Words by James Joseph; illustrations by Maria Posato
When I was a kid, I had to finish everything on my plate during dinner or I would be subjugated to a night locked in my room.
Located in the upstairs front corner of my parents’ home is the room where young Jimmy slept. It was bare: a dresser, a closet filled my mother’s sweaters and jackets that did not fit in the master bedroom, a twin bed. A few books were scattered around the chamber. My favorite was The New Pictorial History of Wrestling. I would flip through the pages of ‘roided-up behemoths, my mouth agape at their superhero-like aura. Still, the punishment was a substantial threat. The folio of body slamming face painters was not enough for me to enjoy my room for a whole night.
The basement was always the goal. It offered a treasure trove of entertainment options to fulfill my childhood infused wonder. A television with the latest video game console was often occupied by my older brother, so I found a safe haven in the nerf basketball hoop attached to the storage room door. My small, skeletal frame would shift and spin, imitating the stars I saw on ESPN. If I had to shove broccoli down my gullet in order to emulate Vince Carter, I would do it.
The behavior of the rebels my sister spit out is not the same. They spend their meals whining and complaining about something as simple as mashed potatoes. Their punishment is nothing. Sweets are given to deviate their effrontery. Even threats of a night in their respective rooms are hollow. The children are unabashed in their ability to refuse food. The teenage stars they watch on YouTube are often defiant, and an incredible resistance to adults and a premature sense of free will has been instilled on twerps who are unable to tie their own shoes.
I shared this crass behavior when it came to one item: cooked spinach.
The soggy warmness of the leaves threatened my being. My mother, the iron fist of the family, ordered me to eat. “It is good for you,” she offered. When I did not care about the health benefits, the response was more stern. “Because I said so.” It was her favorite reason for anything.
My best friend’s mother, Phyllis, always served raw spinach salads with dinner. Her famous pesto was the main event, but the undercard of greens was welcome. I ate every bite. This spinach did not share the same consistency as regurgitated socks. Instead, it was fresh and covered in a homemade vinaigrette. When Phyllis would prepare dinner for me during my teenage years, the spinach salad stayed a staple (though the amount of dressing I use has an inverse relationship to my age).
At some point in the cooking process, spinach becomes sewage. My kid tears did not help with the seasoning. I tried to spend as little time chewing as possible. Two bites, possibly three, then a quick swallow. My sobs intensified. My mother boiled like the water the spinach was cooked in. After a couple attempts, I would begin to gag.
The tea kettle would whistle, and I was told my evening would be spent in my room, the Road Warriors and Big Van Vader my only companions for the night.
* * *
To celebrate my college graduation, my father announced we would be going to dinner. “Somewhere nice,” he instructed me. I tend to prefer places where I can don a DeMarcus Cousins jersey, so this request meant a collar.
The table at dinner was a little empty. All tables have been since my mother’s passing two years ago. Her sister, my father, my sister, and brother-in-law tried to fill the void. It will always be bare, but at least we can try.
I ordered steak; a fitting meal for a young male about to enter the real world. Steak is the dish for the platonic ideal of masculinity. Hemingway would order it. So, too, would Teddy Roosevelt. Those men would have hunted the animal before cooking its flesh. I was content just asking for it.
I must have overlooked the sides, aloof with dreams of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. When a boy in a pink oxford shirt set the plate in front of me, my old nemesis was the tag team partner of the medium rare cow.
After one too many nights spent with me retching over cooked spinach, Mom stopped trying. I would eat whatever else. It was not worth the effort or the energy. Cooked spinach became the exception to the rule.
But this time, I took a bite. My teeth weathered clouded memories. I washed it down with an ale. My mother would be proud. Not only had her youngest child become a college graduate, now, he was eating cooked spinach willingly.
“Would you like a box to take home, sir?” the pencil-necked humanoid asked. My steak was finished. The accompanying bread pudding had been devoured. All that was left was a whole side of spinach - minus one bite.
“No, thank you.”
No one undertook the effort to force me.