Keeping the Food On Our Plate Separate

And other childhood gastronomical idiosyncrasies

When I was a kid I had an eating idiosyncrasy that drove my mother nuts. As she plopped food down onto our plates at the dinner table I immediately went to work with my fork to move the food around on my plate so that no food was touching another food. Everything had to be separated.

“Will you stop doing that!” she would bark. “There’s no point to doing that. All the food just ends up in the same place anyway. Your stomach doesn’t separate the food. It all ends up mixed up down there.”

“By that logic you shouldn’t even bother serving the food separately. You should just put it in a big bowl and mix it all up together then serve it.”

“Now that’s just plain stupid!”

“Before our food arrives in our stomachs — and goes beyond — it first passes through our mouth. That is where we enjoy the taste of the food. We can’t enjoy the taste of a particular food if it is blended with another food. How can we enjoy corn when the juice from the nearby beets has leaked into it? How can we enjoy cole slaw when it has been inundated with mushroom gravy that has spilled into it? How can we enjoy the deliciousness of broccoli when cole slaw juice has run into it? Some foods are great mixed together and some foods are complementary when eaten together yet separately at the same meal. To fully savor a certain flavor it can’t be polluted by adjacent flavors. To…”

“Oh shut up and eat your food!”

There was no winning a debate at the dinner table at my house. So I worked feverishly with knife and fork to keep all the food separated on my plate. I loved mashed potatoes because they could be used to build walls. You can’t build very good walls with noodles or rice.

Luckily, I finally grew up and I do not do that anymore — at least not consciously. Occasionally, even now many decades later I will notice my hands separating the food on my plate without me ever directing them to do so. My hands just automatically do it on their own. I take a deep breath, finish separating the food, then continue eating.

One of my two baby sisters had a truly bizarre eating idiosyncrasy back when we were kids. If she had three types of food on her plate she would first eat all of one of those foods then all of the second type then finally all of the third type of food. Is that disgusting, or what?

Not me. I would take ONE bite of one type of food then ONE bite of the second type then ONE bite of the third type. Depending on the amounts of the three different types of food, I would not take two bites of the same food consecutively. Every bite was different than the last and the next. I mixed it up and I planned it so that the three very last bites of my dinner were one bite each of the three different foods.

I admit it, I am weird. Aren’t you glad you weren’t my mother?

So anyway, I was at the local thrift store the other day looking for medium-sized plates to put under potted plants. The jungle that I share my apartment with is always producing babies and I am constantly potting those babies. Soon there won’t be any room for me in the apartment.

I use mostly clay pots because they allow the soil to breathe. And I put clay saucers underneath those pots but that is not always enough. I will also put a plate underneath the clay saucer to prevent any leakage. Water can do a lot of damage — especially when it comes to books. At the thrift store I can get these plates for a dime or a quarter.

And speaking of books, I never visit the thrift store without checking out their book section. (I have a book disease.) A couple of weeks ago I found a hardcover copy of some Science Fiction novel from the 1990s. It was in mint condition. I very rarely ever read sci-fi or fantasy but for some unknown reason I bought it. When I got home I checked Amazon and found that the lowest price for a used hardcover copy of that book was 88 dollars. I paid 50 cents for it at the thrift store. (One of the reasons I shop the thrift store at least once a month.) Sadly, the book went onto my crowded book shelves to gather dust.

Anyway, to get back to the subject, there I was in the kitchen section of the thrift store looking for plates for my potted plants when suddenly I spotted something on a shelf that I immediately picked up. It was one of those plastic cafeteria trays with divided sections for different entrees. All my life I had wanted one of those. That is what I have always liked about cafeterias. With these sectioned trays they served their food pre-separated. Their was no need to build walls to separate the different foods because the walls were pre-built into the tray! No juice of one food gets mixed up with other foods. These cafeteria trays are a marvel of modern innovation!

I stood there in the aisle of the kitchen section of the thrift store for several minutes holding on to that cafeteria tray. It was only a quarter. I really, really wanted it but my noggin went into hyper debate mode. It reasoned back and forth for way too long. Finally, I put the tray back on the shelf.

After all, I am not a kid anymore.

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If you think this story was weird you should read my essay:

Earthling — Lifelong novelist & essayist —

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