Opinion: I still don’t clean up my plate


I still haven’t mastered the art of “cleaning my plate.” When my wife and I are finished eating, her plate is bright and clean enough to put away without washing. Mine looks like something the dog rejected.

This bothers me. Mostly because I was a kid during the Great Depression and knew a lot of people didn’t have enough to eat. We were lucky. Dad worked for the government and had a regular paycheck. And we always had a garden.

Some of the things that grew in that garden, however, God never intended people to eat. Turnips, rutabaga and okra come to mind. There were other things,  too, like parsnips, but I could choke them down if I really concentrated. Rutabaga was the worst.

And this is where “plate-cleaning” became an issue. I would devour my pork chop and mashed potatoes and then sit there staring woefully at a clump of mushy rutabaga, untouched and pushed to the far edge of my plate.

“Clean your plate,” Dad would mutter as he helped himself to another dollup of that disgusting vegetable. “Or, no dessert,” he would add with a look that meant with all his heart and soul that I could say goodbye forever to that chocolate cake sitting on the kitchen counter.

For long minutes I would stare at my plate, trying to conjure some powerful incantation that would banish this evil thing, or maybe make it taste like ice cream. When that failed, I took a long look at the chocolate cake, held my breath and crammed my mouth full of what was undeniably the most vile tasting substance on earth.

I didn’t chew. Chewing just releases the flavor. I swallowed everything whole. Then I grinned in compliance and achievement and hoped neither of my parents would notice the rutabaga residue still clinging to my plate. I quickly spread it around with my fork to make it less obvious.

“There’s still enough on your plate to feed a family of starving Armenians,” my mother would intone.

The Armenians were mom’s trump card. They were a religious minority in the Ottoman Empire, persecuted for their beliefs. Between 1915 and 1925. Some 1.5 million men, women and children died, many from starvation. “Starving Armenians” became a catch phrase all across America.

It didn’t matter that this all had happened more than 20 years earlier, and the Armenians were doing much better now. As far as mom and dad were concerned, they were still starving, and I was still faced with a big lump of rutabaga.

I still think of the Armenians and feel guilty when I don’t clean my plate. Fortunately, I haven’t had to look at rutabaga for years.


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