Once, when I was about seven, my father fed me dog food. Not out of neglect or malice, but because I asked him to.
We lived in the country, in a trailer leveled off a hillside on cinderblock and iron piers. Our dogs, two German Shepherds with the stateliness of their breed watered down by the mongrel who sired them, lived under the porch built off the side of the trailer. In the log golden sun of the evening that summer, I would walk out with my father after dinner to feed them. Their food was stored in a metal trashcan, like the one Oscar lived in on Sesame Street. It had a lid fit tight enough to keep the raccoons out and I couldn’t lift it on my own. In addition, a bungee cord was hooked to the handle on either side of the can and run through the top handle of the lid.
Dad would unhook the cord and pry off the lid and I would use the plastic milk jug cut into the shape of a scoop to fill the dogs’ metal food bowl. The dogs were always excited to be fed and the small one would bounce around us. I tried to keep my dad between me and her so she didn’t knock me over. Elsa, the older dog, was a bit more patient, but her head was always in the bowl before the rattle of kibble on metal finished. The last few pieces would fall across her muzzle and leave dust in her eyebrows.
That night I stood there with the milk scoop dangling from my fingers and watched the dogs scarfing down their food. It didn’t look exciting to me. The pieces were round, about the size of my big toe. They looked hard and dry. There was always a crumbly, dusty film on the food scoop after I used it. But the dogs were chowing down like it was the best thing they’d ever tasted.
I kept my eyes on the dog food bowls because I didn’t want to see him laugh at me. “What does dog food taste like?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never tried it.” I glanced up. Dad looked over and lifted his eyebrows at me, but he wasn’t laughing. “Would you like to find out?”
I wrinkled my nose. “But it is dog food. We can’t eat dog food.”
“Well, dogs eat people food sometimes.” I couldn’t argue with him there. Elsa was always begging for whatever food I happened to carry outside with me. “Let’s go look at the bag to see what’s in it,” Dad said. “If it won’t make us sick, we can give it a try.”
Assured after reading the ingredients listed on the back of the 50 pound bag of kibble in the shed, that our dogs were basically eating people food in dog format I agreed that I’d try it. But only if he did, too. Of course he would, he said.
We sat down on the wooden steps of our porch, feet in the dust at the bottom. We each took one little ball of dog food in our fingers. I rolled mine back and forth between index finger and thumb. It felt hard and just a little greasy. Not quite perfectly round. Like it had been extruded and then sliced before whatever cooking process made it crunchy. Little crumbles stuck to my fingers. I smelled it. It didn’t smell good, but not really bad, either. It just smelled like dog food.
“You first,” I said.
“Together,” he countered. “Ready? One, two,” he paused, to make sure I was going to continue. I nodded.
We each put the piece of food in our mouths. I held mine between my molars. I couldn’t bring myself to let my tongue touch it. Dad was chewing his. His beard vibrated over his cheeks as he worked the crunchy texture. I gently bit down, just enough to break the hard ball apart.
I can’t tell you what it tasted like. I have no memory of the flavor. I couldn’t get past my mind shouting “You are eating dog food! That’s so gross!” And yet, I was watching my dad calmly eating dog food, too. He could have been tasting wine, or considering whether his soup needed more salt. His face betrayed no hint of the oddity of the situation. He swallowed.
“So, what do you think?” he asked. I still couldn’t read his face.
I leaned over and spat the soggy mouthful into the dirt. “I can’t do it,” I said.
Dad chuckled. “Yeah,” he said, “That tasted pretty bad. I’m glad I’m not a dog.” He stood and brushed off the seat of his jeans before reaching for my hand. “Ready to go in?”