The smell of curry caresses the air and slowly wafts throughout the house. Children are loitering near the kitchen door, waiting for a handout. Looking at the short line they have formed for food, wearing drab and dirty clothes that have been through an entire school day, the chicken coop, and mud holes in the yard, my mind wanders to the memory of my favorite childhood musical, Oliver Twist.
I picture my own little ones donning flour sacks, stitched together with haste and contempt. Their feet are bare, and their hair matted. Each of them hold out crude wooden bowls that they were forced to carve themselves out of desperation, hoping to have them filled with just a bit of gruel to keep their bellies warm and their spirits intact.
My brain is on a switchback, weaving back and forth from my imaginary orphans to reality. My three girls are wearing severely abused Roxy, Justice, and Old Navy jackets, and the baby is in some sweatshirt that cost me twenty bucks and was surely made in an overseas sweatshop. Instead of politely holding out a heavy bowl for a bite to eat, grumbles seep out of the two picky eaters about the pungent aroma of curry, and I think I make out, "There better not be tomatoes in it this time...," over the shoving and shouting.
I slip back into daydream mode. Soot smudged cheeks, sunken from malnutrition and sadness, and solemn eyes, beg silently for my charity. The children, accustomed to tasteless slop, see what I have cooking on the stovetop, and their eyes light up with gratitude and joy. I think I make out, "I've never had such a beautiful meal! Can you believe it? Curry chicken??! What a treat...," over the abundant enthusiasm that these starving angels can not contain.
My semi-morbid daydream is interrupted by one of my children whining.
"Oniiiioooons? I hate onions!"
"Oniiiioooons? I hate onions!"
The rice is finished steaming and the deep pot of curry chicken looks just right. I set up an assembly line of bowls and spoons across the counter, avoiding inevitable meltdowns by making sure that this kid gets the pink bowl, and that one gets the green, because we all know that the color of your eating vessel greatly determines the quality of the food within it.
I picture myself a frumpy, but kindly, old kitchen maid. My unruly white hair is stuffed into a puffy grey cap. I ladle rice and curry chicken into each child's bowl and they hug my legs tightly as tears start forming in the corners of their eyes. I smile down at these unlucky little urchins with compassion and a heavy heart. One of the unkempt kids asks me quietly, "Please, ma'am, may I have some more?" I ladle out an extra helping, complimenting him on his manners, and I consider adopting him.
"I SAID I HATE TOMATOES!!"
My foolish fantasy of polite paupers shatters. Gritting my teeth, I quietly spoon as many of the tomatoes out of the bowl as my blood pressure reaches a record breaking high. Handing over my hard work, in the form of a meal, to my ungrateful munchkin, I want to slink back into my daydream.
Barely clad and unbathed, the orphans slurp the last drops of supper from their bowls and head off to makeshift beds of straw and lumpy, sweat stained cots lined up in their leaky upstairs attic. Not a single unsolicited complaint is offered to the cook, only sleepy smiles pass the kitchen maid on their way to dreamland.
I dish myself a portion of the dinner, sit with the children to eat, and watch my idea of a tasty change of pace dissipate into thin air. The children are poking at the green bits in their bowls with their forks as if they might be bionic intruders or extraterrestrial invaders. They are wary of the red and yellow things in there, too, and the chicken.
I see them try to inconspicuously signal each other, even though they are all full aware that their mother possesses two keen sets of eyes, one on each side of her head. The oldest signals to the middle girl, like a catcher signals a curveball from his pitcher. They have chosen a speaker.
"We're full, mom."
Over the years, and after giving several lectures on table etiquette, I have come to recognize this sentence as the polite way of saying, "Look, lady, your dinner sucked. We're trying to be nice by saying we are full, but really, we are just going to ask for something else that will pass as edible in ten minutes. Try making pizza or Lucky Charms if you expect a standing ovation."
I excuse them, finish my dinner and start the clean up, irritated with my epic food fail. I decide that I will remain determined in expanding my kids' horizons and palettes. I roll through my internal Rolodex of recipes and decide tomorrow's menu will be vegetarian quiche, quinoa and goat cheese.
That'll teach them to be "full."