by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
I hate liver. The smell, the texture, the color. And I am not even sure where it comes from. Is it literally an animal’s liver? I don’t want to know.
Most of the time as a child, liver never crossed my plate. But once when we were living in Fort Rucker, Alabama, for some reason I will never understand, my mother served liver for dinner to my dad and three-year-old me.
I wasn’t crafty enough to sneak the gray-brown mound of protein under the table to our beagle, Colonel: I just refused to eat it. And in a swift move of parental payback for boycotting my entrée, my mother would not let me have dessert.
I remember this like it was yesterday. After dinner, we (actually, probably only my mother) cleared the plates—my dad’s clean one and mine still filled with untouched food. Then my mom went around and gave my dad, then me, then my baby sister, Emily, “dessert kisses.” But only my dad got served actual dessert. My sister got none because she was only six months old and not yet on solid food.
I got no dessert because I refused to eat my liver.
(For the next several decades, during subsequent family dinners, I brought up this incident repeatedly, with unstinting outrage. My parents always claimed they had no memory of ever withholding dessert from me, during the Liver Dinner or anytime. And while they may have convenient parenting amnesia, I never forgot. So much so that when I became a parent, I never forced my own kids to eat something they didn’t want. And if one of us had dessert, we all did.)
When my father’s time in the army was up, we left Fort Rucker and moved into our new house on Intervale Road in Newton, Massachusetts. Soon after, my mother was admitted to the hospital to give birth to my brother.
Mrs. Gaudette—who came from an “agency” (that word sounded mysterious to me) and who seemed to me to be about the age Beverly Cleary is today—was hired to take care of us while my dad was working and my mom was in the hospital. (Postpartum hospital stays were much longer in those days and it felt as if my mother had been gone for weeks!)
Things at home were going along okay considering all the major life changes our family was going through (a new house, a new baby, a very creaky stranger taking care of us). But it was summertime and we were managing well enough: playing outside, running through the sprinklers, and reading library books.
I was deep into Henry Huggins, Henry and Ribsy, and other assorted Beverly Cleary titles that summer. My precocious sister, Emily, then age four, recalls she was reading the Little Bear books by Else Holmelund Minarik, illustrated by Maurice Sendak; Mr. Bear Goes to Boston by Marion Flood French, illustrated by Lisl Weil; and Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey.
(As we were recently talking about these favorite titles, Emily connected her early love for bear books to her current love for her dog, Mila—truly a big, cozy, and loyal bear of a dog.)
Then one night, Mrs. Gaudette served Emily and me peas with our dinner.
In those post–Fort Rucker years, I had almost as strong an aversion to peas—and to all small, round foods like blueberries and olives—as I did to liver. My mother—probably weary of hearing about the profound effect that Liver Dinner in Fort Rucker had on me—had converted and did not make me eat peas.
But Mrs. Gaudette did not get the memo: she had boiled Green Giant peas and they were on my plate. My mother was “lying in” at the hospital; my dad was visiting her there, and given that there were no cell phones and no internet, there was no way for me to call for help.
Mrs. Gaudette thought it was ridiculous that I wouldn’t eat my peas, and I thought she was ridiculous for not believing I didn’t have to. Things rarely go the way you want them to in these moments, but in a perfect turn of events, just then my parents called us from the landline in my mother’s room at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
I put Mrs. Gaudette back on the phone, and my mother did confirm to her that I did not have to eat my peas. That validation was a very sweet victory for me, although I do not think Mrs. Gaudette liked me too much after that.
As far as I know, my sister, Emily, was never forced to eat liver and she actually liked peas (and blueberries), but nonetheless her dietary preferences evolved in their own way. When I called her to confirm her Early Years Diet, this is what she told me:
“Bosco chocolate syrup in milk. Corn muffins. Peanut butter, jelly, and fluff on Wonder Bread with Fritos in the middle. Spaghetti from that Italian place on Beacon Street. Watermelon. Peppermint stick ice cream with hot fudge, whipped cream, and a maraschino cherry.”
Perhaps chastened by the Liver Dinner, or maybe because they just got more comfortable with being young parents, my mom and dad let Emily stick to her diet. (And she always got dessert.)
This acceptance had a profound impact on my sister, who is today a healthy eater and a vegetarian. Last summer, at my mother’s memorial service, Emily recalled in her eulogy how grateful she is that my mother respected her idiosyncratic diet and let her eat whatever she wanted.
I used to like to cook—but with working full-time and commuting to New York City, I never had the time to make meals the way I wanted to when my kids were growing up. During the summer, though, I would have a little more flexibility to turn my regular “working girl chicken” dish into something more special.
For many years, we rented an unwinterized cabin with a bare-bones kitchen in New Hampshire on Squam Lake for our two-week family vacation in August. Most nights my husband, Jeff, would barbecue (or we would go out to Hart’s Turkey Farm in Meredith), but one night I signed up to cook dinner.
I planned poorly and didn’t get to the grocery store on time and had to resort to cooking chicken cutlets with the only thing I could find in the cabinet that had a prayer of tasting good: bottled raspberry salad dressing and raspberry jelly.
Let’s just say one group at the table—my son’s visiting friends, Matt and Patrick—enjoyed the raspberry-salad-dressing-and-jelly chicken. Jeff, my daughter, Rebecca, and my son, John—not so much. We all went out for ice cream after that meal.
These meal memories came flooding back to me when I reread Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby, Age 8. Everyone who has ever read a children’s book knows that Beverly Cleary—still going strong at age 103—is an unparalleled master of capturing the emotions and hearts and minds of regular kids, such as third grader Ramona Quimby.
In Ramona Quimby, Age 8, Ramona and her sister, Beezus, are excited when they think Mrs. Quimby is serving pot roast with gravy for dinner. However, they are not happy when it turns out to be less expensive—but nutritious—tongue, purchased because the family is now on a tighter budget given that Mr. Quimby quit his full-time job at Shop-Rite and is now a graduate student.
The sisters were enjoying the taste of the unbeknownst-to-them budget meat until Beezus pushes aside her “too fattening” gravy and sees bumps on the underside of the meat. The jig is up. Once they learn it is tongue they are eating and not pot roast, Beezus and Ramona refuse to finish their dinners (although they do get applesauce and oatmeal cookies for dessert).
Mr. Quimby then has the good idea to give Mrs. Quimby a break and have the girls cook dinner for the family the next night. This they do, making a mostly successful supper using whatever ingredients are in the kitchen. Something like my own raspberry working-girl chicken.
I was seven and three-quarters years old and about to enter third grade when my brother, Mark, was born and my mother had to declare pea amnesty from the maternity ward. But after all these years—and thousands of meals later—that vindicating and empowering moment when my mother told Mrs. Gaudette I was right still sticks with me.
Ramona Quimby and the kids of Klickitat Street—and all of Beverly Cleary’s characters—have been reflecting and empowering millions of kids (and their teachers and parents) since 1950, when Mrs. Cleary’s first title, Henry Huggins, was published. I am decades older than I was when I first discovered Beverly Cleary’s books in the Newton Free Public Library, and yet, when I read about eight-year-old Ramona Quimby confronting a slab of unappetizing meat on her plate, I am back to being a third grader all over again.
At Scholastic Book Clubs, we want to help Beverly Cleary’s classic and beloved stories continue to reach as wide an audience as possible. The Book of the Week is the Newbery Honor book Ramona Quimby, Age 8. In this classic chapter book, Ramona “the Pest” is back and ready to start the third grade.
“As always, Ramona’s thought processes are amusing, touching, and revealing. Once more, Cleary shows us life through Ramona’s eyes and shows her young readers that they are not alone.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Ramona Quimby, Age 8 touched a third grade nerve in David Vozar as well:
“After reading Ramona Quimby, Age 8, I was reminded of my own experiences in third grade. Just like Ramona with the letter Q, I found myself struggling to accept that I had to learn how to write the letters all over again.”
Everyone at Scholastic Book Clubs was excited to return to Beverly Cleary’s Klickitat Street this week. Watch the Book Boys drop everything and read (and even make a new friend!); discover how teacher Michele Lambraia’s fourth graders learn about some hilarious idioms and compare their families to the Quimbys in Book Talks; check out a fun interview with Beverly Cleary herself in Behind the Scenes; and download a free printable reading-response activity (that doubles as a bookmark) in Cooked Up from a Book.
I hope you enjoy Ramona Quimby, Age 8 and that, at least most of the time, you get what you want for dinner.
This Book Is Available from Scholastic Book Clubs