I’ve written this before. When I was in college, I took a Food Writing class. After we’d familiarized ourselves with every verb in food preparation and how to poetically review a restaurant, we were given an assignment on food Subcultures. Obvious examples included: You grew up playing soccer, what did that soccer subculture eat? If you grew up in a Korean family, what was that like and how did food play a role?
I had plenty of access to my Brazilian culture for this assignment; I’d only just been back there the year before, and Brazilian food is really easy to write about–because everything is meat, fried and delicious. And I grew up on the swim team, which has it’s own subculture of Chick-fil-A sandwiches, Fun Dips and Pixie Sticks, but I wasn’t feeling particularly connected to either topic. So, no.
What really defined my Subculture was my insane family. And spaghetti.
I come from a family of six. And even though I like to think that my parents were pretty deliberate in having all four of us, I’m pretty sure my youngest brother was a mistake (sorry, Nick). We are all about two years apart: my sister, Kelly, is 27, I am 25, George is 21 and Nicholas is 19. And though it’s been years since we all sat down together to have dinner as a family, the trauma–induced by hormones, mood swings and probably a little disrespect– endured during moments we sat around a table together cannot–and should not–be forgotten.
You couldn’t take the Terrell family anywhere. You still can’t. But when we were kids, this was an understatement. My father traveled a lot when we were younger (I was about eight), leaving my poor mother to our disposal. I remember she took us to a small, local Italian restaurant down the street from our house one night while my dad was away. I like to give my mom some credit for her optimism here: thinking she could get the four of us through a meal successfully is tenacious, and she does deserve some accolades for that alone. That being said, the majority of the meal my mom spent her energy attempting to silence the wails of my youngest brother (again, sorry, Nick.) while I’m sure what my sister and I were fighting over was how annoying he was. I don’t remember if it was the Tuesday or the Saturday night crowd we were pissing off, but the entire restaurant–staff and guests–were over the Terrell family.
This is when a waiter asked us to leave.
My mom, who comes from a family of ten children (yes, ten, which puts my siblings and I to shame), I imagine was not at all phased by this request. In fact, in my adulthood I now wonder if that was just her mastermind plan to shut down any future discussions on family dinner outings. Like if anyone ever suggested it, she could say, “No, we got kicked out of Giovanni’s,” and no one would ever be able to argue with that. Because that’s ridiculous.
So, the waiter asked us to leave, cautiously, like he might catch hysteria or something if he got too close to us. My mom asked them to box up our plates, because this wasn’t for nothing, and I was in charge of holding the bag of food while my mom signed the check.
I’m waiting in the reception and bar area of the tiny restaurant as my mother is awkwardly apologizing for her awful children, and I begin to do what any bored eight year old would do: I start spinning in circles. Bag in hand, the centrifugal force of my spinning, at first, kept the pasta and sauce contents safely in position within the to-go boxes–until, because again, I’m eight years old and I have absolutely no real human skills or coordination, I trip on a shoelace, and my spin is faltered, shifting the contents of the boxes in my hands. Sauce, a bright red marinara, began leaking from the bag and as I spun, painted the walls with lines and awesomely spattered across my mother and the server’s legs beside me. I continued to spin, blissfully unaware of the disaster I was causing, until the siren of my mother’s angry shrieking interrupted my concentration. I was dizzy and all I could see was bright red marinara sauce.
As the waiter handed my mother her receipt, he told my mom that we were never welcome there again.
Like I said, you can’t take The Terrell’s anywhere. This is why family dinners are really a subculture in my life. These dinners framed who I am as a person. After that night, we always ate at the same table. And when my dad was there, he would do his best to pacify any situation, often before it even happened, like when he would always move my glass of milk from the edge of the table so I didn’t knock it off (I will spill my drink at least once in front of every person I know). And dinner would never just end, it would violently implode. Dinners in the Terrell house were emotionally charged. You never really ever get used to this as much as you begin to expect it.
Nick, my youngest brother and now one of my best friends, and I are a lot alike. We are really stubborn. And we annoy everyone around us. We’ve grown out of it to be functioning and kind adults, but this characteristic didn’t make anything easy for my parents. Nick was more than a picky eater; he would literally not eat anything unless it was one of three things: chicken nuggets, pancakes or cereal. This was annoying at dinners, mostly for my mom who had to prepare a special dinner for her son, The Picky Eater (even though she willingly still cuts his pancakes today.). But when Nick was younger, my parents were rightfully concerned that this would affect not only his physical development but also him as a human. At some point in your human life, people begin to question whether to take you seriously as an adult if you only order off the kids’ menu.
So my parents went to a doctor–a psychologist, who recommended the firm approach. He advised my parents to take a stand, and refuse to cater to Nick’s ridiculous food requests. If we had chicken, he would eat that or nothing else. When my parents told us this, I was enticed. I also supported this plan because Nick’s whining was exhausting at the dinner table (almost as much as my sister and I).
Nick didn’t eat for almost two days.
The second night, we had spaghetti, obviously. I say obviously because not only did my mom make the best bolognese sauce, but she made it in dramatic quantities and froze it in containers like it was the apocalypse. Also obvious is that Nick does not like spaghetti and he is in fact refusing to eat it, and if he was going to live in the Terrell house he better consider developing a taste for it. I think we all expected his refusal, but what I did not expect was my mother to stand so firmly on her platform and demand he eat dinner. Maybe she realized that if she and my father stood any more firm on the situation, it might be considered child abuse. Also fundamental to this dinner is that it was al fresco, on the back patio, as it was spring time.
So, there Nick was, with his plate of spaghetti. In that moment, the Stubbornness was so Real, it was palpable. So very real. But two days without Honey Nut Cheerios was beginning to weaken his resistance. He took a bite. I think the five of us were cheering. He took another bite. And another. Maybe he was chewing? Maybe not. He was eating so fast it was like he thought there were chicken nuggets at the bottom. And then, it happened.
Vomit. Vomit everywhere.
All over the wooden deck, all over the plate and remaining noodles in front of him. Vomit, pink with an abundance of noodles, was. EVERYWHERE. Nick, who was hysterically crying at this point, had won. Holy shit, had he won.
He won so hard, he didn’t have to really start eating adult food until he was forced to when he attended boarding school in Missouri when he was 18. Nick can finally enjoy Thanksgiving and barbecue. And I believe, for that, he is finally living.
Family dinners in my house always ended this way. Abruptly, unpredictably and most likely offensively. The only thing you could expect was the unexpected (so meta). A general, “So, how was your day, Vanessa/Kelly?” could set off a nuclear explosion, though I now realize that that is just what you ask people around the dinner table. Like It’s probably weird not to ask.
And I didn’t forget, George, nothing can erase from my memory what my brother George is known for at the dinner table. He ate dinners as a toddler–one old enough to know better– standing up in his chair at the dinner table, naked. Eating something gross like mashed potatoes, or probably, spaghetti.
When my sister and I were around age sixteen, it became our natural expectation that we could convince our parents to let us get our bellybuttons pierced. This mission was not impossible and I knew would, most likely, be accomplished at the dinner table. It took many attempts with dinners resulting in slammed doors, foot and stair stomping and pulled hair, as did any compromise in the Terrell home. Kelly and I were great alliances when we could pull it together and get along long enough. I can say this confidently, because we did, in fact, get our bellybuttons pierced. And the joke is really on us because I regret that shit so much.
Our family, the types of dinners we endured and the staple of spaghetti in our household confirms that I was deeply rooted in a specific subculture that I can remember vividly today. I wanted to confirm this because the first draft of this assignment did not qualify that my family was in fact, a subculture (according to my professor). But we were different from the larger culture of families who could get through a dinner–of spaghetti or otherwise– at a nice restaurant without getting blacklisted. The Terrell’s took it to another level–and outside of dinner time. Someone was rollerblading on the tennis courts? The neighbors called my parents, because it must be the Terrell kids. Kelly got caught sneaking out, ruining my perfect escape route? The Terrell’s were, and currently still are, capable of pretty much anything imaginable, and whatever it was, was most likely vehemently dealt with over leftover spaghetti– at The Terrell family dinner table.
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