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If you really love me, you'll eat this liverwurst paté

By Christina Waters

FINALLY A SUBJECT has presented itself to which I can apply myself without fear of creating an electronic tsunami of protest. Possibly an ex-mother-in-law will take exception, but everybody else, gather round.

Let's take a brisk stroll down memory lane. Recall with me some hallowed family tradition. In my case it was the annual Christmas visit (annual Christmas forced march, in my childhood opinion) to visit with Uncle Doodle and Aunt Mariana. Now Uncle Doodle (he wasn't really my uncle but my mother's uncle, and that made him great-uncle Doodle) was a sweet, round Norwegian whose watery blue eyes and red nose had been acquired through an artful blend of genetics and strong drink. My sister and I adored this quiet simple man who'd worked as a lumberyard laborer all his life until the strong-willed Mariana entered his life and took complete control.

Doodle, in his own simple way, adored his distaff storm trooper, a woman not to be messed with lightly. Now, Mariana did two things well--in addition to keeping Uncle Doodle in check. One was crocheting. Mariana didn't merely crochet a few place mats and the odd baby blanket. Mariana was a world-class crocheting savant whose legacy consisted of dozens of tablecloths, scores of drapes and even a half-life-size, crocheted version of The Last Supper.

The other thing Mariana did, with equal Germanic vigor, was make fruitcakes. Mariana's fruitcake was infamous in our family. Each year's fruity specialty was begun immediately after the previous Christmas--baked, drenched with some high-octane spirits and then put away (under a pile of crocheted tablecloths) for an entire year. By the time we visited at Christmas, the fruitcake had aged to into a leathery fare-thee-well.

It's no big secret that fruitcake is an acquired taste--and that children famously never acquire it. It must be said. Children loathe fruitcake. It hasn't got frosting, it's filled with grotesquely gelatinous candied cherries and gummy green things, and it's as hard as calculus. I'll shorten this memoir: each year we would visit Doodle and Mariana, and each year, as sure as there's a Santa, there was the plate of fruitcake. My sister and I each politely accepted our plates of fruitcake, which Mariana, that old fox, had craftily topped with whipped cream in a Grimm Brothers sort of effort to trick us little girls into compliance. We would sample a tiny forkful, just to confirm that it was the same damn fruitcake as last year's, and act out an elaborate charade of chewing appreciatively while very carefully spitting out as much as possible into crocheted napkins. To say that this was an ordeal for two little girls is like calling George W. Bush a bit dim. It was, and remains, the quintessential example in my own memory bank of an obligatory food experience.

We all have these painful memories of forcing ourselves to work our way through some utterly inedible concoction just to keep from hurting someone's feelings. In many cases, this "someone" is a beloved family member. We wouldn't hurt Aunt Mariana's feelings for the world. Or at least that's what my mother reminded me with a cautionary look.

When surveyed, several informants concurred with my fruitcake recollection, though several--Jim Schwenterley of the Del Mar/Nickelodeon theaters and real estate guru Tom Brezsny among them--remember being forced to eat tasteless fish each Friday as part of the religious obligation practiced by their Catholic families. Schwenterley admits that he was well into adulthood before he could look a fish in the eye.

And then there was my mother-in-law's liverwurst "paté" that showed up right after the gin and tonics and before the cheese ball at every single holiday meal. Now no one in their right mind actually likes liverwurst in the first place. It must be the creation of some twisted miscreant who failed culinary school and decided to get even. But imagine actually showcasing this slimy brown substance by giving it a glossy exterior of aspic and tricking it out with expensive crackers? Well she did, and we all had to add some of the reviled "specialty" to our appetizer plates, and then oooh and aaah about how it was just as good this year as last year. And the year before. If the devil wants to know how to make sinners squirm, he'll make sure that liverwurst spread is required eating in hell.

Now the rub. Why, if we all agree that, for example, this liverwurst paté should never, ever have been created--and if we also agree that it is truly terrible stuff and we all hate it like a bad case of poison oak, why then do we eat it and never say a word? Is it good manners? Or a classic case of bad faith? When does "making someone happy" slosh over into the trough of hypocrisy? Would Aunt Mariana really have taken up firearms and mowed us down where we stood if we'd politely, lovingly, declined her fruit-filled handiwork?

How did we come to this particular stage on our collective journey where we can't bring ourselves to speak plainly? Probably because it's just gone on too long. Way back when I was 12 and noticed that my mother always piled over-cooked green vegetables onto my plate, that was the moment I should have rebelled. But, being a kid, I didn't. And then pretty soon I was an adult, and my mother would say, "I've made those peas you love," and I didn't have the heart to set her straight.

Another piece feeding into this syndrome is the fallacious insistence that we clean our plates. Why? Are they still starving in China? And if they are, why don't we just send them the burned peas, along with the sticky, decomposed corners of fruitcake that were stashed away inside my purse, handkerchief and coat pockets? The insistence that people absolutely clean their plates is a form of behavioral control used by cooks, mothers and gulag commanders since the dawn of time. They made it, therefore we must eat it. Reverse that equation and you'll find the inner kernel of psychological truth. If we don't eat it, we are rejecting their love, rejecting their cooking and in many cases (where the cook identifies her self-worth with her pie crust) we are therefore rejecting their very value.

Foods, especially holiday foods, are gifts. To refuse the gift is to refuse the giver. Simple math. Yet it is a no-win setup in which the only solution requires that we lie, that we become deceptive, that we perpetuate bad ideas like leaden fruitcake, gelatinous liverwurst and plates piled higher than a methadrine trip.

Uncharacteristically, I place this dilemma before you without simultaneously cramming a solution down your throats. I am in no position to force-feed a happy strategy for avoiding dining obligations. Chew on it for a while. See if a way out of this self-perpetuating cycle of faux satisfaction suggests itself. Wouldn't both giver and recipient be far, far happier with a culinary delicacy that is honestly enjoyed?

Probably not.

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From the March 6-13, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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