When my father came home from work, the last thing he wanted to do was eat with us. We were too noisy, too bad-mannered, too frivolous — we were too much like children. He’d eat from his tray in the living room, a wall between him and the boisterous feeding affair in the kitchen. My mother didn’t sit down to eat. She grabbed bites here and there, busy at the stove or nervous about whether her children would eat efficiently and quietly, proving she was a good mother, or would be picky and act up, risking my father’s anger. One time my brother pretended a chunk of meat was a bulldozer and plowed it straight through his mashed potatoes and off his plate, knocking over his milk. My father heard the commotion, stormed into the kitchen, and grabbed him by the collar. Deaf to my brother’s pleas, he reached the basement door in two steps and flung it open. My mother read his intention to throw my brother down the stairs — it had happened before — and blocked the doorway. That night, the barricade was enough.
“Control your children!” my father said and released my brother with a shove.
I was reminded of our family dinners when, as part of my post-doctoral research, I observed Eurasian dippers feed their nestlings. From dawn until dusk, the stocky wren-like parents shuttled back and forth, endeavoring to satisfy the greedy brood. When a dipper appeared at the lip of the nest, juicy larvae pinched in its bill, the nestlings burst into a chorus of begging, and opened their mouths wide to be the biggest and luckiest target. But the raucous begging did more than signal hunger; it carried a threat: “Feed me well or else a predator is going to hear me, and there goes your genetic investment!” It was an exercise in brinksmanship. If a baby bird failed to squawk, the next mouthful was crammed down the gullet of a louder sibling. The meeker bird went without. But if the nestlings oversold their need and made too much noise, the hawks, weasels, and crows would find them and shut them up for good. The parent birds were enslaved to a quiet nest.
If the brood at the kitchen table didn’t like what was for dinner, we’d complain, gently at first, and inquire politely if there wasn’t something else we could have. Did we really have to eat all of it? Couldn’t we just have the meat and leave the broccoli? My mother hesitated, and we weighed the palatability of the meal against the possible consequences of refusing it. The three of us didn’t always agree on what was edible and that bred conflict among us. One night, after weeks of harrowing meals, my mother finally made something I enjoyed — chicken paprika and carrots — but there was no peace in the nest because my brother spat out the carrots. His increasingly loud whining merged with the mother bird’s desperate mollifications, then pleas, then escalating threats, and created a cacophony of nest noise dangerously close to triggering a response from the living room, where the predator was listening to Walter Cronkite. The sound of machine gun fire from a jungle in Vietnam masked the argument and saved the day.
The brood conducted reconnaissance well before sitting down to eat. “What are you making?” was never an innocent question. If we could get a substitution on the menu before my father came home, peace would reign, and our genetic material would continue to sail into the future. If I saw certain signs — mushrooms in a colander in the sink or blood sausages lying in a pan like the severed fingers of a giant — I’d go next door to Christine’s house. If I were lucky, her mother would be making Weiner schnitzel. She knew I loved it and always asked me to stay for dinner. Sometimes I ate there twice a week. My heart would swell with happiness as I squeezed a wedge of lemon over the perfectly browned disks of breaded veal, blissfully removed from the world in which mothers served children goulash. In gratitude to Christine’s mother, I sat up straight, cleared my plate, used my napkin, and said thank you before I left. When she told my mother what beautiful manners I had, my mother said, in a disparaging tone, that I would do anything for that particular dish. In other words, I was a schnitzel whore.
When my mother cooked liver for dinner, I was sure she no longer loved us and felt forsaken. The first time I tried liver, my stomach heaved and I knew I would die before eating more. Bile soured at the back of my throat the next time I saw deep purple chunks of lobe bleeding onto their Styrofoam tray.
“Why are you making liver when you know we hate it?”
“Because your father loves it!”
We’d have been happy to let him eat his liver in peace, as was his right as the self-proclaimed “King of the Castle,” except that another rule in the Castle was that we all had to eat the same thing. The lobe chunks hit the pan with a slap and slid against the sacrificial onions. I took my seat, ate everything around the liver, and waited for the inevitable. When the Predator King had finished his organ meat, he came into the kitchen to make sure we had been grateful for our dinner. The pristine chunks of liver on our plates demonstrated we had not, so he smacked us and sent us to bed.
Liver nights never ended well. On bad days we suspected that the mother bird used the liver as a lure to draw the Predator King into the kitchen when she was fed up with trying to control us herself. Why else?
Years later, I would have asked my mother about her choices of meals and allegiances were it not for her aversion to discussing unpleasantries. I can only surmise that she did the best she could. But that perspective is never available to the child, who is consigned to sit in the growing darkness, her unfinished plate before her, expecting the predator’s appearance at the kitchen door.