Just as I imagine most parents hope that the best of their qualities, if tendered just right, will osmose into their children, so too does the escarole-munching, kombucha-gulping father entertain the fantasy that with thoughtful culinary nurturing, he can raise a miniature him. I certainly did.
As someone who writes cookbooks with chefs for a living, I was perhaps especially susceptible to this delusion. For my strange, wondrous job, I have watched Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker mince pork with a scimitar-style cleaver in Chiang Mai. I’ve basted April Bloomfield’s roasted veal shank for a photo shoot, then mistakenly eaten a third of it before the photographer had taken the beauty shot. I’ve eaten cloudberries out of Rene Redzepi’s belly button. And only one of those is untrue.
When I was still child-free, the talent and ambition of my collaborators infected my own aspirations. With boundless free time and without the constant company of two tiny dinner guests, I hoarded swank vinegars and eschewed out-of-season strawberries, roasted pork shoulders for weeknight dinners and pounded Thai curry pastes as Saturday-afternoon diversion. Obviously, the key to raising good eaters was to make food for them that reflected a similar moral and aesthetic calculus. With sufficient exposure to the farmers market, the local purveyor of lamb burgers and adults who relish roasted broccoli, my children couldn’t possibly disrespect food by leaving any on the plate, let alone throwing it gleefully to the floor.
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t one of those monsters who assumed that his 3-year-old would clamor for slow-roasted salmon or sit quietly at the table, knife-and-forking skirt steak with duck-fat-roasted potatoes and pausing only to ask, “Dada, can you please pass the chimichurri?” But I was sure I would avoid becoming a peanut-butter-and-jelly parent, who feeds his kids cake masquerading as bread, sugar masquerading as fruit and peanuts as their only protein.
Once my first kid came, I worried about all the usual things: How do you hold a baby? Am I too anxious to care for a baby? Would I get so anxious holding the baby that I would pass out, crashing to the ground and killing us both? Cooking, though, I had covered.
I was fully prepared for compromise. For example, I’d heard many kids go through a phase where they want only pasta. That was okay with me. During my career, I had absorbed all the tenets of proper pasta cookery — the voluminous pot of boiling water, the lavish salting, the employment of the starchy cooking liquid to make a silky emulsified sauce. So while my kid might insist on noodles, I would work within that limit to inspire his juvenile palate with all manner of glutenous delights: garganelli with ragu, penne with pesto, orecchiette with sausage and kale. When he was old enough, he would perch on a stool beside me at the stove, helping me toss fettuccine and sauteed ramps in a skillet. As I rasped Parmesan over top, he would beam as if it were his first glimpse of snow.
Now, I have two kids, a 5-year-old and an almost 2-year-old. Come dinnertime, I boil plenty of water, salt it lavishly, and consider tossing my caviling kindergartner and terror of a toddler right in.
It wasn’t always so. When my older kid started on solid foods, I spent Sunday evenings happily roasting, simmering and pureeing various vegetables. I froze them in ice trays then transferred the rainbow of cubes to labeled bags. Mealtime was easy. While he floundered, immobile, on the floor, I heated a couple of cubes in a pan with a splash of water. Then I would imprison him in his highchair and spoon-feed him, eager to witness gastronomic revelation — the earthy sweetness of yams tinged with maple syrup, the vegetal pleasure of buttery broccoli. So what if most mushes fell victim to the tongue-thrust reflex or ended up repurposed as art supplies, my walls decorated with beet-purple spatter and shellacked with heirloom bean?
Yet the years piled up, and the glories did not. Sure, there was that weeks-long frozen blueberry obsession that stained his face purple. There was that time, after months of my presenting him with chicken drumsticks, that he finally stopped banging one against the table, like an actual drumstick, and took a few eager bites. But for the most part, all my efforts had created the same finicky, food-flinging, gummy-bear-addicted heathen raised by my unenlightened friends.
My vast pasta repertoire had been brutally culled to spaghetti with tomato sauce, which would one day inspire quiet acceptance and the next, due to an errant hunk of vegetable matter or a missed nap, generate Gordon Ramsey-level affronts: a death stare, a contemptuous spitting sound, a yelled “yuck.” I half expected my kid to call me a donkey.
When I finally identified some peculiar prandial permutation of edibles he would eat with reliability — for a spell, cubes of flavorless chicken breast, still-frozen peas and a ketchup smiley face — I would begin its preparation, only to be met with the fury of a thousand Jewish grandmothers confronted with an inattentive deli waiter. Because seven seconds had passed and, somehow, dinner still wasn’t ready.
I once assumed this petulance could be quelled with deft application of stern-dad voice, that carefully calibrated combination of kindness, authority and, most important, implicit threat. Now, I grasp my stark lack of leverage. Following through on a threat of no dinner would risk a midnight waking. Taking away TV would mean forgoing the joy of sitting next to him on the couch as he watches an inscrutably plotted show about superheroes in pajamas and I scan my phone for updates on impeachment.
At some point, his rejection of my cooking became so inexorable that I considered skipping the ceremony of serving him food altogether. If I instead removed the plate from the microwave and dumped its contents directly into the trash, then maybe my wife and I could get him to bed 15 minutes earlier.
After one particularly brutal month of nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I abandoned my concern that he wouldn’t share my affection for anchovy and roasted cauliflower, and I took up the novel dread that he might not share my life expectancy. Like many a desperate parent before me, I dabbled briefly in the how-to industrial complex and was horrified to find, in pages filled with insufferable pretension and naive optimism, a reflection of my former self.
I scoffed at cookbooks that provided recipes for aggressively kid-friendly fare. After my own dalliance with carving cucumber slices to resemble Pac-Man, I knew exactly what my little philistine would do with dinosaur-shaped salmon cakes and Teenage Mutant Ninja Tacos. I giggled at those recipes that might have been concocted by pre-kid me. I bet somewhere in Brooklyn, a boy named Oliver is tucking into Crispy Asparagus Bundles and wolfing down Savory Lunchbox Muffins. But not my little pizzatarian.
I still don’t enjoy cooking for my kids. But I have settled on a strategy that works for my family. Forget Alice Waters — nowadays I’m the Selina Meyer of the kitchen, unconcerned with such frivolous matters as morality as long as the job gets done. When my kids request strawberries in February, I will procure the farthest-flung fruits to head off tantrums, climate change be damned. My home is a den of deception, dishonesty and bribery. The tomato sauce I make for their almost-daily plate of pasta contains copious vegetables, sweated then fastidiously blended to conceal their presence. When my older kid asks why his fusilli is brown, I plead the fifth, and will continue to deny that it’s whole wheat, even under threat of subpoena. Just the other day, I offered my eldest 19 chocolate chips in exchange for a single bite of roasted cauliflower. He never ate the cauliflower, but he still got the chips. What can you do?
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