My Failed Frenchness
By Taber Wood
As a child I had an indiscriminate palate and would eat just about anything, a concept offensive to my displaced French mother. She often worried she was losing her cultural grip on her U.S.-born children and considered my democratic take on food a symptom of her daughter’s oafish American-ness.
Like the anti-Michael Pollan, I gravitated mysteriously towards food that least resembled its origins. Sitting on the cart in the supermarket, I would sneak Spam, concentrated lemon juice, Fruit Roll-ups and hot dog buns from the shelves, slipping them through the register. My looting would remain secret until months later, when the shell of an artificial lemon, sucked dry and imploded, was found wedged between the couch cushions.
The summer I was 10 years old, on our way back from visiting French relatives, American Airlines served my family a beige-colored 1950′s-style Chicken Stroganoff for dinner. Repulsed, my mother urged my family to avoid the meal, but I alone happily consumed it without chewing, and I know this because on the car ride back from JFK, it came up whole.
Our brown 1970′s Mercedes-Benz had been baking in the airport parking lot all summer and by this point felt like a convection oven. My father sped as usual, probably doing his “no hands on the wheel” tricks with his knees to make my mother angry.
I felt a surge in my stomach, so I unrolled the window and aimed the best I could, but we were driving 70 mph. and the forces of aerodynamics were against me. I saw vomit in my lap, in my hair, on my seat belt. The smell was atrocious. In the small back cab, my two brothers, Walter and Kendrick, screamed and scrunched themselves as far away from my toxic explosions as possible. My mom whipped her head around to see that they stayed trapped in their seatbelts.
I requested a stop, but it was Labor Day weekend and my dad was determined to make it home before we hit rush-hour traffic. Suddenly, my suffering was a game of endurance, with him encouraging me to “hang in there.” The concept hurt my pride, and encrusted in vomit, I began to cry.
My mother turned around to offer some pity but also remind me that somehow this sad path was a sign of my own failed Frenchness. “Own your stroganoff mistake,” her face seemed to be saying. Embarrassed, my face streaming with tears, I leaned out the window to air-dry my hair, but the wind only tangled it, turning into a sharp wet whiplash against my face.
I cried harder and my father cut into the breakdown lane to speed up. We were suddenly going 90 mph, and I felt more stroganoff needed to leave me. I heaved up another serving, aiming vaguely for the window, but soon my two brothers were covered in a light spray. The smell was now unbearable. Almost forcing himself from the car, Kendrick stuck his head out the window as far as he could, screaming blindly into the airstream for me to stop it. Immobile in the middle and blanketed in vomit, Walter (the youngest) began to dry heave. In vain he tried to lean past Kendrick and use the window; predictably, he soon had Kendrick covered. And like a link in the chain of a home-made vomitorium, Kendrick indiscriminately vomited all over himself. Trying not to heave, too, my mother reached back from her seat with some Dunkin’ Donuts napkins she had found in the dashboard. It was like trying to tidy up an oil spill with a Q-tip.
We ended up hitting traffic anyway. It was midday and the heat began to bake the bile to our skin. We kept crying, our tears a refreshing rinse for the vomit on our faces.
By nightfall, none of us had any bile in us. We got out of the traffic, and I threw up a little in my mouth. Not wanting to cause any more trouble, and still snugly seat-belted, I suffered quietly as we rolled into our town. My dad stopped the car in the driveway, and instantly my mom stumbled out, heaving, into the pachysandra. Leaving her there, I took the keys from her bag, and solemnly made my way towards the door. I calmly went upstairs to the bathtub, where I released my final outburst of stroganoff nobly over the clean white tile.
Taber E. Wood is a writer living in Bushwick. She likes the young Al Pacino and burnt toast.
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