Ralph Nader never ate a hot dog as a child: His mother wouldn't let him.
"Not because I knew they were bad," Rose Nader said at dinner Thursday night, "but because I didn't know what was in them."
Nader once told his mother that part of his work consists of "documenting your intuition." He did not come to the Lebanese feast his mother had cooked because he was swamped with work. But he was not too busy the night before to squeeze the dozens of oranges and lemons his mother needed for the dessert she was making.
When Rose Nader, a gray-haired woman of uncertain age, whose dark penetrating eyes are still framed by intensely black eyebrows, calls on her four children, you can be sure they respond - out of respect and love.
So do her three grandchildren who come from California to spend each summer with her and her husband in Winsted, Conn. When the children's mother told a friend what they were doing, the friend's response was to be expected. "Your mother is going to spoil your children."
"Oh, you don't know my mother," was the quick reply. Rose Nader told that story over the eggplant salad, tahouli and hummus, adding, "They can hardly wait to come" - even though they must eat what is put in front of them or go without and finish their chores which are part of their daily routine.
"Maybe I sound severe," she said with a smile, "but a child should have discipline and self-discipline."
According to her son Ralph, 43, who is the youngest, none of the children ever rebelled because their mother's teaching "wasn't ever didactic. It was always by indirection. If she had to say 'do this' or 'do that' it was in the form of advice."
But few opportunities to teach them were wasted. When they came home for lunch from school she would sit with them and read them stories in Arabic, then translate them. When they helped with the cooking (Rose Nader did not believe that cooking was only for girls) she told them stories which were instructive as well as entertaining.
Food, its preparation and consumption, were used as a means of education. Rose Nader had been a teacher in Lebanon before she came to this country as a teen-age bride. ("Dont't ask me when that was," she said with a laugh.)
"Food is for mind, body and communication," she said. It was also an occasion for teaching hospitality, according to daughter Claire. "You didn't take anything until the guests were served. I remember reaching out for something and mother's eyes were like a laser beam, and my hand would go back," Claire said.
"We had a standing joke in our family. If it was good for us, it didn't matter if it was attractive or tasteful." Rose Nader nodder her head. "Everything is supposed to look good, but not for me."
But in spite of her disclaimer, what she serves is handsomely presented and perfectly seasoned.
Cookies and cakes were never a regular part of the meal, only for holidays and then they were sweetened with honey, not sugar. Just once did she use sugar, as part of a frosting for a birthday cake.
According to the family story, the cake was frosted because someone had said it would look prettier. Just before it was served, Rose Nader quickly scraped off the frosting and told the children it wasn't good for them.
At dinner the other night, a bowl of turbinado sugar, which is less processed than white sugar, was put on the table, but Rose Nader was skeptical. "It's still sugar, isn't it?" she asked, already knowing the answer was yes, and she had honey brought to the table for those who wanted it with their chamomile tea.
There was never any processed food in her house, for the same reason there were no hot dogs - because she didn't know what was in them. She says she learned about food because there were doctors in her family and her mother was a nurse.
The Naders still raise their own vegetables without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. The elder Nader was back home in Winsted taking care of the garden. Asked who was cooking for him, Rose Nader seemed surprised that anyone would wonder. "He is!" she said. "I trained him very well when he retired."
She bakes all of her own bread and makes her own stocks for soups. For the dinner, and later use, she had boned three legs of lamb.Some stock and ground lamb went into the stuffed eggplant dish; ground lamb also was used to fill whole-wheat pastries and for the kibbe or meatballs. In short, Rose Nader continues to cook the way people did 40 years ago. But she continues to change as she adds to her own storehouse of knowledge.
She uses more soybeans now than she used to because she has been reading about them. She puts soy flour along with wheat germ in her Arab flat bread. But she told her guests, "If you eat too much soybeans, it depresses zinc" (levels).
Food and nutrition are hardly her only concern. There is little that doesn't interest this vital, forceful woman whose personality makes her seem imposing - but never forbidding - despite her small size. And there is obvious affection between her and her children. She is the kind of person, however, who, without a work or even a glance at the dinner table, makes a guest suddenly remember that when an older person gets up or sits down, a younger person rises as a matter of respect.
Rose Nader is a voracious reader. She often goes to bed at 7 or 8 and reads to 10 or 11, especially the case studies in a magazine written for trial lawyers. When she comes to Washington she takes in lectures and meetings, just as she did when she visited her children in college. Recently she made her way through a senior citizens conference to hear what they had to say. But she thinks it's a mistake for older people to categorize themselves as senior citizens. "You should mix with young people," she said. "They have marvelous ideas."
Last March she and her husband who is 84, marched in Winsted to protest the congressional pay raises.
She led the successful fight in her town to prevent fluoridation of the water, an action the town fathers were trying to take despite the fact fluoridation had been defeated in a referendum.
Her latest battle with the local government is over the high level of lead which have been discovered in the drinking water. She went down to see the mayor, demanding that the water pipes be fixed. The mayor told her it would cost a lot of money. Rose Nader was outraged: "What do you mean. It costs the people's health!"
In the meantime her water comes from a spring a mile down the road.
As independent as she is, Rose Nader still feels, "No matter what we do we cannot protect ourselves unless the government protects us. "Like her son she believes it is everyone's responsibility to keep after the officials. "If the citizen sleeps," she said, "everyone sleeps."
Nicholas Johnson, a long-time admirer and friend of the Naders, who was at the dinner the other night makes this observation about how the children turned out: "Can you imagine growing up with parents like that? The children didn't have a chance!"