Of all the millions of words in innumerable newspaper columns that have been written to attempt to understand Donald Trump, one story stands out as capable of explaining a man who is – conventionally speaking – inexplicable.
It’s a story that resonates with many people because it demonstrates a truth about much human and family behaviour. While food writers like to mythologise the family table with all those old clichés like “No one grows old at the table”, there can be a dark, and terrifying side to the family table. And it is this that Trump’s story shows.
It is the late 1970s, and Donald is romancing Ivana Zelnickova, who will become his first wife. The couple are joining Trump's siblings and his parents, Fred and Mary Anne, at Tavern on the Green, a swanky Central Park restaurant. Here is how Ivana later told the story to the writer Michael D'Antonio:
“Fred would order steak. Then Donald would order steak . . . Everybody order steak. I told the waiter, ‘I would like to have fish.’ And Fred would say to the waiter: ‘No, Ivana is not going to have a fish. She is going to have a steak.’ I said, ‘No, I’m going to have my fish.’”
Later that evening, Donald rebukes Ivana for insisting on ordering fish and, later, defended his father’s behaviour: “He would’ve said that out of love, he would have said that only on the basis that he thought, ‘that would be better for her’.”
The story resonated with me for a simple reason. Over the course of writing about Irish food for the past 25 years, I have found that there are several ways to bond with Irish males of a certain age. You can share a love of the music of Steely Dan. You can support the same football or GAA team. You can swap stories about the best restaurant experiences you have had.
But nothing bonds two Irish men like the sharing of stories about how a parent could behave tyrannically at the table. We all seem to have numerous stories about people being bullying, insulting, intimidating, abusive.
We can all recall occasions when a parent behaved like
, Donald’s father, using what should have been a happy, sharing occasion to demonstrate his power; to demonstrate to his son’s girlfriend that he calls the shots and that his son obeys; to demonstrate to his future daughter-in-law just exactly who is boss.
The stories are so common that they invade our culture. Think of Moran, John McGahern's great creation in the novel, Amongst Women.
Moran’s daughters, Maggie and Mona, are getting the house ready for Monaghan Day.
But as soon as their father comes in they sink into a beseeching drabness, cower as close to being invisible as they could. It reads: “How do the lamb chops look?” he demanded again. “Are those the best lamb chops you could get? Haven’t I told you time in and time out never – never – to get lamb chops anywhere but from Kavanagh’s? Has everything to be drummed in a hundred times? God, why is nothing ever made clear in this house? Everything has to be dragged out of everybody.”
The result of the behaviour of people like the fictional Moran, and other all-too-real characters, can be psychological damage. The New York chef Gabrielle Hamilton, of Prune Restaurant, for example, opens the second chapter of her memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter, like this: "I had no clue that my parents were unhappy with each other until I was sweeping up cornichons and hard salami and radishes off the kitchen floor."
The foods are all over the kitchen floor, of course, because her father had swiped them off the table with his arm. Her mother’s response is to say: “Gabri, could you please pick up your father’s wonderful display.
“And my dad pushed back his chair and walked out.”
What nine-year-old child could ever forget that?
But it’s not just male aggression that turns the table into something from a place of solace to a place of conflict.
A Tiger Mother who endlessly critiques your table manners, or a parent who insists endlessly that you must have a third helping – “Ah you will, you will, you will, go on, go on” – can leave a sour taste forever.
Writing recently about her experience of living with her sister who had an eating disorder, the food writer Bee Wilson wrote: "When one person at the table radically changes the way they eat, the whole ecosystem of the family has to change." With her sister absent from the table, Wilson found that "the table and its offerings no longer gave me the same solace".
So, let’s value the table for the wonders it brings to our lives – creativity, conversation, sharing, laughter, enjoyment. But let’s not forget that the table can be the perfect battlefield for displays of meanness, arrogance, petulance and abuse.
John McKenna is editor at guides.ie