Column: Dining out causes softball-size headache

By JASON RECKER

They didn’t have the softball pancake.

This should not have mattered. It was only batter shaped like a circle and drizzled with raspberry “seams.” It’s accompaniment — bacon and eggs — was better. Technically, the diameter was more equivalent to that of a tennis ball. Plus, the “seams” weren’t even anatomically correct. Among breakfast entrees, the softball pancake was more bloop single than grand slam. But the softball pancake is what we came here for, and the softball pancake is what this 5-year-old girl was getting.

Except it wasn’t on the menu.

Sweet Jesus. Do you hate me? Do you hate all parents? You know eating in public places with children is basically a sickening cocktail of stress, threats and humiliation. Yet you stand by while the folks in the corporate office at Denny’s remove the softball pancake from the menu. This is not the way to prevent me from using your name in vain. Next time, you break her hungry heart.

“They don’t have the softball pancake,” my wife told our middle child.

She countered. “YES THEY DO. I GOT IT LAST TIME.”

She did. She’d eaten it several times, in fact. To her, the Denny’s softball pancake was akin to McDonald’s Happy Meal. Earlier, when we told her where we going, she screamed “SOFTBALL PANCAKE!” and jumped on the bed like a drunken kangaroo.

“We’ll have to find something else,” my wife continued.

Like a man fumbling through the trash looking for a lost wedding ring, I hastily scanned the menu.

“Did you look at the back? Maybe it’s on the back,” I insisted. “Look at the whole menu. It has to be on there. Why would you take that off? Look at the back. It’s somewhere. Look at the back. Look at the back. No way they took it off the menu. She gets this every time. C’mon, Denny, a little help here. Flip it over. The back. Look at the back.”

If there was ever a reason to panic, the time had arrived.

The countdown to public detonation had reached its critical point. We were three seconds from absolute hell for everyone at Denny’s. There would be screaming and grunting and maybe forks flying through the air. And everybody in the joint would be staring at Recker, party of five.

“Why do we do this?” I mumbled. “It’s a disaster every time. Every. Time.”

My wife and I know going out to eat with children ages 7, 5 and 2 makes about as much sense as riding a bike in a NASCAR race. Yet we’d invited trouble then held the door.

We can’t even eat in our own dining room without unmitigated chaos. The kids approve of the main dish twice a week if we’re lucky.

They will eat breakfast food. So we make eggs then we put them on biscuits, in tortillas and beside toast. Scrambled. Fried. Over easy. We eat any more eggs, and the kids will begin clucking.

They prefer peanut butter and jelly, Ramen noodles and Smarties. If you can formulate a casserole for that, I’ll buy your cookbook.

We used to have a three-bite rule —  eat three bites and if then you decide you don’t like it, you have permission to pick something else — but those rules are for parents far nobler than I. First-time parents start with all these rules — don’t wear shoes in the house, put the cap on the toothpaste, clean the table after dinner, say please, say thank you, don’t dribble the basketball in the living room, don’t punch your sister in the face. But those guidelines disappear quicker than a fart in a tornado.

You don’t like the Crock-Pot lasagna? Whatever. I’d rather eat in peace than settle a food fight. Help yourself to the Smarties.

After Halloween, they skipped out on the sweet-and-sour chicken and instead sprawled head-first into a bag of candy. They wanted Twix. I declined. They whined.

“Fine. You want candy,” I shouted, “then eat the whole bag. Every piece. All yours.”

I dropped the bag on the floor and stormed away. (I mentioned something about there being parents far nobler than I. Told you so.)

Public dining only exacerbates the anarchy. Our youngest daughter once stood in a highchair then flipped backward onto a restaurant floor. Of course, she screamed. We played it off like nothing happened, as if she were an aspiring stunt double. There are always chocolate milk spills and sisterly slaps. The toddler tries to drink the contents of the salt shaker. The 7-year-old has to pee but can’t find the bathroom. The 5-year-old deposits a ladle’s worth of backwash in mom’s water. There’s silverware on the floor and boogers on the table. Don’t tip the cup. Don’t talk so loud. Don’t lay down in the seat. Are you really licking the plate?

When my wife and I eat by ourselves, we often don’t speak. God love the serenity of silence.

And still, cabin fever prevails. Soon, we’ll ponder the dinner options and forget the high blood pressure and overbearing volume and condescending gawkers who must have forgotten what it’s like to wedge three children into a booth and expect them to sit quietly and wait patiently on their softball pancake.

Like fools, we’ll go out to eat again.

Just in case the softball pancake isn’t on the menu, I’ll bring a dozen eggs and a backpack full of Smarties.

Jason Recker is an editor at The Herald and would, if he had his way, always eat Twix for dinner. He will be part of the Will Read For Food event at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5, at Vincennes University Jasper Campus. His email is jrecker@dcherald.com.




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