“Crumbs of Life,” column for Dec. 4, 2012

On his way off to work, he kissed me goodbye, then stopped to raise an eyebrow.

“You taste like tortilla chips,” he said suspiciously.

It was 9 a.m. Who eats tortilla chips for breakfast?

“I packed some in your lunch,” I said, pointing to the lunch pail he was carrying. “I ate the crumbs off the counter.”

“Oh,” he nodded, and left.

My husband knows that I eat scraps. He’s seen me do it plenty of times. I’ve been doing it more or less all my life.

It started when I was little. After supper, my mother would tell me to do the dishes.

“Yes, ma’am,” I’d say gladly. After everybody left the table, I had my pick of leftovers.

For the record, I never ate anything from my stepfather’s plate. He loved red hot chili peppers, an acquired taste I had yet to acquire. You can get in a lot of trouble, I learned the hard way, scrounging scraps from pepper lover’s plate.

Same for my brother Joe — not for the heat, but the lack of it. He never left a smudge. He’d wipe his plate clean with his last bite of cornbread, then pop that last bite in his mouth. His plate was so clean, you could put it right back on the shelf and nobody would ever notice.

I know this for a fact because I did it. More than once. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.

My mother’s plate was gold. She loved sweets. She always left a bite or two of bread pudding or pound cake or peach cobbler. I swear it tasted better on her plate than on mine.

But the real treasure came from my baby brother, Monkey Boy. He never ate anything worth eating — creamed corn, cantaloupe, collard greens, fresh tomatoes from the garden. My mother would heap them on his plate and he would pass them all up like poison, leave them lying where they lay, waiting for me.

He didn’t even like biscuits. I mean, seriously. Who doesn’t like biscuits? Especially the way my mother made them, melt-in-your-mouth tender, lighter than the wings of angels.

I could have survived quite happily on those biscuits. Actually, I pretty much did.

When I left home for college, the scrap-eating stopped for a while. One does not scavenge leftovers in a college cafeteria, unless one wants to spend all night in the infirmary.

But I picked it up again after I married and had three babies. I’ve eaten a lot more meals from a plastic high-chair tray than from any piece of fine china.

At first it was a matter of timing. When my children were small, I had precious little time for eating from a plate. So I ate whatever they left on their tray.

As they grew older, it became a matter of frugality. I hated to waste what they refused to eat. So I ate it all. It was good.

Now the kids are grown, but I do the same for my husband. I finish his leftovers, much the way I finish his sentences.

I always figured it was a womanly trait, something we all do as daughters, wives and mothers. Until recently, when I got a call from my youngest.

We were talking, he and I, when I heard in the background my 2-year-old grandson.

“Hold on, Mom,” said my son, turning his attention to his 2-year-old. “What’s that, buddy? You want your mac ‘n’ cheese? It’s all gone. I thought you were finished. I, uh, ate the rest of it.”

There was a brief moment of silence, then the 2-year-old began to wail, brokenhearted.

“I’m sorry, buddy,” his dad said, laughing, “but there were only, like, three shells left!”

And that’s when I finally understood it. Eating scraps isn’t about women or men or moms or dads or whatever.

It’s simply about survival.



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