The first and only time my mother ever bought mayonnaise was when my brother and I got lice. We had just moved to St. Louis, where my brother joined the Little League. Everyone shared helmets, and I shared my brother’s hairbrush. The standard treatment for lice infestations at that time, at least in St. Louis, was to wash your hair with mayonnaise. My mother asked our neighbors what kind to buy and then went out and bought Hellman’s Real Mayonnaise. That night, my brother and I sat in the kitchen with basins, our hair ropey and white, catching the thick drips as they fell and gelled. After suffocating the lice, it took eleven washes to get the last oily residue out. My mother pushed the jar of mayonnaise into the back of the refrigerator, behind the gifted pepper jam that no one would ever eat.
My mother’s horror stories about her childhood were ubiquitous. She had often eaten a steak so raw the blood pooled on the plate, she said, and tomato soup straight out of the can. The worst, according to these stories, was the infamous “Spam and Mayo” sandwich on Wonderbread. It had instilled in her, she said, an appreciation of green things and whole-wheat bread and a hatred for mayonnaise so intense that she shivered past the potato salad at every Fourth of July picnic. Instead, we ate cookies made with applesauce, not butter. Once she served tempeh, a chunky fermented soybean slab, to a group of my friends after a sleepover.
When she wasn’t serving tempeh, my mother and I formed a special bond over our mutual appreciation of food. We ate biscotti and Gorgonzola together, while my brother, the philistine of the family, loved Velveeta and Top Ramen. My dad flitted around the periphery of our kitchen, making vegan chili or South-Beach-compliant breakfasts as the spirit moved him.
When our first Thanksgiving since moving from Calif. arrived, the four of us piled into the frosty minivan and headed across Missouri to join my grandparents. My mother had brought salad for Thanksgiving, a useless gesture. My grandmother worked almost exclusively with foods that could be dumped into casserole dishes, mixed with margarine, and baked. She disliked outside contributions, especially salads.
This one was a special Thanksgiving—after decades of talking to the family infrequently, my oldest uncle had suffered a heart attack and decided that he needed to be with his family. So that day the ranch house was filled with people, aunts and uncles and cousins. The adults were chatting, the children ducking to avoid table corners and the frames of the paintings that crowded the living room walls.
My mother’s arugula still-life sat in the corner. The casseroles were out, set upon the table in a parade of eight-by-eight Pyrex squares. I had for many years watched my grandmother scoop a mug-full of pale translucent bacon grease into her green beans. Next to the green beans sat thick noodles in gravy, and next to that was turkey stuffing. And, next to the squat gelatinous tower of cranberry sauce still in the shape of its can, lay a platter that was not part of the usual array. It was a platter of eggs, organized in a radiating mandala on the plate, but they were not the kind of eggs I had seen before. These were beautiful egg halves filled with a sculpted yolk.
I asked my uncle, who stood at the table pouring a tall glass of honey whiskey, what they were.
“Deviled eggs,” he mumbled, hunching over his glass. I peered at them again, at the pure white and yellow. I picked one up, a tiny white boat that dampened my fingers, and I ate it. The filling was creamy and light and vaguely chalky.
Then I ate another. My grandmother smiled at my gluttony from her armchair across the room. She motioned at me to bring her an egg. I stacked my plate—so many that the weight strained the small paper plate—and maneuvered through the sweater-clad crowd. She sat me down on her lap and patted my head. You’re a good girl, she told me. You like your grandma’s food. We ate in silence, she licking the tops of her eggs off, I making every attempt to eat a whole egg in one mouthful. My tally rose to five.
As I stood up to get more, my mother saw me. She looked at my grandmother, who was, I now noticed, avoiding eye contact. “Why would you let her eat that?” my mother said. “She hates mayonnaise.” My grandmother looked up. They locked eyes.
I stood still for a moment, the word “mayonnaise” echoing in my head. I looked again at the white eggs with their yellow tops. I don’t remember if I started crying. Of course the deviled eggs had mayonnaise in them, my grandmother said indignantly. They’re delicious.
My mother tells me that I stood, blank-eyed, for almost a minute. I lost that minute of my life; all I can remember is thinking that I had sated myself, like some vile Ovidian glutton, on the stuff I had once used to suffocate lice. I felt betrayed by the innocuous oval eggs and their frosting-like centers.
I stood wavering, the tang of vinegar still in my mouth, waiting for a wave of nausea to hit. I still liked the eggs, I realized. Even though the inexplicable richness, the buttery smoothness I had just discovered was the gift of that condemned condiment, mayonnaise, I still liked them. I had been missing out on mayonnaise my entire nine years because I had taken my mother’s word for it. Maybe I didn’t hate olives, either. Maybe cruise ships weren’t boring, and maybe red was a nice color for a bedspread.
While my grandmother looked on with victorious amusement and my mother looked on with hurt surprise, I took the egg that I had been holding, now crushed, and took a bite. And another bite. It was my tiny rebellion. Later that night, when my stomach started gurgling from the eight deviled eggs, my mother sat with me next to the toilet and bemusedly stroked my hair.
I explained, in a voice that reverberated against the porcelain, that I liked them. That’s fine, she told me. It’s okay if you like them. We don’t have to like the same things.
I was surprised and a little angry when she told me that. Somewhere in the food-littered expanse of my childhood, I had come to consider my mother’s food preferences as an example of how One Should Eat. We were the ones with the sophisticated palettes, and we agreed on everything about food. I had never considered that when she said, “Olives are gross,” I might disagree.
Those were her truths, even though they were tiny and edible. It’s hard to think that my taste buds and I live by a different set of little doctrines. I love mayonnaise. And the color red. And a lot of other things. That knowledge has come in handy since then—in deciding how I spend my free time, who my friends are, and what kind of career I want. I’m taking a Spenser seminar right now, and she thought it was a terrible idea. It would have been for her, but it’s one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. And while I would never dare to bring mayonnaise into our house in St. Louis, its pretty easy to find here at Yale.