There is an editor at a Washington newspaper, we won't say which one, who used to hide her cooked carrots under the velvet cushions on her mother's dining-room chairs. And a writer who would pat her mashed potatoes into a pile and hit them with the flat side of her fork so they'd go SPLAT. And just about everyone, except one person, used to much their ice cream into soup before they ate it.
The point is that most people are a little funny about their food, in that they are quite particular in small ways. This is something that Delia Ephron, who has written a book called "How to Eat Like a Child and Other Lessons in Not Being A Grown-Up," has discovered. Her book, in which she gives instructions for such things as eating peas and torturing your sister, seems to have struck a cord with readers of all ages who perhaps recognize a secret habit or two in her writing.
"Food is about play," said Ephron, who is small and dark-haired, 35, and a New Yorker. "It becomes a tool for everything. It's about having secret ways to do things, and it's a tool in the war with your parents... Even as grown-ups, people are funny. They ask for a sandwich and say they want mayonnaise on one side and mustard on the other. Or they order a wine spritzer and they have to have soda on the side, not poured into it."
Several experts might question there being anything "funny" about having mayonnaise on one side and mustard on the other, but certainly such things as peeling the skin off chocolate pudding before you eat it -- as one of Ephron's friends insists on doing -- is a little weird.
"I got lots of mail," she said. "I realized people were obsessed with food." One lady wrote a six-page letter about how she eats Mallomars. (In the book, under How to Wait for Your Mother to Finish Talking, it's simply: Bite off the graham cracker bottom, peel off the chocolate, piece by piece, and then play with the marshmallow center, pulling it like taffy"...)
"It sounds crazy. It probably is crazy. A six-page letter on Mallomars. But she probably just allows herself to indulge in this one obsession."
Delia Ephron herself does not appear to be obsessed with food. She is quite slim, and might even be called thin. But she assured a reporter that she does in fact eat like a normal person. She couldn't name her favorite food, but she had one as a child: her grandmother's spaghetti.
"When I was grown I asked her how she made it. She said, "I cooked the spaghetti and then I poured a can of Campbell's soup on it.'" Oh.
Delia Ephron was raised in Beverly Hills, one of four daughters of two screenwriters, Henry Ephron and Phoebe Ephron. Her mother died a few years ago. One of her sisters is Nora Ephron, who is famous enough that everyone always asks Delia Ephron if she is related to Nora.
Once Delia was autographing her book in a New York Bookstore with another writer (who was autographing his). As the other writer recalls it, people continually came up to Delia and said such things as "You look so much like Nora," or the inevitable "Are you Nora's sister?" Delia answered them all with things like "Why thank you no one's ever told me that," or "You're the first person to ask me that question."
"It's sort of boring but it doesn't upset me," she says of being identified with her sister. One wonders if she ever put a piece of orange peel over her teeth and then grinned to gross out her sisters.
Delia does not have any children, but she was a stepmother during her marriage. "It's not exactly a foreign country," she said. Actually, she found her richest sources of childlike habits were adults, not children. "Children don't know they're doing something, they just do it," she said. "Adults are also observing themselves."
The book is amusing, although not exactly the most profound tome to hit the stands this year. But for Delia Ephron it was an important step in her developing career as a writer.
She didn't accept the fact that she wanted to be a writer until fairly late in life, 31 to be precise. "I drifted for quite awhile," she said. "I even lived in an apartment in New York for two years with my clothes in a suitcase. Once we were robbed and I didn't even notice."
She got married when she was 25 and went off to Providence, R.I., where her husband (now ex-) is a philosophy teacher. While she was in Providence, she and a friend decided to open a crochet business.
"It was during the crochet hysteria at some point. We decided we would make only small things so we could finish them. Once we had an order for 60 purses and belts in two weeks... I was crocheting all the time. It was a nightmare."
Nonetheless, she and the friend turned the experience into a book, "The Adventurous Crocheter," which helped her "back into writing."
She's been analyzed, and had her consciousness raised, and at 31 made a firm decision to "stop fooling around. I knew if I was going to be a writer I had to get on with it." Now she is a contributing editor for New York magazine (that meams she's under contract to produce a specified number of pieces a year), specializing at the moment in what she calls "the seven deadly sins." She's written about Envy and Laziness so far.
The book was not intended to be for children, although many of them apparently enjoy it. In fact, it has two dirty words in it, both f ---.
"I use it (in the book) the way children use it," she said. "They don't know what it means. It's in innocence that I wrote it."
One usage comes under the heading "What to Do If the Television Breaks: Turn the channel dial once around fast; turn the set off and on; pull the aerial north, south, east and west; smash the top of the television with your hand; bang the screen, leaving a greasy handprint across it; say 'F---,' like your dad."
The other is included under the instructions on how to behave at recess. "Say 'F---' and see what everyone does."
A woman who runs a children's bookstore told Ephron that her son read the book and came to her in alarm, saying, "Do you know we have a book in the store with F--- in it? We have 16 copies of the book -- that means we have 32 F--- s in our store!"
She's gotten only three letters of complaint.
The chapter on "How to Torture Your Sister" is quite mild. She suggests the standard saving of the jelly doughnut so you can eat it later when she's finished hers, imitating her talking, telling her her best friend is fat, and telling her she's adopted. And telling her the Jello's alive and that there's an invisible man under her bed.
After the book was published, she said, "A man told me he once saw a fly on his little brother's head and something told him he just had to kill it with a hammer," she said.
The chapter on eating is being excerpted in a pediatrician's book. "I don't know why. Perhaps a psychologist could explain these things," she said. "I can't."