Shut Up and Chew!



Gibsonburg, Ohio. -- Mothers around the country can breathe a little easier. The law has ruled in our favor. Washington State Superior Court Judge James Ladley has ruled that the ''nutraloaf'' served to unruly, food-throwing inmates of the Clark County Jail is not only nutritious but constitutional.

For you readers with no vested interest in the ruling, let me fill you in. It seems that Tommy, Michael and Clifford, all residents of the aforementioned facility, wrote a note to Judge Ladley complaining that the meatloaf they were being served amounted to ''cruel and unusual punishment'' and violated a law that required proper feeding of jail inmates.

''Nutraloaf,'' as it is called, is a dish especially prepared for naughty boys who throw their food around the jailhouse, because it's easier to clean up. It has been described as ''looking bad and tasting bland.''

Sounds a little cruel maybe, but not unusual. Complaining about food is a widely accepted and universal pastime that is not limited to institutions. It used to happen in my house all the time.

My son Kristofor became a master of sly food cracks while still a toddler. Early mornings I could detect the sounds of footy-pajamaed baby feet shuffling toward the kitchen. I knew what to expect.

''Momma, is the bacon burned yet?'' He swears he meant no insult; just a routine question to determine how long before the grits hit the plate.

The installation of a smoke detector solved that problem. He just played with his toys until it went off. It kind of took the place of an intercom.

Kristofor never threw food. His instincts told him that food preparation in our house was not a given and that no matter what appeared on the dinner table it was to be treated with respect, if not downright awe.

A few weeks ago over stuffed grape leaves and lamb chops (we were eating out), he shared his childhood philosophy with me.

''I always knew you were doing something in the kitchen all those years -- something you felt was really important.'' He wipes a glob of sauce off his chin and continues. ''But the outcome was in question. You know what I'm saying?''

I suspected I did, but I make it a point not to hit my child in public. ''Go on,'' I urge. He's digging the hole deeper and now that he has his own plastic, I'm thinking about making him buy dinner.

''Remember the crunchy macaroni salad?''

If looks could kill he'd have been face down in his tabouli. ''OK, kid. Now you've gone too far.''

He throws out a half-hearted, ''I'm sorry,'' as he guffaws into his napkin, ''but I couldn't resist. It's always been my favorite 'mom in the kitchen fouling up' story. When I have kids I'm going to tell it to them.''

''Yeah, like a family tradition. Wait until I'm dead or you're out of the will.''

The incident to which he has so cruelly referred was no big deal. Just some hard-boiled eggs tossed (shell and all) into the Cuisinart along with the other ingredients for what promised to be a superb macaroni salad.

I remember him carrying on something awful -- grabbing his throat, rolling his eyes and refusing to swallow. I told him I was tired of his constant complaining and overreacting. My actual words were, ''Shut up and chew.''

Maybe the jailhouse cook ought to try that.

Elizabeth Schuett is a writer and teacher in Gibsonburg, Ohio.

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