Magazine article The New Yorker

RATIONED; Family Dinner

Magazine article The New Yorker

RATIONED; Family Dinner

Article excerpt

In the days of my adolescence, my parents returned from work around 3:45 P.M., and the family dinner was held at four o'clock. The radio was always on for the four-o'clock news, featuring international disasters and domestic socialist successes. During the meal, my sister and I were subjected to an interrogation on school matters; we were never allowed to eat in silence, let alone read or watch television. Whatever conversation we could muster had to be terminated in time for the weather forecast at four-twenty-five; dinner was over at four-thirty, by which time we were obliged to have finished everything on our plates and to have thanked our mother for her efforts.

Although my sister and I were invariably given the biggest and best morsels, we experienced our family meals as a means of parental oppression. We always complained: the soup was too salty, peas were served too often, the weather forecaster was obviously lying. For the two of us, the ideal dining experience involved c[acute]evapi (grilled skin sausages, a kind of Bosnian fast food), comic books, loud music, television, and the absence of our parents. It was only once I was in the Army that I grasped the metaphysics of family meals and understood that the food was prepared over the low but steady fire of love.

In October, 1983, at the age of nineteen, I was conscripted into the Yugoslav People's Army. I served my time in Stip, a town in eastern Macedonia that was home to both the military barracks and a bubble-gum factory. I was in the infantry, where the main training method was a kind of ceaseless debasement that began with the way we were fed. At mealtime, we'd line up on the vast tarmac for roll call, then march into the cafeteria, unit by unit, where we'd slide our sticky trays along the rails, each of us trying to solicit bigger portions from the pitiless kitchen staff. Our menu choices were fantastically limited. For breakfast, we got a piece of dry bread, a boiled egg, a packet of rancid margarine, and occasionally a slice of gooey, unsmoked bacon; we washed it all down with tepid sweet tea or decondensed milk in plastic cups that had been absorbing grease for all eternity. Lunch always required the use of a spoon; our favorite dish was a thick bean soup--complete with tiny sprouts that looked exactly like maggots--because it was filling and set us up for an encyclopedia of fart jokes. …

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