Mayonnaise and apricot jam: The foods that bring together—or separate—a family

One woman reflects on the picky eating habits that shaped her
By Jenny Klion  Published on 06/08/2018 at 9:00 AM EDT
Illustration by oORn*

When I was 5 years old, my mom made me write a list of my 10 favorite foods, and I couldn’t come up with enough entries, so I put down “salt” as number 10. I think the others were apple, peanut butter, peanut butter sandwich, French fries, pizza, hot dog, cookies, iceberg lettuce, French toast—not with syrup, I did not like syrup—and…salt.

Never mind that my mom munched on mayonnaise and apricot jam sandwiches, I can assure you I eat neither of these foods, and don’t even allow mayonnaise in my house. I felt a little guilty about this no-mayonnaise policy when my daughter was growing up, but not enough to change it. I’m flexible about many things; regarding mayonnaise, no.

My grandmother Henrietta, my dad’s mom, was apparently a genius chef, of the Jewish variety, yet I really have no idea, because I wanted nothing to do with her carrot and cucumber marinades, or chopped chicken livers, or whatever kind of smoked fish fancies my family was always drooling over. I did love her roasted potatoes, crisped on the outside, dripping with lard or chicken fat probably, creamy deliciousness on the inside. And I’d dip them in salt.

Jenny Klion and her mother at the beach
The author with her mother at the beach

The picky eating was a sore spot for me. I took a lot of flak on a family vacation for that Skippy peanut butter jar I clung to—all the way to Paris and back again.

I was 7 years old, and the trip did not cure my fussiness, though I liked the French sugar crepes and also ham sandwiches, but totally plain, with no butter or cornichons.

My parents never forced me to eat anything, save for one time when they must have lost their patience, and suddenly there was a fight at the dinner table, and when the meal was over I found myself sitting alone, in front of a portion of Brussels sprouts I refused to touch. Ironic in retrospect, because I doubt my mom ate hers either. She usually subscribed to a dinner of “dry chicken with rosemary”—her words, not mine—along with iceberg lettuce, Good Seasons salad dressing that we helped her make, and rolls. She did not like vegetables, up to the end….

That night of the Brussels sprouts drama I remained in my seat steadfastly, staring at a plate that looked the antithesis of Henrietta’s roasted potatoes. Here was a similarly small round vegetable, except it was green, and hard, and ugly and dry, not to mention cold, and there was no way I would try it, not even with salt. I did pull off a tiny leaf at one point and moved it toward my tongue, then recoiled at the horror, and that was as close as I got.

Jenny Klion and her mother
The author and her mother at her high school graduation

I could hear my mom doing dishes in the kitchen, I could hear my dad stomping around the den, and I could sense my two older sisters upstairs somewhere, looking down at me, wondering if I was going to crack. I didn’t.

Some time later the plate was removed, uneaten, and I was punished. No TV for a week. Which was not that big of a deal really, because we were only allowed 30 minutes a night anyway. Nevertheless I sobbed on the way back to my room—oh, the indignity of it all—though I got my sentence cut short and was back to watching Batman or Bewitched soon after.

If you offered me Brussels sprouts now, I’d probably say yes, if properly prepared to my liking! I’m still picky about some things—hello, mayonnaise—but I have expanded my food repertoire quite a bit, and don’t use a lot of salt anymore either. In fact, Henrietta taught me how to bake, and I have her prize-winning recipe for Brownie Pie, as well as some coffee cake thing that uses self-rising Presto and needs its topping to be broiled and gooey, and I hardly have a problem with that. I miss her fancy apartment on the Upper West Side, with the long hallways we’d run up and down and get splinters on, and also her roasted potatoes dripping with fat, that my sisters and cousins and I still moon over.

When my mom was dying, only months ago, she began to eat less and less. I tried tempting her with lots of comfort foods, like my own roast potatoes, or cheese toasts, or chicken rice soup, but she wouldn’t have much. I gave her snack foods like Goldfish, or mini cookies I’d bake, or tea sandwiches that included her favorite apricot jam, but of course no mayonnaise, and definitely no Brussels sprouts. She might’ve nibbled some of that. Mostly she didn’t. In the end it didn’t matter, because forget about picky, she stopped eating altogether.

Jenny Klion's daughter's tattoo
The author’s daughter with an apricot tattoo

My daughter tattooed a miniature orange apricot on the inside of her upper arm, in honor of my mom, who died before she could see it. I like the way the juicy fruit changes shape, depending on how my daughter moves, or from some angles you can hardly notice it at all. Thankfully, she is a very good eater.

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