(I shared these pieces long ago but I thought I'd post them again, since Father's Day is coming up on June 19.)
Ketchup is Not a Red Food
Every life has its tragedies. Choices are made and fates are sealed.
My father would have been a lot happier if he’d married into a Sicilian family, not a Russian Jewish one. That was his tragedy. He’s much more of a marinara sauce kind of a guy than a blintzes and sour cream kind of a guy. He likes his food red, not white.
For too many Friday nights in his life he ate dinner with his in-laws: boiled chicken, room-temperature peas, two slices of toasted white bread with a schmear of margarine, all washed down with a glass of hot water and lemon. Sometimes, for variety, there were lamb chops, broiled to the brink of incineration. And every now and then, spaghetti. Cooked for half an hour until it was whiter than white. It doesn't get any paler than that. If Dad wanted his spaghetti red, he would have had to put ketchup on it. He would rather have given up cigars for a month than eat spaghetti with ketchup. Somehow, in his mind, ketchup is not a red food. Ketchup is Evil incarnate.
It’s probably not a good idea, in terms of mental health, to pick one food — not even a food, just a condiment — and demonize it in this way.
When the first MacDonald’s opened in our neighborhood, my father demanded to see the manager, a skinny man with bad hair whose plastic badge identified him as Sylvester O’Malley. My father yelled at Mr. O’Malley. He said ketchup had no business on a quarter-pounder. Mr. O’Malley threatened to call the police if my father didn’t leave.
My father walks out of diners all across the country because a ketchup bottle accompanies a plateful of french fries. And I don’t mean just walks out, as in pays the bill and leaves quietly. I mean makes a fuss, complete with accusations of imbecility, threats to contact the better business bureau, and near-fatal encounters with irate waitresses who are perfectly capable of hitting obnoxious customers over the head with a hot coffee pot.
You could say my father’s taken a stand and he’s not letting go. Sure, you could say that, as if it were something of value, something even remotely significant. But come on, the man has taken a stand against ketchup.
When Ronald Reagan said “let them eat ketchup,” or words to that effect, when asked why the nation’s children were not getting any vegetables with their school lunches, my father was ready to take the next plane to Washington. He was prepared to stand in front of the White House with a sign proclaiming “Ketchup is Un-American.”
My mother had to remind him that he’d voted for Reagan. My mother, who has had to endure a lifetime of being married to a card-carrying Republican, is the one who had to hold him back. Poor woman.
And poor man, too. Really. I mean it. Maybe he was born with faulty DNA in the ketchup spiral. What do I know? I’m not a doctor. All I can tell you is, when my parents go out to eat my mother calls ahead and warns the restaurant owner that they’re coming. She says her husband is likely to order every red item on the menu but if there’s a ketchup bottle in sight he’ll bring the house down.
She tells me she’s given up trying to cure him of his demons. Now all she’s interested in is damage control.
In the dream my father and I are in a restaurant, just the two of us. This is something we have never done in real life, we have never gone out to eat together.
But in the dream, we’re in a nice restaurant and he isn’t yelling at the waiter because his fork is dirty, or because he did not ask for ice in his water, or because he was seated too close to the bathrooms.
My father is calm, amiable, natural. And so am I.
The two of us are eating salad. How healthy! I think this, even in the dream. We each have a plate of greens before us and we eat slowly as we talk.
I don’t know what we’re talking about but we’re not arguing, just talking, the way some people do with each other, the way some fathers and daughters do, friendly, just shooting the breeze.
There’s not a ketchup bottle in sight. A ketchup bottle could set him off, but there isn’t one — my dream is cooperating.
We’re just sitting and talking and eating and it’s very nice, maybe a little bit like heaven, if you imagine heaven as a nice restaurant where the silverware is always clean.
Which I don’t, and this is my dream, so I’d say: not heaven. Just a bit of a reprieve in the middle of this all-too-real world.
Some sweet time in a restaurant. Salad, low talking, a father and daughter.
My father and me. Together, in a dream.
In another life.