On Food Fights and Other Family (Herd) Rivalries

by Tom Hutton

At our place sibling and other family rivalries inevitably arise during family holidays . During our recent Thanksgiving break, son Andy and daughter-in-law Alissa lamented the rivalry between their children; Ramsey, age 9 and Graham, almost 6. What their rivalry means and how pervasive it is are two questions that have of late entered my thoughts.

Conveniently a recent article from the NY times OP-Ed column by George Howe Colt provided insight into the prevalence of sibling rivalry along with such florid examples that it made me feel better about my own family. I have copied Colt’s piece below. Incidentally my experience with sibling rivalry suggests it is not limited to just children, having witnessed it in Trudy’s mother’s four siblings when they were all in their 60’s and 70’s. Their family squabble lasted over a decade and originated from a silly, disputed ownership of a single French tablecloth. Food and tablecloths are likely symbolic for underlying, unresolved rivalries. Such is maturity. Go figure.

Opinion

Sibling Rivalry: One Long Food Fight

By GEORGE HOWE COLT

Published: November 24, 2012

AS one of four brothers, I grew up in a veritable petri dish for sibling rivalry. Harry, Ned, Mark and I rarely fought physically, but there was little we didn’t contest: baseball, checkers and Candy Land, definitely, but more sophisticated sports as well — the battle over the Sunday funnies, the race to take the first bath, the jousting for position on the sofa as our mother read to us before bed.

Our rivalry played out most nakedly at the dinner table. Who got the largest hamburger? Who finished eating fast enough to get seconds before the food ran out? Who got the biggest slice of pie? Attempting to forestall quarrels, our mother cut portions so nearly identical it would have taken a micrometer to tell them apart. But in vain. Whether lunging for the last hot dog, filching an extra piece of crispy skin from the roast chicken or merely noting who had gotten the most cherries in his fruit cocktail, each of us struggled, constantly, to get our fair share — or, preferably, a lot more.

Our fraternal feeding frenzy wasn’t unusual, as I learned while writing a book about brothers. On one “pancake night” in the down-at-heels Joyce household, all four brothers simultaneously dove for the last pancake on the platter. The future author of “Ulysses” got there first. “James made off with the prize and ran up and down stairs, protesting to his pursuers that he had already eaten it,” wrote the biographer Richard Ellmann. “At last they were convinced, and he then imperturbably removed the pancake from the pocket where it lay hidden, and ate it up with the air of little Jack Horner.”

Growing up in a crowded apartment on East 93rd Street, Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Gummo Marx shared a bed relatively peaceably, but not a meal. “There was generally some kind of a brawl at the dinner table over who would get what,” said Groucho, who recalled reaching for the last roll on the plate only to see a cleaver, wielded by the normally equable Harpo, slam down within an inch of his hand.

Of the countless fistfights between Joe Kennedy Jr. and his younger brother Jack, one of the most memorable was triggered when Jack snatched Joe’s slice of chocolate pie — his brother’s favorite dessert — from under Joe’s nose at the dinner table. Gobbling it up, Jack ran outside and down the beach, his apoplectic brother giving chase. Cornered on the jetty, Jack leapt into the bay. Joe stood above him, watching him tread water, until Jack was forced to emerge, cold and dripping. The two Kennedys then duked it out on shore.

That sibling rivalry frequently plays out over dinner — or breakfast or lunch — shouldn’t be surprising. Although sometimes a chicken breast really is just a chicken breast, it doesn’t take Freud to see that food is a relatively literal stand-in for parental nourishment. (When I was a child, of course, if someone had suggested to me that wrestling my brothers for the marshmallows in a box of Lucky Charms might have been a way of vying for the attention of our parents, I would have snorted incredulously.) The word “rival” is derived from the Latin “rivalis,” meaning “using the same stream as another.” In pre-Christian times, rivals were people or tribes who fought over water from the same river. “In our terms,” the psychoanalyst Peter Neubauer once observed, “the river is the mother who supplies our basic needs, and the children compete for access to her.”

The term sibling rivalry was coined in 1930 and popularized by the child psychiatrist David Levy, who gave his patients celluloid dolls that represented their parents and younger siblings and asked them what they felt when they saw the baby brother or sister doll nursing at its mother’s breast. There ensued scenes of sibling carnage to rival anything in the Old Testament. Among the responses recorded by Levy: “dropping,” “shooting,” “throwing,” “slapping,” “hitting with stick,” “hammering,” “tearing apart,” “scattering parts,” “biting,” “crushing with fingers,” “crushing with feet,” “crushing with truck” and “piercing (with screw driver).” Levy (who repeated his experiments among the Kekchi Indians of Guatemala with similarly gruesome results) concluded that regardless of age, gender, birth order or cultural background, sibling rivalry is a fact of family life.

FOOD’S central role in that rivalry is, in part, a matter of biology. The pancake night melee at the Joyces was triggered by the same instinct that drives piglets to fight for position nearest the sow’s head, where the nipples deliver the most milk, or that impels Biscuit, my son’s guinea pig, to shoulder aside his brother, Bean, for first crack at the lettuce dish. Feeding time in the Marx kitchen was tame compared with feeding time in any blue-footed booby nest, where the eldest chick often pecks the youngest to death in order to increase its own chances of survival. The booby is one of some two dozen bird species that routinely engage in siblicide. Among mammals, siblicide is less common, but sibling food fights abound. Spotted hyenas, for example, routinely attack their younger sibling within minutes of its birth, sinking their teeth into its shoulder blades and shaking, in order to minimize competition for their mother’s milk. Evolutionary biologists point out that sibling rivalry among Homo sapiens serves a similar function, as an adaptive response to limited resources. (Among boobies and hyenas, competition for food isn’t gender specific. Among humans, it’s more likely to involve brothers; sisters seem to compete less for what’s on the table than for airtime in the conversation that plays above it. While the Joyce brothers scuffled over the last flapjack, their sisters were apparently content to observe, from the sidelines.)

I suspect that geography also plays a part. In many families, mealtimes may be one of the only occasions siblings convene in such proximity, gathering around the table — the way they used to gather around the Monopoly board in the pre-Facebook era — on which a steadily dwindling number of mouthwatering prizes happen to lie within easy reach. (Called to the dinner table as a child, I sometimes felt like a gladiator being summoned to the arena.) In some homes, parents organize the competition; to encourage Darwinian resilience among his elder four sons, Samuel Marx set out three sweet rolls each morning; as soon as a brother had wolfed down his breakfast, he was permitted to grab a roll, leaving the slowest eater empty-handed.

Pressure may also be a factor. Family dinners are idealized by parents and sociologists alike as the Elysium of familial bonding, their infrequency fingered as damning evidence of the decline of the American family. Researchers tell us that children who grow up in families that eat together regularly are more likely to get better grades, less likely to be overweight, less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, less likely to be depressed. But as Hollywood movies and bitter experience teach us, family dinners are often the site of the greatest family friction, especially on holidays, when even the most grown-up siblings may slip into old roles and reprise ancient conflicts.

In most families, sibling rivalry softens with time. Over the years, Colt brother dinner table gatherings grew increasingly civilized, although vestiges of the mealtime strategies honed in childhood have occasionally led to trouble in the wider world. When my older brother, Harry, traveling in India after college, was stricken with a mysterious gastrointestinal disease and lost 30 pounds, he suspects the culprit was a half-eaten Popsicle he found on the street and instinctively gobbled up before someone else got it. Our younger brothers, Ned and Mark, are convinced that their predilection-bordering-on-addiction for all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets stems from their childhood fears that there would be nothing left on the plate by the time their older brothers got through with it. A few years ago I came within a desperate wheeze of having the Heimlich maneuver performed on me while gorging on fist-size shrimp at a fancy holiday party.

Some believe that siblings who express rivalry during their youth end up more closely bonded in adulthood than siblings who experience no rivalry. (Show me a sibling who experiences no sibling rivalry, and I’ll show you an only child.) If the Colt brothers are any indication, there may be some truth to this. At Colt family dinners these days, we tend toward the kind of family tranquillity Norman Rockwell depicted in his paintings. We still eat as if we were in a race — my wife says she’d never met anyone who ate as fast as I do, until she met my brothers — but there is no surreptitious pilfering of chicken skin (well, maybe a little), no wrestling over the last piece of pumpkin pie. Of course this may be because for some time now, we four brothers are likely to be the ones cooking. Not only do we love working in the kitchen together, but this way we can also make sure there will be more than enough food for us all.

This lovely piece by George Howe Colt has a happy ending and suggests sibling rivalry is a passing   phenomenon limited to youth. I wonder about this and even if it is limited to humans.

This morning while feeding our two horses- Doc and Fancy, I observed what I interpreted as sibling rivalry-like behavior. Every morning I place equal amounts of horse feed at both ends of the horse

Our paint horse Fancy and Doc’s nose

trough. Fancy, the filly, being the friskier horse proceeds Doc, our gelding, to the trough and always goes to the end Doc prefers. There she immediately gloms onto as many mouthfuls of feed as possible before the larger and dominant Doc arrives, snorting and throwing his head, and running her off to her end of the trough. Again the disagreement involves food as with humans. Doc’s aggressive head throwing and snorting remind me a lot of Joe Jr.’s taking out after Jack Kennedy and pummeling him for having pilfered his slice of chocolate pie .

Our horses’ behavior makes me wonder if such rivalries are limited to humans. Maybe it is broader than that and characteristic of herds. Might it be biologic in nature? This got me to wondering if such competitiveness within herds (flocks, gaggles,etc.) exists in other animal species? Is it more among animal families? Other observations on human or non-human sibling-like rivalries are welcomed. Let me know your thoughts.

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