My father sometimes charged us for food. I remember once deciding to pay a quarter — one week’s allowance — for a can of tuna. A quarter was a lot, but I was hungry, and I knew I could earn more by “payday,” Saturday, for cleaning the house. A chart hanging over the ironing board listed the wages my father would pay my three sisters and me: a penny each for closets, two cents for the little bathroom, three cents for the big bathroom, and five cents each for the three bedrooms, living room, sun room, kitchen, and laundry room. But a room could be cleaned only once a day, and there were four of us.
I remember very clearly what foods were free. Every morning, my mother made us each a scrambled egg with toast and Tang, or hot cereal and reconstituted milk, or some unfortunate combination of the two. (Once, she put dry cereal in our eggs. Thrifty, I believe she would have said of herself, for not discarding such mistakes.) She was a careless cook, at best, and was even known to boil hamburger by accident, intending the water for macaroni but losing track somewhere. She’d toss in noodles and frozen vegetables at the last minute to create a soup of sorts. “Last-minute recipes,” my sisters and I came to call these menus. We often found cottage-cheese-and-relish sandwiches in our lunch sacks when we got to Sacred Heart Elementary: something had to go between the two slices of bread. Other times it was one slice of bologna with yellow mustard and Miracle Whip, a condiment I associated with the Catholic Church for years. (Anyone familiar with certain sadomasochistic representations of the lives of the saints will understand what imaginative journeys I was sent on by the juxtaposition of the words miracle and whip.) The sweet-and-sour taste became as familiar as my own spit; we had it every night as well, on shredded iceberg lettuce.
And we had some form of hamburger nightly for years, along with a package of frozen vegetables: peas and cubed carrots, or lima beans. Such lack of variety would be understandable if it were imposed by economic hardship, but in my parents’ case it was rooted in a suspicion of food and the act of consumption, as if the Psalmist’s invitation to “taste and see” were a trick to encourage gluttony. Certainly, there is nothing immoral in feeding one’s children frozen foods grown in another part of the country, but I should point out that I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley — where one-third of the nation’s produce is grown — and that my father was an agricultural scientist specializing in conservation. Driving through the valley on summer evenings, he would lecture my sisters and me on the unique quality of the soil, explaining how water projects like the Friant-Kern Canal made the valley particularly suitable for growing the wide variety of fruits and vegetables we observed being sold at roadside stands. And he would warn us that, by the time we were women, the ground water would be depleted, the valley would be desert, and the price of the fresh produce we seldom tasted would skyrocket beyond our means.
I must say that my parents didn’t treat themselves any better than they treated my sisters and me. They ate moldy vegetables and questionable meat, then dismissed the resulting nausea, which could have been avoided. As an agricultural scientist, my father knew well the toxins produced by decay, yet he ate rotten food and accepted the discomfort it caused as part of life.
For much of my childhood, my mother took amphetamines to lose weight and tranquilizers to sleep, and often forgot which ones were which. We would find her asleep standing up at the stove, a red-hot electric burner inches from her sleeve, like a silent warning about the dangers of marriage and motherhood. At one point, my father chained and padlocked the refrigerator to keep her out of it while he was at work. She claimed that she only had to smell food to gain weight, but our kitchen never smelled like much of anything.
Although thin, my sisters and I were not underweight. Still, food was often on our minds, so we learned to steal it. Bread was the easiest. Peanut butter was a good bet because it was difficult to notice the loss of one spoonful out of a whole jar. But such theft was always a risk as the contents of cupboard and refrigerator were closely watched.
The abundance of food at the houses of our neighbors and of my mother’s Protestant relatives stunned me. That my parents’ neglect had to do with simple meanness was a hard pill to swallow, so naturally I associated my hunger with my mother’s Catholicism. After all, our Protestant relatives ate with what seemed a sinful pleasure. My mother’s family, who were cattle ranchers, barbecued large pieces of meat whenever we visited. The men drinking beer and telling stories around the barbecue would cut off pieces of homemade sausage, blow on them to cool them, and hand them to us children without counting to see how many we’d had so far. At dinner, we could go back for seconds, or even thirds. Pitchers of whole milk were left on the table, and adults asked if we wanted more. We would eat until we made ourselves ill.
Eventually, my sisters and I acquired the reputation of being sickly children, and were consequently encouraged to eat more. We were always praised for our composure and manners compared to those of our cousins, who threw pitchforks at each other from haylofts and hit one another with hammers and shovels while my sisters and I sat eagerly awaiting the food and discussing the consequences of marrying outside the church.
My mother became a Catholic because my father had an Italian surname. She was his cousin Marie’s roommate at San Jose State in 1952, when she fell in love with a photo of him and began attending Mass, hoping to win the favor of this handsome, and presumably Catholic, young man. They married four months after their first semiblind date. It was only after the wedding that Mom learned her husband was raised a Congregationalist by his Scottish mother.
My father’s mother believed that adding spice to food led one into gluttony. Her deplorable cooking — she boiled everything to a uniform color — was her biggest contribution to my parents’ marriage. My mother brought no recipes of note to the union. This was fine, since my father never expected much more than three separate piles of mush on his plate: one brown or beige, signifying protein; one white, signifying starch; and one green — or orange, if there were carrots involved — signifying vegetables. And that is exactly what we had nightly for years until, when I was nine, my mother converted to being Italian as well. She bought an Italian folk-song record and a red-and-white-checkered tablecloth, and she cooked lasagna for the first time. Confused as we were when “O Sole Mio” replaced “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” as her favorite piano tune, my sisters and I welcomed the addition of tomato sauce and cheese to our diet. One night, Mom even invented a sort of Caesar Americano salad by sprinkling Parmesan on the Miracle Whip.
I’ll never know what sparked this sudden burst of ethnicity. We’d had no previous exposure to anything Mediterranean. I suspect she was trying to become interesting. Unfortunately, my father’s personality — by turns cold and violent — afforded little room for self-expression.
My father charged himself for food as well. I learned this one morning at breakfast when I was thirteen. I was making my usual — one serving of instant cream of wheat with one tablespoon of condensed milk and one packet of Sweet-N-Low — and my father was reading the Los Angeles Times at the table. After his first cup of black coffee, he took two corn tortillas out of the freezer, cracked them apart, spread a tablespoon of margarine between them, and put them in the oven.
It was 1970. His hair was extremely short, but not for political reasons. He had bought a gadget for cutting it himself. The first time he used the device, he cut a deep swath out of his thick black hair, and even took off skin. (I still can’t watch the sheepshearing exhibit at a fair without thinking of him.) He left it that way for some time before my mother finally cut the rest. Like his violence toward us, such money-saving mishaps were eventually treated with humor and became part of his legend, like the time he tried to pierce my sister Mary’s ears with a sewing-machine needle, or the time he insisted he could neuter our kitten himself.
That morning, as my father struggled to get his fork through the toughened tortillas, he informed me that his entire breakfast, coffee included, cost seventeen cents. Chewing, he went on to report that his lunch cost him only thirty-two cents: every day he walked across the street from where he worked and bought a can of vegetable beef soup, which he heated on the lab’s hot plate. “That’s less than fifty cents a day,” he said, “not counting dinner.”
I didn’t know how much my cream of wheat cost, but I felt morally superior knowing there were only 114 calories in it, including the tablespoon of condensed milk and packet of Sweet-N-Low; his tortillas each had sixty, and the margarine added a hundred more.
Dad rarely attended Mass, and then never knelt during it. Noting this, the nuns asked my sisters and me if he was baptized, and instructed us that a layperson could baptize a dying man if a priest were not available. We, of course, immediately added the drama of baptizing Dad on his deathbed to our repertoire of games, which included the rape of Saint Anne, the self-torture of Saint Dominic Savio, and the crushing of Saint Catherine with a wheel. I have often wondered what my father thought when he came across his school-age daughters busily tying each other to stakes, preparing beds of glass, or rolling inner tubes over one another. He must have been relieved when, after he bought a TV in 1965, we gave up the lives of the saints to reenact episodes of My Friend Flicka.
Most Sundays, while we went to church, Dad stayed home, mowed the lawn, and, we suspected, ate. We never found any evidence when we returned, but we felt sure he kept secret caches of food. One day, the Nelson kids, whom we discovered were Protestant when they ridiculed us for whipping each other with branches, told us our father kept a private stash of individually wrapped frozen cupcakes in the garage freezer. We denied it, so one of them climbed up on some boxes to get the key to the freezer, and opened it. Of course they were right: flats of chocolate cupcakes with pink frosting lay beside the frozen bread.
I used to think “Don’t cry over spilled milk” was a warning not to cry from the beating you got for spilling your milk. My father’s violence at the dinner table was breathtaking. He would grab the offender by the arm and yank her out of her seat. Never mind that, when he did, her knees knocked the table, causing further disturbance of plates and glasses. There was no use pleading it was an accident. My father would not allow for the possibility of accidents. To him, every spilled glass of milk or dropped bit of food was an act of conscious wastefulness, a sin. When my elegant sister Ann spilled her milk, my father grabbed her by the hair, dragged her into the living room, and kicked her in the stomach. My mother never interfered, but remained seated, telling the rest of us, “Don’t you get up. Just keep eating. Keep eating.”
Eating less at the dinner table was greeted with more approval than a good report card. So it’s not surprising that my sisters and I began hoarding food, eating in secret, counting calories, bingeing and purging. I remember, when I was ten, I snuck into our camper, which was parked in the driveway, to eat caramel after caramel. We had just moved to a new house. I could hear children playing outside. There was something wrong with my life, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. We lived in a nice house, in a nice neighborhood. We had a camper, and my parents had just bought a new Mercedes. My country was at war, but that was far away, and my new neighbors did not display American flags and gold stars in their windows as my old neighbors had done, to indicate that their sons were soldiers, or dead. Nothing was wrong here, but still I prayed every night for Jesus to take my soul, and woke every morning with a sense of betrayal.
Years later, as a member of the Catholic student group in college, I volunteered at a community lunch program. My friend David and I always got there early to chop vegetables for soup or spaghetti sauce. David, a convert, was terribly optimistic and would argue that things would inevitably turn out OK because of the Resurrection of Christ. While I conceded that we were certainly better off for the Resurrection, I would point out signs that things were not as they should be: the water tables, for example, were falling, and by the time he and I were middle-aged the San Joaquin Valley would be a desert and the price of vegetables would skyrocket beyond our means.
One day, as we sat arguing and cutting vegetables, he scolded me: “Don’t chop the onionskins in with the rest. That’s garbage. We have to cook for these people the way we would cook for our families.”
I was struck by the notion that care and food were linked. When working at the soup kitchen, I was usually careful to cut things up properly, but in the heat of argument I had become sloppy; David had caught me chopping vegetables as I would have chopped them for myself. If I’d had a family of my own, would I have taken care to leave the onionskins out of their soup? Probably not, and for the same reason my parents fed us garbage on occasion: they did not love themselves.