My four-year old grandchild, Alex, provides a font of observations for me. I watch Alex play, but as a food aficionado, I watch with deeper interest his developing taste. There are innumerable articles and books about children at play; but little about children eating. One of the more memorable exceptions is the Margaret Mead film, Four Families, in which the anthropologist documented how parents from India, Canada, France and Japan fed their babies. For some reason, the French mother's style continues to resonate with me 30 years later. Despite my skepticism about Ms. Mead's habit of extrapolating whole cultural norms from an individual example- I remember thinking-that this mother's form of feeding nourishes more than the body. Meal time was a moment of connection--sharing the mashed potatoes with her little boy and his older brother while laughing and playing. Eating, even at his early age, held the potential for delight and communion rather than being a hurried chore.
Above: Scenes from Four Families, a documentary by Margaret Mead.
Beginning at two, Alex would eat almost everything. Rather than editing his food repertoire, he has emerged as an adventurous 'try - er." He loves fresh fruit, especially the spring bounty of strawberries. His emerging vocabulary is most proficient in describing a growing list of favorite foods: oranges, apples, strawberries, biscuits, chocolate cookies, cake, scrambled eggs and most recently the rather pungent homemade pickles I make. I have never dumbed down his food. He eats what we do. His latest description is “hot” when something has a bit too much spice. My garlicky vinaigrette is “hot.”
When he likes something, it is obvious. He eats with complete concentration, often pronouncing the food as “yummy.” If he loves something, it joins an ongoing series of eclectic food requests: pork bun from our favorite dim sum restaurant and most recently home made gefilte fish. (Really!)
The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from the mere animal biology to an act of culture.
He also knows that eating means sitting down and “conversing” while he speaks. His love of food means asking for more (often before he is done) and learning to respond with a thank you when served.
I realize in watching him that great experiences with food are similar to great experiences in general. We learn when something is deeply felt. And the learning within a sensory rich environment is multi-faceted. He is socializing, he is tasting, he is creating preferences, he is waiting, he is expressing his desires and he is enjoying himself.
When I cook, I invite him into the kitchen. He has learned that the stove surface is another kind of hot. He has whisked meringues for me, stirred a sauce, shaped a meat ball and torn lettuce leaves. He now knows that food does not magically appear. It is the end of a process added to by his participation. When he sees the table set, he scrambles onto his seat proclaiming loudly, “let's eat!”
His twelve year old brother Anthony is becoming a proficient cook, so much so, that I invite him into the kitchen as a sous chef whenever possible. He is a more than competent right hand guy when making jam and marmalade with me and is now the breakfast cook whenever he sleeps over. No one has the patience to make scrambled eggs the way he does, slowly on low heat after first melting a generous amount of butter in the pan. He grates some parmesan cheese on top as a finishing touch.
Today, for your eating pleasure are three of Alex's favorites: Orange Almond Cake, a custardy dessert made with whole cooked oranges, almond flour and a generous number of eggs along with his big brother Anthony's Scrambled Eggs with Parmesan Cheese. To round out these eggy delights is the bright and seasonal home made Strawberry Jam, surprisingly easy and a great recipe to share with budding cooks and gourmets.
And for your reading pleasure two of my favorite poems about food.
This Is Just To Say
William Carlos Williams
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
A Newborn Girl at Passover
Consider one apricot in a basket of them.
It is very much like all the other apricots--
an individual already, skin and seed.
Now think of this day. One you will probably forget.
The next breath you take, a long drink of air.
Holiday or not, it doesn't matter.
A child is born and doesn't know what day it is.
The particular joy in my heart she cannot imagine.
The taste of apricots is in store for her.
Alex, now 4, still enjoys mealtime. Fruit salad with fresh mint he helped prepare.