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Inviting Writing: Reading the Bologna on the Wall

I read nostalgic food memoirs with a skeptical eye, especially those that are as sweet as cotton candy unicorns. They don't jibe with some of the most memorable moments at my family's table

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Bologna was the subject of familial intrigue. Image courtesy of Flickr user MomPop

For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about food and reconciliation—reconciliation with a food or a loved one, or even a food-related failure of reconciliation. Today’s story comes from Kelly Robinson, a freelance writer for Mental Floss, Curve and other magazines, and the author of an earlier Inviting Writing essay about addiction to Tab. She blogs about books and writing at Book Dirt, and can tell you without equivocation that she didn’t do it.

The Case of the Criminal Lunch Meat

By Kelly Robinson

I read nostalgic food memoirs with a skeptical eye, especially the ones that are sweet as cotton candy unicorns. They’re true, I suppose, but the Norman Rockwell-esque scenes just don’t jibe with some of the most memorable moments at table with my family.

Sure, we had our share of dinnertime jollies—my toddler sister eating mountains of chicken livers because she was told they were chocolate cake, for example—but they’re so easily eclipsed by images of things like my Aunt Nancy in a white nightgown, covered from top to bottom with blood-red beet juice. I’ve never seen Carrie in its entirety. I don’t need to.

There’s also my other sister, who spilled her drink at something like 3,057 consecutive dinners, giving our mother fits that left no tooth ungnashed. Our mother seethed just as much when we had guests one night and the lid to the butter dish was removed to reveal the Twisted Sister logo my metalhead brother had carved there.

And then there was the incident of the gritloaf, which I’ve promised my mother never to speak of again.

The real family drama, though, the one that surpasses even metal bands in the butter or horror movie nightgowns, involves a single slice of bologna. It was 1979. My sister, brother and I were anticipating our mother’s arrival home, and for once, we scrambled to make sure things were in order: no plastic bags tied to the cat, no stray Weebles on the floor. We were neatly lined up on the couch, wondering what stunt Yogi Kudu would pull next on “That’s Incredible!”

Mom walked in, surveyed the room slowly, then stopped suddenly and screeched: Who put the bologna on the wall?!

And there was, indeed, a single slice of bologna, red plastic ring outlining its shiny meat circle, adhered to the wall, slightly above and to the right of the television set. The denials came in rapid fire, and once the interrogation was well underway it was clear that none of us seemed to have done it. None of us admitted it, anyway.

I don’t recall the actual punishment. I may have blocked some it out of my mind, but I know it was severe. I’m sure we were grounded for life plus twenty years and cut off of Little Debbie snack cakes. We probably didn’t get to watch “That’s Incredible!” that night, either.

The bologna game of whodunit still rages today, and it rages hard. We’re now entering our fourth decade of pointing fingers and making accusations. You’d think someone would be mature enough to cop to it, but no one has ever cracked, and whoever it was, the other two of us didn’t witness the deed.

The feud still rages, yes, but the more time passes, the more the feud bonds us rather than divides us. We’re parents of children who have moved out of state or joined the Army. We work in very different fields. We sometimes go months without seeing or talking to each other. But, come holiday time, when we’re all in one room for what might be the only time until next year, there is no conversation so awkward or silence so deep that it can’t be completely turned around with the question, “So who really put the bologna on the wall?”

I fume. I didn’t even like the smell of bologna, I insist. My sister points the finger at my brother, who is my prime suspect this year. He thinks it was me, and that my dislike of lunch meat smell is a lifelong cover story.

It might seem odd by some family’s standards, but it’s how we communicate, and there’s comfort in knowing that’s how we always will.

I’ve always wondered if a deathbed confession might be what it would take to ultimately solve the mystery, but it hardly matters. In fact, it’s far more likely that one of us would slowly wheeze and cough out last words from the hospital bed and say, “I-i-i-i-i-t wasn’t m-e-e-e-e-e-e-e.”

The only proper response from the rest of us would be, “We love you too.”

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