Life membership in The Clean Plate Club

All my life I’ve joined clubs: book clubs, card clubs, even going all the way back to the Girl Scouts.

Early on, my mother enrolled me in one club offering lifetime membership. If she hadn’t insisted so loudly, I probably would not have joined the Clean Plate Club.

I was forced to participate daily. The Clean Plate Club was an informal nation-wide group organized and administered by parents who survived the Depression.

“You don’t know what it’s like to go without. You must be grateful for this wonderful food. Eat your dinner. All of it.”

Now that was OK if the meal was spaghetti and meatballs. But often there was something vile on my plate, like Brussels sprouts. I used to pick each little leaf off the tiny cabbages with my fork. I guess I was hoping that if I put a small petal of the sprout in my mouth. I wouldn’t taste it. Fuggedaboudit. There was no way out. Peeling them layer by layer only prolonged the process.

On the evenings that I knew we were having sprouts, I wore a sweater with pockets. If I watched my mother carefully, every time she left the table or looked away, I could slip another sprout into the pocket. They gradually disappeared off my plate. When Mom was finished and I was still dawdling, she finally took the plate away. She’d pop the last two or three sprouts in her mouth with an accompanying “Oh, yum,” and declare the plate clean. Whew. Survived another night.

And there was liver. Well, we all know about that. There’s no sense filling this space with the litany of complaints that we have made about liver.

Those were normal things that most kids had to suffer through. But my mother had other weapons in her arsenal. She loved pickled pigs’ feet. They might have tasted like cherry lollipops, but I couldn’t get past the name. Mom savored every bite, raving about their flavor while I pushed them around my plate. And then there was tripe … the godawful, white lining of a cow’s stomach that looks like a kitchen sponge made of gristle. Really.

Mom waxed rhapsodic about tripe. Truth to say, as an adult, I have good friends who love it. But they cook it for two or three days to tenderize it, and serve it with a spicy tomato sauce. My mother pan fried it probably 5 minutes a side. It was like cutting into one of Goodyear’s finest – and it chewed like a Michelin. Blech!

Much of her insistence that I clean my plate dated back to her deprived childhood. Through the sad circumstance of losing her mother when she was only six years old, Mom wound up in a series of foster homes. In one of them the family’s own children always received dessert. The foster children were treated differently. They were given dessert only if their dinnerplate was clean enough to be turned over without leaving any stains on the tablecloth. With a plate containing gravy, spaghetti sauce, or creamed chicken, this was a challenge. Licking the plate was automatic punishment.

Mom figured out that if she surreptitiously wiped around the border of the plate with her sleeve, it would pass inspection. Dessert could then be served on the flipped over bottom of the plate. Later, up in her attic room, she would suck on her sleeve, enjoying a bit more of supper’s flavors while trying to destroy the evidence.

I don’t know if the Clean Plate Club came directly from that experience or just not wanting her dollars wasted on a fussy kid. She was NOT going to raise a fussy kid.

I wasn’t too finicky as it turned out, and neither were my own children. But my daughter could conduct master classes in teaching children to eat.

When her children were toddlers, every meal had a protein, a carb, fruit, dairy and a veggie. I think the veggie was forgiven at breakfast. If there was something they didn’t like, they knew there was one rule: “You have to take five bites. If you still don’t like it, you don’t have to finish it.” Often, by the fifth bite, the taste had become acceptable. The result of her trial-and-taste method? My grandchildren eat everything. From beets to Brussels sprouts and sushi to Szechuan Chinese, they enjoy their food and willingly try anything. Although I’m pretty sure they haven’t been subjected to tripe.

I’ve been trying to break the Clean Plate Club habit for a few years now – like 60 or so.

Not an easy trick for an old dog. I can’t directly blame my mother for my overweight. But if I’d been allowed to walk away from second biscuits and third meatballs early on, I might not have joined that other club, Weight Watchers. Thirteen times. Oh rats, they offer a lifetime membership.

Marcy O’Brien can be reached at Moby.32@hotmail.com


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