Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Eat Your Greens

Thanks to Amanda, The Southern Vegan, for this picture.
When I worked at the Florida Legislature in 2000, the cafeteria served sides of cheese grits and greens every day. Who knows what the main dish was. Who cares. This was culinary heaven for me.  And a new love, too.  Raised by white people in the Northeastern part of the US, the only hot cereal I ever knew was oatmeal and the only hot greens I'd ever tasted was frozen spinach. Not the same thing. At all. I was smitten.


As luck would have it, turns out greens are a central part of the Galician diet. Jaime's parents grow them in their garden. His mom served them last Friday for lunch with white beans, potatoes and sausage. Olive oil. Salt. Say no more.


Love is blind, but still I understand that a lot of people, especially children, don't like greens.  They are a green vegetable, warm and sometimes kind of slimy. Young folks usually don't like the smell of coffee either.  Kids.  They'll learn.


Today, Jaime and I stopped at a bar near our apartment to have a little sit in the sun. You can imagine my delight when my glass of cold  Albariño  came with a little tapas plate of greens, potatoes and chorizo.  Jackpot! That dish was empty before you could say Jack Robinson. 


Shortly after I finished wiping up the last drops of olive oil from my plate, a man and a young girl came along and sat down at the table next to us. The girl was about 10 years old with a purple backpack and long, thick hair.  I never saw her face because she sat with her back to us.  The man was in his 50s with a five o'clock shadow and an odd manner. I couldn't tell if he was high, or mentally ill, or what, but there was something "off" about him. He was talking a lot, very loudly, not really making sense, kind of barking. The man was clearly not the girl's father because she called him by his first name and their body language suggested a loose connection, at best.


So their sodas came out, each accompanied with the same plate of tapas that I had been served, and the girl didn't want to eat the greens.  She left them on the plate. The man started barking at her, telling her she had to eat her vegetables, threatening her, at one point standing over her and holding her nose to try to force her to open her mouth. In the midst of this tirade, he would wander off subject for awhile, talking about an injury he had suffered, disparaging her mother's cooking. But mostly he just focused on trying to get her to eat the greens and calling her names.


It seemed like forever, but was probably only about 5 minutes. Jaime and I sat there in silence.  We didn't do or say anything. No one has ever said to me the kind of mean things he was saying to this girl. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. When he held her nose and poised the fork full of greens in front of her mouth, I held my breath. If I start something, how will it end? What could I do? Would I make it worse? Are grown-ups allowed to force children to eat their vegetables? The girl was very calm, holding her ground. It seemed like if we all waited long enough, the man would become distracted. Which he did. He called her some more awful names and then ate the greens himself. They both seemed to accept the performance's outcome.


He paid for the drinks and then they got up and walked away to find her mother.


There it was.  A small incident over a spoonful of greens on a warm March afternoon with her mother's boyfriend. Maybe that little grain will wash away when her mother smiles and hugs her.  Or when she wins the spelling bee at school and the teacher gives her a thumbs up. Maybe there is a man in her life who is different from the boyfriend, kind and warm. Or maybe not. It may be that this grain is just one of a handful that creates a festering sore of shame and anger inside this little girl that never heals. Maybe the struggle to control what she eats will become an obsession that shapes every aspect of her life. Maybe one day she'll be lying on her bunk in Three South talking about that day in the sun when her mother left her alone with him and he humiliated her and none of the people who were there did anything.