My mother was a natural vegetarian. She never cared for the taste of meat; in my childhood, the only meat she would eat is a single hot dog at the ballpark, once a year. She grimaced the entire time, facing a self-imposed challenge. She doesn’t eat that hot dog anymore. She’s proved herself enough.
My father was raised on a farm subsisting on recipes he would try to recreate for us a handful of times over our childhood. The oldest of five, my father’s childhood home looked like a high school drama set, the walls and carpets thin like they needed to be ripped up for the next show. My grandfather worked a lot of odd jobs and served in local politics—my grandmother worked for the phone company, bringing in benefits and subsidizing braces for five children. My father describes her as the greatest cook, presenting us with some of his favorite dishes from childhood such as Tomatoes and Mackey, a pasta dish made of three ingredients: pasta shells, cooked canned tomato chunks, salt.
It is possible my grandmother was an amazing cook; I have been presented with insufficient evidence to support this. I don’t know if this was because of time, expense, or a combination of the two. As a result, my father had very strange ideas about food and as the only meat eater, my mother deferred to him when cooking for us.
I grew up without pork because of trichinosis (the last case of which was ten years before my father’s birth), and we didn’t spice our food. “Spices are to cover up bad meat,” my father insisted to me. I remember being rather skeptical about this—that’s exactly what my history books said about the 1500’s. But it stuck. All meat from chicken to burgers was seasoned with salt and pepper.
Acceptable forms of meat were chicken breast, steak, hamburger, and all beef hot dogs. Nothing on the bone, only the chicken breast, and if there were any veins or anything suggesting it had even been alive, my father gagged. My mother made homemade chicken strips out of sliced chicken breast and bread crumbs that we dipped in ketchup and ate with baked potatoes.
That resourceful “use all the parts of the animal” farm mentality was completely absent from my father, something I attribute to his religious upbringing. My father identified with the faith of his father, Seventh Day Adventism, that has very Abrahamic perspective on what qualifies as “clean” food. Or that’s me reading into my father’s inherent pickiness and general control issues about food. It’s probably the latter, honestly.
Growing up, eating out was rare. My mother cooked. My father also cooked and I can count on two hands how many times. There was the Tomatoes and Mackey (which we picked at before going to be hungry), Hamburger Helper (which is great, we fully supported that one but I’m not going to give my grandmother credit for that since it come from a box), chicken and rice (a horrifying dish where drumsticks were cooked in a crock pot with rice until it was gamey mush and then seasoned with cinnamon, props to my college boyfriend for eating this. He took one for the team), and the burgers cooked so well done that I couldn’t chew them. I was 14 with an adult sized jaw and could not tear into those hockey pucks.
All steak had to be cooked well done, and no piece of chicken could have even the faintest shadow of pink inside or else it was dangerous. Since my mother cooked most of our food, and since she wasn’t the one who was eating the meat, she catered to my father’s complete misunderstanding of how food should taste or be enjoyed.
(Before I throw my mother too much into the camp of “accomplice” she often made vegetarian dishes for herself that did have seasoning and flavor—my sister and I were just too picky and difficult to eat them.)
I don’t know if that fact my mother made dinner every night, making everything for our lunches like glass jars of yogurt, jam and tomatoes she canned herself with strawberries we picked over the summer at one of the local farms folded over a boiling pot in the New Jersey humidity with no air conditioning or fans, and folding peanut butter and saltines into waxed paper, made us poor or incredibly privileged.
At the time I thought we stood out a bit, lacking plastic containers of jello and only getting cheese and cracker packets and kool aid for luxuries like school trips, but my mother said that just wasn’t how we wanted to spend our money.
In the remote, horse country of Sussex County, we didn’t have as much access and thus not as much agency in rebellion.
The first time I lived in actual walking distance of a restaurant was when we moved to a suburb of Detroit when I was 10 and there was a Wendy’s and a gas station near my sub division. I saved my allowance and spent it on dollar body glitter, butterfly clips, and nail polish that smelled like kiwis when it dried. I would read my mother’s vast collection of Babysitter’s Club novels, jealous of Claudia’s ability to afford and stash candy around her room.
The day we moved to Michigan, the first meal we had was dinner at that Wendy’s where a relatively new item graced the menu, the Spicy Chicken Sandwich. I had seen the commercials of Dave Thomas (RIP) eating the sandwich at a hockey game and melting the rink, rendering the teams frustrated—until they themselves ate the Spicy Chicken Sandwich, that is. Then they understood that hockey was ridiculous and to set aside their sticks and careers and become professional chicken sandwich consumers.
The Spicy Chicken Sandwich is, in my opinion, the closest thing Wendy’s has to a signature sandwich. Originally a promotional item, it became part of the menu full time in 1996. To this day it remains the number 6 on the menu. It was the first time I chose a meal that didn’t feature some form of nugget. I had never realized that there were fast food items other than nuggets. I didn’t know if I would like it. I didn’t know if I liked spicy food. I ordered the number 6 with a diet coke. I loved it. It was complicated, rebellion and independence all wrapped into one.
The Spicy Chicken Sandwich is a deep fried chicken breast “spiced” with black pepper with a slab of tomato, lettuce, and a dollop of mayonnaise. My first act of rebellion was to have food seasoned with the one seasoning my father approved of but at the time it was my first of a string of experimentations that have made me into a person who went on to confirm that spices no longer cover up the taste of bad meat, but rather cover up the taste of meat.
Within the next year I hit puberty and my father went from largely ignoring me to deeply resenting me. He projected more and more onto me, almost desperate, repeating “you’re just like me, you’re just like me, you’re just like me.”
I started to sneak food, treating sugar and carbohydrates like a limited resource I’d never see again. I’d buy 50 cent bags of gummy works and bags of mini Reese’s cups with the plan to build a treasure pile worthy of the dragon, but I just ate them all in one sitting. My couple-dollar-a-week allowance was thrown hand over fist for the fix permitted children: food. Stretching my independence meant buying six Tim Horton Vanilla Cream donuts instead of the appropriate number. It meant walking to the gas station by myself and buying some new magical product that would make me more feminine, to combat the foot of growth spurt that had victimized me over the two years.
Dipping French fries in the signature Frosty helped take my mind off the men circling the parking lot waiting for me to leave so they could offer me a ride.
I ate those sandwiches like they were going to be taken from me. I ate two of them at a time in college when I was stress eating away what he said to me before I went to college: “don’t come crawling to me when you fail.”
Now I’m a vegan, believing that since I’m fortunate enough to not have to eat meat or animal by products that I shouldn’t. I am no fun at parties. But like most vegans, I cheat. I have been known in a moment of distress or doubt, to roll through a Wendy’s drive thru and order the small number 6, no mayo no tomato, with a diet coke. Now I add whiskey to that coke.