EVE ZIBART'S last piece for The Magazine was about gumbo.
No matter how many airlines hustle half- price tickets to paradise, the Great American Family Vacation will continue to include the car . . . and the kids. And that means an outbreak of Juvenile White Line Fever -- a highly contagious disease, evidenced by excruciating hunger, specific (soda) thirst and loud, whiny ennui.
No Detroit gas guzzler can ever consume fuel as fast as a preadolescent (i.e., predieting) prodigy. Witness the chains of commercial pump-and-gobble establishments that flourish along the interstates. And the billboards! ("14 Miles to McDonald's"). The Golden Gate may loom on your mental horizon, but the golden arches glitter with a far more immediate appeal.
Undercutting this consumerist frenzy can be especially tricky. But try to encourage in your kids a precocious palate and higher entertainment expectations than McDonaldland will provide. If you don't want to spend more time in the HoJo's than on the highway, take a tip from the experts and advertise the food -- that you are dishing out.
First of all, consider the containers: If your kids are status- conscious, they may be assuaged by eating homemade pasta salad or teriyaki chicken stored in recycled plasticware with gourmet delicatessen labels still attached. Cold meat need not be boring, either: Study the doggie- bag technique of the tres elegant French restaurants and turn ugly duckling aluminum foil into silver swans.
But if the children haven't reached the pseudo-sophisticate stage yet, dazzle them with your fancy food work -- give them toys to eat. They'll distract first and digest later.
(These novelty meals could also serve to entertain young guests at a birthday party, but if the children are too small, you might want to avoid the use of toothpicks.)
Carefully flatten out an old Crayola box and wipe off any interior color (most crayons today are non-toxic, but they may not be terribly tasty). Then fold it back together and fill it with coloring-stick crudit,es arranged in the proper rainbow spectrum: red rutabaga, orange carrots, yellow squash (trim the seeds if you don't pack a portable vacuum), green zucchini (also trimmed) or celery. Serve these with sheets of "drawing paper" -- eight-inch-square matzo crackers.
Turn a sub sandwich into a high-tech train car: Stuff a sub roll with the small person's approved ingredients, then use halved toothpicks to attach sliced-pickle wheels, carrot-curl cowcatchers, pitted black olive smokestacks. There are variations depending on the child's preferred mode of transportation. For a Queen-Elizabeth- style liner, use cocktail-party toothpicks topped with colored cellophane frills, and stick a pair of pitted black olives atop as smokestacks. Make a submarine sub by cutting arrow-shaped carrot or pickle discs and sticking them in as fins with a four- leaf radish slice as a propeller; bend one of those powder-filled candy straws as a periscope. Carefully strip the meat off the first joint of a couple of chicken wings, and you have wings for a jet sandwich. Load a whole pickle on top and call it a space shuttle.
Construct a pita-bread change purse by trimming the top off a whole loaf of pita bread and stuffing it with carrot-slice pennies, white radish dimes, or wok choy dollars. Or use dried fruit slices.
Make edible dolls -- gingerbread, plain cookie dough or even biscuit babies, depending on ethnic preference. Don't just stamp them out with a cutter, though; try to shape them more realistically. If it cooks up too homely, call it a Cabbage Patch Kid.
Fill an old Pringle's or tennis ball can with "jackstraws" -- uncooked, crunchy sticks of pasta, mixing store-bought white, whole-wheat brown, tomato red and spinach green. (They even make squid-ink purple pasta, but the expense is probably excessive.)
To children with good coordination -- and good manners -- suggest Tic-Tac-Dough: As yet unassembled sandwiches whose bread layers are to be filled in by alternating doses of ketchup and mustard from squeeze bottles.
However, if the car is still rather new, you may want to consider the meal-time pullover. After all, indulging your children in backseat dining may be playing Jeopardy with the upholstery.