Food Writing/ Reflections

On eating variety, finding comfort, and enjoying the magic of food with kids

This isn’t an advice column. There will be no sage words on how to feed your kids – lots of those types of pieces exist already. There’s really no secret to feeding kids: one day they might like something, the next they refuse to eat it. I have no answers and neither do most of the parents I know. We’re all just out here trying our best to feel our way in the dark without stumbling too many times.

But, a recent Food 52 article by Amanda Hesser got me thinking, broadly, about how I cook for my kids. The author argues that home cooking and the ways in which food becomes an anchor in a family’s life is through simplicity and repetition. She tells the story of how when her kids were asked what their favorite meal was, they replied “Daddy’s pasta,” a simple dish that paled in comparison to the experimental and varied cuisine she cooked for them. And, in a way, this resonates with my experience as a child and as a parent. The meals that I remember from childhood were cooked often and were simple meals that we grew to love and request. It was things like chili, beef stroganoff, and shepherd’s pie that became my comfort foods.  And, similarly, if you were to ask my children what their favorite home cooked meals are, they would most likely choose homemade pancakes or pan pizzas or one of another relatively simple meals we make.

But the way that I cook at home is very diverse, infrequently repeating, and spans the globe in flavors. Hesser writes that this variety leaves kids devoid of emotional connections to food, as well as a comforting and secure home environment. That’s a heavy charge to levy against a parent. Am I depriving my kids of comfort, stability and emotional connections to food by cooking something different each night?

Beef shawarma dinner

This perspective is (obviously, to me) missing something. How I think about cooking for my children is more akin to the picture painted of the cookbook author Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, in the terrific long read by Mayukh Sen. Smart-Grosvenor’s daughter fondly remembers her mother’s home cooking as a ‘beautiful surprise’ where “you would never really know what country you were going to go through in that day until you sat down for dinner.” This was part of her mother’s philosophy, in cooking and in life, of ‘thinking globally’ but having ‘a local address’: “Cooking was her way of roaming the world.”

In this, she saw food as community, food as a tool for mediation and reconciliation, food as a way of creating global citizens, food as a way of understanding the ways in which we all engage with and live in the world and with one another. And, while that’s a lot to ask of food, it’s a beautiful vision.

Did her daughter feel that she was missing out on the emotional connections or that food was no longer part of the comfort or stability of the home? It doesn’t seem that way; as her daughter remembers the comfort of her mother’s cooking, “Food was part of the magic of the day.” The magic of the day.

Food can be magic, both in its ability to comfort but also in its ability to open our mind and our senses to new ways of being in the world. To new possibilities, new places, new ways of living life. Food and the pleasure we derive from it doesn’t have to be limited to simplicity or ritual. Food, both the eating and cooking of it, can be part of the magic of everyday life, the shared excitement about what that night’s meal is can open a door to wonder, curiosity, and the joy of learning something new together. The comfort is in the shared experiences, the relationships formed through discovering the magic together. New, diverse food can indeed be comforting, especially when shared with the ones we love. The reminder here, I guess, is that it’s not so much about the food itself but those who you share it with. Be it simple, complex, diverse, repetitive: the joy is on the ways food is shared, the ways it bonds moments and people together.

Egyptian koshari and shish taouk

This call back to ‘simplicity’ in cooking is not unique; it joins a bevy of other recent writing in a trend that believes what we need is to go ‘back to the basics’ in the face of increasingly complex food trends. Whether it’s championing “big, ugly pans of lasagna” or creating ‘real food’ to counter the “performative” nature of cooking on social media, or even many aspects of the ‘eat local’ movement, the idea is the same and it, not coincidentally, comes at a time when we are seeing an increase in visibility for diverse, global cuisines and cooks. As social media allows global food perspectives to flourish, as food writing and critics expand their definitions and broaden the table to include more diverse voices, we should be critical of those who work to ‘take us back’ to a certain idea, time or place where this diversity and change is not celebrated.

This call to ‘the basics’ often forgets that ‘the basics’ are also part of continuum and have always been changing. It also forgets that ‘the basics’ are different for different people in different locations. The “big, ugly pans of lasagna” (and Italian cooking, in general) are a prime example of how what would have once been considered “exotic” or global in the Americas came to become part of the fabric – ‘the basics’ – of American cuisine. I remember that my grandfather certainly thought pasta was a very exotic dish!

Food is a wondrous world of flavors, techniques, and textures; it is a world of creativity and possibility. That is a world which I want my children to inhabit, a world that I want them to know exists. I can’t force them to choose the wonders of diverse food or to prefer pozole over pizza but I can do my best to make sure they know that it is an option that exists. I get to share the joy of creating food with them, of learning about food with them, and of eating food with them. This provides its own comfort as my daughter walks up the stairs to the smell of freshly baking bread and exclaims how good it smells. I remember that warm, comforting feeling of freshly baked bread in my mother’s kitchen but instead of the perfect white loaves my mother used to make us, what I am baking is fresh pitas.

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