I didn’t know that I loved squid until my mother served up a hot plate of fried calamari one night. We were still in the era of “You’ll eat what your mother cooks”, so all of us just pretended it was little onion rings. It was Danny, the youngest, who ruined it all. He had found an un-cut conical tail and stuck it on his fingertip. The little squidlet became a finger puppet named Pepe, and Danny was conversing with him in his little five-year-old voice. As he played, however, the breading slowly fell away, revealing the true nature of our dinner that evening.
I know that faces were slowly getting paler and paler as Danny continued to play with Pepe. It would have gotten really bad if our father hadn’t been watching Walter Cronkite on the news, but had instead been focused on making sure we all cleaned our plates. Something must have been going on in the Deep South or over in the Southeast Asia region, because he was riveted to the black and white TV that lived in the corner of the dining room.
I think it was Michael who bolted for the bathroom first. The thought of eating an octopus was just too much for him. He was the one in the family most fascinated by Jacque Cousteau, and had seen the divers teasing the rubbery blob of tentacles and head sack fifty feet underwater. The thought that he had just swallowed any part of that blob was enough to initiate projectile vomiting. Thank God he had the sense to bolt away from the table first. I’m certain that we would have all followed him within a split second.
It never occurred to us kids that perhaps Mom was just doing what she was told to do by the TV every day when we were all in school. Cook a healthy meal for your family, and slowly introduce the fascinating foods of international cuisine to spice up your meal time. In the early 60’s, I was still suspicious of Brussels sprouts, and spent most of dinner time trying to find what was at their center by peeling the leaves away one at a time. That level of curiosity came to me naturally, mostly because Michael had once told me that there was a worm in the middle of each of the tiny little baby cabbages.
With Michael away from the table and woofing in the bathroom, and with Dad distracted by the goings on in the world, I followed Danny’s lead and decorated both hands with the rubbery rings on my plate. I was still at the monoculture stage of life where I could live for months on nothing but Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. My mother knew this, Dad was oblivious to this, and the others teased me mercilessly for this. Anything breaded and fried was in the good column, and if it could also be played with, that was even better. I chewed the rings off my hand, one finger at a time, and as long as the world was going to hell on TV, I could get away with it. I suspect that Mom was just grateful that I was eating something on my plate and not asking her if she could make me up a bowl of pasta.
We all got tired of dinner slowly, and one after the other, we asked “May I be excused from the table?” Mom sighed and took this as a sign that her efforts had hit a dead end. I was actually the one who ate the most. Every other place at the table had a plate tilted crooked from the calamari secreted beneath it, or a cat beneath the chair gnawing on a still-warm ring of rubber. When Maureen stood up, the entire load that she had hidden in her lap fell on to the floor at her feet, which were already running for the living room and the big TV. It was probably time for Ed Sullivan and we all knew that Maureen was Topo Gigio’s biggest fan.
It was my turn to help clear the table, and I got to ask Mom about dinner that night. “Mom,” I said, “was that really an octopus we ate tonight?” She smiled that tired smile of hers, and nodded. “It was seafood, just like when we have fish sticks. You really like them, don’t you?”
I tottered into the kitchen with two plates carefully stacked together. “I think I like octopus,” I said. “Mostly the outside, but the inside part was like onion rings, and I kind of like those now, too.” Her smile was all the reward I needed to feel good about this meal.
I got to the living room just in time to claim the spot on top of the heater register in the corner by the big rubber tree plant. It was the warmest place in the house in the winter. We, the kids, had a fierce battle going on for claiming our favorite spot to watch TV. Sometimes, we even got strategic and claimed a spot that wasn’t our favorite, but we knew that one of the siblings loved it. Depriving someone of a favorite spot was better than claiming your own favorite spot, and was certainly worth more points on the kid scale of annoying the sibs. Claiming the heater was best because you could shift sideways and lift up the register grate and look for neat stuff that had fallen in during the week. There were always a couple of pennies or game pieces mixed in with all the dust balls. When you’re one of five kids, every point counts.