When my parents retired few years ago, they re-located to a sleepy community in Florida – a simple place with rows of identical houses and beautifully manicured lawns. It looked like something out of Edward Scissorhands, but they seemed to like it well enough. I’m sure it’s a lovely place to grow old. Especially if you don’t mind eating dinner at 5 o’clock; or, you know, watching a neighbour drop dead on the tennis courts every now and then. As my father, a retired gym teacher from Brooklyn, likes to remind me: « There’s nothing golden about the golden years unless you have your health and a lot of money. » Indeed.
Whenever I visit, which l’m ashamed to admit isn’t all that often, we usually eat Kosher deli. If new, hip restaurants were opening near the retirement community, I certainly never heard about them. Besides, these residents never talked about the quality of the food at a restaurant or even the prices anyway. The only thing they cared about was the portions. lf you couldn’t take at least half of your meal home with you, you were being robbed.
My parents had friends who went to the same generic diner again and again, always ordering the same thing: the « health nut chicken » Which was at once the main dish and also an afterthought. What mattered were the « sides » that came along with it-an absurd high-caloric parade of soup, salad, pasta, vegetables, a glass of house wine, a bread basket of Biblical proportions, and for dessert, a slice of pie that rotated in a mirrored case, like a puppy in a store, waiting to be adopted while it grew old.
Food never interested my parents much, and I was pretty clueless about – you know – spices. Growing up, I thought paprika was exotic. I didn’t know what arugula was until college. Come to think of it, my parents weren’t aspirational about furniture or clothing or movies or anything else that I’d eventually geek out about. My dad, a life-long jock, was content to read mystery novels that he checked out from the public library. To say they were formulaic is being kind. He would occasionally get 100 pages into a new-ish one before realizing he’d already read it. My mom, meanwhile, liked being with her family and watching Days of 0ur Lives. Their venn diagram crossed in exactly one spot: They both loved flea markets. They still do.
« Like most of my often-entitled peers, I sought out mid-century modern fourniture on Craiglist and obsessed over the capsule collection Jil Sander did for H&M. I mean, I didn’t think it was strange to have clothing tailored. Or see low-budget movies where the protagonist was miserable. »
I was not like this. And, around the time I realized I liked men, I also realized I’d developed my own tastes and interests-or rather the taste and interests we’d all developed. Like most of my often-entitled peers, I sought out mid-century modern fourniture on Craiglist and obsessed over the capsule collection Jil Sander did for H&M. I didn’t think it was strange to have clothing tailored or see low-budget movies where the protagonist was miserable, or download music from bands I’d only read about. I am 34 years old now, and if my parents knew how much money I pissed away on food every month- on dim sum and take-out and good wine- I think they’d choke on their own vomit. The uncomfortable truth is this: My parents think I’m a snob.
I could feel their judgment come on suddenly, like a summer cold. But there it was, that whiff of disappointment taking firm root. They’d wanted my brother and me to succeed (and we had), but it came with an unexpected price: They resented us for embracing the spoils that came with (gulp) a richer life, if not exactly a better one. I figured, if I wanted a glass of Prosecco to start dinner with, who was it hurting? But it seemed to be hurting them! Perhaps they saw my spending as a rejection of the lessons they’d taught us. (As kids, we’d never ordered a soda at a restaurant; sodas were for rich people.) 0r maybe they thought I was being « uppity. » (We were far from working class, but my father worked two jobs, even after my mom went back to work.)
This led to some horribly awkward moments, and I found myself routinely lying to my parents about what I’d spend on dinners, not to mention the rent on my one-bedroom apartment in downtown Manhattan or on the suit I bought for a party celebrating the launch of a book l’d written. On a recent visit to New York, I’d made the mistake of taking my parents to dinner at Hudson Clearwater, a newer restaurant I’d wanted to try in the West Village. Let me set the scene: You’ve heard about restaurants trying so hard to be cool that they don’t have a sign? Well, Hudson Clearwater was some next-level shit. They didn’t even have a front door. Foodies in-the-know somehow knew to look on a side street for an unmarked entrance that led to a garden and some serious culinary wonders.
I thought my mother would find the hide-and-go-seek bit thrilling, and she did, cooing: « 0oh! A secret garden! » But the excitement was short lived. 0f course, we’d arrived absurdly early, at 6pm, and yet the host took one look at my father-dressed in a track suit-and still tried to turn us away.
« Trust me, the judgements went both ways. They were embarrassed by my over-spending. And I was annoyed by their increasing obsession with chain restaurants. »
« Do you have a reservation? » he sniffed. I pointed out the restaurant was empty, and only then did he begrudgingly seat us – albeit in a bad table by the door. I wanted to punch him in the mustache. This dinner was an unmitigated disaster, I realized, as my parents tried to read the menu. Not only were they put-off by the prices (I was paying, but still), my father struggled to identify a single item on the menu.
« M’am, » he asked the waitress, « what is kee – NO – ah? »
« Quinoa, » I interjected too quickly. « It’s pronounced keenwah. »
He ordered the kee-N0-ah. And though he wouldn’t admit to liking it, he cleaned his plate. Still, a cloud hung over the meal, and I got the distinct sense that my parents felt l’d forsaken them. That l’d abandoned their hard-scrabble values – and by extension, maybe them too – at the first taste of truffle oil and fleur de sel.
Trust me, the judgments went both ways. They were embarrassed by my over-spending. And I was annoyed by their increasing obsession with chain restaurants. This was sometimes hard to stomach, quite literally on another visit to Manhattan, they’d forced me to eat at the Olive Garden. I was mortified (Who would eat mass-produced Italian food in Manhattan?) but also too exhausted to argue. « Fine! » I said, throwing open the door to the massive space. The voice coming out of my mouth caught me off guard. I realized, It was the same one my father had used on me when I’d begged for McDonalds as a kid.
« At least, If I’m a snob, I’m their snob. My problem, it seems, was selfishness. I was force-feeding my parents culture – chased with a glass of artisanal liquor – because that’s what I’d wanted. »
Tucking into a bottomless salad bowl at the Olive Garden all these years later, I realized : It wasn’t the food my parents loved at a chain restaurant so much as the routine. And that made sense to me. My dad knew he wouldn’t have to worry about weird ingredients on the menu, or that he’d have to pay for refills on his soda. When you get to be 75 years old maybe you’ve earned a little comfort? As the slogan said, At Olive Garden, you’re family.
For weeks, I’d felt guilty about that night at Hudson Clearwater. Because I’d made the same mistake before- dozens of times. After college, I’d taught abroad in Madrid, and my parents came to visit me. One night, I took them to an asturian cider house where the speciality was mussells. My dad ordered a roast chicken which, for reasons I still can’t explain, came with two eggs (sunny side up) on top. My dad picked at it like a child would a scab; slowly, an until it bled. As you can imagine, we fought a lot on that trip. Thankfully my mother doesn’t remember it that way. When I asked her about it recently all she said was, « l love that trip! We were all together. »
I realized, it’s a cashmere-fine line between punishing our parents for who they are (the sign of a real snob) an wanting to expose them to new worlds, or to my world. At Least If I’m a snob, I’m their snob. My problem, it seems, was selfishness. I was force-feeding my parents culture’ chased with a glass of artisanal liquor – because that’s what I’d wanted. These are their golden years, and I hate to think about how few are left. Something had to give.
The secret with ageing parents and McDonalds-lovin children alike, I would come to see, is knowing when it fight. It’s knowing when to push them to try something new, and when to back off. When to insist they drink the expensive, single-batch Scotch (because it’s so fucking smooth) and when it’s better to let them enjoy bottom-shelf. So I came up with a plan: Moving forward, I would take their comfort into account when choosing new restaurants, suggesting plates they might like instead of handing them a menu they couldn’t read and insisting the fend for themselves. I’d help them, the way they’d always helped me growing up.
Was my dad better off for having tried quinoa? Probab not. But it didn’t hurt him, either. And when he got home to Florida – to the tennis courts and the early-bird specials and the health nut chicken – he had a story to tell his friends, about how his son had taken him to a secret restaurant selling a mysterious grain.
By Mickey Rapkin
Illustration by Julien Grataloup