Mashed potatoes, gravy, and the power of of suggestion

If you’ve ever had to feed kids, you know a story just like this one.

For Sunday dinner I made the boys roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy. I went to the extra trouble to make the gravy from scratch because store-bought gravy is always likely to turn at least one of them against me.

History said I should have an easy time selling this meal. There aren’t many meals that somebody won’t complain about, but this one should have been in that small set they all could live with.

Except History can be turned upside down by a seemingly innocuous event.

While I was mashing the potatoes, I added some cheese, like I do every time. Big Brother happened through the kitchen and saw this. The sight left him aghast. Apparently, he has never seen me mashing potatoes before.

“Ewww! You’re putting cheese in the potatoes! That’s gross!”

I explained that all the mashed potatoes he’s ever eaten had cheese in them. I was not convincing. These potatoes were tainted. Little did I know, it was not only the potatoes.

Buster had overheard the cheese kerfuffle, but not necessarily the specifics of it. After the first taste of his gravy, he grimaced. “This gravy tastes like it has cheese in it!”

For the record, I did not, nor do I ever, put cheese in the gravy. Also for the record, these kids love cheese.

I reassured him there was no cheese in his gravy, but my words were futile against the evidence provided by his discriminating tongue and suggestible subconscious.

cheese gravy

Better dump a lot of gravy on to drown out the cheese in those potatoes – unless the gravy is made from cheese. (Photo: Russell Lee/U.S. Farm Security Administration)

Dinner proved to be a struggle, with only Big Man willingly eating his food, because he didn’t care if it had cheese as long as it tasted good.

On Monday, I gave us all a break and fed them grilled cheese sandwiches. Nobody complained about the cheese.

We still had leftover roast and potatoes to eat and by Tuesday I was up for another try. As I was warming it, Buster made a skeptical request to taste the gravy so he could go to full Battle Stations by the time I put his food in front of him.

He took a tiny taste and proclaimed. “This tastes like it doesn’t have any more cheese in it.”

Thank goodness for our cheese-absorbing fridge.

Big Brother overheard. “There’s not any cheese in this one?” he asked, meaning the leftover potatoes.

“No,” I replied, not really lying, because the conversation was actually about the gravy.

Nobody complained. Half way through dinner, Big Brother declared: “I would rate this food five stars.”

“What about last time you had it?” I asked, wondering if I should hug him or put him in a head lock.

“Not even one star. Half a star.”

I guess my dinners get better with age. Maybe it takes time for all that nasty cheese to settle out.



That time we ate Big Bird’s cousin

When we eat restaurant food, we usually end up with pizza, burgers, or chicken strips. My wife and I don’t prefer these choices, but we don’t whine about having to eat pizza, burgers, or chicken strips as much as the boys whine about having to eat something that’s not pizza, burgers, or chicken strips. It’s easier to just choke down another burger in peace.

Occasionally, the parents set their hearts on Chinese food. This is a problem on two fronts. First, we don’t know how to get good Chinese in our town. Every place we once liked has gone downhill. My wife’s standing explanation for this is that the owners retired and their children took over, and, as we all know, children have a knack for ruining things.

The second front is our own children. Big Brother will tell us he doesn’t want Chinese food at least 14 times, though he ends up eating the part that looks most like a chicken strip. Buster will eat rice, if he cannot detect anything resembling a bean sprout, bit of egg, crispy noodle, meat or vegetable touching it. It’s quite a chore removing the shrimp and the fried from shrimp fried rice.

Big Man might eat all the dishes or none of them. Unless there’s crab rangoon. He likes crab rangoon.

The last time we got Chinese food, I ordered sesame chicken. Buster helped me eat the rice. Somehow I slipped a little sauce past his inspection and he decided he liked that too. But chicken, in that same sauce, was out of the question.

At last, I got him to taste one cubic millimeter of chicken. He made a face and spit it into the garbage. This was for show, to save face. A minute later, he asked for another bite of chicken. Soon, he and Big Brother were eating all my food.

When they were done, I explained to Buster: “Next time we’re ordering food, and you tell me you want that one kind of chicken, you know, that kind we had one time, the one you like, and I don’t know which kind of chicken you mean because there are lots of kinds of chicken, and you keep saying ‘That one kind, the kind I like,’ and get angry at me because I’m supposed to know what that means, remember, this is called sesame chicken.”

Big bird is a very popular and special character. His cousin is a very popular chef’s special.

“What chicken?”

“Sesame. Like Sesame Street, only it’s chicken.”

“Big Bird is a Sesame Street chicken. Did we just eat him?”

“It was a different sesame chicken. Probably just a cousin.”

I didn’t know if my advice would take; Buster has an artistic heart and he likes to keep his requests vague.

The next time we were deciding what to eat, he chimed in, “Chicken!”

Preparing to return to the status quo, I asked. “Nuggets or strips?”

“Sesame chicken!” loud and clear.

That’s progress. Now all he has to do is find a restaurant that hasn’t been ruined by the children.


If young animals whined like human children

Zebra Mom: “Eat your grass, Jimmy.”

Zebra Kid: “I don’t like this grass. I like that grass over there.”

Zebra Mom: “There’s a lion over there.”

Zebra Kid: “Can you ask him to move.”

Zebra Mom: “No. I’m not asking a lion to move so you can have grass that’s exactly the same as this grass.”

Zebra Kid: “Just ask him.”

Zebra Mom: “No. I’m not asking. This is the same grass. Just eat it.”

Zebra Kid: “His grass is in the shade. I don’t like this sunny grass. It’s too hot.”

The grass is always tastier on the other side of the lion.

Zebra Mom: “How would you know? You haven’t even tried it.”

Zebra Kid: “Come on, Mom! Can you just please ask him. He’s not even eating grass.”

Zebra Mom: “If you don’t start eating, so help me God!”

Zebra Kid puts the tip of his tongue on one blade of grass: “This grass is way too dry. It’s like desert grass. You expect me to eat desert grass? Aw, man! Now I need a drink. I’m going to the watering hole.”

Zebra Mom: “You stay right here. There are crocodiles at the watering hole.”

Zebra Kid: “Ack. Ack. This dry grass is burning a hole in my throat. I’ll die if I don’t get a drink fast. Oh, there’s Dad. I’m gonna tell him what you’re doing to me.”

Zebra Mom: “Be sure to show him the hole in your throat.”

Zebra Kid approaches Zebra Dad: “Dad, can I go to the watering hole?”

Zebra Dad: “What did your mother say?”

Zebra Kid: “Nothing really. I think it’s okay with her if you let me go.”

Zebra Dad: “Oh. Okay then.”


Crocodile Mom: “Ethan, eat your zebra.”

Crocodile Kid: “I don’t like zebra. I want gazelle.”

Crocodile Mom: “It’s all mammal. It tastes the same. Carcass is carcass. Now eat it.”

Crocodile Kid: “This one has stuff on it.”

Crocodile Mom: “What stuff?”

Crocodile Kid: “Look. It has all these black lines.”

Crocodile Mom: “All zebras have black lines. It’s just how they’re seasoned. You won’t even taste it.”

Crocodile Kid: “It’s disgusting. I can’t eat that. It makes me wanna hurl just looking at it.”

Crocodile Mom: “Eat around the black lines then. You’d better eat it before it gets cold. It’s not gonna be any good cold.”

Crocodile Kid: “The lines are touching all the other parts. Their gross juice is gonna be all over everything.”

Crocodile Mom: “Ethan, there are starving crocodile children in the next water hole who would give anything to have food half this good.”

Crocodile Kid: “They can have it.”

Crocodile Mom: “Don’t you dare come to me in an hour and tell me you’re hungry.”


Vulture Dad: “I can’t believe somebody just left all this delicious carrion here. Animals are so wasteful these days. Well, they’re loss is our gain. Dig in, Judy.”

Vulture Kid: “Um. You know I don’t like the kind with the white stripes.”

A true Superstar delivers the pasta

We have a house full of fleeting superstars. For one week every year, one or more of the boys is the superstar student at his school. Apparently, third graders have outgrown the notion of revolving notoriety, so only Buster basked in the limelight of stardom in his preschool this year.

Being a superstar is not all fun and games. There are responsibilities associated with the honor, and this is what a superstar’s parents are for. Any superstar worth his salt requires a poster board with pictures of himself in all his glory. Parents are usually good for making these, and even when they are not, they can be counted upon to recycle the one from last year into a presentable placard.

As a parent of an annual superstar, the most daunting responsibility is supplying a healthy snack to the class. The key, and vexing, word here is healthy. As the child of a simpler time, healthy snack is the epitome of oxymoron to me. Healthy is an adjective that belongs paired with the noun leftovers. The noun snacks deserves a more appropriate adjective, like sugary. The following sentence illustrates how these combinations were intended to be used in conversation: There are plenty of healthy leftovers remaining in the corner, where we shoved them to prevent their impeding our access to the sugary snacks.

To me, a snack is an item 90% of kids will readily eat. I don’t know how to make anything healthy that meets this criterion. I’ve heard some parents know how to make healthy both fun and delicious by constructing adorable designs with various fruit bits and toothpicks. I’m not young and hip like those parents. I am just old enough to know that both fun and delicious take a back seat to pain when the toothpick shard hits the soft gum tissue.

Besides, my kids like their fruits segregated, so they can be analyzed, and probably rejected, separately.

This year, Buster chose spaghetti as his healthy snack, proving he is a genius in addition to being a superstar. I was taken aback by the logistics of providing spaghetti to a classroom, but Mommy went with it (after approval from Buster’s teacher), proving where Buster inherited his superstar genes.


Making spaghetti the Superstar way.

Making spaghetti the Superstar way.

She bought disposable bowls, forks, and wet wipes. We cooked spaghetti and cut it up into short strands. This, with a bowl of warm sauce, filled up the insulated bag, covering the two secret packs of Oreos tucked underneath. Every superstar keeps a an ace in the hole.

Buster’s teacher reported the spaghetti a success, but wondered why Buster didn’t want any for himself. Here’s the thing about Buster: he’s a forward-looking superstar and spaghetti was yesterday’s idea.

He confirmed he didn’t eat any spaghetti. “But,” he said, “I ate an Oreo.”

Judging by the empty containers, his classmates feasted on spaghetti and Oreos. They and their teachers are all superstars, allowing us to get by with a more-or-less healthy snack, unsullied by the mockery of me trying to stab blueberries with toothpicks.