My daughter refuses to eat hot dogs. (Or vegetables. But first, the hot dogs.) I was aware she had some reservations about them, but a recent trip to Heid’s revealed her true colors.
Sadie has assigned hot dogs to the same class of horrors where I might put The Exorcist, C-SPAN and any Kardashian. She remains haunted by an incident that soured her on them forever. Like most children, she suffered enough stomach viruses over the years that I myself can’t separate one bowl-hugging purge from another.
(You wince. You flush. You move on.)
Still, I’m her father so I try to sympathize.
Growing up in an economically stressed household in the 1970s, I was taught that a healthy diet depended largely on devouring every last bite on the plate, regardless of nutritional value.
My personal campaign against fish sticks and tomato soup was met with hardline tactics. My parents often employed the politically charged, “You know, there are kids starving in Africa.” When they realized how geographically meaningless that was to a first grader, they switched to the classic “You want to grow up big and strong, don’t you?”
I did want to—but not if it meant eating tuna noodle casserole. I preferred to remain small and weak and still able to look my mother in the eye.
Hot dogs, on the other hand, were a different story. I grew up in Liverpool, where Heid’s, the hot dog mecca, taught me that certain foods were worth waiting in long lines for.
My Little League team played ball across the street, and we gauged the importance of each victory by the quantities of relish and mustard that we slopped on a frank after a game. To me, a meal at Heid’s was a cherished ritual that I envisioned someday enjoying with my daughter. Somehow, having her sit there across from me nursing a vanilla cone with rainbow sprinkles just wasn’t the same.
“When I was your age, Heid’s didn’t even sell ice cream,” I pointed out.
“That’s just sad,” she replied.
My attention to my daughter’s frank consumption may be a bit misguided. We live in a world facing a childhood obesity epidemic, a world where Pop Tarts masquerade as breakfast and Ronald McDonald can seem scarier than that clown from Stephen King’s It.
By rights, I should be more worried that Sadie won’t eat broccoli or spinach. For these and all other vegetables, she has no nightmarish memory with which to support her aversion.
“Brussel sprouts are green,” she says, in the same tone of disgust with which an adult might utter the words “colonoscopy” or “Bieber.”
I’m not sure how she developed this phobia. I eat salads right in front of her. I once even pretended to enjoy raw kale, a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination. But my efforts have all been in vain.
Obviously, this draws all my parenting into question. But let me assure you, Sadie is a well-behaved, straight-A student whose love of dance keeps her fit.
I try not to view her bad habits as a sign of my failure, but other parents are quick to offer a scowl when they see my daughter’s snack. Yes, I get it: Your kid brought a bag of carrots to munch on and she will therefore someday be president. Hey, my daughter’s snack is orange and crunchy, too. All right, it’s not organic. But, in my defense, they don’t make organic Cheetos.
So please stop looking at me like I just handed her a cigarette. A few preservatives and empty calories are not the end of the world.
Or are they? It seems like each week we are assaulted by new scientific research suggesting some way to tweak our diets. Eat Swiss chard. Drink some coffee. Put flax seed on everything. Learn how to pronounce quinoa.
I think my daughter is holding out hope for the groundbreaking study that crowns Little Debbie snacks as the new superfood. When that happens, she will be way ahead of the game. But until then, I have to endure the shame of being the one parent not making their child mainline fish oil each morning.
The problem now is that I’m about ready to surrender. She’s a teenager and I can’t force her to eat vegetables. Over the next few years, she will assume more responsibility, and I will have an increasingly negligible role in any decisions she makes.
But I’m not giving up on hot dogs. They’re so delicious that I see them as the one remaining mistake toward which it is my fatherly duty to guide her.
“Won’t you at least try a bite?” I insist, hoping that those repeated bedtime readings of Green Eggs and Ham were not a waste.
“But what are they made of?” she asks.
It’s a good question, and I don’t have a good answer. In a way, it’s a victory: She’s actually thinking about what she’s putting in her body.
“Finish your ice cream,” I say. “You want to grow up big and strong, don’t you?”
Neil Davis works at Bristol-Myers Squibb and lives in Liverpool with his daughter, Sadie, age 14. He most recently published a short story called “The Surface Below” in the Summer 2016 issue of the journal The First Line.