The Clean Plate Club

When tomato Jell-O became just desserts

My mom’s a hell of a cook. In fact, cook doesn’t do it justice, what she can do with food. She’s a chef. She could have had her own cooking show if she wasn’t so busy picking up after me.

Combine that with her devotion to her family and you explain why she made such elaborate dinners. Gourmet dinners. Every meal: the four food groups, artfully presented, almost like she was showing off.

And there was always a salad. Always put on its own little plate. Its lesson: Only people in third-world countries put all their food on one plate, like brute beasts at buffet restaurants—savages—their soft-serve ice cream slowly melting into their main course.

This is the story of one of those salads, the one we still tease my mom about to this this day.

Tomato aspic. Tomato Jell-O. It’s essentially tomato Jell-O. Right there on our salad plat, presented on a bed of lettuce. Would you serve tomato Jell-O to a pair of grade-schoolers? My mom did, devotedly.

Food wasn’t just for physical nourishment. It taught us lessons. The lesson of tomato aspic: Civilized people are well-rounded. Serving us food like tomato aspic—something no kid would ask for—was meant to broaden us. Expand our horizons.

On top of that, she was a charter member of the Clean Plate Club, which means she’d insist that we eat everything we were served. Both plates. Once again, a lesson was being taught: If we didn’t eat everything given to us, it was the first step toward waste and ingratitude. Kids in China never get tomato aspic. We didn’t know how good we had it

Lessons. Certain things had to be done. Your room had to be clean. Your homework had to be done. Your bed had to be made. Your hair had to be parted. (No, not down the middle!)

It was a moral issue. If we had been allowed to keep our rooms as messy as we wanted, it would be the first step toward a tumble into moral laxity. Down and down.

And, she would insist, we had to clean our plates.

“What this?” I said, poking the tomato aspic with my fork at the start of The Dinner Where Mom Insisted We Eat All of Our Tomato Aspic, as it’s cataloged in family lore. “Looks gross.”

“It’s tomato aspic. It’s delicious!” my mom said.

Laura and I looked at each other doubtfully, as if to say, “It’s a trap!”

“You stay at that table until you eat everything!” my mom said later as she was clearing the other plates from the table.

There was no chance in hell the dog was going to eat tomato Jell-O. Tomato Jell-O. In fact, I think he ran from the room in fright when he saw it.

Man’s best friend, indeed!

By virtue of her stauncher moral fiber, Laura was able to draw a forkful of tomato aspic into her mouth—first child—getting the lay of the land so she could report back, as was incumbent on her as a good big sister. In the job description.

Instantly she disgorged it back onto her plate like a piece of forensic evidence.

“Mom, this is gross!” she cried.

“No excuses!” my mom called from the kitchen, probably over her shoulder as she was washing something.

My options were uninspiring:

Option 1: If you hide the tomato aspic under the rim of your plate that only works until your mom picks up your plate and sees the semi-circle of “gross food” on the table like a message in code to God in heaven above. Save us!

Option 2: I’d already thought of the dog. I’m not stupid.

Option 3: Eat the tomato Jell-O.

Laura gave me a rueful look that said, “I was hoping to become a veterinarian when I grew up,” looked down at her tomato aspic and then back to me, ruefully, again (to stress her point).

This called for all my boyish wiles. Certainly someone who was charming enough to weasel out of scripture recital at Sunday School by claiming a sore throat had the Yankee ingenuity defeat this evil foodstuff. It was it or me.

My milk. Put the salad in your milk, Satan whispered to me, his breath smelling of fine Cuban cigars. No time to waste, he hissed. The aspic’s not getting any, you know, tastier!

I looked over to Laura and pantomimed the process of placing the terrible salad in my milk. She looked at me and blinked, as if to say, You firstI already stuck it in my mouth.

I heard my mom clanking dishes in the kitchen.

I took the Red Menace and lifted it with my fork and spoon and moved it carefully, surgically, toward my milk. I suspended it just above my milk and looked over at Laura. She nodded soberly.

I looked toward the kitchen. I released the tomato aspic into the milk like a depth charge. It sank below the surface and for a half-second, all was joy. Life would continue. Then the red villain rose to the surface, like Godzilla from his hiding place in the deepest part of the ocean, here to save the day. A twist ending.

Tomato aspic floats. How was a kid supposed to know that?

Now what?

Laura busied herself with intently scooching her salad around its plate as if to say, “I’m just minding my own business.” So . . . it was every man for himself. Suddenly, I knew what I was going to say at Laura’s memorial service, someday in the distant future.

Man’s best friend, indeed!

I poked the aspic back under with my finger and let go. It returned, mockingly. Tomate Jell-O. Two words with an ominous ring to them. Like Death Star.

I could hear my mom advancing toward the room.

Think fast!

I picked up the glass of milk, placed it to my lips and tilted it toward my face. I could feel the tomato aspic bump and against my lips like a turd in the community pool. (I was thenceforth untouchable and might have my swim trunks pulled down in the front of the girls if I didn’t stay on high alert.) Blech!

My mom emerged around the corner and I kept acting as if I was taking a long pull off my milk. A long pull. I kept it there as my mom walked around the table, picking up stuff. She looked at me quizzically. I smiled innocently into my milk. Whatever, she seemed to shrug.

When she left, I removed the glass of milk from my lips quickly. “Yuck!” I said, wiping my lips vigorously as if I had kissed one of my friends—on the lips!—which I wouldn’t have done on a dare or for a bajillion dollars. Brrrr!

Laura looked over at me, widening her eyes and jutting out her chin as if to say, “What now?”

Oh, now she wants back on the team!

Right then, my mom returned.

“You kids are going to sit there until you finish your salad,” she said. “And you, sir,” she said to me, “you are going to eat that,” she said pointing toward the villain in my milk.

The life lesson: Actions have consequences. She turned off the light in the kitchen and walked past us triumphantly into the family room, where my dad, who hadn’t been required to eat his tomato Jell-O, was watching TV.

At that exact moment, tomato Jell-O became just desserts.

Now what?

Laura began pretending she was the star of her own cooking show, telling the audience what she was doing, blow by blow. “Thinly slice the leeks and then sweat them in a mixture of half butter half olive oil.”

The aspic bobbed in my milk accusingly.

Gently!” Laura said to her studio audience. “You don’t want caramelized onions.”

I sat there and stared at the wall. Spider-Man, Spider-Man. Does whatever a spider can. Spins a web, any size. Catches thieves just like flies. My mom cleared her throat in the next room, as if to say, “I wasn’t kidding!”

Fifteen minutes passed. Eventually, my mom came back into the room. She put her hands on his hips in frustration.

What was she going to do with us? Pin us down and force the Tomato Jell-O down our aspic holes? This was the 60s, but people got arrested for shit like that, didn’t they?

“Okay, you two!” she said. “I should make you eat that salad for breakfast. But I’m not going to do that. Both of you—go do your homework!”

Turns out, she had been kidding. Bluffing. She was hoisted by her own petard, a victim of her own diligence. Too many lessons and not enough waking hours.

That is, we couldn’t stay at the table any longer because it would cut into our homework time—and homework was the Lesson from which all lessons flowed: Hard work and industry pay off.

I should have been grateful that she loved me enough to give dinner her all. Most moms would have just made Jell-O from a box—and then put it on the same plate as your main course.

But I was a kid. Totally self-absorbed. Gratitude wasn’t a concept that entered into my life until I saw my first naked girl about seven years later. But that’s a story for another time.