Wednesday, January 21, 2015

No Picnic

I mentioned in my last post that I'm a regular listener to the podcast of Molly Wizenberg and Matthew Amster Burton, Spilled Milk.  Check it out if you haven't: it's always an entertaining way to spend 20 minutes or so.  They focus on one food per episode, sharing their childhood recollections of the food and offering recipes for that food from their current cooking life.  Occasionally they just taste test a whole bunch of junk food.

A recent episode was about sandwiches, and each shared their top five favorite sandwiches.  I have never been a big sandwich fan, if you think about sandwiches in their typical, what you would pack in your school lunch iteration of a sandwich.

But, I am definitely drawn to the sandwich listings on a restaurant menu, and would definitely prefer something like a chicken sandwich over an entree of fried chicken, for example. Many more opportunities for varied taste experiences throughout the eating of that kind of a sandwich.

It got me thinking about my own top five, so here is the list I settled upon. (in no particular order)

1. Pulled Pork sandwich, preferably from Eli's Barbecue, but I'm not above one from a lesser establishment.  Jim shakes his head at me when I order this in a place like Frisch's, mostly because I'm so predictable, but also because he'll just stick to the safe burger, thank you very much.
I think what I like about a pulled pork sandwich is again, the varied taste experiences in each bite.  I definitely want slaw on my sandwich, not just on the side, and I hope it's a slaw with more vinegar than mayo.  Pickles on it might even be good.  The best pulled pork is smoky and crunchy in places, with not too much sauce, but enough that you can taste it.

2. Turkey Reuben.  Never with corned beef:  too fatty, and the sauerkraut is the star here anyway.  I like it on grilled rye for sure, with plenty of thousand island dressing.  When I was in young, when bagels were a new and fascinating thing in the Midwest, there was a bagel shop near a bookstore I liked.  They had a turkey reuben bagel on their menu that came on a pumpernickel bagel, and had red russian dressing instead of thousand island.  I'd still choose that sauce over thousand island in a heartbeat, but it's not something you see all that often anymore.  

3. Chicken Sandwich:  I debated whether or not to even include this on the list, because for some reason, a chicken sandwich feels more like a meal, less like a "sandwich" made with bread, etc.  I don't think you'd put a hamburger on a list of sandwiches, for example.  It is its own category.  Same with a chicken sandwich in all its iterations.  However, a good, marinated chicken breast grilled or fried properly on a chewy bun will always be tops on my list of a food to enjoy, so I think it has to have a place on this list.  A Buffalo version with ranch dressing: always a good idea.

4. Hot Pepper Turkey.  This is a sandwich on the menu at the sports bar down the street from our house that we have been regularly visiting since the week it opened.  N. literally has grown up there, as it was probably the first restaurant she visited in her little pumpkin seat at three weeks old or so.  The hot pepper turkey features peppered sliced deli turkey, pepper jack cheese and a chipotle mayo, on wheat bread, which is then grilled.  I get mine without the cheese, so it's a little less spicy than as intended, but nonetheless delicious.

5. Pot Roast Sandwich at Bob Evans.   Okay, you might as well just graze on a salt lick for a while as eat this very salty sandwich.  But the fall apart beef, onions and carrots (grated, not big chunks that would overwhelm the rest of things) is so yummy that I pass up the breakfast menu at Bob Evans to order it.  We don't go here very often, but when we do, it's usually because I've been thinking about this sandwich.  I get mine without cheese of course, and I really do not think the slice of American cheese it's supposed to be served with would improve it in any way.

List established, I realize that there is not one sandwich on this list that I make, or would really try to make at home. Not surprising.  It's why I'm not so much of a packed lunch girl.  Perhaps it's the no cheese necessity, but there is just nothing exciting or interesting to me about a cold sandwich, whether it's with lunch meat, some sort of spread, or even a collection of vegetables.  Food, unless it's a fruit or vegetable meant to be eaten raw, or a chip or a cracker meant to be eaten out of the box, should be warmed and prepared in some way.  If you're not going to cook it, what's the point?  I almost included the day after Thanksgiving leftover sandwich, but even that would involve me warming up the turkey and filling before putting it on toast spread with cranberry sauce.  This is one of the reasons packing my kids' lunches is one of my most dreaded tasks: it's so disheartening assembling that food meant to stay the same until they can get to it.  (I know, I know, I could pack them a thermos or some artful bento box.  That's a topic for another day, though)

All right, now I'm hungry, so I'm off to heat up something for second breakfast.  I won't be making a sandwich, I guess.  What's on your top five?  I'm sure I've made some glaring omission, so I'd be interested to hear what you like to eat between slices of bread.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Starting off the reading year...


One of my goals for the new year is a recurrent one: to read more.  It's always easier over the holidays because there's more time to lay around and read while I'm eating and drinking too much.  Plus, people know that when all else fails,  they can always buy me a book from my Amazon wish list.  I've always got a few goodies lying around to get to on the first of the year.  Hoping this jump start signals a start to a year with more reading, less time wasting.

This year, my first book down was Delancey by Molly Wizenberg.  I love Molly Wizenberg, in a much too familiar way that includes following her on Instagram and feeling like I have an actual reason to know that she is currently on vacation in Mexico with her husband.  I particularly enjoy hearing her laugh on the podcast she hosts with fellow food writer Matthew Amster Burton, but more on that later.  I enjoyed Delancey, as I'm pretty sure I would enjoy most things Wizenberg would ever write.  She is funny, and clear and honest, and doesn't have a lot of BS or arrogance.  I liked hearing about the process of conceptualizing and opening a restaurant, and she is open about the difficulties that even a successful venture can bring to one's life, marriage and livelihood.  I felt a little something missing from this one, and am still trying to nail it down. I thought it was the lack of distance, time wise, from these events, and thus perspective.  But I think there's a little more to it than that.    

The story of Delancey is her husband's story, probably because Delancey the restaurant was and continues to be his passion, and not necessarily Molly's.  She is upfront about that in the book, and tries to wrestle with what that means for her, for him, and for the two of them together.  However, it still feels like an unresolved, and perhaps somewhat unexplored issue.  That status probably makes for a better marriage than it does a satisfying read.  But still and all, it's exactly the kind of book I like to read: a story laced with recipes, exploring the world of food, and people that love it.  Since it's not written by a cocky bad ass chef with something to prove, I liked it all the more.  I've cooked a few of the recipes from the book: they are not recipes from items on the restaurant's menu, but rather food that Molly and Brandon cooked at home while they were in the process of planning and opening the restaurant.  Simple, come together easily kind of things, which is great for me.  At first glance, these seem like things that don't even need recipes, like throw in the leftovers fried rice.  But I'll be glad to return to her description of the technique of these dishes, and I really enjoyed the sweet-hot roasted pork as an alternative to some of the other braises I like to make during the winter.  Overall, a winner of a book.

I'm also trying to use downtime to listen to audio books. Say, when I'm folding laundry and L. is watching SlugTerra at top volume on the iPad two feet away from me.  Who's to say I can't have my ear buds in then, right?  If he needs a granola bar, he's going to let me know, ear buds or not.
Using this logic, I'm currently halfway through Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.  As with many audio books, and let's face it, many regular books, this one started slow for me.  If it's not a fast paced page turner, I just have a harder time wading into books these days.  Once I get into a book, I have a hard time doing anything else but read it.  I love the more literary reads, just need a way to dive in over my head a little faster.

As I said, I'm only a little more than halfway through this book, but it's had me thinking more than any book I've read in a good long while.   It's a book that got a lot of attention on the "best of" lists at the end of 2014.  I was surprised, because I actually received this book free as an audio book as part of a promotion on Good Reads, and often I don't think giveaway books end up garnering a lot of critical acclaim.
It's a heartbreaking book in many ways, I guess any book that begins "Lydia was dead.  They didn't know it yet" is bound to be sad.  But it isn't just the death and loss of Lydia that is getting to me about this book.  Instead, it is the fact that there is so much miscommunication and inability to listen to each other in the family at the center of it.  Everything I Never Told You, indeed.  For James, the husband and father, everything is filtered through his experience as a Chinese American boy, alone and hurt by racism, and determined that life for his children will be different.  For Marilyn, it's about not following through with her dream to one day be a doctor, and terror that she will turn out like her mother, a disapproving and sad presence, who left nothing behind after her death aside from a few lines highlighted in a Betty Crocker cookbook.

It's a book about defining yourself based on the expectations of someone else, whether you decide to accept them or rebel against them completely.  Ng shifts the perspective in this book from character to character, and back and forth throughout time.  Each time I saw how differently each person was experiencing each event, I wanted to yell "Just talk to each other!"  But of course, we often don't, do we?  We live our lives so much in our own heads, certain our understanding of ourselves and others is correct, and if we do have doubts, afraid to ask in case our worst fears might indeed be confirmed.  How many of our memories, when we bring them out to light with others, are shown to be so different than the recollections of others, trapped up in their own biased filters?

So, I keep wanting to stop listening to this book, but keep getting pulled back in.  The writing is beautiful, even to listen to, so I imagine would be even more so on the page.  Lots of images that seem fresh but yet so exactly right: a near impossible feat.  I can only hope to find a few more treasures of reading experiences like this one throughout the year.


Friday, November 21, 2014

O., N. and L. speak

 An overdue account of some moments I've been jotting down for the last few months.

 Hunting Bears
At bedtime, L. often chooses “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” for us to read.  When we get to the part ‘We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we’ve got to go through it," he has some opinions to share about that:
“Yes, they can go over it! Jet Pack, duh!” he says. “You can so go frew it!  Just dig. You can go under water.  Put your goggles and swimming fings on.”
“We’re not scared!”  I read.
“Yes, they are scared.  Because it’s bears, you know,” he says.
 “We’re not going on a bear hunt again,” I conclude. 
“Yes, they will. Because we’ll read it tomorrow again, right?"

Over It
One weekend in the fall we were planning a trip to Kings Island and I mentioned that they were hosting a Halloween festival event in one portion of the park.  O. had some thoughts about that. “Well, we’re not going to go over there.  Because it will just be tables with crafts and stuff.  So, like there will be pumpkins and some glitter or something.  Meanwhile, there’s the best theme park in the world, with awesome rides!  Geez.”

Cemeteries
Driving to Tae Kwon Do, we pass an old cemetery.  O. must have noticed this each time and had some thoughts about it.
O. "Isn't it weird to think about people being buried in the ground?  I mean, what if you died with your mouth open, and then it got filled up with dirt.  Then if you were just, say, planting flowers in the graveyard, you could actually be digging into someone's throat!"
Me:  "Well, you know they don't just put the person in the ground.  They bury them in a box."
N:  "Yeah, you know.  Like that big pretty one that Great Grandma was in at her funeral."  It's made of like metal. And sometimes really important people get that whole house thing at a cemetery for them."
O:  "Yeah, I bet that for rich people and famous people and stuff, they get boxes made of gold and stuff.  But if you're a robber or something, you don't get anything.  Maybe just wood.  And that guy that killed Abraham Lincoln?  I bet he didn't get anything."

Interesting 
O.:  "I don't think I like people who don’t have kids."
Me:  "Oh really?  Why not?"
O. "Well, for one thing, I wouldn't want to hang around them, because they wouldn't have anybody for me to play with.  But also, if they don't have kids, well, that's the end of their family.  For all these years, that family has been going on and on.  And then they don't have kids.  Boom.  That family is done."

A Little Young to be Realizing This 
Liam:  Is this maple syrup on these pancakes?
Me:  Oh, no, I forgot to get the maple syrup out of the fridge for you.  That’s just regular syrup.  I’m sorry, buddy.
Liam:  That’s otay.  Stuff happens.

The Expert
Me:  How do you know that?
Liam:  I read it in a book.

We're Always Pretending Something
Me:  Oh no, Batman!  That lion is attacking!
L:  It’s otay.  I have a gun!  I will shoot him.
Me:  And our truck is all broken up because he has attacked it.
L:  I will simply fix it.  I am good at fixing things.

Every Other Second, It Seems 
L: Do you want to pay yegos with me?

Model Student 
L:  "I am the only one at stool that pays attention.  Everyone else cannot sit still on the carpet  They are always laying down, but I am always listening.  Just saying."

Awww 
L:  "I love Nora.  Nora calls me Squirt.  You can’t call me Squirt."

Bedtime Farewell 
Me: You’re the best. (I say it to them all.  Promise)
L:  You’re the best mom.  (He's the only one that replies.)

It's Always Snacktime
L:  I’m hungry.
Me:  Ok, what would you like?
L:  Just anyting.
Me:  Well, I want to pick something you’re going to eat.
L:  Just pick whatever you fink. 
Me:  Okay, here’s a box of raisins.

L:  Not so much.

The Conversation Jar
We have a jar full of questions/conversation starters that I printed out.  The kids (usually N.) always remember to bring it to the table and take turns pulling topics out.

Who in your family do you act most like?
O:  Dad.  Because I fart all the time.  And I laugh at myself because I think I'm funny.

Name someone you would like to go back in time to meet.
N:  Mom, I would like to go back and meet your grandpa.  Because I never knew him.  And I know you and Great Grandma loved him and I didn't get to know him.  I'd also like to meet your great grandma.
Me:  Oh, sweetheart, my grandpa would have loved you so much.  He liked little girls so much.  He would let you sit on his lap and mess up his hair and call you brown eyes.  And O., he would call you and L. rough necks.  And my great grandma that I knew?  She was such a sweet lady.  She loved nature and animals and was really good at arranging flowers. And she always had candy at her house."
O.:  Well, then I would like to meet her, because she liked nature.  But I'd also like to meet the guy that invented bacon.  Because who looked at a pig's butt and said 'I gotta have some of that!'"
L:  I would like to meet myself.  Because I like me the best.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Risotto Ramblings

I'm making risotto tonight, though I know no one but me will enjoy it for dinner tonight.  It's a butternut squash version that I'm kind of winging it on, leaving out leeks called for in the recipe I'm using, one I found on my phone,  bc I don't have any, and adding some rotisserie chicken.   Hoping it tastes just a little like the risotto I love from the Brio lunch menu, but I doubt it, because I am never brave enough to use as much salt (and probably butter) as a restaurant cook would. Plus, I think the Brio one has bacon in it.  Not sure why I'd be too hard on myself about its success or failure, because the cooks on Top Chef can't perfect risotto either.  I think the only dish that sends more people home on that show would be scallops.  I had some risotto with grape tomatoes and way too much cheese recently at a really good restaurant, and it was pretty blah on the flavor.  Something I told myself I could totally cook at home.  And it turns out, I can.
Anyway, it's the kind of meal that requires you to stay close to the stove, but not actually think too much or have that much hands on interaction with the dish.  Perfect dish for mind wandering, percolate about the writing I'd like to be doing kind of dish.  Good for me, because every time I sit down to write, there is that darn blank screen staring back at me.  Or that darn blank page in the notebook, if I can even find the notebook.
It's not that I don't have ideas to share, or even thoughts and issues that consume a great deal of my time and energy.  But I've reached a strange season of life where my kids need me less physically, but still take up the bulk of my emotional and actual time.  They need more protection from what I might write and share and discuss about their struggles and challenges and even victories than they used to, which makes writing for an audience, however fictional and minuscule, problematic.  So even though things are happening here, I have a hard time figuring out what and how to say them.
I read articles online and in the newspaper, and I have things I want to say about them, about my dismay about how life just seems to be getting harder and harder and harder.  Not to mention lonelier and lonelier, despite all our "connections" and sharing. But then I read another essay and think "oh, that person already wrote pretty much what I wanted to say about that." So I just share that essay on my Facebook wall.  There are moments in my day when I'm so revved up about some injustice or ridiculous moment of idiocy that I feel ready to write a letter to the editor, or email the person in charge (is anyone really in charge around here?  where are the adults who can take care of crap when it goes wrong, anyway?  Oh, that's me now?  Darn.) or maybe even run for school board or city council or at least form some sort of committee.
I am at times so filled up by the blessings of my life, and so thankful for all the moments of wonder and sweetness and just plain goodness that the people I have figured out how to keep around me offer that I want to write it all down before I lose it all all all.
But then the kids get off the bus and we're doing homework and we're doing dinner and I'm putting away laundry and I'm emptying the dishwasher and someone has to go to gymnastics or Tae Kwon Do or basketball and we're playing legos again.  And then the glass of wine and the blank screen await, and I'm all out of anger and irritation and even enthusiasm.  All the moments of sweetness have faded in detail, leaving just their echoes to carry me on into the next day.
I've written all of these ideas before, and have even written it better before.  This is the stuff that gets in the way of the writing that I really feel like I want to be doing.
So, instead, I make a pot of risotto.  Or I chop some vegetables for a soup.  Or I roll some chicken in some breadcrumbs.  And I feed my family and the best parts of me the best way I know for right now. The making of the food is sometimes enough to absorb the worst grumbly lonely parts of the day. It's almost always enough to let the sweet people who come through my home know that I will keep trying to care for them in all the best ways I can.  Occasionally, the simmering and the stirring and the chopping are even enough to get a few thoughts going and write a few lines.  Something to come back to later when there is more of me to give.



Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Sunday Dinner

I'm not sure when or why this resurgence in blog writing has taken a turn to food writing.  I promise, there are things I think about besides what goes into my mouth or the mouths of my family members. However, this seems to be a safe way to get me to actually, you know, write. And man, I do really like thinking about food. So on we go.

Since I've been talking about how we go about doing dinner around here, and what works and what doesn't, and thinking about why we do what we do for food around here, I've been thinking of Sundays.

Sunday has such a distinct feel about it as a day, doesn't it?  I mean, after the Monday drudgery and Friday's party feeling (we have an animated toy hamster that sings the Friday song, and every  morning on the way out the door I sing the same to my kids.  "Getting' down on Friday...Partyin' Partyin'...looking forward to the weekend"  They love it, I tell you.), Sunday has the most clear attributes.

It's interesting, though, that the adult members of our household have such different approaches to a Sunday attitude.  I absolutely get hit with the "Sunday Blahs" and the anxious dread of good things coming to an end before the start of a new school/work week.  But I think they hit my husband a little harder than they do me, and I don't think that's just because I don't leave the house to go to work on Monday.

Growing up, Sunday was very particularly a family day.  We would go to church in the morning, and often get breakfast out, or come home and eat brunch food or egg sandwiches for lunch.  Sunday afternoons were usually the day we did some sort of outing or adventure as a family, often taking a drive somewhere or visiting a park or museum or some other event that my parents had sought out.  Or it was just an afternoon we spent together in the house.

I know Sunday dinner often has the connotation of a time when extended family gets together and cooks a relatively elaborate meal, sometimes with an old fashioned feel, like a  roast or casserole. Something you'd probably have serve mashed potatoes.  Sunday dinner wasn't usually like that in my house as a child; we probably had soup and sandwiches or homemade pizza more Sundays than not.

However, Sunday has still come to connote a day when one should spend a little more time on meal preparation.  Weeknight meals are usually something I assemble while the kids are at school, or else pull off on the fly very quickly in between homework and after school activities.  So while I sometimes do things that take a while to cook, I don't often have time for things that are intensively hands-on.  So on Sundays, I find myself wanting to cook a complicated curry or the chicken in a pan sauce that looked good in a magazine.  It's the time I find myself drawn to pins on my the Pinterest food board.  Often, while the big kids are watching Minecraft videos and endless reruns of the Suite Life on Deck, and J. is in the basement watching football and playing Legos with L.,  I'm in the kitchen listening to a podcast and chopping vegetables and searing a piece of meat.

This is not at all J.'s idea of the kind of food that one should eat on a Sunday.  He spent many of his weekends growing up at his dad's house, going to a movie with his siblings and then probably eating out.  Sunday was the day he had to go back his mom's and get homework done and then get ready to go to school.  It was a fun day, but a transition kind of day.  Watching sports has also always been a key part of his Sunday routine.  Making a big pan of oven baked nachos with his sisters to eat while they watched the Browns was a much loved tradition.

For J., Sunday is a day that he mostly just wants to eat crappy, greasy hangover curing, stoner type food.  He wants to make chicken wings, or chili, or the aforementioned nachos.  Or more often, he just wants to go to Skyline or eat a giant cheeseburger.

These divergent ideas of what Sunday meals should look like have caused some conflict in our house for as long as J. and I have known one another.  By Sunday evening, on a day when I've willingly embarked on a course of putting together a fairly complicated meal, I suddenly (and irrationally, I KNOW), feel like some sort of drudge, cooking all afternoon while everyone else has been playing and resting and relaxing.  Then no one eats what I've made anyway, and then there I go, down into the Sunday blahs myself.

So, lately, I've been trying to figure out how to balance these two needs of ours to handle our Sunday preferences.  Sunday seems like the day we are most in need of comfort as we prepare to do battle with another week out in the world.  Clearly we have different ideas about what that comfort entails.  I decided for me, maybe it's time to go back to the meals of my own youth, ones that are not complicated or fancy, but instead have familiarity going for them.

Fall Sunday afternoons are clearly football afternoons in our house.  When Browns kickoff time arrives, J. wants to be on his couch if at all possible.  But I don't want to be in the house ALL day on one of our only days all together as a family.  We usually head out for some sort of adventure mid morning.  (We're going to add the church routine back in soon, I swear.  But that's a post for another day.)  Last weekend, it was a family hike at the nature center.  The kids grumbled and complained and cried about it all the way out of the house, but once we got there, it was lovely to all be together out in the fall sunshine.  Along the way, the kids made a project of gathering all the different flowers and foliage they could find, and made a gorgeous bouquet for our front hall table.

We were home in time for game time, and then Jim cooked up one of his favorite junk foods for a halftime timed lunch.  I think it was chicken wings this week: half spicy, half barbecue.  The kids of course, gobbled those right down.

Then, later,  I made a meal straight out of 1977.  Stuffed peppers, rice and sausage covered with tomato sauce and baked.  I wasn't sure how spicy the peppers were that came from our CSA, so I knew I had to make something else for the kids.  I'd always wanted to make porcupines, because even though I don't think my mom ever made them, they seem like a meal straight out of my childhood.  I used this recipe from my favorite food blog, Dinner A Love Story.  If you're like the rest of my family, and have no idea what a porcupine is, it's a meatball made with uncooked rice added in.  You simmer it in a sauce, usually a tomato based one, and the pieces of rice cook and stick out like little spines on a, you guessed it, porcupine. 

That night, I paired these main dishes with sides also straight from my childhood, homemade applesauce and green beans.  For some reason, breaking the green beans up into pieces and then steaming them seems so much different, and more from the past, than the way I typically make them these days, which is to  leave them long and sautee them (usually with bacon and onions). 
This photo has the look of a lot of the meals that were on my table growing up.  Except for the bottle of wine and the messy stack of stuff on the end of the island.  My mom saved the wine for after our bedtime, and is a much better housekeeper than I am.

I can't say that the throwback supper was any more of hit with anyone than the things I usually make on Sundays.  But my attitude was better, and I like the idea of meshing the best of J.'s and my own Sunday nostalgia.  I wonder what the comfort foods of my own children's memory will become, what their Sunday family feeling will be when they are starting families of their own.  I think I'll still always want to attempt some more complicated meals sometimes, but I'm trying hard to remember that is something I'm doing for ME.  As always, I'll just keep showing up with the best of intentions, and hope that the better moments are the ones that stick.



Thursday, October 16, 2014

On Cauliflower and Kids

The other day, I was out to lunch with a friend.  I know, I know, I say that so casually.  It’s been such a short time that such a thing has been a possibility, that it seems ridiculous to just throw it out there, as if I’m just that, a girl who can go to lunch with a friend if she wants, and not have the whole house be turned upside down when she returns.  Or not have to take along a squalling infant who will alternate pawing all the silverware and napkins off the table with wanting to nurse at really awkward angles while I try to eat something that requires aforementioned silverware.

But yes, I was at lunch, after a delightful day browsing books for sale and chatting pleasantly with the authors that wrote those books at a book festival at the convention center.  It was a pizza place, but I ordered cauliflower.  Well, I also ordered a wild boar meatball slider, but what I want to tell you about is the cauliflower. 

I can still hardly believe that this is something that I would order willingly. Although even I must admit that I became a grown up a long long while ago now, it just doesn’t seem that long ago that cauliflower was THAT vegetable.  The one I would pick out of the “California mix” of steamed frozen vegetables that my mom served at least once a week while I was growing up.  The one that you really could not talk me into eating, be it raw, steamed, sautéed, boiled, served in something else.  Not even in my favorite Mongolian Chicken takeout from China Village.  Nope, the Styrofoam bin at the end of the meal on Chinese night was always a pool of brown sauce and some white trees.

But here I was, with a whole menu to choose from, and I picked a plate of cauliflower.  Not a side of it to go with my sandwich.  A whole plate of anti-pasti roasted bits drizzled with vinaigrette.  This wasn’t even an “I’m on a cleanse, I’ll pick the healthiest thing on the menu” choice.  Evidence, course two: a meatball sandwich.  Which I should add, is served on a Blue Oven bread English muffin, which is an item that is actually fried in clarified butter.  Yeah, not so much the healthy choices guiding me this weekend. 

As I was eating those roasted bits of vegetable goodness, I got to thinking how very far I’ve come as an eater.  From a place where I once lived almost exclusively on frozen White Castle burgers and microwaved hot dogs, or just about anything covered with Viva Italian salad dressing, to the place of my current eating habits. Where absolutely the highlight of my last date night meal was a plate of toasted broccoli.

Is this just what happens when you grow up?  Does your palate naturally shift towards these items that your parents promise you that one day you will enjoy?  What is it about vegetables that are so unsavory to young people?  Or, is it, more likely, just the overlap of the general ongoing battle between children and parents over things that are “good for you,” whether it be lean protein, whole grain fiber sources, leafy greens, or books rather than video games? 

Of course there is something different about choosing to eat cauliflower now on my own, knowing that no one is really ever going to pressure me into eating something I don’t prefer.  Yes, I know I should make healthier choices in my dining.  TV spots, Internet articles, whole magazines are out there reminding me to “Eat This, Not That” every day.   But let’s face it, no longer is anyone asking me to just “try it, you’ll like it!”  or forcing me to eat five bites of something I view as repulsive.  I’ve felt a fair bit of shame about the fact that I really do not enjoy fish of any kind, when I know it is a healthy, adult, source of protein.  It seems ridiculous to exclude an entire group of food.  While people express surprise when I mention I don’t eat fish, “Not any?  Have you tried grilled salmon?  How about tilapia?”  Yes, tried them all, and I feel fine with saying I’m done ordering it ever again because every single time I’ll like all the other stuff on the plate, but will leave that lovely fish that gave its life for me largely untouched.

I started this post with the idea that I was simply surprised at my ordering choices as of late, but I’m starting to wonder if this isn’t in some way just a follow up to my most recent post about my approach to cooking for my admittedly picky children. 

It is something I think about all the time.  I’m not interested in being a short order cook most of the time.  I care about their long time health, growth, and nutritional choices. I also want my children to grow up to be adventurous eaters, if only because some of the most pleasurable experiences in my life right now center around sharing delicious food with others, cooking with both new and familiar ingredients, and seeking out places to enjoy meals that have been lovingly and interestingly prepared.

But, I truly intensely dislike the battle of wills that goes on in my house much of the time over food and what my children either do and will not put in their bodies.  So much of the time I feel like dinner starts off as a pleasant enough experience, but then goes south right around the time I realize that no one has eaten anything except the bread portion of a meal.  The reminding, bargaining, and then demanding all commence not too long after that. 

Add to it that we have multiple food allergies and sensitivities in our house that affect what foods we can and cannot have in our house or serve at a common meal.  I don’t do dairy, so I don’t often serve dishes that rely heavily on cheese or cream, even though they might be enjoyed by the majority of people in my house.  We don’t have peanut butter or any nuts in our home, so the alternative of just making oneself a PB&J isn’t there for our family.  That also rules out nuts as a nutrient rich source of protein for the anti-meat eaters in my house.  We also have some issues with eggs, soy, and some fresh fruits for various members of our family, so there have to alternatives for all those options in our house at one point or another.  We haven’t really sorted out my youngest’s food sensitivities in a clear way yet.  So always in the back of my mind when I’m insisting one of my children try a new food is “what if he really means it when he says it’s making him feel like he needs to throw up?”  However, I don’t want any of them to feel like it’s acceptable to avoid eating healthy dinners I spend time preparing  and just replace it with a junk food item later. 

I’ve been thinking about this article by Mark Bittman that appeared in the New York Times a week or so ago.  He was responding to  the requests he often gets from parents asking how to raise children that will try new foods and eat healthfully.  I thought all of what he had to say was interesting, and probably true, at least for him.  He talks about getting rid of junk food as options in the house, and just offering a broad range of healthy choices.  Not to make an issue out of eating what’s on the table for dinner, but only having healthy alternatives available.  This all seems perfectly reasonable, but for some reason really difficult to put into actual practice.

He mentions a mother that cooked in uninteresting ways, but praises that she “always showed up.”  He paints his own childhood eating habits outside the dinner table as one long binge of processed junk, including breakfast of cookies and milk.  He talks about his own current eating habits as a response to that unhealthy way of life, as if it was a natural  progression to rebel against such a thing.  So, that has gotten me thinking.  If raising children with a diet full of junk food eventually leads them to one of discovering cooking and healthy choices, why then do we believe that raising them without junk, and with only healthy choices will lead to a adulthood full of similar items?  Why aren’t we concerned that once confronted with the smorgasbord of junk and processed foods available on the market for the first time that they won’t gravitate to a feast of excess?  I’m reminded of childhood friends who were never allowed to have sugary foods or snack foods at home, who would go to birthday parties and gorge themselves, then head home to vomit.  It was as if they had no boundaries or ability to deal with these temptations.

Like Bittman, many of the items that make up my current diet as an adult are things I would have never dreamed of eating as a kid.  I want to say though, that wasn’t because my parents fed me only a “kid friendly” diet, though there was probably a little of that going on, or that I grew up in a home without much thought about nutrition or food choices.  My mom also "showed up," cooking nearly every night in my memory.  Eating out just wasn't something we did very often.  My parents wanted me to eat, and I wasn’t a particularly easy child to provide food for, since I was allergic to, or at least sensitive to, many different foods in a time when food allergies just were not that common.  My parents were not concerned about my weight or health in general, so I can absolutely see how they were grateful when I found just about anything that didn’t make me vomit. There’s an ongoing joke about the years in junior high and high school when I bought my lunch every day, but my purchases consisted of either green onion potato chips and a chocolate chip granola bar, or a large order of fries.  Also to be fair, I ate quite a few fruits and vegetables without argument, so it wasn’t all junk food entering my system.

I think a lot of the way we view food has just changed over the years.  Health and nutrition education has definitely come a long way from the simplistic ‘four food groups’ model.  Along with the overabundance of convenience food and over processed snacks marketed to children has also come a separate movement towards availability of more vitamin rich produce, better sources of animal protein, and more interesting ways to cook all of it than was available during either my own or my parents’ childhoods.  We’ve moved beyond meat and potatoes and white lettuce to a food culture that embraces multiple ethnic cuisines and regional styles, as well as celebrates locally sourced ingredients.  There are simply more choices available to us as eaters, both good ones and bad. 

I’m not saying Bittman’s approach is a bad one. Nor am I saying my parents had it all right and we’ll all get to the place of eating well eventually.  There are definitely adults I know who still struggle to be adventurous eaters and eat the diets one usually associates with preschoolers.  What I’m saying is that I really have no idea what the best way to get to the right place is, even for my own particular family, so maybe I should stop beating myself up about not doing it one particular way.


There is so much advice out there on parenting, not just in the realm of feeding your children.  There are so many people giving conflicting and strongly worded advice, that’s its hard not to either feel really shamed or alternatively, just want to abandon all of it and do what’s easiest.  I’ll admit, I’ve had both reactions in  lots of areas of parenting.  In this one, however, I guess I’m just going to keep my eyes on the prize of that plate of cauliflower.  I want that experience for my kids, so I’m just going to keep doing things that seem like they lead us in that direction.  Maybe it means lightening up on some of the dinnertime battles.  Maybe it means less junk in the house, and more healthy options for snacks.  O. has recently started to be interested in learning to cook, so I’ve had him help out with meal preparations more lately, and that seems like a good sign even though so far, he still doesn’t eat much of the meals he helps with. For sure, it means continuing to vocally model my own best eating habits in the hopes that they  too, will one day hear a little voice in their head that says “maybe I should at least TRY that.”

Friday, September 12, 2014

Dinner at the Picky Street Cafe

I've long thought if I were going to write a book, one of the angles I've got the corner of the market on is trying to feed picky kids.  Notice that I said "trying," not actually succeeding.  I've been going at it for close to ten years now, and I'm not sure we're really any better off now than when we started introducing rice cereal and pureed squash.

I could go on for volumes about the techniques I've tried to get my kids to eat anything that does not come out of a box or in an unnatural shade of orange.  In large part, our approach involves exposing our kids to many different foods as many times as we can stand it, involving them in the process of choosing and cooking whenever possible, and trying to avoid turning eating food into a battle of wills. You know, all the things all the books and articles and blog posts say to do.  It mostly feels like a marathon we're running with no real end in sight and no idea if we're even on the right road.

Chances are, if you've ever heard me talk about feeding my kids, at one time or another you'll have heard me claim that though I usually make what my kids want for breakfast and lunch, one thing I do not do is short order cook for my kids at dinner time.  What I make for dinner is what we're having for dinner.  Eat it or not, but you're not getting an extra plate of chicken nuggets out of me.

But truth be told, there should be a big old asterisk in a comic book thought bubble above my head every time I trot out that statement.  Because on nights when J... is not here, (and those of you that know the comings and goings of this crew know that happens a good chunk of the time), there is an awfully good chance that there is some short order cooking going on around here.

We do have a few meals that J... hardly ever gets to eat, because they are the standard "Daddy's out of town" meals that both easy to prepare, and are appealing to all the kids.  Tacos, pizza, brinner and spaghetti with meatballs all fall into this camp.

However, especially in the summer, when we've been outside playing all afternoon, or at the pool or some other place, and we don't have any plans to meet our friends at the Mexican joint down the street, dinner without Daddy starts to look a little more like some poor excuse for a diner. Only with a lot more whining and not even any sub-par tips to tuck in an apron pocket.

Last night, for example, I had two pots on the stove, one with water to boil shell pasta, and the other to simmer a couple of hot dogs.  N. and L. had pasta with jarred spaghetti sauce, and O. had his new normal, which is a Skyline Chili knock off hot dog with cheese.




Which left one person in the house to feed.  I wish I could just get by with eating a few bites of whatever's left on my kids' plate.  Or a bowl of cereal at the kitchen sink.  But if and when I skip a meal, soon all the other food in the house will start to look good.  Like, even a half a box of Triscuits shoved in the back of the snack cabinet.  Or five packs of the animal fruit snacks no one else will eat.

So, I cook something for myself.  Actually, cooking for myself is one of my favorite things to do.  I have never really liked cold sandwiches, and I can't convince myself (or my stomach) that a salad is a meal, even at lunch.  I often heat up and combine leftovers at lunchtime.

But nights when I'm the only adult around, dinner is often a big pan of whatever vegetable no one else in the house will eat.  Roasted Brussels Sprouts.  Carmelized carrots.  And the summer staple:  Sauteed corn and green beans.  Add some balsamic vinegar to any of the above, and we are in business.

And then I just throw containers of whatever fruit is in the fridge on the table and hope someone reaches in there a couple of times.  The dragon fruit on the paper plate was one the kids thought looked cool in the store and begged me to buy, even though we've been down that road before, and of course no one wanted to eat that gelatinous scary stuff once it was cut open.  In the trash at the end of dinner.  Oh well.  There's another one of those suggested techniques to try to curb the picky eating: "let them make their own food choices" we can cross off the list..


And here's what they really ate for dinner.  The rest of the pan of chocolate chip bars I made to take on a trip with us, and forgot to bring, which I just found in the freezer and defrosted today.


So yes, on nights when our whole family is home, we eat dinner as a family, and we try to all eat the same thing.  Or at least we all have the same thing on our plate.  What that usually means is that 2 out of 3 children are suddenly no longer in need of calories as soon as they sit down at the table. Then they eat the five bites I mandate, and then wait until the last dish is put in the dishwasher to alert us that really, a granola bar or cheese and crackers must be in their belly immediately.

It's a battle I hope we are winning by increments, but allow myself a little grace on the days we throw up the white flag of surrender to crappy eating once again.  At least I get to eat what I want those days, too.