April 08, 2005

The Dire Stravecchio

Dinner last night: I’ve made my famous spaghetti and meatballs. My tablemates, two young members of my retinue whom I shall call by their code names, Agent 95 and Agent 97. It’s just the three of us--my wife is at a conference--and I’ve put wine in the tomato sauce just like Agent 95 likes. I set the three plates in front of us, and Agent 97, who’s a parmesan cheese fan, immediately dumps half the serving bowl of grated cheese onto his spaghetti by accident.

No problem. I swiftly and competently improvise by spooning the extra from his bowl onto mine and Agent 95’s. Not a grain of cheese has been wasted: it is the exact amount the three of use would have used, total.

I dig in. Ah, at last I’ve done it: the perfect spaghetti and meatballs. Surely this is the best batch I’ve ever made. (I think this quite often when cooking.) The kids are tasting it.

Then Agent 95 asks with suspicion, “Dad, is this parmesan?”

“Well, yeah, no, actually, it’s just like parmesan, it’s just got a different name, stravecchio, it’s just from a different part of Italy, sort of like just down the block from parmesan. They taste almost exactly the same. Stravecchio’s a little more pungent, that means it has more flavor.”

Silently they continue tasting. Then Agent 97 moves lower in his chair, a telltale slump. “I’m not hungry.”

“Not hungry??”

“I don’t like the cheese.”

“You don’t like the cheese? The cheese you put so much of on?”

“I thought it was parmesan.”

“It is just like parmesan. Eat it,” I command him.

A minute later, Agent 95 puts in, “I don’t like this cheese either.”

“I should have never told you it was stravecchio. I should have told you it was parmesan.”

“Dad, we can taste the difference. This is more pungent.”

“Eat it anyway,” I command him. “It doesn’t have to be your favorite food in the world for you to eat it.” And, to make a further impression on them, I go on at some length about how I made spaghetti and meatballs just for them, which they usually like so much, and they’re getting too picky about food these days and their mother and I want them to cut it out, and so forth. Impression made.

“But Dad,” says Agent 95, “there are some foods that if I taste them, they make me have to barf.”

In an almost congratulatory voice I tell him that he has control over such bodily events and that this is an excellent opportunity for him to develop said control.

I am gobbling down my spaghetti and meatballs, grateful for each delicious forkful. They’re slumping in their chairs, starting diversionary conversations about imported fantasy creatures, and occasionally picking up a single strand of spaghetti and examining it, or nibbling the edge of a meatball as if it were a grenade that might detonate.

In the course of time Agent 97 actually finishes one of his two meatballs and about half his spaghetti. Agent 95, with more worldly experience, tries to negotiate with me about how much spaghetti he has to eat, but I refuse to meet him on that ground. He must eat a reasonable amount, I inform him. A reasonable amount to be determined by me—he knows that in our house we don’t insist they clean the plate. If they don’t both eat, I tell them, they may force me to say that they won’t get to watch the STAR TREK episodes we’ve rented for the evening. And, I remind them, I don’t like to threaten.

In slow motion, Agent 95 lifts one strand, then another, singly to his lips. If he takes too long, I announce, it will be too late to start watching TV. He begins to make pathetic barfing sounds but I glare him out of it. By this point I’m so fed up, I tell him he will be excused if he eats two more forkfuls.

He lifts a forkful of spaghetti and, with fiendish cunning, lets some of the strands slip off the fork before they reach his mouth.

No no, I tell him. He can’t play those games with me. Two full forkfuls and no less. The line has been drawn.

He puts his first forkful to his lips, but what do you know, several strands slither down his chin and into his lap.

I give him the final lecture. This is his last warning. Does he realize, I ask, how much easier it would have been for all of us if he had just eaten the goddamn spaghetti in the first place? And furthermore—this will do him good in later life—when there’s something you have to do and you don’t want to do it, the way to deal with it is just to face it, do it quickly and get it over with, and usually it isn’t so bad. Not to whine and try to get out of it—that just makes you feel worse and drags out the time of suffering.

At some point, anticlimactically, Agent 95 finishes his second forkful of spaghetti. A pyrrhic victory. I’m exhausted.

Can we see the STAR TREK episodes? Of course—they’re ones I haven’t seen yet.

I should have told them it was parmesan.