“Can we get some balsamic vinegar?”
My skin begins to crawl. We’ve eaten here before, several times, and each time the waiter refuses to bring balsamic for my dad’s Caprese salad because the “mozzarella is so fresh, it would be wrong.” We are at Da Silvano in the summer, and the waiter gives him a look. “All right sir,” he says, exiting reluctantly to the kitchen. And off I go.
“Why don’t you try it without the balsamic?”
“He likes balsamic,” my mom says emphatically.
“But why not try it without? Just to see.“
“Leave him alone.”
The salad arrives, and my dad, to appease me, takes a bite of the mozzarella and tomato and basil without balsamic and chews thoughtfully. Then, with perfect comic timing he says, “needs balsamic” and grabs the bottle and drenches his salad.
My parents, like my friends, know how to get a rise out of me. They know I’m a passionate person and that I’m particularly passionate about food. They know that it takes very little to set me off, and sometimes they do it on purpose.
Like how my mom will plop pills of Equal into her wine at dinner.
“Mom!” I’ll moan, hoarsely.
“Oh quiet,” she’ll say. “Mind your own business.”
But that’s just my problem. I can’t mind my own business. I care too much. I care so much that I’ve become something of a food bully. A title that my friends support wholeheartedly.
“You are a food bully,” says Diana, my roommate. “In fact, you’re the biggest food bully I’ve ever met.”
Diana’s suffered the most from my bullying. She hears me rant if she refuses dessert or if she only eats half the dinner I cook her. She also withstands my scrutiny at restaurants, where I fault her for ordering safely or cheaply or repetitively.
“You always get that,” I’ll say.
Or, “That’s boring. Why not get something more exciting?”
Or, “You need an appetizer. That won’t be enough.”
The bullying hit a climax last week when I came home and found a familiar paper bag on the coffee table.
“Did you have Chinese again?” I asked her as she eyed me nervously from the couch.
“Yes,” she admitted.
“But Diana. You had this last night.”
“Well what would you have tomorrow if I didn’t cook dinner?”
“I guess I’d get more Chinese take-out.”
I roll up my sleeves. I begin hopping up and down. What is she thinking? Chinese take-out at every meal? Chinese take-out is good once in a while, but every meal? And it’s not even good Chinese take out, it’s from that frightening place across the street, the place with gray interiors and fuzzy fluorescent lights.
POW! “Diana, that’s just depressing.”
POW! “Why don’t you cook something for yourself?”
POW! “I can’t believe I live with someone who eats Chinese take-out at every meal.”
How did I get to be such a bully? Do we need to soar over my childhood and study scenes of torment and humiliation to understand what I’ve become? Need we treat my character the way Thomas Harris treats Hannibal Lecter in his latest book, revealing my origin story for all the world? Well, Clarice. Have the lambs stopped screaming?
I am on the playground looking sweet and innocent and humming Debbie Gibson songs when a real bully, Richard Bray, comes up to me.
“Hey, Roberts,” he says.
“Man!” he says, waving his hand in front of his nose. “Your hand reeks.”
“Ya man,” he says. “It smells like peanut butter and jelly.”
I put my hand to my face and sniff and then whack! He smacks his hand against mine, and instantly the blood comes pouring out and I barely know what hit me. Then Richard runs away. I scurry off to the nurse with my head back, keeping the blood in, even though I’m not supposed to.
Is that how all this began? Do I go through life like the bullied kid whose nose is bleeding, telling others their hands smell like peanut butter and jelly to get my revenge? Is it really my own insecurity I’m putting on display when I criticize others? What am I trying to prove?
The world is full of food bullies. We’ve all met them. They’re the people who tell you that you’re too fat, that you’re too poor, that the food you eat isn’t good enough. Food bullies are particularly viciousthey make you neurotic, so that if you get teased in school for bringing a smelly lunch, you never want to bring a smelly lunch again.
I make Diana neurotic. She had a bagel for lunch yesterday and was going to get another bagel for dinner but knew I would have something to say about that, and she’s right.
“Well, a bagel isn’t enough for dinner,” I tell her, as we sit down for burgers with Craig and James. “Plus you should have something different for dinner than you do for lunch.”
She listens silently as Craig shakes his head and James says, “Dude, you’re like the Hitler of food.”
“I am not,” I say.
“You’re like the Pol Pot of eating.”
We order our burgers, and Diana’s comes out with mayo on it. She hates mayo, so she starts scraping it off the bun. I begin to rant: “Oh, stop, it’s not like you’ll taste the mayo. Mayo just blends in with everything else. I used to hate mayo....“
“Stop it,” Diana snaps. “It’s enough already.”
Diana is sweet and nonaggressive, and the fact that I made her snap says a lot. The table grows eerily quiet.
“Dude,” James says, “you’re like the Mussolini of mayo.”
My adult life has been a process of weeding out bad advice given to me by my mother from the good advice. Go to law school? Bad advice. Slick your hair back like Michael Douglas in Wall Street? Bad advice.
But when it comes to being a food bully, the advice my mom gave me when I mocked her wine sweetener is the soundest possible. When I get the urge to shape the palates of my nearest and dearest, I will do what she says. I will mind my own business.
Thanks to Mom, the word now is mum.