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In writing group last night, the prompt was, “Write a story about buying lettuce.” Of course, I knew immediately that in order for me to write about buying lettuce, I would eventually have to get to the embarrassing fact that I don’t really eat lettuce, only really tasted it a couple of times and could never figure out the appeal. Maybe that’s because I’ve only tried the most boring and declasse type of lettuce, the bland and unappealing iceberg, and maybe it was because it tasted like — -NOTHING.
But, that’s not what this story is about. Not eating iceberg lettuce is understandable. What’s harder to explain is that I am fifty-seven years old and I have never voluntarily or knowingly eaten any vegetable raw or cooked. This fact certainly makes it hard for me to follow any of the fashionable diets — and at this stage of my life, this is one of my deepest, darkest, most shameful secrets.
Whenever I attend professional functions where I have to sit down for meals with colleagues, I dread that moment when the waiter comes to the table serving the first course and I have to say, “No thank you” and pray that nobody at the table will call the waiter back to tell him he forgot to give me my salad.
I have a few pat responses when people ask me why I didn’t take the salad. “Oh my stomach is a little queasy today” is a good excuse when I am only going to be eating with these people for one meal. “I have a stomach ulcer and it’s hard for me to digest raw vegetables” is another and although it borders on too much information, it is useful to keep the same people from asking the same questions every time I refuse a salad if we are going to be eating several meals together over the course of a week-long seminar or workshop.
Once, when I was selected to go to the Carnegie Foundation in Palo Alto for three weeks to work with world renown educational researchers about how master teachers can share their knowledge with others and generate new knowledge in the field, it became impossible for me to keep my peculiar food preferences secret.
One of the leaders of the event, a woman whom I idolized, whom I would clamor to sit with any chance I could get, happened to notice what was ( or rather, wasn’t) on my plate, and she, a researcher, trained to observe anomalies and discern patterns of human behavior turned to me during lunch on the third day and said loud enough for everyone at the table to hear, “Marsha, don’t you eat salad?”
I had just presented my work about the implications of teaching drama and playwriting for the literacy learning and personal empowerment of urban adolescents and it was one of the most triumphant moments in my life. I had shared my teaching experiences, let myself be vulnerable in front of this group revealing my questions, my doubts and ultimately my successes and at the end of my presentation, as the entire group broke into rousing applause, the executive director of the foundation, stood up and declared, “Pincus, you’re a genius!”
The glow and affirmation that I had been feeling only minutes before, dissipated as the nine other people at the table, who suddenly found my food preferences more fascinating than my scholarship, shifted forward slightly in their seats, and awaited my answer.
I hesitated and weighed my usual replies. In my mind, I tried on, “I’m not feeling that well today” but that didn’t ring true because I had just delivered a rousing and energetic presentation. Then I almost gave them the “I have an ulcer and can’t digest raw vegetables all that well” but that felt disingenuous and so much of what we were doing together in this intellectual community was predicated on honesty, risk-taking and the willingness for everyone to let themselves be vulnerable.
So I said, “I really don’t like vegetables. I don’t eat them all that much.”
I felt all of the air leave the area around the table and the woman who had asked me if I ate salad, this woman whom I adored, idolized wanted to emulate, looked at me with shock and surprise and declared, “I never met an adult who doesn’t eat vegetables. You remind me of my 9 year old granddaughter. I keep telling her mother that she’ll outgrow her picky eating habits. Looks like I might be wrong!” She laughed then stuffed a sheath of lettuce into her mouth and chewed gustily.
This story still hurts to write. It hurts too when I remember that my daughter didn’t always make good choices about food. Despite the fact that her father and brother eat everything, she refused to eat any vegetables that were placed before her. It was hard to watch my healthy, beautiful little girl develop food habits and preferences like my own. Why is it that our children find our worse qualities to emulate?
When she was in college, we finally talked about it. I apologized for the role that I had played in her limited diet and shared with her my anguish, shame and struggle. Then I told her that while her food issues may be my fault, they were now her problem and that she would have to find a way to address them herself so that she could become a healthy adult.
She’s twenty-seven, now and I am happy to say that she’s truly trying. Last week-end when we went out to dinner, she ordered a salad and when I looked up at her from across the table, I smiled as I watched her bring a forkful of lettuce to her lips.
I’m glad she’s making these changes in her diet. For her health, yes, but also so she’ll never know the humiliation I felt that day when my maturity, judgment and character were publicly called into question by the lack of lettuce on my plate.