The Long Broccoli Con

When I was  12 years old, I was not a vegetable eater.

This was a problem, because my dad and his wife were on the Pritikin diet at the time. For those of you not familiar with this diet, it allows you to eat anything at all, as long as it doesn’t taste good. Thus, unsalted steamed vegetables, boiled chicken and water with (oh, luxury!) a squeeze of lemon were mainstays of our dinner hour — items no self-respecting American tween wants anything to do with.

I would have simply gone on a hunger strike, or subsisted on cans of tuna I’d smuggled in and secreted into my bedroom, but for one problem: the 3 bite rule.

The 3 bite rule was this: I was not permitted to leave the table until I’d had at least 3 bites of whatever made up the meal: three bites of your flavorless, slimy chicken, three bites of salt-free vegetable medley, and three bites of repellent boiled spinach. I combated this rule in various ways: hiding food under other food, putting vegetables in my shoe and walking on my toes until I could get to the bathroom and unload them, and even by sticking them to the underside of the table. (Sorry about that, folks!)

My parents, however, gradually wised up to most of these tricks, and thus I was left with no options when broccoli night rolled around. Broccoli was my arch-nemesis in the food world, my kryptonite, a sort of instant ipecac I wanted nothing to do with. I was convinced that Achilles podiatry problem stemmed from having a bit of the cruciferous vegetable covering his heel when he got dunked in the Styx.

“I’m not going to eat it,” I staunchly informed my dad.

“Then you’re not going to leave the table,” he rejoined.

“Ok, fine,” I said, adding under my breath “Let’s see who breaks first.”

An hour rolled past. Then two. Then three.

“Eat your broccoli and you can leave the table.”

“Nope. I’m not going to do it. I refuse to eat the broccoli.”

Four hours. Five.

“Come on, seriously, eat the broccoli. This is ridiculous.”

“No. I told you I wouldn’t eat it, and I’m not going to.”

Six hours.

“Sean, eat the stupid broccoli. You don’t want to be here, and I don’t want to be here.”

“Absolutely not. I don’t want to eat the broccoli, I told you I wouldn’t, and won’t.”

Six and a half hours.

“Well, Sean, I’m impressed. You nearly have my record from when I was a kid beat. I lasted 7 hours before I gave up and finally ate my vegetables.”

“What? Really? Well, I’m still not going to eat it.” But, I thought, I’m in striking distance of his record.

Seven hours and one minute, I ate three (doubtless infinitesimal) bites of broccoli and leaped up from the table, pumping my fist, waggling my hinder, and generally being obnoxious in the way that only a self-satisfied twelve year old boy can:

“I beat dad’s record! And I’m free! In your face, Dad! Haha, I’m more stubborn than you are! I RULE!”

Needless to say, this became an oft-recounted chapter of family history, told regularly over the next 20 years. As my own kids achieved vegetable-hating age, this became one of their favorite stories.

“Tell us about the broccoli again!” they said one night about two years ago when we were visiting Dad and his wife for dinner. (They are mercifully no longer on the Pritikin diet, so we’ll sit down to meals with them willingly. My step-mother, as it turns out, is a great cook when she’s allowed to use salt.)

So, I recounted the epic tale: the baleful 3 bite rule, the smuggling of vegetables, Scarlett Pimpernel-style, to their freedom, Dad’s and my epic clash, and my eventual heroic triumph over the oppressive forces of good nutrition. Yay me!

“You know what the best part of that story is?” my Dad asked my kids as I glowed in my remembered victory.

“What?” they asked breathlessly.

“It’s not true. I never sat at the table for 7 hours when I was a kid.”

I don’t know what happened for the next 15 seconds, because my brain completely froze up. Dad had never held vegetable vigil? Granddad didn’t make him stay at the table to finish his food? He made that up? Then that means…I didn’t beat him. He suckered me! That means that 25 years ago…DAD REALLY WON! NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!

“I’VE BEEN LIVING A LIE!” I wailed. Every minute or so. For the next two hours.

I couldn’t believe that Dad had sat on that for two and a half decades. I was amazed both at his canniness and patience (and a bit at my own credulity). The long con is one of my favorite devices in stories and movies, and I now had a prime example from my own experience.

In a few weeks, I’ll be going down to spend a few days with Dad, who is still wheelchair bound in the wake of his car accident. I’ll have more than 7 hours a day alone with him, so I’m bringing chocks for the chair’s wheels. And a vegetable steamer. And broccoli. Lots and lots of broccoli.