"What's that?" I asked my dad, pointing to the food on his plate. As a picky kid, I had discerned that my father considered himself a bit of a gourmet. There's no denying that he was an adventurous eater – when they were newlyweds, my Italian mother introduced him to anchovies and hard-boiled eggs on pumpernickel. Soon it became his weekend breakfast staple.
I, on the other hand, had well-defined opinions about what I'd put in my mouth. It became clear from the way I screwed up my face that my question was rhetorical – I'd already passed judgment.
"This? This is herring." He paused. "But I don't have much. Certainly not enough for both of you," he added, indicating my younger sister.
No problem. I thought I'd seen scales underneath the thick, creamy white sauce. The stuff smelled foul; it was definitely fish. It wasn't Friday (we were Catholic) and this clearly wasn't tuna, so I was off the hook. (I'd never tried oysters, lox, or Virginia ham, but I knew I didn't like them. No food should be moister than cake, unless it's ice cream.) I averted my eyes from my dad's plate. I thought that I'd gag if I had to swallow any.
But before I could share my reasoned opinion, my sister reached out with her fork and said, "Well, I want some."
"Hey, no fair," I said, and the battle was on.
If I had been a more thoughtful, suspicious child, I might have remembered that my dad minored in psychology in college. Or I might have recognized a pattern. At the local pool when I hadn't thought I could make it off the high diving board, it was his, "OK, but your sister just did," that propelled me to jump.
But I was too wrapped up in the moment, too naive, too competitive to put this together. My father quickly negotiated a settlement wherein my sister and I split the remaining food. We each took a bite and grimaced – herring in sour cream tastes as bad as it looks. We had scored a hollow victory.
Later, I was putting the breakfast leftovers into the refrigerator when I spied the herring jar on a shelf. Plenty remained. The victor was my father – he had gotten the best of my sister and me again. "I got you to try something before you dismissed it," he said by way of explanation.
My mom didn't mind and didn't interfere. We were all big eaters, and the unpredictable tastes of my sister and me made meals difficult to plan: One day my father and I might fight over the last meatball, while the next, we had tons of leftovers because my sister and I wouldn't touch the pork roast. Mom didn't share our fussiness – in the refrigerator next to my father's herring was my mother's jar of pickled pig's feet, an Italian delicacy.
Today I'm a mother to two skinny, poor eaters who never consume enough fruits and vegetables. This morning, I looked at the kitchen table and saw a bunch of bananas starting to turn brown. I hid all but one.
"I'm taking the last banana with me to work," I told my daughters.
"No, wait. I want some on my cereal." my older child said.
"What about me?" the younger one whined.
"You can share it," I told them. "I'll split it in half." I smiled to myself. Finally, I'm a victor in the food wars.