By Caroline Grant and Lisa Catherine Harper
We met for the first time with our kids, after a year of emailing about various writing projects, at the Children’s Playground in Golden Gate Park. The kids ran around for awhile, sliding down the tall concrete slide on old, torn pieces of cardboard and testing out the swings; when they began to circle hungrily, we settled on the grass for a picnic.
Getting out the kids’ snacks is a moment of truth for new mom friends; the potential for judgment is rife. Will she scoff at my kids’ yogurt tubes? Will she roll her eyes at my vegetable sushi? Caroline has been known to hand her vegetarian kids cold tofu dogs, straight from the package; Lisa gets through cross-country plane flights with Barnum’s Animal Crackers, and she has made more than her fair share of PB& J sandwiches.This day, things had clearly gone well for each of us as we packed to leave our houses: the children cooperated, we found good leftovers in the fridge, we had time to stop at the market. We both just happened to be at our food best, with lunches that intrigued rather than intimidated (or appalled) the other.
Caroline offered her boys sandwiches on homemade bread, plus some cheese and vegetable hand pies she’d picked up fresh from a small bakery in the neighborhood. Lisa pulled out a container of pasta with heirloom tomatoes, plus some strips of dried nori which her children nibbled on between bites of pasta. We took notice of each other’s lunches and of our kids taking a brief pause from their play to eat together, and we realized there was a book to be written here, one we could work on together, about how we feed our children and how we learned to eat, ourselves.The title was apparent.Our children were learning to eat, certainly, but we were learning right alongside them: what food meant in our families, what it had meant to us all along.
As any nursing mother will tell you, learning to eat is no simple matter.Just because breastfeeding is natural, does not mean that it’s easy.What’s more—from breast to bottle to first “solids” to real food—learning to eat is neither a straightforward nor necessarily simple path.We learn about texture and temperature, how to use a fork or chopsticks, how not to choke, how to offer appropriate table talk and not interrupt.We learn to try new things (or not).We learn about who cooks and how often, whether our food comes in neat white cartons or from the freezer or a big box store or a local farm. We learn how to forage for snacks, and over time, we accumulate a wealth of information about family habits, traditions, recipes—that plate of ribs you always have on your birthday, for instance, or Pop-Pop’s lemon cake recipe, or the leprechaun-green soda bread that appears magically on the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast table.We learn if our meals are sedate, decorous affairs, or raucous free-for-alls.We learn to eat off paper or china, standing at a counter, in a car, or sitting around a table. We understand we might be expected to light candles, clear our place, turn off (or on) the TV.
It’s never simply about what you put in your mouth.
Our four children are learning to eat, and we are learning right along with them: patience, fortitude, and creativity. Since our children are still young, all under six, meal times always present surprises. One night dinner might be a simple pasta al olio with a bowl full of raw snap peas on the table; Ben eats a couple bites of pasta, but consumes the entire half pound of snap peas, one after the other, like so many potato chips. One night, Finn will eat the peas, only to reject them wholesale the following day.Eli comes bounding into the kitchen to investigate the dinner preparations and is thrilled to see chard. “Yay!” he crows, “I love chard!” But at the table moments later, poking at his plate, his expression is mournful. He hasn’t taken a bite but still announces sadly, “I don’t like chard anymore.”Ella, a gratifyingly precocious eater since she took her first suck, still sometimes thinks that spaghetti is finger food. And she’s six.One kid eats carrots in raw sticks only: not grated nor chopped into circles, not cooked. Another eats frozen raspberries but cries if someone puts ice in his water. Most of them would prefer sugar in any form.We try hard not to expect perfection—however we’ve defined that for ourselves—but rather hope for incremental improvement in what and how they eat. Like everything else in parenting, when it comes to food, there are good days and bad.
A parent hopes to guide her children through these quirky early years of eating and into a confident adulthood, where food is a pleasure and meals a source of real sustenance.And because we love to eat, we know that the pleasures of the table are not simply biological and gustatory, but emotional too, and so we have a come to a profound understanding that how we eat is as important—politically, culturally, and socially—as what we eat.How we feed our sometimes-picky eaters is certainly about keeping them healthy and giving them pleasure, but every time we make a choice about food, we also pass on a set of values and judgments.
Caroline learned to eat in Japan, where her family was living when she was born. She moved from breast milk to canned peaches and egg yolk, and when she started nursery school carried a lunch box with PB&J, but secretly looked forward to school field trips, when lunch was provided: a bento box with a seaweed-wrapped ball of sticky rice, some pickled vegetables sliced into careful rosettes and a miniature thermos of green tea. Back in the states in the early 70s, her father dug up their suburban front yard to plant peas, tomatoes, broccoli; the influence of Japanese cooking styles and the high price of meat kept it off her family dinner table except in small portions and she wound up becoming a vegetarian in college.
As a child, Lisa was a classic monofoodist, though her mother would simply say she was the pickiest child in America.She ate PB&J on cocktail rye for a year, followed by a year of baloney on white bread.She can remember family meals before the age of ten, but none of them involved her actually enjoying the food.Soft-boiled eggs at a sit-down breakfast, with the entire family, on a weekday (a fact she marvels at now when the cereal flakes fly, juice spills, and the entire pint of berries is consumed before it reaches the table) were remarkable to her mostly for the pleasant way the empty shells cracked under her fist.Not surprisingly, she was a tiny child, but the pediatrician promised her mother that she would, eventually, begin to eat.He was right, and by the time her daughter came along, she ate pretty much everything, insects notwithstanding.
In many ways, we eat very differently. Caroline and her family are vegetarians; Lisa’s kids have been eating chicken liver pâté since they were nine months old. Caroline is a committed and excellent baker, happily married to a man who can competently put dinner on the table so that she can focus on dessert. Aside from her recently-acquired bread machine, Lisa leaves baking to her husband, Kory, who pulls out the family heritage (his great grandmother was a pastry chef in an Austrian castle) on special occasions.Caroline had the great good fortune to be nurtured by crop after crop of home-grown produce. Lisa grew up in suburban New Jersey, with summers of backyard tomato and green bean vines, and much-anticipated trips to local farm stands for fresh sweet corn and peaches, but these were the exception, not the daily rule.
Still, the ethos of how we feed our families is not so different. We’re both deeply interested in food—how it’s produced, how it’s cooked, how it gets from farm to table—and we enjoy cooking it. Because our kids are young it’s still easy to share our interests with them, so we have four children who love to stir and chop, knead and mix, read and write recipes, set the table, light candles, and generally participate in the tasks of assembling a meal.
As often as is possible, we eat our main meal of the day as a family, at a table, without the TV, toys, or other distractions.We sometimes remember candles, and good music, and the cloth napkins. Sometimes these efforts are for naught, and the food is rejected, or the decibel level gets so high, or the fork suddenly becomes a foreign implement (or a weapon), or the chore of sitting still in a chair for fifteen minutes is just too monumentally hard, and that lovely dinner becomes disastrous in every sense. But still we try, and so there are nights when a kind of grace descends on the table, and family dinner is actually fun, and the children remember to wipe their faces, clear their plates, say “Thank you.”
And they eat.
Those nights, eating is nothing short of miraculous. Those are the meals we aspire to, because at bottom, we both find eating a deeply pleasurable, social activity, a deeply human activity. Sure, we both love to eat, but we might love more the way that it connects us to each other and to the larger world: the farmers that Ella and Finn and Ben and Eli have grown up with at local greenmarkets; the natural world that provides the produce we eat; the ethical issues that are raised every time we choose to set meat on the table or not; the aesthetic lessons that the art and craft of cooking offers to our children; the basic respect and communication that the fact of the family table enjoins; the larger sense of the world that results when we offer our children sushi or phờ or egg rolls or pad Thai or Moroccan chickpea stew or good olives and prosciutto or stinky cheese or huli huli pork or Grandma Helen’s walnut strudel.
Like generations of food writers before us—Brillat-Savarin, MFK Fisher, Elizabeth David—we believe that eating is not a singular experience.We believe that learning to eat is about learning to be human in very particular ways.
So this is not a book about being a foodie, though some of our writers certainly are.And it’s not a guide to how you should feed yourself and your kids, though some of our writers think they know that, too.Nor is this a book about the apocalypse of modern American food culture.It’s a book about what food means in our families, and about just how long what we learn in our families—even if we reject those lessons daily—stays with us.
Some might argue (and in these pages some do) that America has no indigenous food culture.We might counter that we have many food cultures, and that American food culture is alive and thriving and as diverse as the groups that live here. This doesn’t mean that all our food cultures are healthy or desirable, of course—our writers testify to this, as well.But it does mean that it’s imperative for us to consider the ways that food becomes a vital, necessary part of our lives and our larger social fabric.
And this, finally, is the aim of our book: to move the debate about our national food life beyond the rapidly-emptying mantra of “local, sustainable, organic, real food” (which is admittedly second nature to us) in order to get people talking about why food matters, and how it matters, and what the big deal is anyway.Food has always been about sustaining the body, and we hear increasingly vocal reminders that it is also, of course, about sustaining the environment and ethical farming practices. But we don’t want to lose sight of the fact that food is equally about pleasure and graciousness and openness. The modern American table has become a fraught space.Amidst all the talk of diabetes and obesity, salmonella and pesticides, migrant workers and shipping costs, we want to consider what brought us to the table in the first place, and all the ways in which our hunger was and was not satisfied.