The day after my big cage match with asparagus I went back to the farmers’ market and wandered the aisles again, not because I was lost, but to hang out with all my new friends, vegetables. I identified all the vegetables I had brought over to my team and I scanned the bins to see what I haven’t beaten yet. To be fair, I still don’t recognize half what the farmers’ market sells, but neither do you, and this project wasn’t about exotic vegetables no one has ever heard of; this project was about cucumbers. And arugula, done. Turnips, done. Beets, gross, done. As I neared the end of one aisle, going through a mental check list of what I’ve accomplished—zucchini, squash, carrots, peas—and turned down the next, I found myself passing one of the most basic and terrifying vegetables of all time: celery. Have I done celery? Is celery on the list? I don’t think celery is on the list.
I shuddered. I’m pretty sure I left celery off the list because it’s an onion. But a quick Google search on my BlackBerry dispelled this self-originated myth and I stood there perplexed. I am nothing if not a slave to my rules, but my rules failed me in this case, since my No. 1 rule is that I have to do all the vegetables on the list but my No. 2 rule is I don’t have to do any vegetables in the onion family. Since I left celery off the list because I assumed it fell under Rule No. 2, but I know now that it doesn’t, does that mean I would have put it on the list if I wasn’t a shithead? I looked around for some judge or jury who could help me decide. To my left a mom was herding a couple of kiss-ass children, who were eagerly helping Mom choose the very most perfect purple eggplant based on hippie botanical nonsense—“Mom! Is this one a boy?!”—while chattering excitedly about helping with dinner. “Mom! Can I grate the cheese this time?” “Mom! She wore the apron last time!” I rolled my eyes. I have not become so competent that I think being a kid and liking vegetables is O.K. Across the bins in front of me a gaggle of women argued in French over an assortment of intimidating and unfamiliar looking vegetables. One of the women was wielding a large furry root vegetable and shaking it wildly at the other three women. This jury would obviously be predisposed toward the celery and might exact punishment on me if I didn’t make the right choice. I opted against punishment and for celery.
The celery lived in my crisper for about a week before I finally mustered up the strength to take it on. That day came on Bad Movie Night with Lauren. Lauren and I love to watch terrible movies that always start the same way, have the exact same story, and end predictably, except we have two vastly different approaches to movie watching: I never, ever under any circumstances want to know what is going to happen in the next scene and I don’t want to know whether the girl gets her guy or dies of a horrible disfiguring skin melting disease until it happens. I relish the suspension of disbelief and element of surprise, whereas Lauren is the kind of person who reads the last page of a book first and seeks out spoilers, so she’s constantly trying to predict what will happen next and discussing with herself whether the disfiguring disease will ultimately be how the girl gets her guy. Before she dies.
On this particular Bad Movie Night, I chose the movie, the spectacularly bad When in Rome, and was responsible for snacks and dips, for which I finally retrieved the celery from my crisper. I poked through my fridge looking for ranch dressing or any of the other standards normal people eat with celery, but Lauren assured me the best way to ease into this terrible vegetable was with the age-old, friendly, kid-tricking classic I’ve never had the pleasure of enjoying: ants on a log, or raisins and peanut putter smeared on celery. Obviously this was the perfect choice for me. I love this tom foolery. A deceptive ploy that has duped children into eating a crunchy, awful, onion-like vegetable for centuries? I don’t know why I didn’t start with celery. Probably because it wasn’t on the list. She said, “Get your logs, I’ve got ants, come on over, let’s do this.”
Spoiler alert: Deceptive ploys don’t work as well on grownups who know full well they’re being duped.
It was the perfect night to snuggle indoors at Lauren’s house with snacks and a bad movie. The threatening claps of thunder characteristic of Southern summer rain storms had just begun to crack, the suffocating heat of late June was closing in, and the humidity born of this wedding of weather was making my teeth sweat. Lauren and I stood in her kitchen staring out the window watching the rain, which was now falling buckets, while I carefully, delicately choreographed her favorite knife to look like I was being productive and cutting and even possibly eating my celery, all while our conversation wandered from extolling the virtues of raindrops on roses to whiskers on kittens before she finally looked down at the unwashed, uncut, un-everything celery on the cutting board in front of me and said, “Cut the shit, lady, and eat some celery already.”
Gawd. I just looked at her. Frozen. Paralyzed. While I had been standing there with the knife and the celery and she had been waxing nostalgic about brown paper packages tied up with strings, I realized what was about to happen. I was about to have to eat celery. I hate celery. I already knew I hated celery. I’ve known this from the beginning, because celery, like onions, is a ubiquitous enough food that evil people have slipped it into my food enough times in my life that I’ve been forced to eat it and I can say with certainty that I hate it. Why do I need to torture myself now to determine this? It’s not even on the list.
“So? Are you going to do it?”
“I can’t. I hate it.”
“Oh yes you can, you’re not going to stop now, not over celery. You’re at least going to try it.”
She took the celery from me; washed it; sprayed it with a vegetable wash, which I have never even heard of; and expertly chopped it up into kid-sized pieces for spreading peanut butter. She dug through her pantry and pulled out her raisins—California gold raisins—and decorated my logs with ants.
“What are those? That looks disgusting.” I contorted my face into my best Gumby-chokes-on-a-pretzel impression.
“Ants. Well, more like termites.” She smiled.
“Lauren, that’s revolting. That does not help.” More face contorting.
“Eat one bite and you can be done. Won.” She wasn’t smiling anymore.
Lauren and Melissa’s niece and nephew had spent the previous weekend with them and the tactics Lauren was using on me, from the ants on a log to the one-bite negotiation, felt familiar, and it suddenly occurred to me that Lauren actually was trying to trick me. She hadn’t suggested ants on a log because they make celery any more delicious; she had suggested them because despite all the progress I’ve made in the last year, she knows I still react to food like an 8-year-old. I still require kid gloves. I eyed her suspiciously. She held a stick of termite covered celery in my face.
Fine. If she thinks I have the emotional maturity of a child, I will just prove to her that I don’t. I will show her. I am a grownup.
I bit down on the child-sized piece of celery. Hard. And then I twisted it and it didn’t break. So I had to chew and chew until it was mushy enough to disintegrate into a soft bite. I thought celery was one of those crunchy vegetables that just snaps in two? Why is it torturing me like this? Meanwhile, my favorite food in all the world, peanut butter, was working against me by attaching itself to the roof of my mouth, making my mouth just dry and sticky enough that it was highly susceptible to gagging when the celery actually did break and make its way to my throat for swallowing. Why do people eat this bullshit? That was the most difficult bite of food I’ve ever endured. So of course Lauren said, “One more bite. This time use your front teeth.” Yes, that happened. She instructed me on which teeth to use to eat. Ask her.
“Can’t I just eat a banana?”
“One more bite.”
So, I still hate celery. That didn’t change. It was stringy and chewy and crunchy and gross in every way and if peanut butter couldn’t even save it, nothing will. I ate at least two bites of it, which counts for something, but after that I gave up and fed the rest of it to Lauren’s dog, whose palate is less discerning than my dog’s.
Days later I was trying to determine if I really lost, my first real loss, because I did try it. I mean, that’s worth something. I asked Lauren.
Julie: Did I lose celery? I definitely didn’t like it.
Lauren: You did.
Lauren: You gagged the whole time.
Lauren: And fed it to the dog.
Lauren: Cause it had strings.
Julie: Oh, but remember? It wasn’t on the list.
Lauren: Do you gag during all your battles, or is it just when you’re with me?
Julie: You’re the only person who makes me eat things that aren’t on the list. Onions, vegetable cheese, celery.
Julie: So, I didn’t lose. On a technicality.
Julie: My rules are the best.
Plus the girl got her guy. I totally didn’t see that coming.