The Coal Mine Canary Weighs in at the Dinner Table by Carol Glick

My shopping cart never accommodated a popular, multi-colored, ring-shaped cereal. This extraordinary achievement came with a price—family dissent. My kids hurled verbal daggers at me throughout their volatile years (ages 6-18).

Everybody eats that kind of cereal!’

I skirted around other store products too: vermillion-hued, sugar-tainted juices, spongy bread, whiter than my bed sheets, and all hydrogenated staples, including peanut butter. The kids, vehement as political lobbyists, campaigned for every product I banned. ‘That’s an essential nutrient.’ Denying my progeny’s food preferences made me a pariah, someone bent on destroying the American dream.

The conflict over what constitutes good nutrition constantly ignited suspicion around our dining table. If the macaroni and cheese I served lacked the orangey-yellow gleam of the leading brand, my kids balked. Their forks reared up like horses urged to pass through a flaming lot. Choruses of, ‘Mom, do you expect us to eat this?’ burst forth with the urgency of a carillon calling attention to a community crisis.

I remained calm. ‘I thought you liked macaroni and cheese. What’s wrong? Did you find a dead fly in it?

‘Worse,’ they proclaimed. ‘This is some healthy brand. It’s not even yellow.’

‘This brand does not include yellow dyes numbers 5 and 6. It doesn’t change the taste, just the color. Try it. You’ll like it.’

I brandished a hearty forkful their way. Then I redirected the questionable morsel into my own mouth. The kids assessed my reaction. I suppose they expected me to drop dead like a coal mine canary succumbing to toxic gas. Relieved, I’m sure, that I lived, my offspring nevertheless refused to buy into, let alone bite into, the proffered entrée.

As a parent, I strove to be a role model. At the grocery store, I read and compared labels. I expressed disdain for the additives, any chemical mélange designed to enhance flavor, appearance, or shelf-life. But my brood demeaned such tirades with impatient sighs and rebuffs: ‘Come on, Mom. It’s not going to kill you.’

‘Don’t be so sure,’ I said.

A weekly restaurant outing filled my family’s taste-pleasing void. I enjoyed these excursions, too, with a ‘what-I-don’t-know-won’t-hurt-me’ attitude. I figured that relief from patrolling what went into our mouths might add years to our lives—especially mine.

Before I had children, I worked in a zoo caring for primates. Whenever my charges needed medication, I smuggled distasteful treatments into their mouths via a banana and peanut butter mush sandwich. Bitter tasting medicine required a more rigorous approach.

Through trial and error, I perfected a recipe for success: a puree composed of bananas, apples, raisins, orange juice, cooked sweet potatoes, and peanut butter, which I spiked with the offensive elixir. The primates in my former career applauded my ingenuity, but my own children continued to denigrate my culinary wizardry. Even when I dredged up a kid-appealing recipe from my youth—noodle kugel, say—my children rolled their eyes, exasperated with my substitute for palatable sustenance.

My daughter often claimed she had pressing homework assignments requiring collaboration with her best friend, Anna. Always grateful when this child of mine pursued, rather than shirked, her academic responsibilities, I supported her. A twenty-five mile drive through traffic didn’t deter me. But over time, I got wise to these urgent homework calls to action—they coincided with meal-time at Anna’s house. My son followed a different survival strategy: He high-tailed it into our cooking lab and invented his own concoctions.

Now that my kids are grown, they devour the planet’s offerings in their own style. Their food eclecticism surprises me. On a recent grocery store sojourn with my youngest, I noticed she scooped items off the shelf with less alacrity than in her earlier years. Since she was paying, I assumed her more thoughtful approach reflected a need to conserve cash. Closer analysis revealed her interest in the packages’ fine print, the ingredient list. ‘What’s this?’ I was speechless, and not just because I did not know the answer. All these years, I assumed that my opinions about food had met with a quick end, like a bird knocked out after colliding into a windowpane. That my words had settled into her cerebellum came as a shocking relief.

To my surprise, I also instilled my son with a healthy respect for food and food quality. As a chef, he dishes out wholesome fare to appreciative customers. His familiarity with exotic fruits and vegetables and what to do with them rivals the knowhow of contestants on Hell’s Kitchen.

Some years ago, and in response to parental protests, Kraft removed the yellow dyes from their products. Other food manufacturers have followed suit. Commercials tout comestibles with clean, hormone-free, often organic components. These days, food with stabilizers, thickeners, artificial flavors and preservatives qualify for hazardous-waste status. Hooray! One no longer needs a chemistry degree to decipher labels.

I could have used an ally in my child-rearing days—even one as hokey as a TV commercial. Instead, I almost choked my young audience on the food facts I spewed. Nowadays when I dine with my kids, since I can’t eat my words, I stick to topics that I hope will nourish us with enduring camaraderie and flavorful memories.

Carol has published stories in the following publications: Funny Pearls, Potato Soup Journal, Adelaide Magazine, Academy of the Heart and Mind, Scarlet Leaf Review, Potato Soup Journal Second Anthology, The Fifth Inkslinger Anthology: Many Worlds, Many Stories. A recent submission was shortlisted in the Funny Pearls Short Story Competition 2021.