to mind—and innumerable things that he didn’t. I am sure that if left to his own he would have eventually broadened the range of food he found palatable (as he did, of course, in high school and later). But given my mother’s clean-plate fixation, he wouldn’t be allowed the luxury of waiting.

There was no Mary Hammond Home in the suburb we moved to when my brother was six, and in any event my mother had long abandoned such scare tactics. Instead, when my brother wouldn’t (or, as was probably the case, just couldn’t) eat his dinner even with a side of applesauce, she just made him stay at the table unless he finished.

I don’t know where she learned this from, maybe a talk show or a magazine article. But it worked, most of the time anyway. My brother eventually ate what he was expected to eat, waging a silent battle against the desires of his own body in order to please my mother. He was a brave little soldier, even (or especially) when he was defeated in this exercise of self-abnegation and hard discipline.

One evening he just wouldn’t finish dinner. I still wonder if it was a small act of rebellion on his part or simply that he was not up to the task of eating what his body or mind could not accept. He was still sitting at the table with his plate of food after my brother and I had put the dishes in the dishwasher. My mother turned off the lights in the kitchen except for one in the alcove where my brother was sitting, and went to the living room to watch television.

I left him to go to my room to study and caught him in the corner of my eye as I turned to walk up the stairs. He seemed so terribly alone there, caught in the funnel of light cast by the ceiling fixture, his plate of food gone cold.

He sat there for a very long time. He never told me if he finished the plate of food and I didn’t ask. I wish I could have stood up to my mother for my brother’s sake, told her she was wrong to insist, tried to persuade her it wasn’t such a big deal. It was a failure of courage I still feel ashamed about today, and the dinner was one of the saddest I’ve had.

Eating well is much more than just calories and vitamins and fat thresholds. It’s about cultivating pleasure while respecting one’s body and what one puts in it. It means being aware, as my brother tells me, of where one’s food comes from and how it’s prepared. Eating well is being gently prodded, whether by innate curiosity, the enthusiasm of friends or a visit to a new city, into trying new foods. It is a savoring of experience rather than the goal of satiety.

They are all better lessons to learn than cleaning one’s plate.


This post is republished here in slightly altered form from my short-lived and rarely visited 30 at 100 blog, an experiment in cheap, healthy eating. Apologies for the cross-posting for those who have already read it, but it is one of my favorite texts from the blog and I thought it a shame that it should languish there unread.

As I discovered many years later, the Mary Stevens Hammond Home was built by a wealthy benefactor named Ogden Hammond in honor of his wife, who had drowned on the Lusitania the year before. It was dedicated to the care not of orphans but of “children from broken homes”.

Conditions there were likely no better or worse than in other child shelters and orphanages. There is no record of the kind of food served, except for one account that a former resident told of getting up as a child in the early morning and walking twelve blocks to a bakery to pick up leftover bread. But I imagine most would agree that the food was pretty dismal, except perhaps for the Christmases at which Frank Sinatra would come and sing.

Featured image:

Daniel Spoerri, a Romanian-born Swiss artist associated with the Nouveau réalisme and Fluxus movements, became first known for his tableau pièges (“snare-pictures”), of which the featured image is an example. In these works Spoerri would mount found objects on whatever surface and in the same random order they had been left in. The surface would then become the “canvas” on which they were displayed on the wall. Some of these tableaux were the remains of meals eaten by artists such as Joseph Beuys, Roy Lichtenstein, André Thomkins and César at the restaurant Spoerri opened in Düsseldorf above his Eat Art Gallery.


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