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NON-FICTION / Food Wars / Michail Mulvey

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Although I ate my mother’s cooking for eighteen years, only two meals stand out in my mind: her chicken cooked in red wine - which I loved - and her liver and onions - which I hated. One made my mouth water, the other made me hurl. Nothing else stands out, except, perhaps, all those Swanson TV Dinners I ate when my mother waitressed nights at the Brass Rail, an Italian restaurant on Stillwater Avenue, and I was left to my own culinary devices.

Like most kids, when served something different, my usual knee-jerk reaction was, "I don't like it." And, as usual, my mother's knee-jerk response was, "How do you know you don't like it? You haven't even tried it!" 

"I don't like it," I'd insist with a pout and a pushing away of the plate.  Then she'd try something like, "It's all in your head," or "Eat it, it’s good for you." When that didn't work she tried threats.  "Wait till your father gets home!" my mother said when she tried to make me eat Brussels sprouts.

"He's not my father!" I replied, pushing the plate away. 

For once she had no comeback. Her present husband wasn't my father, only my stepfather. I still feared him, though, so this backtalk was a gamble. She dumped my Brussels sprouts in the garbage and sent me to my room. I'd won. This time.

This clash of culinary wills came to a head the night my mother made liver and onions. The very smell made my nose hairs curl. And at the first bite, I knew it was going to be a long night. The liver had a metallic after-taste and the onions looked like fried worms.  

At first I thought of usingthe waiting game, a tactic I'd used once before when my mother made beet soup for lunch. I tried a spoonful, made a face, said "Yuk," and pushed the bowl away. Both the soup and I sat at the kitchen table from lunchtime until somewhere around five when she gave up and sent me to my room. Of course I got no supper and went to bed hungry, but she never made beet soup again.  

ButI knew that if I tried the waiting game that night, the night she first served me liver and onions, I'd be sent to my room and I'd miss my favorite Saturday night TV shows, Have Gun-Will Traveland Gunsmoke. So I tried another ploy, a variation of the waiting game. I slowly and deliberately ate the mashed potatoes and peas, carefully inspecting every forkful, then cut the liver into small pieces and maneuvered them around the plate, stalling, patiently waiting for my mother to finish her supper. When she was done, she went to the sink and started on the dishes. With her back turned, I stuffed the pieces of liver in my pants pockets.

"I’m done," I said, holding up my plate up for inspection. 

"You can go watch TV now," she replied, giving me a hard look for taking so long. Just then my step-father stumbled in the door. I'd 'finished' just in time.

I walked past my stepfather to the bathroom, closed and locked the door, then emptied my pockets of liver into the toilet. I flushed and watched the pieces circle the bowl then disappear. 

But in my haste to empty my pockets of liver, I’d missed a piece – which, of course, my mother found the next day when she checked my pockets before doing the laundry. As soon as I walked in the door from school she was on me like gravy on mashed potatoes. "What is this?" she yelled, holding the piece of liver an inch from my face. "And how did it get into your pants pocket?" she yelled again, this time holding my pants an inch from my face. "Did it just fall in? What did you do with the rest?"  

I said nothing. Caught with liver in my pocket and making up some story would have been a double whammy. I wouldn’t be let out of my room or allowed to watch TV until I was old and gray. 

"Answer me!" she yelled, the veins in her neck sticking out.

Again I said nothing.

I thought I’d get the lecture about how hard she worked at the Brass Rail to put food on the table. Money was tight – my step-father bounced from job to job, came and went, in and out of our lives every couple of months, it seemed. Once he disappeared for six months. Later I learned he'd been in prison.

If Aunt Mary had been there, I'm sure I would have gotten the lecture about how kids in Korea were starving. It was 1961, the Korean War had been over for years and I was sure there were no starving kids in Korea. Or she might have lectured me about how wasting food was a sin. I wasn't very attentive in catechism class, but I was pretty sure there was no commandment that said, "Thou shalt not flush liver down the toilet."            

"Go to your room," my mother said, her fists clenched. "And no TV tonight—or for the rest of the week," she added. I thought that was the last time I'd ever see—or smell—liver and onions.

But the following Friday evening, when I got off the elevator, I caught a whiff of something that smelled suspiciously like that despised animal organ.  I prayed it was some other poor kid's mother who was making the dreaded dish for dinner. 

On hot and sultry summer evenings, when everyone in our city housing projects left their windows open trying to catch even the slightest passing breeze, our neighborhood smelled like the United Nations of food. As I walked by the Murray's, I caught the aroma of ribs simmering in sauce. I wanted to stop and ask Mrs. Murray if she'd adopt me. From the Zannino's came the bouquet of baked manicotti. From the Kocak's, kielbasa and kraut. And I knew right about now Mrs. Williams would be making southern fried chicken. Ambrosia. A balm for tortured taste buds.

But through our kitchen window I could see my mother standing at the stove, one hand on her hip, the other stabbing at something in a fry pan. Like salt and pepper on mashed potatoes, anger and resentment flavored every meal she made.

"It can't be. Not again," I said to myself. I hesitated, trying to find a way out of what I considered a culinary ambush. Seeing none, I reluctantly entered the kill zone. A smoky haze hung in the air and assaulted my eyes. A sickening, acrid stench tortured my nose. 

When she turned around, there, in my mother's hand, was a large platter of fried liver, smothered in onions. "Supper's ready," she said, defiantly.  I sagged in despair. I wanted to ask why she was forcing me eat something she knew I hated. Why wasn't I allowed my likes and dislikes, I wanted to ask. Was I being punished for having wasted food the week before?  Or was there something else I was being punished for? Like having been born? But I said nothing. Sitting at the dinner table, giving me a hard look, was my stepfather, a bottle of Rheingold in his hand, an empty nearby.        

I thought of doubling over in pain, complaining of cholera or polio or some other deadly disease. Or I could just run away. But where would I go? Eventually the cops would drag me back home—andwaiting for me, I'm sure, would be a large plate of liver, smothered in onions. 

So I sat there, eating under the watchful eye of my mother and the glare of my stepfather. I cut the liver into small pieces, buried them in large forkfuls of mashed potatoes, dotted the potatoes with peas, closed my eyes, winced, and shoved the mix in my mouth. I was hoping the two vegetables would mask the liver, but the metallic taste cut through and made each forkful torture. I washed down each piece with a long slug of milk. When I'd emptied my glass, I asked for another. My stepfather watched as I ate, making sure no liver accidently 'fell' into my pockets.

I cleaned my plate and asked to be excused. "Put your plate in the sink," my stepfather ordered. "Let me check your pockets," my mother said, even though they'd both watched me eat every last piece of liver. After I'd placed my plate in the sink, I pulled my pockets inside out. My mother found nothing but lint, twenty-seven cents in loose change, an old stick of gum, and our house key. 

I stood there, glaring at my mother, wanting to tell her I wished she were dead, but I could feel my stepfather's eyes burning into the back of my head. Instead, I calmly walked to the bathroom, closed and locked the door, then put my fingers down my throat as far as I could reach.

It didn't take long for my dinner to come up—the liver was halfway up my throat before I'd even made it to the bathroom anyway. The liver-mashed potatoes-peas combo was immediately followed by the semi-digested hot dog, Hostess Cupcakes, and the chocolate milk I'd had for lunch.

I hesitated before flushing the toilet. Maybe I’ll leave it there for her to seefor them both to see. When my mother heard me puking, she banged on the bathroom door. "What are you doing?" she yelled. Not, "Are you alright?" a question most mothers would have asked.

I wanted to open the door and let her see what I thought of her liver and onions, what I thought of her, what I thought of my stepfather, what I thought of this roach-infested apartment in this shit-hole of a city housing project. But I flushed the toilet, watched the disgusting gray mush circle the bowl then disappear, down and out to the city sewage treatment plant where it belonged.

I rinsed my mouth, wiped my face, and opened the door.

"I asked what you were doing!" she yelled.

"I got sick," I replied, in a tone I didn't normally dare use.

We stood face to face, exchanging hard looks. I’m sure she knew I was lying, but she had no proof. I'd eaten my dinner as ordered. 

I walked around my mother to my room, slammed the door and went to bed. Hungry but smiling. I’d won. My mother never made liver and onions again . . . at least not for me. 

 

When I turned sixteen, I found a part-time, after-school job at the public library that sometimes kept me out past nine. I often ate my dinner at various downtown lunch counters and eateries. When not working, I'd find an excuse to drop by my grandmother’s house just in time for supper. Occasionally I ate at the home of a sympathetic classmate.  "We're having pork chops," said Mrs. Marsden one evening. "I hope that's OK." I wanted to kiss her on the lips.

The summer before my junior year I picked up a weekend job at Tony's, a small grocery and delicatessen around the corner from the projects. For lunch Tony would sometimes make us salami and provolone grinders with mustard, mayo, lettuce, tomato, and sweet peppers. I could eat salami and provolone for breakfast lunch and dinner—and I wasn't even Italian. I would have worked for free just for those sandwiches Tony made on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

For awhile I even dated an Italian girl in Building B named Donna whose mother's cooking left me weak in the knees: ravioli, lasagna, eggplant parmesan, toasted garlic bread. I was in love.  At first bite, my eyes would roll back in my head and I'd moan in satisfaction. I often left Donna's house reeking of garlic and olive oil, my shirt stained red with marinara sauce. We broke up when Donna finally realized I was in love with her mother – and her mother's cooking.

 

This battle of wills between my mother and I continued until June 1965 when I left home—and what my mother considered home cooking—to join the Army. To be honest, I think I enlisted just to be out of that house. Looking back, though, I probably could have found a better way to avoid my mother’s cooking. Most Army cooks made my mother look like Julia Child.

When I got out of the Army in late June 1968, I moved back in with my mother. It would be a temporary stay, however. In September I'd be heading off to college. And since my mother was working fulltime at the Brass Rail, there wasn’t much occasion or time for her to cook for me. 

Time and distance had eased our tense and troubled relationship. I’d grown up in the Army and my mother had been beaten down by life and circumstances—my stepfather had finally left for good when I was overseas. And I noticed a change in the tone of her letters after I wrote about driving over a mine one morning in Tay Ninh Province. 

Away at college, I didn’t visit home that often. I was too busy with school and a part-time job. To be honest, I didn’t really care to visit the projects or chance getting into an argument with my mother. One Saturday afternoon, however, I did have occasion to visit. Hoping to score a free meal, I stopped by the Brass Rail where my mother worked an afternoon shift.  

I entered a dining room packed with paisans feasting on ziti and meatballs, baked lasagna, chicken cacciatore, eggplant parmesan, and veal Sorrentino—the antidote for and antithesis of college cafeteria cuisine. 

 My mouth began to water. My stomach growled. Taste buds, long thought dead, arose, Christ-like from their culinary graves and yelled "Hallelujah!"  From the kitchen came the heavenly bouquet of simmering marinara sauce, the scent of freshly crushed garlic, the essence of extra virgin olive oil, and the sweet balm of Italian hot sausage sizzling in a pan of red and green peppers. I was surrounded. From the Wurlitzer, Dean Martin crooned an Italian love song. Resistance was futile. I surrendered without a fight.

"I have something I want you to try," my mother said, this time with a smile, not her usual threatening look. "What is it," I asked warily. "You’ll like it," she replied, heading into the kitchen. I took a seat in the back, by the kitchen entrance, munched on a bread stick, and watched as she pulled a shallow metal casserole dish out of the oven.  At first I thought she'd made my favorite dish, chicken cooked in red wine. Then it occurred to me that perhaps she'd found a new recipe for liver and onions, one she thought I might like.

"Ah, for Christ's sake," I thought. "Here we go again."

"You’ll love it," she said, carefully placing the hot dish in front of me. "It’s swordfish cooked in butter."

When I was a kid my mother rarely cooked fish for supper. In fact I couldn’t remember her ever cooking fish for us. Maybe she didn’t like fish. With family roots in Maine, however, she loved lobster. I tried it once but all I could taste was the butter.    

I loved butter. Especially on popcorn. And on rye toast or English muffins or Italian bread. Or on mashed potatoes or peas and carrots. Even on steak. I would have put butter on ice cream if my mother let me—or when she wasn't looking.

I gave my mother a dubious look. When I hesitated, she poured me a glass of Chianti – I was twenty-one now and old enough to drink – then placed a basket of sliced, still-warm Italian bread and a small dish of soft butter on the table. 

"Try it," she said again. "It’s cooked in butter. You like butter."

Like I said, I’d grown since I left my mother’s house. And the Army had altered my culinary tastes irrevocably. In those three years I’d eaten food I thought I’d never touch, like SOS—shit on a shingle we called it. Chipped beef on toast the Army called it, a grayish-looking liquid paste made from government meat and government flour, poured over damp, under-toasted government bread, plopped on your metal tray by greasy and grumpy Army cooks or sweaty and over-worked KP’s.

And worse. For 365 days my daily menu consisted of the same twelve meals, almost. They came in a case, these same twelve meals. C-Rations the Army called them. Crap in a can we called them. One meal universally despised was ham and lima beans. Ham and motherfuckers we called it. 

We cooked our daily C's over a small fire made of broken-up ammo crates or broken-up cardboard C-Ration boxes or pieces of wood from buildings splintered by artillery fire, whatever was handy. Sometimes we cooked our C's over small pieces of C-4, a high explosive used to blow bunkers and any other obstacles that got in our way. 

So I tried a piece of this swordfish swimming in melted butter, thinking that if I didn't like it I could cut the swordfish into small pieces and maneuver them around, stalling until my mother was called to wait on another table. When she wasn't looking, I'd stuff the pieces in my pockets, go to the men's room and flush the pieces down the toilet.

I took a bite. "Not bad," I said, trying hard to stifle a smile.

My mother grinned. 

"See, I knew you’d like it," she said, gently touching my shoulder.


Michail Mulvey is an adjunct instructor of American literature, holds an MFA in creative writing and has had more than three dozen short stories published in literary magazines and journals in the US, the UK, and Ireland. His work has appeared in publications such as Johnny America, Scholars and Rogues, Prole (UK), The Front Porch Review, Roadside Fiction (IRL), Crack the Spine, Cutbank Online, The Summerset Review, Literary Orphans, and War, Literature and the Arts.