No one in his right damn mind pays “you’ve gotta be kiddin’ me” prices to see a movie — even if it is an advance showing of a major motion picture. I’m willing today because this little excursion is part of my scheme to throw some serious ‘shade’ –- and some serious ‘cool’ –on a despicably hot summer day. I’ve come to the mall multiplex to match wits with Tom Cruise, to see if I can keep up with the on-screen goings-on in the latest installment of Mission Impossible.
Just within the mall, but outside the cinema, the conditioned air smells of popcorn and pastry. ‘Hot buttered’ emanates from the theatre; ‘Eau de Cinnabon’ oozes from the adjacent food court. Inside the food court itself – and definitely within earshot – two combative lunch mates are seated at one of those ubiquitous mall cocktail-type tables scarcely big enough to oblige a large slice of mall pizza. The two are providing bonus entertainment for the movie goers waiting to buy tickets.
Having just arrived, I am the last of several dozen waiting in line for the special matinee showing. The man who had been last-in-line me saw the bonus side show from the beginning. “The kid definitely believes in his First Amendment rights; he’s gotten in a couple of real zingers,” the guy says. “But then so has his mother…”
“Benji, it’s not gross. Now pul-leeze eat for Mummy. I know you’ve never eaten Egg Foo Yung before, but I want you to …”
“No. You eat it! I wanted a Happy Meal,” the boy pouts.
“Well, Mummy thinks you’ll be happy with this meal. It’s yummy, “she says, eating a bite herself. “You can’t just live on cheeseburgers and Spaghetti-o’s all your life…”
“Why not?” the small tow-headed boy, who has his mother’s facial features, retorts. For emphasis, he frantically shakes his head, “No!”
‘Mummy’, an attractive blonde in her late twenties, looks to have had an expensive but also exhausting morning, lugging the boy and a jumble of bags around the mall. Costco. The Gap. BB&B. Toys R’ Us. Old Navy. The bags and merchandise are now scattered about three sides of her chair and on both sides of her sandaled feet. And while she’s now ‘taken a load off’ –laid her burdens down, as it were, she still has her hands full. As if all the walking and shopping and (probably the) overpaying wasn’t morning enough, she’s suddenly burdened with her own impossible mission: feeding Benji. For whatever reason, the young boy has decided some morsels on his paper plate –morsels for which she’s left most of a ten dollar bill at the mall’s Asian eatery — just ain’t worth it.
Benji’s truth is the Egg Foo Yung doesn’t look good, feel good, or smell good. To him, maybe it doesn’t even sound good. Dirt –or maybe even boogers –tastes better than the inedible ick laying before him. And he’s decided it’s not going down his gullet…at least not today!
Maddeningly, especially for a bumfuzzled Mummy, no expert — not NASA, not Google, not Martha Stewart, not even those women on ‘The View’ –has ever figured out why kids suddenly become picky eaters, or why they do the other goofy things they do. Me? I’ve always figured it was voices, maybe small ones on the ‘small fry frequency’ only kids can hear, but voices nonetheless. At least that’s the way I remember it. “Stick your tongue in that electric socket, Jimmy.” “Go ahead, play with the butcher knife, Davey. It’ll be fun,” the voices have been known to say. “Don’t eat the Egg Foo Yung, Benji. It’s icky.”
“OK young man, you’re working my nerves — AND you’re making a scene. Now be Mummy’s big boy and eat.” Then she invokes the ages old mother-to-child admonition: “There are plenty of starving kids in Africa, who would love to have Egg Foo Yung. Now eat!”
Watching all of this unfold as the movie ticket line inches forward, I feel bad for Mummy and Benji. I especially feel bad for the kid. I don’t know for sure why I root for him, but maybe it’s because of the small boy, who still lurks inside me – the same kid who used to get himself in the same kind of jams.
Ages ago, when I am in my runt stage, around the height of the Baby Boom, I found myself fully involved in a mother–kid skirmish, though my hurdle was chitlins rather than Chinese. (Just like the meme about ‘trash versus treasure’, one kid’s Egg Foo Yung is another kid’s chitlins.)
From everything I could conclude through my several years of life experience, mothers had numerous sacred parenting beliefs. The first primary principle of the Mother’s Apparent Belief System was that no kid of hers was going to leave home without being duly admonished to have on clean underwear! This was in case Junior got plowed under by a car, bus, or train enroute to wherever. Thus, Baby Boomer Mom was NOT going to be embarrassed when Junior, clinging to life — splayed out on the Emergency Room Operating table — and the doctors made the appalling discovery he had on dirty drawers.
Another cornerstone of the Mother’s Apparent Belief System was there were starving kids—hordes of ‘em– running around far-flung reaches of the globe such as Europe, Upper Mongolia or Decatur, Georgia.
According to the Mother’s Apparent Belief System, while neither she nor any of hers directly CAUSED the starving hordes of kids to be hungry, Junior not cleaning his plate at mealtime definitely exacerbated the situation. It may have sounded like a specious argument to anyone who wasn’t a mother and while Walter Cronkite didn’t regularly talk about it on the Evening News, it was certainly true. This was the doctrine her mother had explained to her as a child and her mother before her and on and on for thousands of years. The nexus was “God forbid the plight of hungry kids’ in Europe, Mongolia or Decatur, Georgia were ever traced to her Junior not cleaning his plate. Baby Boomer Mom would be duly mortified. It would be as embarrassing as if Junior got plowed under by a car and it was then discovered during his life renewing emergency surgery to be wearing filthy Fruit of the Looms!
The site of my stand-off is a small family fete, a pot-luck thing at my Aunt Vera’s house, itself located in southwest Atlanta, Georgia. It follows my own luck turned bad when during the dinner portion of the event some wiseacre puts chitlins on my dinner plate.
Now the reader will note, there is no food more problematical than the chitlin, the colloquial name for the lower intestine of a pig. The mere mention of the word has been known to strike fear and cause shallow breathing in adults. There is no middle ground. People either love chitlins or hate them– similar to their feelings about Ayn Rand, rap music or Obamacare.
I first learn about chitlins from my older cousin, Calvin Cantrell, my first object of hero worship. Calvin was smart, clever, and worldly — everything I hoped to be some day. At twelve, he was practically a grown man. Cal owned his own bike, a 28” red Western Flyer, a wonderful baseball card collection and a bullfrog he’d fished out of Mosley Pond. And if being a property owner wasn’t impressive enough, Cal could actually tie his own shoes.
Cal had things figured out! …and the things he’d figured were breathtaking. For example, he volunteered the best way of dealing with a mom’s constant harangue about wearing clean underwear was not to wear drawers at all. To my knowledge, Cal Cantrell invented the notion of ‘going Commando.’ Cal also discovered that when a mom carped about you always forgetting to wash “…the backs of your hands, too, young man,” a quick solution was having the family dog lick your hands all over, lest you have to re-climb the stairs to the second floor bathroom. Sheer genius!
Somehow, twelve year old Cal knew all about chitlins and at last Thanksgiving, sitting with several of us younger cousins at the Children’s Table, he’d scared the livin’ bejesus of us when he told us all about them. The stuff he told us and the way he told us made you think chitlins could be the object of an Alfred Hitchcock or Stephen King movie.
First, Cal shared that while everybody, maybe even most people, did not like chitlins, they had a cult-like following (not unlike the Grateful Dead, one guesses). They also had certain ‘cache, he said’ (whatever the hell ‘cache’ was). For example, they weren’t sold everywhere. You couldn’t just waltz into Kroger or the A&P and buy chitlins out of a vending machine or off the shelf as if they were a loaf of Wonder Bread. You had to learn by word of mouth where to get them – i.e. ‘you had to know a guy’ (a specialty butcher), all of which put chitlins in the same class of contraband as weed, moonshine, or hookers.
Since ‘fresh’ chitlins were filthier than week old underwear, before they were even cooked, Cal said, they had to be ‘detoxed’ – washed, scrubbed, and more or less sterilized. This was quite an operation in itself and took hours and hours and typically done by a courageous, volunteer older grandmother-type, a woman who’d already lived a full-life (in case something went horribly wrong). Note: men were mostly afraid to go near a raw chitlin. If chitlins were eaten after not being properly cleaned, you could just as easily die, according to Calvin.
Chitlins could be cooked by one of several methods: boiling, broiling, deep-frying, stewing or sautéing. But no matter which method was used the real problem with chitlins was the application of heat released a putrid odor known to bring the cook, other household inhabitants, neighbors and even small island nations to their knees. (And hell, even if you didn’t die from eating an unclean chitlin, you could just as easily keel over from the smell!)
But even after all of the careful preparation, most people were still afraid of chitlins. They hated ‘em — the taste of chitlins, the look of chitlins, the smell of chitlins, even the thought of chitlins. And it wasn’t only kids that hated chitlins, there were even adults – starving, homeless adults who’d refused to eat ‘em.
Cal’s recommendation was to stay as far away from chitlins as possible.
At Aunt Vera’s, when I first got a glimpse of the chitlins on my plate I immediately heard the voices: “DON’T EAT’EM KID. YOU’LL REGRET IT.”
I recoiled from the plate of chitlins and said to no one in particular. “No thanks.”
Mama, who for some inexplicable reason was always around, intervened and said since someone was ‘nice enough’ to go to all the trouble to make chitlins I should try to eat just one, small chitlin for the sake of politeness and learning to try new things.
“No thanks,” I insisted. “Not today.”
Then in that motherly of hers, she reminds me I’d felt the same way about pancakes. It was at this time I heard more voices from nowhere shouting “DON’T EAT IT”, the voices sounding remarkably like Calvin’s, who, remarkably, was nowhere to be found (as came to be his modus operandi whenever I really needed him).
Of course, Mama did not hear the same warning voices as me and when I balked again, she dealt the the ‘starving hordes of kids’ card from the Mother’s Apparent Belief System Deck of cards. She explained my refusal to eat everything on my plate wasn’t fair to the starving hordes in Europe, who would love to have everything on my plate –including the chitlins.
Those small fry voices grew even louder and still I recoiled again from the chitlins on my plate.
“I’m not eatin’ that,” pointing to the morsel.
It was then she revealed the other part of the Mother’s Apparent Belief System and sentenced me to remain at the table until I had eaten the one small chitlin on my plate. Such was her resolve that I learn my lesson, she sat at the table across from me to make sure. Lest I think she was kidding around, she brought out — seemingly from thin air — the emergency book she kept on hand for long waits and began to read War and Peace.
So there I sat, in ‘kid chain gang’ as it were, for a couple of hours under the watchful eye of my mother, who sat opposite me at the table reading Leo Tolstoy. As for me, I was committed to sit there for eternity if necessary — until cobwebs connected her skeleton to the dog-eared Russian tome and the same cobwebs connected my bones to the still uneaten chitlin. (Still, no Calvin!)
Fortunately nature eventually called and Mom had to answer. In her absence, I summoned my dog, Alibi, who had been lurking about and whimpering in that way of his, suggesting he was ready for me to play ‘fetch with him. Ever since I’d known him as a puppy, Alibi always thought himself to be a real person and immediately sensed what I needed. At first, he looked at me hesitantly as if there was no way he was going to eat a chitlin. But when I pleaded with him and he remembered how much he enjoyed having me fetch things for him, he licked the morsel from my hand. He wolfed it down, leaving the room in the bare nick of time before the woman came back. But before he left he rolled those big dog eyes of his at me as if to say ‘I love you Billy, but don’t ever ask me to eat another chitlin.”
To the present day, I have never been brave enough, tough enough or maybe crazy enough to eat a single chitlin — though Virginia Cantrell, decades later, went to her grave believing I had eaten at least one. (Now between you and me, reader, I have this sneaking suspicion that deep fried chitlins MIGHT have a taste righteously close to that of bacon, but I am never going to be brave enough to know for sure.)
As I walked toward the theatre box office, past the boy and his Mummy, I felt Benji’s eyes, imploring me –or somebody — for help. I felt bad for the kid. I did. I swear I did. I would’ve helped him too — if I could’ve. After all, I had once been in the same kind of jam. We were kindred spirits. He was my own kind.
But, alas, the truth is a small child and an old stranger on the glide path to his own dotage are no match for a determined mother. The only thing I can do is watch from afar and hope the kid figures it all out before the mall closes. As I entered the theatre and left the two of them behind, I could only try hard to catch his eye and communicate telepathically in the same way we all do when we try to help TV game show contestants, who are flummoxed for the answer to win whatever is behind Door #3.
“Better get a dog, Benji.” I whispered to him telepathically. “Better get a dog.”
A couple of hours later, when I emerge from the theatre, I notice Benji and Mummy no longer in the mall food court. Perhaps Benji figured out the Egg Foo Yung. Maybe he had an epiphany. Or, who knows? Maybe Mummy just got tired, threw up her hands and stalked off towards home, the tow headed kid in tow, muttering under her breath, “Fuck those starving kids wherever they are in Africa, Europe, or Decatur, Georgia . Let one of them deal with Benji!”
The truth is I’d still had a hard time keeping up the latest Mission Impossible. Some things never change… like my inability to instantly figure out ridiculous special effects movies, my inability to adjust to the arrogant Southern summer sun, the need to wear clean Fruit of the Looms before leaving the house…and my fear of chitlins.
In musing about all of this, I also vow to bring Calvin over to the multiplex next week. I bet he’ll figure out Mission Impossible. Cal still has a solution for everything. I just hope he tells me.
 Note: Occasionally the word is spelled out ‘chitterling’ and pronounced ‘chit-ter-ling’ though only by anthropologists, elitists and hoity-toits, who weren’t raised right. Almost no one refers to them as ’hog guts’ although it’s most assuredly what they are.
 Remarkably, some wierdos even bar-be-qued them which seemed to be a complete waste of good BBQ sauce.