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Mom’s in the Kitchen

Sharing a love of food with children—and hoping to find the right emotional recipe

By Laura Leon

 

‘Food begins with mother,” Edna O’Brien wrote, and I can’t help but think of that statement every time I feed my baby something new and he responds with an enthusiastic “mmmmm.” I respond with equal enthusiasm: “Good baby!” or “Look, honey, he loves Indian food!” or what have you. I think about this, with guilt, when I remember the various eating problems I’ve had with my second son, who, perhaps due to an infancy plagued by multiple ear infections and resulting antibiotic treatment, would only eat white food until the age of 3, when I enforced the family rule of having to take at least one bite of whatever is on the menu that night. And now, I find the bits of broccoli and cherry tomatoes that he’s secreted behind the radiator, thinking he’s faked me out with the fiction that he’s eaten them.

And I think about it when, praising the baby’s taste for fruits and vegetables—something we haven’t seen since our oldest was a baby, back in 1995—my 4-year-old looks perturbed. This is, after all, the kid who will shriek when presented with a strawberry, to the point that the neighbors must think I’m asking him to eat cockroach for breakfast, or perhaps pulling out his toenails with tweezers.

When raising children, it’s often impossible to separate their individual traits and tastes and dislikes with some failing on your own part. With me, so much of what matters has always been about food, and so it’s not surprising that I constantly wonder how my own relationship with food has colored my children’s. Confession: As a small child, I sometimes hid bits of hamburger or pork in a desk drawer. Obviously, it didn’t take long for my mother to uncover the smelly evidence, and when she’d confront me about it, I’d stupidly lay the blame on my dad—the same guy who, in the name of economy, uncomplainingly ate everybody else’s leftovers for 50 years. This only happened maybe three times, and the memory of it still makes me blush with embarrassment, but when confronting my 9-year-old’s hoarding and hiding, I wonder, am I to blame for this?

But more than that, I wonder if my kids, knowing that I am such a foodie, try to forge a certain relationship with me based on that. Granted, each of them enjoys working with me in the kitchen, baking cookies or coffee cakes or making dinner. Inevitably, when they have friends over, I’m in the kitchen whipping up some special treat, and they relish the fact that their mom knows her way around the kitchen. Dinners at our house are special times in which everybody sits down together, five or six times a week, to a home-cooked meal, and I take special note of the dishes that draw their praise in order to remember to make them again. That said, there are dinners that are ruined by the lukewarm response, complaints about the presence or size of the diced onions or the lack of a meat protein, or—which is most often the case—an underlying resentment, a lingering issue, or blatant anger at a decision I’ve made. If anything, my kids know that the way to get back at the Mommy who denies their request for Game Boy time or won’t let them Rollerblade in the house is to diss her dinner.

Again, food begins with mother. I can see my own mother letting a perfectly good mealtime go to waste because one person confessed to not particularly liking leeks. How stupid. I know this, intuitively and practically, and yet, sometimes, I fall prey to it. That said, there were also times when my mother would let toddler me happily rearrange by food group and alphabet the rows of cans in her lazy Susan, or take out each and every pot and pan just to feel their weight and veneer. My earliest memories involve perusing her many cookbooks, my fascination with the actual recipes and menu plans equaled by my fascination with the graphics, the illustrations, the bits of papers listing Mom’s grocery lists or clipped recipes from other sources, the notations made by mother to make a recipe better or more cohesive, and, above all, imagining how I would make this or that meal especially memorable.

By the time I was 8 or 9, my mother would let me take out all of her cookbooks, conjure up a special menu, and set a special dining-room table, using whatever she had in the dish cupboard, on the pretense that my guests would be eating that which I had planned. I’d scribble “coq au vin” or “lobster roll” on scraps of paper, and place them in the dish that I thought was appropriate, and prepare an entire table, complete with appropriate dishes, napiery, tablecloth, flowers from our gardens, and a seating plan and menu. This would keep me occupied for hours. Once “finished,” I would sit at the head of the table and lean back in my chair, breathing an appreciative sigh about yet another meal that went astonishingly well.

Looking back, I think my mother suppressed her fear that I’d crack Grandma’s oyster bowl because this activity kept me satisfactorily occupied for several hours. This and, of course, the fact that I put everything back in its proper place. Some tendencies are innate.

Nowadays, cooking is at once a necessity, a pleasure, a reward, and a rare creative outlet. And usually, it’s done with one or more of my four sons afoot. The youngest, 15 months old, is particularly enraptured of the whole process, refusing to let me put him down while I cut and dice and saute and simmer. Like me, 40 years ago, he loves perusing the shelves of my pantry, or touching the various textures secreted in the open refrigerator. He carefully takes each item out of my own lazy Susan, particularly liking the huge metal colander, which he lovingly hands over to me, like a young acolyte at a church communion service.

Unlike my mother, his mother lets him hang onto her hip and shoulder while she gets dinner ready. With my third son, I got the hang of doing things, including shelling shrimp, one-handed, so it’s standard nature now. He particularly likes to help push the pulse button on the food processor, so much so that the mere fact of taking a piece of that appliance out of the dishwasher sends him into a panic, fearful that I might be trying to sneak the use of it without his involvement. As I stir or mix, he purses his lips and makes smacking noises until I let him have a taste of what’s cooking, whereupon he murmurs an appreciative “mmmmm,” his face crinkling with delight. From what I’ve observed, with him, it’s as much the various tastes as it is the actual process of cooking, of helping to prepare a daily family rite.

I am in love with the fact that this particular child is already so invested in something that I love so much, and yet, again, I’m worried that my pleasure in his involvement somehow makes the other children feel, well, less adequate. To quote O’Brien again, “Food was pleasure, food was reward, and food was substitute for something other, possibly love.” In my own relationship with food and cooking, equal parts necessary caretaking and creative musing, I wonder about the possibility that such will prove the breeding ground for all manner of childhood emotion. My children know that I love to cook, that I love to try new foods and to prepare them for others, to introduce them to the pleasures of taste and texture. Many times, they share the indulgence. But I realize that, like countless others before me, I use food to reward, to show my absolute love and to bestow happiness, as when I make the family a favorite chocolate cake for dessert or from-scratch popovers for dinner.

Children are complex beings, and again, it’s difficult to separate their individual psyches from one’s own assets and downfalls. When a profound love of food and dining comes into the mix, it’s easy to see real or imagined conflicts thrown into the already volatile mix of growing up, of giving one’s offspring those “wings and roots.” Usually, it comes out all right at the end of the day, as when the kids come home, hopeful that there’s some remnant left of this morning’s coffee cake, or when they happily respond to my announcement that we’re having chili for dinner. That recognition of something inherently good, that they know their mom made for them, and that they so eagerly return to, somehow preserves for me the idea that, while food may not absolutely equate with love, it can be proof that a connection exists.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

The further we get from 1609, when Henry Hudson hit Albany, the better the deal for Albany Restaurant Week. This year’s event, sponsored by the Downtown Albany Business Improvement District, takes place April 9 through 14, and gets you a three-course meal for $16.09 at participating eateries: Albany Pump Station, Amo La Bella, Bayou Café, Café Capriccio, Franklin’s Tower, Hudson Harbor Steak and Seafood, Jack’s Oyster House, Kelsey’s Irish Pub at the Crowne Plaza, La Serre, the Mansion Hill Inn, McGeary’s, Nicole’s Bistro, Pagliacci Ristorante, Pearl Restaurant, Savannah’s, The Comedy Works, V & R Restaurant, Victory Café and Webster’s Corner at the Crowne Plaza. Reservations are a good idea: Call the individual restaurants. . . . Sample the wide range of dining offered at the resort’s many venues during the Taste of Turning Stone, noon to 8 PM on April 14, in the resort’s Event Center (Turning Stone Resort and Casino. 5218 Patrick Road, Verona). Along with cooking demonstrations, food booths, ice carvings, gift baskets and more, there will be a 2:30 PM Celebrity Chef Cooking Show featuring Lidia Bastianich, who hosts her own PBS show, Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen, runs five acclaimed restaurants and has written three cookbooks. Admission is free; guests can buy tickets to sample the food. For more info, call (800) 771-7711. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food at banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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