Maggie Wilson Author

Historical Non-Fiction in Northern Ontario

An Acquired Taste: Petits Pois à la Paysanne

family dinner

I grew up in Waterloo Region, in southern Ontario. The area is known for its Mennonite and German culture. That cultural background and a need to economize explains the “eccentric” items that were served up at dinner time in our 1960’s household.

  • Beef liver
  • Pigtails roasted in sauerkraut
  • Ham hocks, ditto
  • Sweet breads
  • Pickled tongue

Sure we had hotdogs, and Campbell’s tomato soup, and Velveeta. Remember Velveeta? And now and again, a roast chicken or pot roast, and always a turkey or ham during the festive seasons. But on occasion, when the cash flow stopped flowing, we ate… offal.

Money was tight. Dad’s business was on the skids and mom worked as a bookkeeper for a small plumbing firm. This was before she snagged the job as office manager at the high school. Mom prided herself on feeding us three squares a day. She took her job of provider seriously. I can only guess that my dad felt conflicted about that. In the 50’s and 60’s, the man of house was supposed to be, well, the man. To make up for what he could not contribute to the household money-wise, Dad put himself in charge of law and order.

If you’ve read my introduction to Howard you will recall that meals were the only times we got together as a family. I don’t remember any that were boisterous and lively. Not in the good sense of those words, that is. The focus was on eating what was put in front of us, dammit. Dinner time, as you can imagine, was usually fraught with tension.

I’m not the only child of an authoritarian father. Many are familiar with the parenting style of the day:

Eat your peas, there are children in Biafra who are starving.

or when we pulled a face or otherwise resisted the stinking stuff before us, we were commanded to

Eat it! It’s a delicacy!

As if that would make any difference! We were kids! 5, 8, and 9-year-old kids. Velveeta, now that’s a delicacy. This? This is offal, as in A.W.F.U.L. Besides, who serves children green peas with pearl onions and expects them to appreciate the flavour?  It’s an adult delicacy. An acquired taste.

By now tempers are thinning and he moves from gentle admonishment to threats.

You will do as you’re told, or there will be no television tonight! Eat your god damned dinner!

Mother says nothing. She continues to eat, but says nothing. Our faces redden. We squirm in our seats. There might be a sniffle or two.

Stop your crying, or goddammit I will give you something to cry about!

We make feeble, fearful pokes at the food. We take a bite, and spit the wretchedness back on the plate.

The man at the head of the table – he with the shame and bitterness and the desire to do what’s right but he cannot because he is just not equipped to deal with these three and a wife whom he loves but has disappointed – he who would rather be anywhere than in this role as head of house, with all of the responsibility and none of the power, all of the power and none of the wisdom – he strikes.

The closest, my youngest brother is hauled up, literally by the scruff of his neck and pummelled. Walloped. Beaten. Dad jams him back into his chair.

Dad stands there, trembling.

He says nothing. Mother says nothing. Dad returns to his seat.

We eat our peas.

Family Dinner sketch from Free Vintage Digital.

Categories: Mom and Dad

Tags: ,

19 replies

  1. Powerfully written. 😦


  2. In my house we heard, “I’ll jerk a knot in your tail!” I knew what that meant, intuitively, but it took years to figure out how it got there! Does that make sense?
    Nicely done by the way.


    • Hi! thanks for your comments. Oh yes, it makes complete sense. The words are just the vehicle, aren’t they, for the emotional charge that makes the impression.

      “I’ll jerk a knot in your tail!” I have to say, I have not run across that particular brand of parenting wisdom!


  3. Oh my – – there can be no other ending than this. Really reverberated through me, right where it counts. Nice job, Maggie. Obviously took its toll on all you children. Sorry. I had a father with a similar temperament, and I sometimes sat at our kitchen table with my overcooked eggs at breakfast (okay, I was a picky eater on top of it) all the way through sundown, with those same congealed, sunny side-ups as my dinner. Yep, I was a stubborn one. And after waking up the next morning, what greeted me at the breakfast table? You guessed it. Two plastic white orbs with jellied, yellowish middles. Blech. Eggs. To this day.


    • Hi you. Yeah, a departure from the usual today. The daily prompt “tongue” reminded me of the pickled tongue my parents found so delectable. YECH! With a capital BARF! Thanks for you story, and thanks for your feedback. I wasn’t sure how this would come across.


  4. OMG… You ARE the keeper of my memories! Soul-sista we were raised in the same house albeit by different parents. Love the way you wove everything together: historical context, family dynamics, childhood trauma. Very poignant.

    I’m not even going to talk about the Velveeta! (Although, you know, I could. Just saying.)



  5. You know what I’ve never understood about this… surely plain flour is much cheaper even than the “gross” meat parts. Why not let the pitiable kids eat bread with some kind of topping (butter? peanut butter– that used to be cheap?). I grew up with a father who faced poverty and lack as a child and he never let us forget it, especially at the dinner table.

    There is a passage in one of the “Little House” books where the children are so moved by the story of a hunted animal that they beg to eat bread and butter for dinner… sounds good to me!


    • Hi there. We are legion, are we not? The children who learned lessons at the dinner table. Besides the “elbows off” and “don’t chew with mouth open” variety, I mean. I had the exact thought as I was writing this piece yesterday. How hard would it have been to let us have some bread and butter?

      Thanks for your comments, and follow. I’ve been reading your work on Matt’s blog and am pleased to see you here.


  6. I agree with an earlier commenter — powerful words.


    • Thank you, Cindi. It was cathartic and revealing to write this. I used to think that it was my mom who was burdened “with all of the responsibility and none of the power”, which was the case. But as I wrote this, I realized that it applied to my father, too, in that he had the power, but did not apply it responsibly nor with wisdom.


  7. Were we all at the same table? Was there an explosion if you broke a dish or spilled the milk. Whoever said “Don’t cry over spilled milk, never spilt at our supper table.



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  3. Misophonia | The Zombies Ate My Brains

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