I Hated Caroline Kennedy

Caroline Kennedy

With profound apologies to the former president’s daughter, I despised Caroline Kennedy when I was a kid. She was my age, and not coincidentally, shortly after JFK came to office, my mother began to proclaim at every meal, “Caroline Kennedy eats a spoonful of everything on her plate, whether she likes it or not.” This mealtime recitation, made as both the stench of overcooked cabbage and the dread of okra oozing its slimy way down my gullet threatened my gag reflex, did absolutely nothing to convince me that I should sample the more smelly and less seemly foods on our table.

All parents have their ploys to entice, persuade, or otherwise force their offspring to ingest as many nutritious things as possible. But my mother’s strategy offended my sense of how I should be dealt with, even as a five-year-old. I knew that with a mom as polished as Jackie, Caroline was surely eating far more enticing things on Pennsylvania Avenue than I was on our Tennessee farm. Did the president’s daughter have to spoon in bites of squidgy lima beans? Stinky collards or other gamy-smelling greens? I wasn’t sure just what they were eating at the White House, but I knew it had to be more sophisticated than preternaturally pale turnips that had the taste and texture of something long missing and recently discovered under the porch.

So our table became a war zone and mealtime a series of pitched battles and covert attempts to hide uneaten food—especially turnips, which I couldn’t even bring myself to touch with bare hands.

Convinced that I was being unreasonable on the issue of turnips, my mother set out to prove me wrong. One day she boiled up a batch along with their non-evil twin, the potato, all of which she meticulously carved into slices of uniform size and shape. Then she arranged the little identical white bites on my plate, noting to herself which were turnips and which were potatoes, and called me in for lunch. She drew up all 5’1” of her person and stood tall as she made her usual declaration, which I endured, as I did every day. (To give you a sense of what I was dealing with, she was a high school teacher whose students called her “The Little General.”) The first bite—potato—went in my mouth and stayed in. The next one stayed in, too. Then a bite of turnip went in and came right back out. By the end of the meal, I’d eaten all my potatoes—and assembled a tidy pile of turnips on my plate. She fumed about it at least until my high school graduation. Mention it now and she still gets a stormy look.

Her Caroline Kennedy story could have been a complete fabrication. I don’t know where she got it, and, conveniently, she doesn’t remember. I suspect it came from one of those ladies’ magazines she’d flip through at the beauty parlor where she went for her weekly hair-stacking appointment. (The resulting ‘do added another three inches to The Little General’s stature.)

To her credit, my mother’s early efforts to persuade me to try a bite of everything did work. Eventually. As an adult, I’ve become quite audacious in my eating. I’ve even begun throwing the old spoonful-of-everything line back in her face, with glee. Of course, when I was a kid she only wanted me to eat my vegetables, whereas as an adult I’ve tried to shame her into sampling sushi, escargots, and kimchi. She doesn’t find this amusing at all.

I couldn’t even persuade her to sample the dishes I made with kudzu, the leafy scourge of our native South, no matter how much I cajoled. I guess to most people in the southeastern United States, eating kudzu would be akin to a New Yorker feasting on pigeon fresh from the window ledge. It’s simply not done. I’m fairly sure my mother toyed with the idea of having me fitted for a straitjacket on more than one occasion.

Yet her constant insistence that I keep an open mind as well as an open mouth ensured that I became adept at product identification in culinary school, where I was reacquainted with my old nemesis, the turnip. I even came to appreciate it, if not exactly love it. As a child, I never could’ve imagined I’d grow up to eat the battery of curious foods that I do and that I’d revel in almost all of it. As an adult, I can acknowledge that it’d be sad to go through life missing out on something just because I didn’t think I had the nerve to give it a go. Perhaps the former First Lady, by encouraging cultured palates, was concerned not only with her children’s nourishment but with their propensity to appreciate the finer things in life.

I wonder what Caroline eats these days.

.  .  .

LC We’ve All Been There Note: Sitting at the table with a plate of something awful plonked in front of you, no escape in sight…sound familiar? They say writing down your experiences can be cathartic, so tell us: what tactics did your broccoli-pushing parents rely on to get you to eat your veggies? Those of who find yourselves in their position now as parents, what tricks do you now resort to in an attempt to get a little nutrition into your own stubborn little turnip haters?



  1. I guess I lucked out, my family didn’t eat the turnips, just the greens. I admit as a kid turnip greens, collard greens, mustard greens, poke salit, etc. all disgusted me. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t too picky an eater. My cousin wasn’t so lucky. See, we weren’t permitted to leave the table until our plates were clean. No childhood strategy worked (my grandparents were also teachers). One day, my cousin decided to stuff all of his food in his mouth and sit there. The ploy worked on his parents, he would fall asleep and they would clean him up and tuck him into bed. But, he was at Grandmother and Grandy’s house and that would not happen. After he had been sitting like a chipmunk for quite sometime, long abandoned by everyone else, my grandmother made a pass through the dining room and whispered in his ear, “if you don’t swallow that food is going to turn to poopy in your mouth.” He swallowed and never tried that in front of my grandmother again.

  2. Wow, Lauralee! Hearing about your younger sister makes me think Gilda’s right, that there’s a genetic propensity at work in this business of what we will and won’t eat. Sounds like sis comes by her vegetarianism quite naturally.


  3. Well, as a kid I pretty much liked everything, but okra, so I wasn’t given a hard time. My Mom did have to work on my younger sister to get her to eat meat. She hated all meat as a little one. She’s actually a vegetarian as an adult. So all five of us kids pretty much ate our vegetables without complaint. There are things I don’t eat now as an adult, I think simply because I had to eat too much of them as a kid: okra, fresh lima beans, and grits.

  4. I have two little boys and I’m convinced that this is largely about genetic propensity. One of my kids will eat just about anything and the other has declared himself a “vegetable-tarian.” (Though he will eat homemade fish sticks since they are “more stick than fish.”)

    I think the key is persistence and exposure to variety. It can be so frustrating, though, when they refuse the healthy stuff.

    As for me, liver has always triggered my gag reflex! Blecch!

    Great post!

    1. Hi Gilda,

      About that “vegetabletarian,” I know someone who as a child said she wanted to be a veterinarian but then wondered if she’d be able to eat meat. We weren’t sure if she meant vegetarian or if she had qualms about eating her patients. I’m glad your son has high standards when it comes to fishsticks, though. He sounds like a gourmet in the making.

      Liver’s problematic, though. Given what I do, I feel I should eat everything that comes my way. I enjoy chicken livers–about once a year–but those of other animals just leave me unimpressed. Can’t figure that one out…

      Good luck with your little eaters!


      1. Well, I’ve heard that our tastes change every 7 years. Maybe there are some fried chicken livers in my future! : )

    2. gilda, the “more stick than fish” line is precious! i can only imagine what other little proclamations come out of the mouth of babes at the dinner table. and yes, though i’m not yet a mom, i think you are perfectly correct in the exposure to variety attitude. a year or so ago i saw a toddler being pushed in a shopping cart at the grocery store. he was cute, but what really drew my attention was the fact that he was gnawing on a raw brussels sprout! i laughed and commended his mom, who was from northern europe, and she just smiled and shrugged and said that they put everything they eat on the table in front of him and that’s what naturally happens.

      1. Renee, I dream of the day when my kids will eat brussel sprouts, a veggie that I ate for the first time only last year (if you can believe that!). And yes, speaking of out of the mouths of babes, my little one just last night declared, “Oh yeah, I eat boogies when you don’t feed me!” Sorry, I know this a food discussion, but the “when you don’t feed me” line is too good not to share.


      2. Hi Renee,

        That child might not recognize a brussels sprout once it has been cooked. There were a lot of foods I liked raw as a child that I found repellant once they’d had the heat put to them–like cabbage. But then I liked cabbage made into sauerkraut. Who knows just what’s in a child’s mind when there’s something new in a child’s mouth?


  5. Hearts of palm for a gourmand in the making, eh? That one rocks!

    I like your tactic of giving them an option AFTER they’ve tried it all. Thanks for sharing a great idea, Sue!


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