mayo culpa

A daughter probes her mother's condiment phobia.

By Elinor Lipman

Published August 6, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

as parental offenses go -- the sort that damage children and give them material
for a memoir -- my mother's are barely worth mentioning. She and my father
raised two daughters, loved us, educated us, doted on us. I can say easily,
"We had a roof over our heads. We had clothes on our backs and shoes on our
feet, vacations, library cards, Ginny dolls, Sunday school." But when I get
to "food on the table," I stop.

Of course there was food; plenty. Supper at 6. Milk, eggs and orange
juice delivered to the back door, and four trips a week, minimum, to
Demoulas' Supermarket. So how ungenerous am I to say, "Look closer." Peer
inside my childhood refrigerator, to the shelf where normal families keep
bottles bearing labels that say "Heinz" or "Hellman's" or "French's."

See none.

Sit down at our kitchen table and view our marginal dysfunction playing
itself out on my plate, my hamburger, my hot dog. Hear my mother telling us
that lemon juice and paprika are dressing; that sour cream on diced potatoes
is potato salad. Say hello to a woman with a lifelong, unshakeable condiment

I didn't catch on until I was 9, the year my sister came home from school
to announce that tuna dressed with mayonnaise was the way of the world. Ours,
moistened with a few drops of white vinegar, didn't bind, wet our
brown bread, stained our brown lunch bags and didn't taste good. We
protested: No more smelly, soggy sandwiches for the sake of values not our
own. My mother purchased the smallest jar of mayo manufactured and, with us
exhorting her and nostrils quivering, added a dainty dollop to a whole can of
chunk light.

That was the pattern: discovery, lobbying, acquisition, grudging
accommodation. "Not good for you," she would say, her chief argument. Or,
more potent, "I noticed it makes your face break out."

In short, anything that came from the condiment aisle or lubricated a
sandwich never crossed my mother's lips. She has never eaten a luncheon
plate featuring scoops of tuna, chicken, turkey, potato or macaroni salad;
has never tasted a lobster roll, a chili dog or a submarine sandwich; never
stuck her fingers into a pickle jar, dipped a chip or had a Big
Mac; never stood next to a sneeze shield at a salad bar; never uttered the
phrase "with the works."

In 1964, my sister began to date Alan Slobodnik, the first person to ask for
ketchup at our table. My sister persuaded my mother to buy a small bottle,
which was stored "down cellar," as we New Englanders say, in a rusty but
still-functioning refrigerator, to be brought above ground only for company,
and then only if we were eating outside.

Before Alan, cookouts featured chicken (chastely marinated in oil, lemon
juice, soy sauce and sherry) or steak, or plain hamburgers and hot dogs,
preferably with Coleman's dry mustard. No raw onions, which
were vulgar and mannish; my father ate big chunks of them along with his
vinegared tuna. No salad dressing, although oil and vinegar separately
carried no stigma. Jell-O molds
were suspect as potluck contributions because their opaque layer may have
been achieved through mayonnaise. Sauerkraut, however, was inexplicably
one of her favorite foods,
allowable under a mysterious dispensation, like horseradish.

People ask why. When did it start? Was there a trauma involved? Is there
order here, or logic? Vinegar but not vinaigrette? "She used to have to sit
at a separate table when Bubbe served her homemade piccalilli and pickles and
sour tomatoes," explained my late Aunt Marion, who consumed everything and,
unlike my mother, had meat on her bones.

On the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, I found out how truly irrational my
mother's prejudice was. We were at cousin Marcia's house for a barbecue,
always a precarious event, foodwise. My mother complimented our hostess on
her delicious hamburgers. "What's in them?" she asked.

My sister and I froze, having been to college and learned about
Worcestershire sauce and Kitchen Bouquet, about the sleazy world of
condiments. The unknowing Marcia answered, "Oh, nothing special: ground
round, bread crumbs, salt and pepper ... ketchup." My mother did not say,
"Isn't that funny? All this time I thought I hated ketchup, but here, in
this manifestation, I find it delicious." Time stood still. Finally, she
pushed her plate away, literally, and ate no more.

The specter of condiments still makes every restaurant meal with my mother a
potential crisis: the unannounced coleslaw, an unwitting gherkin, the
dreaded condiment caddy, a thimbleful of tartar sauce on her scallop
platter. Even breakfast outside the home is fraught -- the unsuspecting
waitress approaching with our scrambled eggs and home fries, a ketchup bottle
cheerfully tucked between bosom and biceps. "We don't use that," my mother
sniffs. If only I didn't notice the tone of her voice, and the squeak of
the waitress's shoes as she is stopped in her well-meaning tracks.

My teenage son says, "Let's analyze this, Nana," reading to her from the
ketchup bottle he likes to place between them. "'Ingredients: red ripe
tomatoes, distilled vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, salt, onion powder,
spice, natural flavoring.' What don't you eat there?"

I say to him, "Don't bother. It's irrational."

When she comes to my house for dinner, I meal-plan and edit recipes. I leave
the ketchup out of my college
roommate's mother-in-law's excellent
brisket recipe, substituting tomato sauce even though my mother would never
know -- even though in some perverse way I would enjoy the deed, like a
downtrodden kitchen worker who spits into the soup. I name the ingredients,
carefully chosen for being on her narrow list of approved foods. She laughs
her you-silly-girl laugh and says, "You talk as if I'm so fussy."

Before last Thanksgiving, I leafed through a half-dozen fall Gourmets and
was drawn to the "Warm Green Bean Salad with Dill" from November '93. The
condiment devil on one shoulder argued with the submissive-daughter angel on
the other. "Do it," the devil said. "It's easy enough to withhold eight
plain steamed beans and put them aside for her. Besides there's plenty of
other food." I imagined the scene I could make -- like the climactic tantrum
in a movie about a homecoming gone awry: "What don't you like in here, Ma?
Can't you even take one bite? Out of politeness. Like a good guest and a
regular guy."

In the end, I didn't rebel. Thanksgiving fell on her 87th birthday, which
annually I think will be her last. I chose the chaste "Lemon Rosemary Green
Beans" from November '92 and assigned the actual cooking to my sister.

I told her it gets harder with time, not easier, and my little bird of a
90-pound elderly mother enlarges as she shrinks. The week before the
holiday, it was my sister who encouraged me to make that red onion relish I
was flirting with (November '96) and to practice some Zen detachment. I told
her, without reflection, that I couldn't. That I was a sad case, cowed by
that ... look, by the way Mom holds her hand up to ward off a side dish, and
thereby me.

My sister is older, braver, an organizational consultant, and she's been
married to Alan Slobodnik for 28 years. "You're to make what you want," she
ordered, "then sit where you can't see her face."

Elinor Lipman

Elinor Lipman is the author of three novels, "Then She Found Me," "The Way Men Act" and "Isabel's Bed," and a collection of short stories, "Into Love and Out Again."

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