The Taste of Snow and Artichoke (#160)

Charlie likes to eat snow. We went on two good walks today, one in the early morning when the snow was fresh and fluffy, one in the late afternoon when it was turning into dirty slush. Charlie soaked his gloves helping himself to soft white handfuls, and to lacey snow bricks that sometimes dissolved on his fingers.
Is it the coldness, like ice cream, he likes? Its fleeting sting on his tongue and the roof of his mouth? The fact that he has only to reach out his hand and there it is? Charlie does have a taste for not-your-typical-kid-food: Soybeans. Frozen peas and “care-wahts.” Cauliflower. Hummus.

Myself, I’ve a taste for lemons, for licorice, and for artichokes. The metaphor of “eating an artichoke” is one way of describing raising a child on the autism spectrum: “There are confusing and challenging behaviors, but if you peel away some of those layers you get to the really rich and tender heart,” as Kendell and Monique Thornton write in a review of the book Eating an Artichoke: A Mother’s Perspective on Asperger Syndrome (2000). The book’s author, Echo R. Fling, actually uses the “eating an artichoke” metaphor to describe the thorny, multilayered process of getting a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome for her son and of advocating for him with medical and educational professionals.

Eating an artichoke (the whole thing, not just the heart) is a several-step process. You boil the artichoke, let it cool off, peel off each spine-edged leaf, get out a fork and pick out the spikey choke. And then you have the tender heart.

Growing up in northern California, we ate artichokes a lot. My dad in particular liked them, and he and my sister always had theirs with a dish of mayonnaise to dip the leaves in; I hate mayonnaise and liked mine plain, thank you. My dad or mom always picked out the choke for us, scraping away the strands before giving us the heart. Growing up in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pittsburgh, Jim did not eat any artichokes. “Yeah, it’s great,” he said after barely tasting one leaf when I cooked him one several years ago. “You’re supposed to eat the whole thing,” I said. “I tried it, it’s great,” said Jim, reaching for the stir-fry.

So for me to say that raising Charlie is like eating an artichoke is tantamount to saying, here’s something I like (love) a lot, however extra-laborious, however many spikes and however bitter the choke, and how sweet the heart.

Charlie’s own tastes run to extremes (cold snow; hot rice) and to the salty, to soy sauce and to a particular brand of rice cracker. He called the latter “green cookie” (because the box is green) and it was for a bit of these crackers that he first learned to use sign language sign to request. Over the years, just knowing he could have a “green cookie” could get Charlie to try a new food or keep working at the table.

It was back in early March of this year that we, in consultation with our pediatric neurologist, put Charlie on Risperdal (also known as Risperidone), a neuroleptic that has been successfully used to treat severe behaviors in autistic individuals. A noted side effect is (sometimes severe) weight gain and, sure enough after we started Charlie on the medication, he was attempting to injest whole boxes of HolGrain crackers in one afternoon. Along with the fact that Charlie had been eating these crackers for most of his life (and instilling a terrible fear in us if the company ever discontined the product), we decided that it was time for something new; for Charlie to give a try to the artichoke or its equivalent. And so he has developed a taste for hummus, guacamole, lettuce, oranges.

It is Charlie’s first day at a new school tomorrow and, knowing that he will need some strong and surefire ways of being reinforced, I directed Jim to stop at Pathmark this evening on our way back from dinner with his parents. We bought two boxes of HolGrains, which eagle-eye Charlie detected as I tried to smuggle them into the front seat. He took a quick shower, climbed out, and–as I dried him off–looked imploringly at me.

“Green cookie!”

“Green cookie’s at the new school. Mom will drive you to the new school just tomorrow, and then you’ll take the bus. And the green cookies are there, at the new school.”

Charlie kept looking at me. His upper lip just twisted enough that you knew there were words, or maybe a melody, going on in his head; that you could sense the powerful emotions this boy has, and has not words to express. Feeling and memory flecked his dark brown eyes and Charlie ‘s slender fingers gripped my arms in the manner of a hug and squeezed, and settled back under his chin. He went to bed after munching on the thin-cut slices of a Granny Smith apple–Charlie likes his apples tart and crisp and eats them down to the core, down to the seed.

Down to the heart.

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