Chew On This

Posted on November 19, 2011


I’ve always wanted to be smart, I guess because I grew up in a time when smart people got some respect. Albert Einstein was considered the greatest genius anybody could imagine. He was so smart, he didn’t even have to comb his hair. In a room full of brilliant people, he still got to sit in the best chair and if he opened his mouth to speak, everyone else shut up and listened. Einstein died just a few months before I was born. I used to suggest to friends that this may be proof of reincarnation. Eventually, I stopped saying it because there was too much laughter and eye-rolling, which got in the way of any hope for a serious discussion.

There have been a few people who think I’m smart, because I read a lot and my brain has managed to hold onto a few facts. For example, I know the capital of Madagascar, and how to find the area of a trapezoid. But this isn’t being smart. It’s just a form of storage, not so different from bolting one of those huge plastic containers to the roof of the car so you can lug your color television to the campground. Also, these random bits of knowledge are difficult to work into everyday conversation. The next time you’re on an airplane or standing in line at the bank, eavesdrop on the people behind you. You’ll notice, as I have, that almost no one ever mentions trapezoids.

Although memory and intelligence may not be the same thing, when I go out to a restaurant I’m impressed with the waitress who can remember six different dinner orders — including the annoying requests for onion rings instead of mashed potatoes, and extra sour cream in place of the guacamole — and can do it without writing anything down. It reminds me of those memory experts who appear on late night talk shows and demonstrate how they’re able to recall everyone’s name in the studio audience. The waitress’s act is even more sensational, because she also has to balance enormous drinks and steaming plates of food on her forearm. I always think that maybe I could memorize orders too. But if on my way to the kitchen even one customer asks me where the bathroom is, I’d have to go back to the table and get everyone to tell me what they wanted again. And still, there’s a good chance somebody would end up with guacamole or mashed potatoes.

There has always been that connection between food and intelligence. When I was little, my parents used to encourage me to eat fish, because it would make me smarter. Even as a young boy, I wondered how anyone could possibly be sure about this. Did they give people a spelling test, then make them eat a tuna sandwich and test them again?

“Fish is brain food,” my father would say. I would try to make sense of this in my perpetually-baffled mind. Would the fish actually go into my brain? Or would the fish’s brain become part of my brain? Both thoughts terrified me. Besides, the fish that people ate were always the ones that got caught. The really smart ones would never end up in a frying pan, or a salad.

I doubt there’s a need to even mention this, but I never ate fish. I hated it. I especially hated that fish ate other fish. No other food seemed to do that. Cows didn’t eat cows. Chickens probably wouldn’t even eat eggs. For some reason, I found it unsettling, this idea of fish eating other fish. The fact that it tasted terrible didn’t help either. My parents also said, every chance they got, that carrots were good for your eyes. There must have been places in the world where they couldn’t get fresh carrots. I imagined everyone there constantly tripping over the curb and bumping into trees. And spinach, of course, was purported to give you big muscles. We had fish every other Friday. One night, we sat down to dinner and I found breaded flounder, cooked carrots, and a mound of spinach on my plate. It was then that I decided I wouldn’t mind growing up to be a stupid, nearsighted weakling.

Everyone else in my family loved artichokes. These are basically cooked bundles of leaves which you ate by scraping them across your teeth. You ended up with a pasty, green residue on your tongue that, according to my delusional parents and siblings, tasted good. Even more horrifying was the thought that buried deep beneath these leaves was something called the heart of the artichoke. No one could eat these things without making them the topic of conversation. While I quietly chewed and swallowed my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, they all maintained a non-stop play-by-play of their progress toward the heart, and then, finally, the endless descriptions of how soft and tender and delicious that internal organ felt and tasted. I tried to drown out the commentary with moderately loud humming, but the thought of this thing, beating in the chest of a vegetable, instilled in me a powerful desire to run screaming from the kitchen table. Not that fleeing would have helped. The words wouldn’t let me escape. Heart. Scrape. Even its very name ended with choke. It’s been decades, and still, when someone mentions artichoke hearts, I imagine jars filled with formaldehyde, resting in cardboard boxes on dusty shelves in the back room of a museum.

(I realize that artichokes have nothing to do with intelligence. I just felt like talking about them.)

Parents and teachers had other advice for getting smarter, too. They’d tell us to put on our thinking caps. This was yet another one of those things that must have been introduced on a day when I was home with the measles. I wondered if I was the only one who didn’t have a thinking cap. Maybe that was the cause of my struggles. If I’d had one, I thought, I could relax and let my mind wander, because it was the cap that was doing the thinking.

“Dad, the ball rolled down the sewer and when I tried to reach in and pull it out, my arm got stuck. What should I do?”

“Why don’t you try putting your thinking cap on?”

And I would have, too, if only the person handing them out had remembered that I was sick in bed and didn’t get mine, and if my arm wasn’t stuck in the sewer.

Sometimes the nuns at school would tell us to “wise up.” On less optimistic days, they would suggest we “smarten up.” When things seemed especially hopeless, they’d resort to demanding that we “stop being idiots.” But these things were easier said than done. I can still feel Sister’s hand smacking the back of my head when, in the first grade, I mistakenly circled the pictures in my phonics book instead of the matching words, as we’d been instructed to do. No matter how many fish sticks the lunch ladies tried to cram down our throats, for most of us, true brilliance was an elusive goal.

By the way, after Einstein’s death his brain was cut up into pieces, like a bunch of artichoke hearts, and stored in jars filled with formaldehyde. The jars are resting in cardboard boxes that sit on dusty shelves somewhere in New Jersey. Tests performed on his brain tissue probably refute my reincarnation theory, and I’m sure my friends would all have a good laugh over that. But I don’t care anymore, because I know something they don’t know. I know the capital of Madagascar.