Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Loving Lemons

A friend recently shared this video of her 11-month old son enjoying a lemon, and it just makes me smile.

I love his giggle when the sourness gets intense.

There was substantial protesting when mom finally took the lemon away.

In our family, when it was time to bring on the babyfood, we introduced  strong flavors early on, despite the tut-tutting of concerned but well-meaning friends.  At the time we were simply being selfish.  We wanted The Child eating flavors we eat as soon as humanly possible.  In hindsight, it helped expand her palate and encourage exploration. Lemons, limes, plain yogurt, goat cheese, blue cheese, smoked fish, pickled everything, and spices… Mmmm.

The diversity of her palate did not make mealtimes less of a struggle when she hit the thunderous threes, but it gave us confidence she was capable of enjoying a wide range of flavors.


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On Thursday last, Shauna James Ahern at Gluten-Free Girl tweeted an idea.

“What’s the first dish you ever learned to cook? How did it make you feel to cook it?”

Milestone meals started popping into my head, and in reverse chronological order I worked my way back to the first thing.  Okay…  perhaps not the first thing.  That would be Roast Beef with Pickle Gravy, lovingly prepared in Imagination Land as a very small child.  My dad made me a yellow toy stove in his basement woodshop, complete with real stovetop dials, electric burners painted on, handles leftover from their kitchen remodel, and one door which opened the same way an oven would (with a sliding rack inside too!).  I remember playing with that stove all the time.

My first proper independent cooking was breakfast.  Eggs to be precise.  I started with scrambled.  Maybe sautéing some onions in some butter before pouring in the beaten egg and chives, then mixing in some cheese or cut up salami.  My parents had a white, glass-topped, electric stove, and it was awful.  The breakfast preparation process involved putting the pan on the stovetop, turning on the burner, tossing a pat of butter in the pan, and walking away.  Only then would I bother with prep work;  cutting up onions, harvesting chives, cubing cheese, getting a plate, etc., because it seemed a full 15 minutes before that butter even started to melt.  But in any case, that routine became a rhythm and many mornings before school I got up to make my own breakfast.

It was not long before scrambled eggs became omelets.  To me, omelets feel like the first real dish I ever learned to cook.  I think I was around 12-years old, and it was utterly empowering!

Omelets were the first dish I made for someone else.  The scrambled eggs were always for me.  I cannot remember if my little sister ever ate the scrambled eggs, but the omelets were for everyone.  As if the act of sharing food with others is the last real step in preparing anything.  I remember getting praise from my parents, and being brave enough to cook breakfast in other people’s kitchens after an overnight.  I remember my mistakes in judging how much filling was too full to fold without cracking, which fillings got too runny, and how to get all the egg to cook without scorching the bottom too badly.  In point of fact, these omelets were more like a folded and stuffed frittata than a proper omelet, but they were tasty and very close to what my father made on the weekends.

Not long after, say 7th or 8th grade, my parents had me get dinner started once in a while.  I have few memories of being confident in middle school (who does?), but yet I have clear recollections of standing at the kitchen counter after school and enjoying these tasks.  I felt comfortable in my own skin.  It was never anything challenging.  These were uncomplicated assignments with clear direction.  My father is always one planned meal ahead.  He wakes up contemplating dinner, and he goes to bed thinking lunch.  But even without being complex cooking, these chores built an underlying ease with simple routines:  adding marinade to meat and getting it in the fridge, peeling potatoes, forming hamburger patties so they were ready for the grill as soon as the folks got home.  One frequent recipe in particular was simple baked chicken with a combination of garlic salt and brown sugar.  In college I asked my dad for the recipe, and he humbly sent a scrawled recipe entitled Dad’s Incredible Chicken.  It was met with acclaim by the roommates, and The Spouse and I still regularly make it, lo these many years later.

The remarkably addictive thing about learning to cook is that the learning feels good.  The process of diving into something new.  Deciding to try.  Learning how to fail.  If we succeed in passing these skills onto The Child, this already gutsy and resilient kid just might feel empowered too.  The Spouse commented last night that it is his hope The Child will find herself heading off on her own already “just knowing” how to cook.  I taught myself technique in my mid-twenties, but I already just knew how to cook.  Thanks Dad!

Dad’s Incredible Chicken

1 chicken, quartered
Garlic salt
¼ – ⅓  cup brown sugar

Arrange chicken skin side up in lightly oiled baking pan.
Season fairly heavily with garlic salt.
Sprinkle generously with brown sugar.
Bake at 375°F for one hour.
Cover with foil after 30-40 minutes if chicken appears too dry.
May be served hot or cold.
Share with friends and gloat.


Updated 6/15/2010:

I have so enjoyed reading the memories of the other contributors to the project.  Check out Shauna’s post to read more: http://glutenfreegirl.blogspot.com/2010/06/first-meal-i-ever-cooked.html

What was the first thing you ever cooked?

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A friend of mine recently pointed me at the 20×200 website.  The tagline for the online gallery is “Discover Great Artists at an Affordable Price” and many hours were spent surfing and discovering.  Jen Bekman is the fascinating creator of 20×200, which endeavors to provide archival-quality art pieces to an all-inclusive audience starting at $20.

While surfing through, I landed on the 20×200 profile for Mark Menjivar and his You Are What You Eat project.  Clicking through all the images and reading the brief captions speaks volumes about how we humans relate to food under different circumstances in our lives.  And as I scroll and surf my way through 20×200 building my personal wish list, it is clear that Jen Bekman is changing the way we humans relate to art as well.  Sometimes accessibility makes all the difference.

Go explore Mark’s images (projects -> you are what you eat -> images).  What do you see?  In the meantime, I’ll be organizing my fridge.

Bar Tender | San Antonio, TX | 1-Person Household | Goes to sleep at 8AM and wakes up at 4PM daily. by Mark Menjivar

Midwife/Middle School Science Teacher | San Antonio, TX | 3-Person Household (including dog) | First week after deciding to eat locally grown vegetables. by Mark Menjivar

The Artist’s Statement [taken directly from his website: http://www.markmenjivar.com/]

You Are What You Eat is a series of portraits made by examining the interiors of refrigerators in homes across the United States.

For three years I traveled around the country exploring food issues. The more time I spent speaking and listening to individual stories, the more I began to think about the foods we consume and the effects they have on us as individuals and communities. An intense curiosity and questions about stewardship led me to begin to make these unconventional portraits.

A refrigerator is both a private and a shared space. One person likened the question, “May I photograph the interior of your fridge?” to asking someone to pose nude for the camera. Each fridge is photographed “as is.” Nothing added, nothing taken away.

These are portraits of the rich and the poor. Vegetarians, Republicans, members of the NRA, those left out, the under appreciated,former soldiers in Hitler’s SS, dreamers, and so much more. We never know the full story of one’s life. 

My hope is that we will think deeply about how we care. How we care for our bodies. How we care for others. And how we care for the land.

You Are What You Eat has been used by several organizations and universities as a center piece for dialog about food issues. if interested in finding out more information about bringing the exhibit to your community, please contact me. [mjmenjivar(at)gmail.com]

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It has been a weird and wacky spring.  In late April, I had a simple procedure done.  One of those girlie things that is supposed to be simple and reduce the inconvenience of being a woman.  The OB/GYN thought an endometrial ablation would perhaps address my longtime symptoms.   But then a freak one-in-a-million complication landed me in the hospital with a life-threatening hemorrhage, three long weeks after the procedure.  After a blood transfusion and three days of top-notch medical care (all hail fabulous nursing care!) I was back home with strict orders to take it easy and tend to the residual anemia.  Within the week I was back in the ER, stabilized, admitted, and scheduled for a laparoscopic supracervical hysterectomy.  I have only been home a short while, but all I can say is, “Wow!  Why didn’t I do this years ago??”

Recovery has been going really, really well now that the offending organ is outta there!  Apparently recovery for a traditional hysterectomy is four to eight weeks.  Here I am ten days out from surgery, and I am down to a smidgen of ibuprofen to see me through the day.  Sleeping well.  Eating well.  And maybe back to writing often in a little bit, but a bit dizzy and tired yet.  By two weeks the doc estimates I will be feeling close to my normal self.  I still have the one little-ovary-that-could, so I have no worries about hormone replacement and adjustment yet either.  All this started in April, just after a bout of the flu for The Child and myself, and here we are in June…  School is out after today, and I seem to have missed spring.

So while this post has nothing to do with raising my omnivorous child, I wanted to offer up my experience to anyone who may be weighing their options in this department.  Pain and discomfort will change anyone’s behavior.  Parenting is already a challenge, so why let pain interfere if you don’t have to?  My spine is slowly degenerating, and at the moment there is nothing anyone can do about that.  But I have been weighing the recommendations of my OB/GYN for three years now before finally acting on them.  The bizarre life-threatening side effect I experienced aside…  both of these procedures are remarkably straightforward and I would still make all the same decisions over again.  Except in hindsight, I would have skipped the ablation and gone straight to surgery.  And I should have done it a lot sooner.  Not because of any danger from the ablation, but because I never expected to feel so at ease with the decision to have the hysterectomy.  My experiences of both procedures and recovery have been vastly more comfortable and simple than the more invasive approaches many doctors were taking just a few years ago.

A few more days of rest and catching up with life are in store:  bills, cooking, writing, housekeeping, the bathroom remodel which went on amidst it all, and backing out of all the knitting mistakes my addled brain made this spring.  Many thanks to my fabulously generous neighborhood, my friends, my mom, and everyone who pitched in to help The Spouse pull off a few months single-handed.  At noon today The Child comes home from her last day of school.  I am looking forward to the little things; like Saturday date nights not spent in the ER, and a comfortable summer with a 2nd grader!

**Update 6/14/2010 :: 15 days post-surgical**

I had my first post-surgical checkin with the doctor today.  It seems I was a little cocky about my recovery.  There is nothing to worry about, mind you.  No serious complications.  The incisions keep healing, and I am still not in much pain since switching entirely to IBU from the serious pain meds last week.  But I am exhausted.  Having trouble concentrating.  More dizzy than my usual self.  But mostly just very, very tired.

I fessed up to the doctor today that last week I probably did too much.  The Child’s room was being re-carpeted, and when it was finished I spent a day and a half moving her things back in.  Shifting furniture.  Carrying books.   Then I started in on the tasks which have gone so long unattended.  Vacuuming.  Laundry.  It was really stupid.

I hit a wall where I was suddenly nauseated, felt internal pressure on the incisions, and realized I’d done far more than I ought have.

So I spent the weekend on the couch and came clean at my appointment today.    There was a definite cringe when I detailed my poor choices, and I was politely chastised for doing too much.  Apparently my ‘2-weeks and you’re feeling fine’ post was a little premature.  The doctor said that on the inside I am still healing, and 6-8 weeks for total healing is still an accurate assessment.  The exhaustion and dizziness I’d been concerned were stress or lack of exercise, are in fact totally normal.  So I was tactfully informed me to cut it out and just rest.

So more Go Fish and reading with The Child, while The Spouse enforces the refreshed edict to just chill.  Alright then… time for a nap.

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Our family talks about where our food comes from every single day.  Now that The Child is seven we have started in on the enlightened environmental sustainability speak… but when she was teeny-tiny we skipped over that and stuck to the basics.

What I mean specifically is setting down a pulled pork sandwich and announcing, “Mmm…  Pig.”  Or having a platter full of sausages become an impromptu quiz for a three-year old:

Us:    “What do beef and pork mean?”
Her:    “Cow and pig.”
Us:    “What’s in the bockwurst.”
Her:    “Baby cow.”
Us:    “Excellent!  Dig in.”

It got a lot of laughs from guests when she was wee, but it is a serious attempt to instill respect for what we are eating, how it gets to us, as well as the obvious basic identification about what it is.  I want The Child to know what she is eating and still have to try it.

This also applies to where it comes from on the animal.  Alton Brown does an excellent job of conveying this information on Good Eats in a manner even tiny kids can grasp.  Every time The Child asks for TV and I want to say no, but still desperately want to plug her in for my own sanity, I offer Good Eats off the DVR and sit down with her.  Frankly watching Alton break down a chicken using a dinosaur skeleton as a useful illustration is entertaining!  While The Child did not retain the details as a toddler, it fostered an environment for these discussions to become legitimate and regular dinner conversation.  And at a very young age, roasting a whole chicken became a lesson in anatomy, providing a launch point for discussions of dinosaurs and birds.  Adaptation and evolution.

No one should be thought too young for an anatomy lesson.  Most people purchase their meat cut and wrapped and ready to cook, and in the case of poultry, it is shrink-wrapped and presented such that it is not obvious to a little kid which end the head was on.  The Child was typically plunked in her Easy Diner as a baby, a safe distance from raw meat preparations, and became used to engaging in cooking interest even then.

Ever noticed how kids gravitate to drumsticks?  (Even big kids like drumsticks!)  Knowing a drumstick is a leg, and showing a kid how it goes together, is really just a fascinating puzzle.  But on a more basic level it reinforces that our dinner is muscle, bone, fat, and in the case of the humble chicken, the skin.  Put a dried out, boneless, skinless, chicken breast in front of a kid, and I cannot blame them for deciding they don’t like chicken anymore.  The more we learn about micro-nutrients inherent in every component of what we eat, the more important it is to leave that skin on, enjoy that wee bit of crispy fat, and discover the marrow in those bones.  Assuming appropriate portion control, the science of nutrition is indicating more and more that every little edible bit of an animal has a role to play in a truly balanced diet.  Akin to the micro-nutrients of leaving some of the bran intact on whole grains like farro or eating the peel on your apple.

Not every family is brimming with science geeks like our little threesome.  But just as food is science, food is also culture, and respect for food is foundational to respect of other cultures.  Religious food traditions are a common way of approaching food discussion with reverence.  Maybe your family likes to travel?  You don’t have to travel far to find varied food traditions.  Perhaps there are farmers, fishermen, or hunters in your extended family or social circle.  If history or literature is what excites you, bring that conversation to the table, especially about the foods they already love.  Just find comfortable, matter-of-fact ways to relate what you are eating to what it once was without “Ewww!” or “That’s gross!” being considered an appropriate reaction from anyone.

Kids cannot learn to respect their food unless they know what it is.  And frankly, that goes for adults too.  If your family has made the decision to consume animals, give your kids a little credit and be honest and straightforward about what is on their plate.  They just might surprise you.

Taking The Child (2 yrs old, orange pants) to The Oakland Zoo with friends in July 2005

When The Child was two years old we went to the brand spankin’ new Children’s Zoo at The Oakland Zoo.   The Oakland Zoo succeeds better than most zoos in teaching conservation and science while providing for the health, welfare, and habitats of their animals.  The Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo is no exception, and we were there in July 2005 when they opened.  They include farm animals amidst the exhibits there, and my two-year old sprinted up to the pig exhibit with a huge smile, sighed in awe, and said, “Mmmm… Bacon.”  Some folks within earshot cracked up.  And amidst the stress of keeping up with her that day I thought, “Okay, I’m doing something right.”

Pot-Bellied Pig at The Oakland Zoo's Children's Zoo. One man's pet is another man's food.

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When it came to successfully getting food into The Child as an infant and toddler, I benefited from nanny experience in my college years.  At 19 and feeding someone else’s kid, my priorities were very different than the exhausted thirty-something mom with my own kid.  In those years of experimenting on other people’s children, I learned a few things:

It’s best to go fast. Keep it coming and get the calories in them before they get distracted.  I’d shovel it in until the kid turned their head or waved off the incoming spoon.  Keep rags handy for the inevitable urpsies, but for the most part it will stay down.

Two choices are better than one. Once the first option was waved off, switching to another dish helped.  Getting into a rhythm and setting up subtle patterns (one of this, two of that) would catch a kid’s interest as well.

Don’t worry when it doesn’t work. Once the kid has waved off all the options, the meal is over.  Even if I had just sat down, I would get up and put it away.  Remember, at 19, I was less concerned about understanding if the little one had satisfied their hunger, if they were conveying a preference, or if it had been a simple exertion of will.  Curious, sure, but I certainly never lost sleep because someone else’s kid did not want to eat today.  I just got up and put it away, if they were hungry again they would let me know and not throw it on the floor this time.

No toys at the table. Sorry kid, but eating time is about eating.  You don’t get to draw, you don’t get to play, you don’t even get a freaking teething ring.  If you are hungry you will eat and when you are done we’ll clean you up and you can play, or chew on the teether, or have a cuddle.  Toys simply prolonged the process when my primary motive was to get lunch out of the way and be off to the park or the playroom to burn off some energy.

No playing with your food, and no you do not get the spoon. If the kid could not physically handle what I was giving them it just meant washing someone else’s kitchen floor…  again.  I was the kind of nanny the left the place far cleaner than when I arrived, but I wasn’t stupid enough to make more work for myself.  If the kid could not reliably manage utensils yet, I made finger food or I ran the spoon.

Either lower your expectations or don’t make it a big production. There are going to be special days when family is gathered round, there are paparazzi, there are fans cooing from the sidelines.  The kids wouldn’t eat as much those days.  They would melt down sooner than expected.  They would remind you there is a cost for being your performing monkey.

Basic Lifeguard and First Aid Training. ‘Annie Annie, are you okay?  Keep coughing, keep coughing.’  No matter your speed, kids are going to have near-miss choking incidents all the time.  I never walked away from the bathtub, because I knew what could happen.  And the same went for supervising infants and toddlers with their food.   My teenage first aid training always kicked in when something went down the wrong pipe, the calm keep coughing, keep coughing encouragement without hovering always seemed to reduce panic.  The basic concept is that if someone is coughing then they are breathing, so you calmly encourage coughing without commencing treatment until they cannot cough anymore.  In hindsight, reinforcing this habit helped me more than The Child – – because the first time a kid chokes for real, you are going to freak out and panic on the inside, but the reflexive habit of keep coughing, keep coughing will kick in and help the situation all around.

These are not guidelines, but rather a reflection in hindsight of why eating issues may have been less fraught for us than say sleep issues and the non-napping-child abyss we were in for years.  I never had any practice disengaging on the sleep frustrations.  I could have used someone else’s Raising a Napping Child blog back then…  but I digress.

My philosophical point here is that the kids I nannied for turned out just fine.  And in hindsight, many of the instinctive (and perhaps self-serving) judgments of my youth were reflected in the way I approached feeding The Child when she was wee, albeit with a little more context and caution. So when feeding The Child got hard, I’d attempt to channel my inner preoccupied, disengaged teenager and try again later.  At least, when my exhausted, worried brain remembered to disengage.

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Ménage À Goat

My husband served goat three ways a few months ago…  ménage à goat.  There was a sliced loin, some spicy ribs, and a little chili served on a bed of cauliflower purée.  It was our first experience cooking goat meat, and it was lovely.

Friends were visiting that evening, some old and some new.  And there – at the head of the table – was The Child.  She’s six years old.  She was not complaining about eating what was put in front of her, not pitching fits in front of the new stranger joining us, and generally being a delightful addition to the dinner party.  My little omnivore makes me proud.

We’ve eaten a lot of goat this fall.  Friends of friends with a CSA connection shared one with us, and it turns out half a goat is about 15 pounds of butchered and shrink-wrapped scrumptiousness.   But that first evening stuck with me.  It served as counterpoint to all the other picky eaters out there, grownups and kids alike.  I’ve always been aware that most kids eat differently than mine, but since we started eating goat, more people initiate the conversation.  “Wow.  Your kid eats well!!  How did you do it?”

One of the most striking things I’ve noticed is that other parents are wistful.  There is desperation out there people!!  There are parents who would give anything to have their kids cheerfully sit down to a plate of something unrecognizable, and take a bite before offering commentary.  Parents whose desperation has pushed them past caring about the eating so much as the drama and effort which now surround food in their home.  So I’ve been thinking about what choices we made that set us up for success on this one, and decided to start writing about it.

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