"I WOULD put on you a jelly and a bean and honey and peanut butter and a cake and then you're going to grow up to be a bi-i-i-g cake!" So much for asking my 3 1/2-year-old son, Nathaniel, what kind of sandwich he might make me for Father's Day. You have to learn how to phrase a question explicitly at this stage of the game; you also learn the difference between talking to your child and interviewing him. Nathaniel caught on like a Watergate veteran, asking several times when "The Talk" would be over.
My wife Carolyn leaned over the dinner table and elicited a loud conspiratorial declaration that I was somehow not supposed to hear even though I was only five feet away. "How about we make a tuna fish sandwich for him," Nathaniel decided, "with mayonnaise and raisins and that's all I want to put on for Daddy for a surprise and we won't tell him and will hide it behind him so he can't see it."
Nathaniel knows his daddy's tastes, that's for sure. He's actually much braver than I am when it comes to tasting new foods. For me, Chinese means chicken chow mein, Italian means spaghetti and meatballs, American means a cheesburger royale and french fries, and they all get washed down with a Coke. cMaybe that's why I'm shaped like a can of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. It's been a long life of mediocre eating, but I want to make sure Nathaniel doesn't slide into it as easily as I did. So, though kids eat the darnedest things, I've never let him know that my all-too-solid stomach curls at the thought of ice cream topped with cherry tomato squeezings washed down by a "special drink" of milk and orange juice.
There are certain staples in Nathaniel's eating and drinking patterns. There are also certain absences: He's never eaten red meat -- and has never shown any desire to -- though he loves chicken and fish. We haven't forbidden it, we just haven't encouraged it; he'll be able to decide for himself later on. Things we couldn't do without include peanut butter and McCutcheon's unfiltered apple juice.
Since we live in Takoma Park, we benefit from being able to stop in at the Barcelona Nut Shop on Carroll Avenue, where Nathaniel gets to watch the peanuts being ground into butter and put into a favorite container. Barcelona also provides us with some dried fruits, including his all-time favorite, dried pineapple, "it's round and it's lellow," which he sometimes likes to plaster with cream cheese.
Dried fruits are also a popular item at the Takoma Park Coop; the dry fruit section is usually the first place Nathaniel heads on arrival, followed by a quick dip into the bagel bags. Sharing the food shopping experience is generally rewarding for us both. The Coop has toy shopping carts which Nathaniel enjoys filling up and pushing through the store. At both there and the Giant, he's long been an important helper, picking the fruits (and thus learning what's spoiled or not yet ripe), learning what's fragile, learning how to organize a cart so that soft things aren't crushed under 20 pounds of dog food.
At the Giant, Nathaniel likes to pretend the big cart is a garbage truck and he's the Garbageman, climbing aboard and tossing in the food as we patrol the aisles. Nathaniel prefers it when he and I go to the Giant without Carolyn. "Let's get a little piece of candy lellow and a big cookie with all the colors on it when you and me go," he always reminds me. That routine started when he was much younger and I tried to buy his cooperation; he's a helper now, so it has become a reward, especially since he seldom has any candy (except when he finds what he calls "M and m-ms" in my bag, the little stinker).
At home, Nathaniel is a good kitchen helper, though he's occasionally over-exuberant. I know he'll go much further than I ever did because he's at ease with eggs. I didn't master the art of breaking an egg until I was almost 30, mostly because I was always scared the eggs would slip out of the shell onto the floor or counter -- anywhere but the bowl. Nathaniel has no such problem, which he tells me he overcame at an early age: "I just broke some eggs when I was a baby and then I just knew how to do it." I do remember a carton of eggs giving up their lives, during one very quiet practice session early on; imagine our surprise when we came downstairs to find the kitchen floor with a new sticky finish.
With the eggs under control, Nathaniel has come up with some wonderful ideas for breakfast. One which even I enjoy is a relatively recent addition: "You have a banana and some egg and milk and you put it in the blender and moosh it all up and cook it with the bread and that's Banana French Toast." BANANA FRENCH TOAST (Makes 5 slices) 1 banana 1/2 cup milk 2 eggs 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract Dash each of allspice and nutmeg 5 slices bread Butter or oil for griddle
Peel and slice the banana and put the slices into the blender. Add milk, eggs, vanilla and spices. Blend until smooth. Pour the batter into a shallow dish. Dip bread into batter, then cook on buttered or oiled griddle over low heat.
Our budding chef sometimes likes to add strips of melted cheese on top of regular french toast. He's also good at chopping nuts and mixing ingredients for fruit salad, or for the making of oatmeal or bread. His favorite bread is zucchini, which seldom gets as far as being entirely cool before it disappears into three Harringtons. CARL GOH'S ZUCCHINI BREAD (Makes 1 loaf) 3 eggs 2 cups sugar 1 cup oil 2 cups grated, peeled zucchini 3 teaspoons vanilla 3 cups flour 1 teaspoon salt 1teaspoon baking soda 1/4 teaspoon baking powder 3 teaspoons cinnamon 1 cup chopped nuts
Beat the eggs until light and foamy. Add the sugar, oil, zucchini and vanilla and mix lightly but well.Combine the flour, salt, soda, baking powder and cinnamon and add to the egg-zucchini mixture. Stir until well blended, add nuts and pour into two 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pans. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 1 hour. Cool on a rack.
Peanut butter figures largely at lunch time, which is a graduation from a youthful enchantment with mayonnaise. I'll never forget the steady stream of mayonnaise sandwiches that seemed to[TEXT OMITTED] of its sugar content): peanut butter and banana, the banana sliced up and mushed in with the peanut butter. It gets messy on those occasions when he decides to eat the banana bits using only his tongue. Other variations include peanut butter with mayonnaise (some habits die hard) and peanut butter with chicken.
For trips, Nathaniel likes to take along either a rice cake/peanut butter combo or a little plastic bag filled with nuts, raisins, dried apricots, cheese and sliced apples, which allows him to dip in as he wishes. He's always expanding his fruit vocabulary, having recently fallen in love with the word -- and hence the fruit -- "nectarine." He also has a mythology of the origins of certain fruits. "Men put honey in the branches, then the branches get green and taste good and that's how they make honeydew." Sounds all right to me.
Apple juice flows through Nathaniel; in fact, I don't see how McCutcheon's could stay in business without us. My son is always curious about my Cokes, but he seems satisfied with an occasional sip. Again, we're cautious about additives, and therefore thankful that his thirst is for natural fluids. Water comes in second, followed by grape and orange juice. From time to time, Nathaniel likes to mix them all together. If you want a wonderful mixed drink, try apple, grape and orange on the rocks.
Nathaniel has yet to become a big fan of yogurt, but it figures in a seasonal favorite that threatens to extend year round: "popsicles." We make these ourselves, with his help, mixing juice, banana and yogurt in a blender and freezing it in popsicle molds.
It seems to hold together well, tasting like something between a popsicle and frozen yogurt. Another popular treat -- and again Nathaniel is a frequent guest in their making -- is what he calls "Chocalate Chip Dulcimer Ware Penny Ticket Cookies," or as we call them, "Natty Bumppo Cookies." His name does not indicate the ingredients, but the objects he saw when we asked him to come up with a name for the cookie. Nathaniel's not overly loyal, though. Ask him his favorite kind of cookie, and he'll say "all of dem!" CHOCALATE CHIP DULCIMER WARE PENNY TICKET COOKIES (Makes 5 dozen) 3/4 cup butter 1 1/2 cups brown sugar 2 eggs 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/2 cup peanut butter 1 cup sifted flour 1/2 teaspoon soda 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 cups oats 1 cup carob or chocolate chips 3/4 cup grated coconut 1/2 cup wheat germ 1/2 cup chopped nuts "How about we put melted cheese in?" Nathaniel asked one time
Beat butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla until creamy. Beat in peanut butter. Sift together flour, soda and salt and add to creamed mixture. Blend well. Stir in remaining ingredients. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto greased cookie sheets. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes.
Cookies and ice cream are treats because of their rarity. When they're around -- after birthdays and holidays -- they dominate to the point of excluding everything else. It's an ongoing battle I have with my mother, who thinks "a little sugar is good for him." Nathaniel didn't have any candy until his first Halloween, at which point he must have thought he'd bought the store, but we consider ourselves fortunate that he doesn't crave sweets unless they're right under his nose . . . and who can resist that temptation, adult or child? You realize what sweets do to you when you try to protect your child from overindulging in your pleasures. I evolved from a V-shape to an H by giving in to such sins as M&M sandwiches
Take two slices of bread and cover one with a layer of plain M&Ms. Place the other slice on top and mush gently to prevent M&M slippage. Let sit for approximately 30 seconds and then indulge in a delicious pig-out.
Eat enough of those and people will eventually mistake you for a delivery truck. When Nathaniel and I went to the 7-Eleven for papers on Sunday, we used to indulge in doughnuts; I figured if he had one, I could have three. wI stopped when it got to be two and two. The other day I mentioned to him that we didn't have doughnuts much anymore. "But the 7-Eleven has more doughnuts," he pointed out hopefully.
Nathaniel's my boy, and sometimes his awareness staggers me. I talked to him one day about being fat -- which he's not, thankfully - and he looked at me and said simply, "You ought to be on a diet." That suddenly reminded me that if I want to enjoy many more Father's Days with the most interesting person I've ever met, I really ought to be taking his advice. Maybe while he's growing up, I can be growing down.