What is the difference between a nasty habit and a family tradition?
I asked myself this the other morning as I watched one of my kids deposit several spoonfuls of sugar on his bowl of cereal.
In my eyes, coating food with 2 inches of sugar was a nasty habit. The sugar overwhelmed the taste of the food. It showed disrespect for the chef. It added empty calories. And the process of applying the sugar to the cereal was fraught with the risk of spillage.
But in the eyes of the eater, adding the sugar made the cereal "taste good." As for the chef's feelings, Snap, Crackle and Pop probably didn't give a hoot.
Since the eater was almost 7 years old and in constant motion, the calorie intake worry really wasn't a big issue.
As for the risk of spilling the sugar, the kid enjoyed the drama of "dumping" teaspoons of sugar onto the cereal, "just like a dump truck."
And finally the sugar eater won the argument by citing family tradition. Or, as he put it, "Grandma lets me do it."
During a visit to Grandma's house a few years ago he and his older brother discovered the pleasures of applying sugar to cereal. They did what my brothers and I had done as kids. They loaded on the sugar until the cereal sank below the milk line.
Until recently my kids couldn't perform this sugar maneuver at our house, because there was no sugar bowl on the table. Somehow I had forgotten that part of my past. I had begun to believe that I had always eaten toast dipped in extra virgin Italian olive oil for breakfast. That I took my cereal naked.
When they returned home from Grandma's in Kansas City, my kids reminded me that I came from a sugar-sprinkling past. Under cross examination I had to admit to my kids that when I was their age, not only did sugar show up on my cereal, it also appeared in the sauce covering the carrots and even on the salad, in the homemade dressing.
It all tasted so good to me, especially the sugary lettuce.
My kids have since won the battle of the sugar bowl. A container of sugar now resides on our kitchen table, and all family members are free to sprinkle its contents on their food as other family members hiss their disapproval.
But as a mature adult I know there will be other days and other battles on the family food front. And on one of those days I plan to get even.
Besides, not all the dietary skirmishes end up with the parents on one side and the kids on the other.
The popping of popcorn, for instance, is seen by the kids and their father as a grand family celebration. In our view, this is a practice that should be undertaken every time we rent a movie to watch at home. Or every time a good basketball game shows up on TV. Or every time we are hungry.
During our enthusiastic eating, some popcorn hulls sometimes fall to the floor. The boys and I regard these popcorn bits as bits of parade confetti, shimmering reminders of happy days.
My wife, however, simply sees the popcorn bits as "food on the floor" and periodically bans popcorn from the family room.
Another big household dispute is how to break a banana in half. I contend the best way is to snap the banana in half like a twig, with the skin on. It is tradition in my family. Everyone else says this is a nasty habit.
Then there is the fiery question of hot chocolate. I say the only worthwhile way to make it is on top of the stove following the formula of adding milk after the mixture of cocoa powder, sugar and water has bubbled. You top a cup of this chocolate liquid with a scoop of whipped cream.
One kid disagrees, saying heating a cup of milk up in the microwave, then mixing in the chocolate syrup, is much faster. Marshmallows, he says, are required.
The other kid doesn't care how the hot chocolate is made, or what goes on top of it. As long as he gets to dump sugar in it.
This sugar fixation of my son doesn't worry me. He will outgrow it. Just as I did.
I no longer put sugar in my salad dressing. I even eat carrots raw.
And the other night when we had pork chops, garlicly potatoes and fried apples, it was just coincidence that I fought off all comers for the last bites of the apple dish.
It was made using two sliced tart apples cooked over low heat until tender in a covered pan. They were cooked in 2 tablespoons of butter, a sprinkle of cinnamon and an old childhood friend, 1/3 cup of brown sugar.