Spirit v. Letter

Growing up, my siblings and I had a variety of part time jobs. My Sister Sarah worked at an ice cream stand for several summers, while I did time at a golf course, a Burger King, a restaurant kitchen, and a shoe store.

Once he got to college, my older Brother Doug worked an office job in a bank each summer, but while he was in high school he worked for years as both a busboy and a parking valet at a restaurant called The Daisy Flour Mill.

The Daisy Flour Mill.

The Daisy Flour Mill.

Anyone who has ever lived with a teenage boy knows that when they are awake, they are eating. Currently my oldest son (who is 13) will come home, eat dinner, and take a shower; only to return to kitchen asking, “what is there to eat?”

My brother and I are a little more than two years apart, so there were many years when we were two teenage boys, vying for every edible calorie within the walls of my parents’ home.

Because our home had order, and also because my mother often had specific plans for individual food items (how dare she, right?), there were some rules of engagement when it came to eating. Here is what I remember:

  • If it is unopened and has not been served to you, ask before eating it.
  • If it is raw or frozen, do not cook it before asking.
  • If it looks like it might be for an upcoming meal or event, ask before eating it.
  • When the casserole is placed on the table, no taking seconds until everyone has had firsts.
  • Do not eat or drink directly from a container – even if you’re finishing it.
  • If you use the last of anything, get another one out of the freezer in the basement.
  • Leftovers are fair game, unless they are labeled as belonging to a specific purpose or person e.g. “Dad’s lunch – Do Not Eat”

So, these were the rules and generally we lived by them, but the hunger of a teenager is a powerful thing, and sometimes powerful things behave in an unpredictable manner.

One of the perks my brother enjoyed at his restaurant job was free food. At the end of a long night the chefs would offer up to the wait staff whatever food was left over that could not be used the next day. Sometimes there was a lot and sometimes there was very little, but hungry boys like my brother were all too willing to take whatever was available.

Late one Friday night he came home and placed one of those white foam clamshell containers in the family fridge. I have no recollection of any other details. All I remember was waking up on a Saturday morning to find a “leftover container” in the fridge, it contained an inch-thick slab of medium rare prime rib – and it was not labeled.

Discovering this unexpected bounty of protein deliciousness was by itself a thrill, but then realizing that the owner of this chunk-o-beef had failed to properly secure it, was more than I could have hoped for.

I checked the container for any markings, even initials subtly scratched into the white foam surface, but the container was clean. I searched the fridge both behind and below where it had been stashed, looking for a detached scrap of paper or sticky-note, but I found nothing.

I knew to whom this culinary delight belonged, but my older brother had failed to follow the rules, and his carelessness was about to become my lunch. After triple checking for any evidence of labeling, I nuked the meat and ate it quickly.

It was fantastic.

I was not foolish enough to believe that there wouldn’t be repercussions to my actions, but the rules were clear, and rules are rules. More than once I had spied something yummy in the fridge, only to be disappointed by its absence later when I returned to consume it. I learned if you wanted it, you claimed it and that was done by labeling it.

It was the 1980s Nazarian food equivalent of Beyoncé’s “If you like it then you should have put a ring on it”

The hours after chowing down on my brother’s late-night bonus were a yin and yang of full-belly satisfaction, tempered by a perpetual looking over my shoulder. When he finally confronted me about it, he was surprisingly calm. The exchange went something like this:

Doug:  Did you eat my prime rib?

Me:      Oh, was that yours?

Doug:   You know damn well it was, why did you eat it?

Me:       It wasn’t labeled and that’s the rule

Doug:   Fair enough

You know that part of a horror movie when the protagonist and the villain thrash each other through a long and violent battle scene, ending with the death of the villain; but then, just when you relax thinking it is all over, the villain somehow rises from the dead to take one more whack at the hero? Well, you can see where this is going.

Although I was 100% correct (at least technically) and protected by the rules of the house, I had a strange feeling this wasn’t over. For those who don’t know my brother personally, he received his B.A. from Yale and his J.D. from Duke Law school. After enjoying a very successful career as an attorney, he is now a state appellate court judge. Suffice it to say he is very smart and does not walk away from an argument, especially one where he feels he has been wronged.

The balance of the weekend came and went, and as we all turned-in Sunday night, I began to believe that I was actually going to get away with it. Perhaps my strong-debater of a brother had simply accepted the dead-to-rights defeat I had delivered unto him, and was moving on to whatever was next.

I could not have been more wrong.

Monday morning I rose like any other day, took a shower, ate my breakfast and as I was packing my bag for yet another day in the 8th grade, my Mom handed me the familiar brown paper bag that held my lunch. This was all completely normal.

I endured a typical morning at school, but as I sat down to lunch with my standard group of buddies, I had a funny feeling. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but something wasn’t right.

I sat down at the folding cafeteria table and tore into my brown bag. Nothing was out of place. There was a sandwich, an apple, and a pair of cookies in a plastic baggie. Setting the apple and cookies off to the side, I opened the sandwich bag and took a big bite of what appeared to be ham salad on white with romaine lettuce. I love ham salad, especially when it has little pieces of pickle mixed in.

As I macerated that first bite, I noticed the friends gathered around the table looking at me in a funny way, and without missing a beat, I raised my eyes and (mouthful of sandwich) said, “What?”

As the air passed over the food in my mouth, I became immediately aware that what I was eating was NOT ham salad. As I spit it out, my best friend Andy couldn’t hold it in any longer and he fell to the ground laughing. Once he cracked the rest of them lost control along with him.

They all laughed, pointed and chortled for the better part of a minute while I examined my sandwich more closely. I poked, I sniffed and I postulated. Just as I was coming to my own conclusion, Andy blurted out the very words that I was thinking – Dog Food Sandwich!

They say that, “revenge is a dish best served cold,” my brother had taken that idea both figuratively and literally.

When I got home that night I learned the rest of the story. Wanting to exact his revenge, my brother hatched the idea of the Dog Food Sandwich, but kept things to himself. Sunday evening he had offered to relieve my Mom of her lunch-making duties and she was all too willing to let him.

He had made lunches for himself, my sister, my Dad and me. When he got to mine he replaced sandwich meat with Ken-L-Ration and had topped it off with a nice piece of lettuce; a touch that gave the sandwich all the authenticity it needed to succeed.


Not Ham Salad!


To maximize the “embarrassment factor” Doug called my friend Andy, told him all about the plot, and asked him to spread the word in the moments just before it all went down. All-in-all a fairly brilliant idea and execution.

Once the laughing was over, I tossed the sandwich, rinsed my mouth out with my little carton of milk and downed my apple and cookies, though it didn’t really matter.

The taste of dog food and shame would stick with me the rest of the day.

In the decades since (what is known as) “the dog food sandwich incident,” I maintain that I was one hundred percent within the letter of the law. Where I failed was in my youthful disregard for the spirit of the law.

In the 1987 movie The Princess Bride, there is a scene where Vizzini says to Wesley:

You fell victim to one of the classic blunders – The most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia” – but only slightly less well-known is this: “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.”

In the movie that is my life I have rewritten that last line to read, “Never go up against a lawyer when red meat is on the line.” Every since adopting this philosophy I have managed to avoid eating any more dog food.

For the rest of you; be sure the hold the spirit and the letter of the laws around you in equal measure. If you don’t I can’t promise that your lunches won’t go to the dogs.


 Copyright © 2015 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.

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