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Picky eater? Nah, it's Iron Stomach Man

Jeff Lee, who as a kid made a lunchtime sideshow out of eating strange and exotic things, is trying to keep calm as his daughter won't eat her school lunch at all.

A little encouragement from across the fence


Most school days, Pippa doesn’t eat her lunch. When we dig into her backpack and open up her fancy, stainless-steel bento box, the lunch we packed in the morning is usually untouched, save for a half-eaten satsuma or a lightly nibbled piece of cheese. When we ask her why, she just shrugs and says she wasn’t hungry.

The thing is, Pippa isn’t a picky eater — at least not in the conventional sense. “Discriminating” is more like it. One time, she informed us that her favorite vegetable was smoked salmon. And once, when she was 4, she drew a picture of the house she would like to live in. It had all kinds of amenities and improvements, including an underground room connected by a secret passageway.

“What’s that?” Jess asked, imagining some kind of pirate treasure chamber or double-agent hideout.

“That’s the prosciutto cellar,” she said.

My own childhood food experience was a little different from Pippa’s. My mom’s cooking alternated between recipes clipped from the advertisements in Better Homes and Gardens and traditional Chinese dishes. One night we might have “Chicken Crunch,” complete with Kellogg’s Corn Flake crust and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup gravy, and the next night we might have some fermented, Chinese squiggly thing that smelled like low tide.

“What’s that?” we’d ask.

“Try it,” my mom would say, carefully avoiding a direct answer. “It’s different.”

(Pro tip for parents out there: “It’s different” isn’t as tantalizing to most kids as you might think.)

For school lunches, my dad would just throw the previous night’s leftovers into my Spider-Man lunchbox and off I’d go. Once I got to school, I’d open it up to find something which, while lacking much value on the “wanna trade?” lunch barter network, was priceless on the gross-your-friends-out entertainment circuit.

“What’s that?” they’d ask.

“Cow’s tongue.”

When I got to fifth grade and we had hot cafeteria lunches, I was able to parlay my reputation and tolerance for unconventional foods into a profitable side business. I had a standing offer that I’d eat any mixture, combination or conglomeration of foods from the regular school lunch for a quarter. I billed myself as “Iron Stomach Man.” Kids would gather around the table just to see me do it, and line up for the chance to test me with some concoction of their own.

“What’s that gray stuff?” they’d ask.

“Green beans, cherry Jello, ketchup, Tuna Surprise and chocolate milk.”

Anyway, when we noticed that Pippa wasn’t eating her lunches, we asked around to see if this was a common occurrence in her first-grade class. We discovered that one parent was putting handmade sushi in her kid’s lunch. Another was carving cold cuts into elaborate animal shapes. A third was turning vegetables and toothpicks into action figures. In short, we had stumbled onto an escalating school lunch arms race — one we were losing without even knowing it. We made a half-hearted effort to join the fray: a few cucumber slices fashioned into the shapes of marine creatures. They came back pristine and intact, untouched by little human hands.

In the end, we kind of gave up. After all, she’s healthy ... she’s strong ... she eats plenty of food when she’s at home. We still pack her lunches, if only to keep the teachers from calling CPS. And who knows? Someday she might actually start eating them. Children’s eating habits are not fixed in stone for all eternity. The other day, Pippa informed us that her opinion on cucumbers had evolved.

“I don’t like cucumbers,” she said, “except Persian cucumbers.”

I have half a mind to sneak a chunk of cow’s tongue into her lunch someday. If she’s not going to eat it anyway, she might as well have a little fun with her classmates. And with Iron Stomach Man nearly a half-century into retirement, maybe it’s about time for some other intrepid school-lunch daredevil to take his place.

Look! What’s that going through a disgusting amalgam of unappetizing food at the speed of light? Is it a trash compactor? Is it a garbage disposal? No! It’s Iron Stomach Woman!

The world needs more than puny action figures constructed from limp carrots and toothpicks.

We need a hero.

Jeff Lee still eats things you really don’t want to hear about in Seattle.



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