Dave Eggers is an American publisher, author, editor, philanthropist, and half a dozen other things. In 2005, Time Magazine named him one of the “100 Most Influential People.” In 2008, Utne Reader named him one of the “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing the World.”
At age 21, with both mother and father dead, Eggers was unexpectedly thrust into the role of parent to his 8-year-old brother Toph. This experience resulted in a “memoir with fictional elements” titled A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Of course the original work contains many more lively details about how a young man and a child, both stunned with grief, managed to get through their days.
For “This American Life,” Dave Eggers described the routine, about a year into this new lifestyle. It’s not about weight being an issue, but about how they made the evening meal into a time of togetherness and communication. The message here is that an intact traditional family with two adult parents ought to be able to accomplish something at least as effective and meaningful.
Two Brothers Creating Meals
On school days, Toph would make his own breakfast and pack his own lunch, and several times a week dinner would be a collaboration. The older brother would say, “Hey, I need your help” and the younger would say “Okay.” Their repertoire was limited to 7 meals, rotated with “mathematical precision.” It might be stir-fried beef strips with soy sauce, in tortillas; ground beef and spaghetti sauce, in tortillas; grilled cheese sandwiches; or a couple of other standbys. Potatoes made an appearance, as well as apples and oranges.
Although the range was limited, there were vegetables—lettuce, baby carrots, celery, cucumbers, or green beans, always raw—and even a take-out pizza meal would include salad. It’s not a menu Dave Eggers necessarily recommends. The point is:
Sometimes we sing while we’re cooking. We sing regular words, words about pouring the milk or getting the spaghetti sauce or microwaving the tortillas, but we sing them in opera style. We can sing lots of different ways, but the opera style is pretty impressive. People have said so. Sometimes while cooking, we have sword fights with wooden spoons, or with the dowels that used to hold up the drapes.
Sometimes while we cook, he tells me about things that happened at school. “What happened today?” I ask. He gives me the full rundown, who’s a dork and who’s OK, what everyone wrote their papers on, the whole thing.
As for the set and setting, the brothers might eat in their dining room—unless the table was set up for ping pong. They might use the coffee table, unless it was already covered with books and other homework paraphernalia. Or they might have a picnic on the floor of Toph’s room and watch basketball on TV, or play a game of cards. Dave Eggers maintains that the kitchen table was usually clean and available, but “Where’s the fun in that?” Still, there were limits:
All meals are served with a tall glass of 1% milk with the gallon jug resting on the floor next to the table for convenient refills. Alternative beverages are not available. Anything not on the menu is not available. Any complaints will be handled quickly and with severity.
Or at least as much severity as a grieving young man could muster, to deal with a similarly traumatized sibling. Mock discipline was also part of an ongoing effort to keep things lively and minimize the opportunity for sadness. This meant that food was not just for eating:
I’ve stuck a half cantaloupe into his face. I’ve rubbed a handful of banana into his chest, poured a glassful of apple juice on his head…I’m making our lives a music video, a game show on Nickelodeon, with quick cuts, crazy camera angles, lots of fun, fun, fun. It’s a campaign of distraction and disinformation, leaflets dropped behind enemy lines, flares and fireworks, funny dances, shell games, magic tricks.
Again, the lesson here is that if a brother can make the evening meal a time of positive togetherness, a mature, grown-up parent is probably capable of doing the same.
Toph Eggers grew up into an author and screenwriter who tweets under @topheggers. His Twitter slogan is, “Tight shirts show off my big heart.” He reportedly turned out okay, and recent photos show him eating what appears to be green food.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “You Gonna Eat That?,” ThisAmericanLife.org, 12/11/98
Image by McSweeneys.net