Monday, June 29, 2009

Money Soup

When I was about 7 years old I had a chameleon named "Jerry." He died and I got another chameleon, and named him - you guessed it - Jerry. It occurred to me one day that I would like nothing more than to have a little tea party with my reptile friend. I'm not sure where I conjured this image from, maybe a greeting card, but it was a watercolour picture of a little girl and a white tea pot and a lovely little lizard sitting daintily on a leaf and they were all enjoying a wonderful, magical afternoon together. That's what I was shooting for when I took Jerry from his little terrarium and placed him on top of a large house plant next to the coffee table. I quickly learned two things about chameleons (1) they change colour (2) they do not sit daintily on the edge of leaves; they run mad-mad fast. That was the end of the line of Jerrys.

This is a bit of lifelong pattern for me. I imagine clear, lovely images in my mind of how a thing ought to be and then seek to reproduce it in real life, ignoring - say- the laws of physics or biology or just basic common sense.

This is why I taught my two-year-old to push a kitchen chair from the table to the counter and stand on it while I cook dinner. I had a picture. A really nice picture of a cute little boy in a white apron (do we even own an apron?! Yes, it's black and it says "Kitchen Macgyver") gently stirring a wooden spoon around a big ceramic bowl while watching his mother - with awe and wonder - create a delicious home cooked dinner. Amidst lemons and fresh herbs, he would soak in the warmth of maternal love and the smell of garlic sizzling in a pan and would one day tell his children about these treasured, blissful moments (insert sound of record screeching)...

Okay, have you met my kid? There are SO many things wrong with this picture that I don't even know where to start. Oh, I about garlic sizzling in a hot pan spitting hot oil all over both of us. My son throws the wooden spoon against the wall and reaches deftly for the chopping knife, spilling the fresh herbs all over the dirty, dog-hairy floor. He then proceeds to throw a cataclysmic tantrum until I let him suck on the lemon which he mashes in his mouth and then spits back into the ceramic mixing bowl filled with whatever else we were supposed to be eating for dinner. It usually goes something like that. Not exactly the Norman-Rockwell-meets-Food-Network thing I was going for.

I have kicked myself for introducing this little ritual a thousand times. Why can't we go back to him sitting dumbified in front of the tv while I sip a nice glass of wine and quietly destroy my own kitchen in my own way (I'm a really sloppy cook and believe me, I don't need a toddler's help to spill shit on the floor).

But tonight, I must say, we lived the dream. Well, sortof. Okay, so it was after dinner and I wasn't actually trying to cook anything, granted that makes a huge difference. I was doing the clean up, putting things away, rinsing a few dishes, and trying to keep Loki entertained while Herb put the baby down to sleep. As always, Loki pulled his chair up to the counter and began reaching for the most dangerous and/or expensive things in sight - Herb's puffer, the cell phone, my iTouch. I swept each beyond his grasp in turn and then he started playing with a pile of change Herb had dumped on the counter (don't get me started with this habit). I had to stop myself from stopping him. Here's the little internal dialogue that took place in my brain:

"Don't...stop...don't...put it down."

"Wait. It's just change. It can't hurt him."

"It's dirty and he could choke"

"So just don't let him put it in his mouth. He'll be fine."
"Right. Good luck with that lady."

"Stop being such a killjoy. It's just some quarters and pennies. He's having fun."

"Fine. But don't say I didn't warn you."

Then, this is what I said out loud as Loki caught the corner of my eye and dangled a shiny copper penny just inside his parted lips, "NO NO NO NO NO. Not in your mouth. Here." And I dumped all the change into a big wooden salad bowl and handed him a big wooden spoon (there's the spoon I've been dreaming of...I knew it existed!). "We're making money soup." Just like that, I invented the best game ever. He would yell out "ingredients" and I would get them out of their respective spots, prepare them and dump them in the bowl for him to stir. In case you're wondering, here is how you make Loki's money soup:

Start with a handful of change and add:

1 carrot, chopped

1 slice of hot pizza, cut up

2 crocodiles (wrestle them, throw them on the table, chop them up)

2 "baby-lion" fish (a rare, rare breed that can only be found in our kitchen sink)

3 big scoops of icecream

It's very similar to stone soup except with wild animals and money.

So I accidentally became a really fantastic parent for about 10 minutes, the kind you read about in Dr. Sears books (specifically, like Martha Sears, who I am fairly certain floats around with an umbrella breastfeeding a four-year-old in one arm while leading her houseful of deeply bonded children in a round of the goat-herder song with the other).

In his book, "The Happiest Toddler on the Block," Harvey Karp basically explains that the key to raising kids of this age is a steady mixture of reverse psychology and the ability to turn every task into a romping, gleeful new game. "Let's race to see who can put on their shoes faster?! I bet I can beat you! Look I'm wearing your shoes on my head, is that where they go? Look I'm eating your shoes?! Isn't mommy so silly! I bet you can't put your shoes on if I eat them!" etc. etc....You must be endlessly creative, upbeat, patient, and intuitive. He's right, of course, but that's like saying - look, you want a perfect body, just eat 1500 calories a day and work out 6 days a week. No problem. Oh, except I have other things to do than spend 30 minutes trying to convince Loki that putting your shoes on is fun. It's not fun; it's just one of those things you have to do in life. Put on your shoes. Now.

That being said, it is really amazing when you can squash that voice - the NO NO NO voice - and just go with it and let it be silly or messy or probably not really the best idea. Like saying, what-the-hey, you want to jump in the bathtub with your clothes on? So they get wet...who cares. You want to throw all the couch cushions on the floor and jump on them...well, yeah, that looks like a lot of fun. Run around naked in the backyard and pee on the rosebushes, sure, go wild. That's sortof what the kitchen counter is about...I know it makes cooking dinner harder and messier and I know that it is probably a bad idea to let my child within arms reach of burning elements, but it opens the door for thing like money soup. And that's the good stuff, worth it's weight in gold.

Tonight's Dinner:
Poached Salmon with lemon-dill mayo sauce
Mushroom & Chevre pie (from Max's, not my own, as if there is a "my own" with this sort of thing)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Waste Not, Have Waste

I'm not sure if it is because the garbage people went on strike this week, or if that's just an unfortunate coincidence, but I am dying to throw everything away. Everything in the cupbords, everything in the fridge, I just want to clear it all out and start over.
We live in a culture of waste and I know this because I am a Class-A-1 waster. Believe me, I'm not proud of this fact, and I do actively try to curb it, but it is deeply a part of my nature and I'm not sure why (wait, culture...right, I'm blaming our culture). I hate the last bit of anything: the crumbled up flakes at the bottom of the cereal bag, the crystalline layer of icecream at the bottom of the carton, the single pickle floating like a specimen inside a jar of murky juice. I'd rather throw it out than eat it.

Part of it, I think, is a fear of eating something gone bad. I'm not sure where this fear comes from...I've never had a serious case of food poisoning and aside from a mouthful of sour milk here and there over the course of my life, I've never encountered truly rank food. Also, I realize that my definition of "bad" doesn't necessarily jive with other people's. Take moldy what point is it really moldy? One spot, an entire crust edge, or full-green fuzz-front-to-back? Some people (Herb) are content to cut off a bit of mold (it's just a little penicillin! Won't hurt ya!) and pop the slice into the toaster - no harm, now foul. No, foul. If there's the vague idea of mold on one piece of bread in the package, I take it as a sign that it's been around too long and out it all goes. I'm a bit more lenient with fruit...I will pick out the moldy berries and keep the clean ones, I'll cut a yucky bruise out of an apple, but honestly, I don't like to.

Just a minute ago, I threw away what might have been a perfectly good package of chicken thighs, after thawing them overnight in the fridge because when I sniffed really really close, they smelled weird. Or maybe they just smelled like raw chicken. I'm not sure, but they've been in the freezer since January and I just don't know, so out they went.

The truth is, I have no idea how to deal with frozen food in general and I have an illogical repulsion of it. I keep trying to get over it (hence the package of frozen chicken thighs) but I can't. Here's a horrifying confession:

Just before I went back to work fulltime, when Loki was a little over a year old, I went and did that Supper Solved thing where you make all these great meals all at once and then freeze them and you have dinner for the month. It's brilliant...really it is. The meals are tasty and healthy and I fully endorse this concept as a fabulous solution for working families who still want to eat a homecooked meal together every night. I went with the best intentions. And it worked for a little while. But then, you know, I'd forget to thaw it the night before or it would take too long in the oven. Really though, I stopped wanting to make them because I stopped wanting to eat them. Frozen food looks gross, like a dead thing. And it feels gross, like a brick. It doesn't have a scent, which makes me not trust it.

So they sat, these meals (lots of them), in my freezer for months and months and months and finally, just before Nate was born - in my hormone-induced nesting frenzy - I decided that they had to leave; I could not go on another day with them in my freezer.

But I didn't throw them away. No. I didn't. I have a friend, who has a friend, who will eat anything. A single guy who lives alone and works long late hours...the kind who will eat whatever is in the take-out container in the back of the fridge and then ask "I wonder if this is left-over lasagna or curry? Oh well." So, since it was the height of winter, I piled all these wonderful meals into a bag and left them on my front steps and this guy happily swooped them up. "Free food - you guys rock!" Well, he did me a much bigger favour than I did him.

Shame, oh the shame (and guilty relief) at throwing away tubs of leftover noodles, vines full of shrivelled grapes, potatoes building their own ecosystem in the cabinet under the counter. I try to avoid the inevitable by cooking proper portions, buying things in smaller sizes that I know we can finish (like the farmer's loaf of bread - perfect for 4 days!) It means going to market every day or other day for dinner items, but that's something I enjoy. Unfortunately, it is probably an unsustainable lifestyle. Once my mat leave is up and I'm back at work, we'll have to figure out something else. We'll have to figure out a whole mess of something elses, but that's another post.

For now, I eat and cook the way I like best - with fresh ingredients bought today or yesterday or maybe, possibly, the day before. And I am deeply grateful and appreciative that I have this luxury. I realize that it is an unusually privileged life that allows me even to consider the option of throwing food away. I know I am giving into my worst self when I do. Which is why I ate two-thirds of a cup of stale Oatmeal Crisp cereal for breakfast this morning. But now, I have to go buy fresh chicken thighs for dinner. Afterall, my whole family dying of salmonella won't really make the world a better place either.

Tonight's Dinner:

- "Sticky Chicken" - from Annabell's Fussy Eaters book, so far the recipes have been a hit

- Corn on the cob

- Caesar Salad

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Fussy Wussy Was An Eater

While shopping for puppets today (honestly, who doesn't want to start a story that way) I picked up a tidy little cookbook entitled "The Fussy Eaters' Recipe Book: 135 Quick, Tasty, and Healthy Recipes that Your Kids will Actually Eat."

Things I noticed about this book within the first few seconds of flipping through it:

It is by Annabel Karmel - mommy chef guru, who has written like a trizillion kids cooking books, and is apparently the "leading author on cooking for children" according to her About The Author bio . She advocates using cookie cutters to shape carrot rounds into little hearts and stars to make them more appealing (I read this in her "finger foods for toddlers" book) and I've never been able to figure out (a) where to find cookie cutters small enough, or carrots large enough, for that to work and (b) if you'd have to steam the carrot rounds first or just press down really hard, that is, if you could get clause (a) worked out.

More about Annable Karmel that I learned today: she lost her first child at 3 months to a rare viral disease, she is British, she looks a great deal like a character on Dynasty and not at all like she spends most of her time thinking about what to cook for children (which clearly she does, as she has made her career out of it). I don't know what I would expect her to look like - maybe a bit more pea puree and a little less Salon Selective ad? But I guess if you can have perfectly set hair and whip up a plate full of homemade pasta, shaped like zoo animals - power to you.

Eaters' is Plural: In other words, you may be dealing with more than one "fussy eater" and this book is prepared for that fact. I like when people think about punctuation.

Food Porn a Plenty: It is filled with gratuitous and beautiful photographs of food, delightfully presented on precious kiddie plates with polka dot napkins and funky cutlery playfully askew. There are no spills, stains, sticky spots, dirty socks, junk mail or purple crayon scribbles surrounding any item of food anywhere in this book, which is how I know for sure that not a single shot was taken in my kitchen.

Recipes For Foods I would Eat: Things like "sizzling asian shrimp;" "pasta with tomato and marscapone sauce;" "mini corn fritters." Yes, I'll have one of each, thank you.

Recipes Herb would not object to: In principle, anyway. Lasagna recipes and sweet sauces aside, there are a few Herb-friendly ones like mini meat loaves, lamb koftas, pork and peanut noodles...also, I think he'd be into Annabel's hair (it's big and blond and kindof 80s looking).

Prep & Cook times in the 10 - 20 Minute Range: This is assuming that you have all the ingredients in the recipe, know where your husband hid the grater and what your 2 year old did with the whip after blessing the couch with it a few thousand times. Also, that your 2 year old is not "helping" you cook this meal and that you have use of both of your arms. Re-calculating: Prep & cook times in the 15 - 35 minute range. Good enough.

So I bought it. Of course I did. Did I mention the food porn? And Annabel's awesome hair?

I think I'll use it, really, I will. But here's the thing. I kindof have an issue with this label, "The Fussy Eater."

It really bugs me when I hear parents brag about how their kid will eat anything, as if that's an accomplishment. First, it makes me wonder what kind of range we are talking about with this "anything" business. Like really, anything? Boiled cabbage? Cow's brains? Lamb hearts? Have you tried that or do you just mean Little Johnny will eat pizza with pepperoni or without it (what a champ). Secondly, what you're basically saying is that your child has no preferences; no taste. It's all the same to her. Well, that's something you should really be trying to fix, not celebrate.

What does "fussy" mean anyway? Doesn't it mean particular, choosey (i.e. conscious). Don't we want our kids to think about what they put in their mouths and not just stuff it all down? Isn't it also having a sense of self-knowledge and the ability to impose this "me"-ness on the outside world. This is what I like. This is what I don't like. Could it be that choosing what to eat could be as empowering for a small child as choosing what to wear or what to play with. Isn't being fussy a little bit like being passionate? (Do I sound annoyingly like Sarah Jessica Parker when I write one pointedly rhetorical question after another? Sorry.)

Now, I'm not suggesting that we should all constantly cater to our toddler's eating whims (that's when you end up with croutons for dinner, honey). Certainly, as parents our job is to present a healthy variety, guide good choices, challenge our kids and help them develop their tastes. But to expect your child - or anyone - to like and to eat everything you put in front of them is insane. I don't like (or necessarily eat) everything I make and I'm the one who chose to cook it!

I feel like recognizing your child's tastes is part of discovering who they are. Loki likes garlic and salt. He prefers popsicles to icecream (why?!) and broccoli to carrots. He likes matzoh balls and spring rolls and does not like tomato sauce. He can eat his weight in fruit - just about any fruit except bananas, until just recently, when he suddenly started to like them (why?!). He is sensitive to hot food and prefers everything basically e coli-warm. He likes to eat "big" things (like a whole ear of corn) until he decides that it's too much work, and then he wants it cut up really small. Any or all of these statements may change tomorrow. And that's not fussy, that's just Loki figuring out who he is.

Tonight's Dinner:

- Orange Chicken (it's more tangy than sweet - that's what I tell Herb)

- Broccoli

- Steamed Rice

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Lump This, Stupid Fishmonger

My excuse is we cooked all weekend. That's why Loki ate a banana and croutons for dinner and we're ordering sushi.

Before you go ahead and call child protective services, I actually made Loki wholewheat pasta shells and cheese with steamed carrots. What he ate was a banana (me) and a handful of croutons (Herb). In Herb's words "what's the difference between croutons and a piece of toast?" I invite you - no, I implore you- to respond to this challenge. Why is it a bad idea to give your hungry two-year-old a box of croutons for dinner? Anyone? Maybe he'll listen to you; my opinion is fairly useless.

As I was saying, we cooked all weekend - it being that kind of weekend. My mom was up for a visit so I took the opportunity on Friday night to breakout some real homestyle Baltimore cuisine. Ahhhhh, the crabcake.

Now, if you're from Baltimore, if you grew up there eating Baltimore crabcakes at say CJs Crabhouse, the dish is pretty much ruined for you. What I mean is, you just can't order them anywhere else. Every once and a while the "crabcake" or some variant-there-of appears on a Toronto menu but it's always a bizarre bastardization. Apple & fennel crab-style cake; crab and corn fritter on spring greens; organic broiled crab mash with rosemary aioli...what is this bullshit? There is one way - one way only - to make a crabcake otherwise you might as well take a fist full of sawdust, dunk it in a dirty aquarium and call it a meal.

Oh, but just tell that to the smart-faced old Ukrainian at our local fishmonger's who tried to sell me clawmeat.

"Vhat are you try-eng to make vith zat?" he said when I pointed to the reasonably (and fairly) expensive can of lump.


"Zats not vat you vant. Trust me. You vant zis. Much cheaper. But, hei, you are ze boss."

That's right, I am the boss. I am the goddess of crabcakes, old man, so back off. It's not like I was asking for a pound of primerib to boil for beefstew. Whatelse is lump crabmeat good for if not crabcakes? But how could he know. I've bought the "prepared" crabcakes they pawn off at their shop. You know what they taste like? A handful of sawdust dunked in a dirty aquarium.

I realize it's not always the case that one's beloved hometown food is superiour to other variants or is even good at all. Take another Baltimore favourite, the snowball. Now, I've tried - really tried - to get a few outsiders on the side of the 'ball, but everyone pretty much agrees, it's kindof a gross version of the snowcone. Now snowcones usually come in two flavours: red or blue (right, I know, those are colours, but in the world of sugar syrup, colour = flavour). Now the snowball, on the otherhand, comes in brilliant, creative flavours like "egg custard," or "skylite" or "tuttifrutti." These are flavours with meaning, with history. And, the snowball includes the option of marshmallow topping. Why would you want to take a 15 ounce soda-cup filled with crushed ice and sickly-sweet syrup and top it off with a big gooey heap of marshmallow? Why wouldn't you, I say. In fact, here is the expert way to order a snowball - if you happen to be passing through the Baltimore region this summer:

"I will have a medium chocolate (small= too much syrup, not enough ice; large = too much ice, not enough syrup) with marshmallow (obviously) in the middle and on top." If you just put the marshmallow on the top, you will inevitably eat it all off and the rest of the snowball is nothing but ice and flavouring - who wants that?! You need to hide a bit of marshmallow in the middle, really, to save yourself from yourself.

Ok. Truth be told, I can take about two bites of a chocolate & marshmallow snowball before wanting to hurl. But man, when I was 8, I could eat like 12 of them without blinking. My dad can still polish one off pretty impressively, but he's had many more years of practice and I've spent too many summers now away from home. Nostalgia is a dish best served cold. (It's just like watching Night Court...I'm sure you know what I mean).

There's no point trying to re-create the snowball here in Toronto, or really beyond a 20-mile radius of Reisterstown Road. It loses something out of context. But the crabcake is different. Look, Bloor West Ukrainian Fishmonger, this dish has been perfected by the hands of poor, easternshore crabpickers and passed on generation after generation, coffee-stained diner menu after diner menu. So even though your people probably ran through my people's shtetl with burning clubs and pig's blood oh so many years ago, I'm gonna tell you how it's done:

Lump crabmeat (honestly, lump it or leave it)
Mustard (dry or wet, doesn't matter)
Old Bay Seasoning (Chesapeake, that is)
An egg
Maybe some salt and pepper
Only the smallest palmful of flour or breadcrumbs or bread soaked in milk
Mix (gently now, Petro, don't break up those precious lumps). Fridge. Mold. Broil/Fry.

Sure, you can add wasabi paste or green apple shavings or any other fancy-shmancy ingredient you want; you can make it with clawmeat or immitation crab or crab-flavoured tofu, but I repeat: sawdust, poopy-green aquarium, eat-it-up. You're wasting your time. Not that I'm some kindof culinary expert. Afterall, my kid ate a banana and croutons for dinner. So what do I know.

Tonight's Dinner:

Loki: 1 banana; approximately 8 croutons

Herb & Jessie: Edamame, Agadashi Tofu (Jessie), Dragon Roll, Spider Roll, BC Roll, Mixed sashimi (no surf clam, no octopus, substitute butterfish).

For Your Reading Pleasure:

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Woman Who Eats her Young

Tonight I ordered pizza. Maybe it's hormonal.

There are moments when I want to just absorb my children...literally suck them into me. I am sitting here and looking at 2 pairs of tiny sneakers, tongues wagging out, Velcro straps sticking up like antennae. They are lined up infront of the glass backdoor after being scrubbed inside and out, waiting to be put away. They are Loki's and now they are too small. Children outgrow things. They outgrow shoes and clothes and toys. They outgrow secret words and comforts. You have your children only to lose them over and over again for the rest of their lives.

Like I said, tonight I ordered pizza.

Becca was back today. Nate took 3 1/2 bottles. Dinner arrived in a box. Perhaps I am becoming outgrown.

This is a silly sadness given that, by definition, my children are still babies, still fully dependent mostly on me for mostly everything. And if I resent that, and there are moments - short, real moments when I do - than I also must admit that this dependence has come to shape who I am as an adult person moreso than anything else.

Maybe that has always been true for every parent. But my generation is a little odd. Most the women I know became full-fledged adults before they had babies. They romped and roamed and filed taxes and established careers and then, just when it was getting close to "too late" they signed up for prenatal pilates, registered at Pottery Barn Kids, and settled into the business of raising families with the same gusto they applied to their post-docs and MBAs.

I realize this has as much to do with where I live and my socio-economic class as it does with anything else. I mean, by no stretch am I singing "Papa Don't Preach" in the shower and wondering what style prom dress will best hide my postnatal belly flab.

*(Funny aside: Nate was a bit of a surprise. I found out I was pregnant while visiting my parents' house with Loki last spring. I snuck out to the RiteAid to take the peestick test and after 5 bewildering double-line results, still not believing it, I drove home, walked into the family room and said - I think I might be pregnant. How could you let this happen? my mom cried. And for a moment we all forgot that I was married, had a house, a stable income, oh-yeah, and was already a mother. I was sixteen and had just screwed up my whole future. Oh wait, my mom blinked, this is actually pretty exciting. Someone remember to tell Nate that story when he's fifteen. I'm sure he'll be thrilled).
There's no question, I had my children the "mature and responsible" way. But as a person, I was (am?) still pretty gooey. Gooey. You know, like that neon-coloured slime inside the plastic eggshells that you could get from the grocery store vending machine for 75 cents. I'd been thrown against a few walls, picked up some pocket lint, stamped with lots of news print but I was still trying on shapes, pouring myself into molds, trying to figure out what I was made out of.

Becoming a mom really expedites that process, mostly because there are so many ready-made patterns available and you're more or less expected to fall into one of them. You are the stroller mom, the lululemon mom, the winnie-the-poo-in-sweatpants mom, the mom who buys expensive organic babyfood, the mom who makes organic babyfood from scratch, the mom who feeds her baby pop in a bottle, the fitness class mom, the yoga mom, the drop-in centre mom, the mom who watches Oprah and distractedly rocks a cradle, the professional mom, the stay at home mom, the momtrepreneur, the mom who lunches, the mom who drinks... I could go on. I won't. (you're welcome).

I'm sorry, what does this have to do with me wanting to eat my children? The thing is they are my world and with that does come the identity-imposing trappings of what non-parents might call "the club." The cliche-momlit-bullshit of getting spitup in your hair and worrying about whether apple juice has too much sugar in it. But for me it's something else too - like we are all growing up together. Like as I figure out who they are, I am figuring out who I am too. So when they feel far away or out of reach, even when they are just asleep safe safe in their cribs upstairs, it is like being lost, marooned from myself. Of course, swallowing them whole (to quote Suzanne Vega) would solve that problem.

It sounds bizarre and twisted but I think this might just be love in its most raw form. It is what I feel when I tell Herb I miss him and he is only two feet away from me. Maybe it wouldn't have mattered how fully-formed I was when I had my babies. Maybe becoming a mother rearranges your molecules and splits them off into the universe so that you can never be whole again or, rather, your wholeness is constituted by others walking around forever outside your body, outgrowing their shoes.

Tonight's Dinner:

- Pizza from Mama's (really, no joke) topped with broccoli and black olives
- A side salad that no one ate (why do I always order it?)

- Loki and Nate, as much as osmosis would allow

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Getting Dinner Off My Chest

So I had a choice at the butcher shop today between a "naturally raised" chicken roaster and one that was simply labeled as "air chilled." I went with the "naturally raised" one because, obviously, it sounds better. But it leaves me wondering about the alternative. Was the other chicken raised by spirits on the other side (i.e. supernaturally?) or by alien-robots, science-fictionally? Honestly, were the laws of nature broken or somehow exceeded in the raising of this other, air-chilled chicken?

Maybe they were. I don't mean to be so sensitive about it but I'm feeling a bit raw about the whole "raised naturally" issue and it has nothing to do with chickens. It has to do with Nate, my 5-month-old. By definition, Nate's dinner should cause me the least concern of all the members of my household. It should be the product of miraculous multi-tasking, continuously homemade, served up warm and fresh on demand, just the way he likes it. Unfortunately, it hasn't been going that way exactly.

Like most women, I have strong feelings about the best way to raise a child - not my child - a child. Sure, we like to be all "I am the best mother for my baby and every child is different and as long as your love is pure..." blahblahblah. No. Most mothers believe that they are doing it the right way and sure, there are other approaches or schools of thought, but those are wrong or at least not as good (PS- this psychosis is reinforced by every single babybook on the market). I felt this way about breastfeeding. You should do it. You should do it exclusively until they are old enough to pull your shirt up in a mall and say "mommy-booby-now!" and then you should stop, stop, stop.

Yeah, I was a breastfeeding warrior. I have scars, permanent scars, on my nipples from Loki. In his first 6 weeks he consumed so much of my blood that the extra iron actually turned his poop black (fact!) . I would breastfeed anywhere: a park bench, a restaurant, a subway station. Shoot, I'd ask the guy next to me on the airplane if he wouldn't mind holding my boob while I grabbed a nappy from the diaper bag (luckily, that guy was usually my husband).

After all that, I had no doubt that I'd do the same for Nate. I figured this time it would be easier as I knew what was in store. And it's true, I nursed through a gross spell of mastitis (which SUCKS!) and the stomach flu. Why wouldn't I. After all, it is the best food for your baby. Just ask Dr. Jack Newman - breastfeeding guru and lactation wizard (he actually developed his own nipple cream - not just any guy would do that). I mean, when you read the labels on formula they all claim to be "the closest to breast milk." Who wants to give their kid the next-best-thing when you've got the best-thing in your shirt. And what the hell is formula anyway? I'm sure Michael Pollan would dig his grave, die, and then roll over before he gave that to his kids (however, I am also sure that Mr. Pollan was not responsible for breastfeeding them).

So here I am, this smug breastfeeder. But see Nate is big...really big...and really, really hungry. Nursing has become a shouting match between him and my boob. He screams at it. He says "feed me you stupid lump of flesh" to which my breast replies "drip, squirt, squirt, drip drip, fizzle." And then we switch sides. And then we switch again. And then the pounding and pulling and batting of ears begins. Nate looks up at me with his tear soaked face and heart-wrenching sobs as if to say "why oh why won't you feed me. It's like the one thing I ask of you."

It wasn't like that at first. When Nate was born, I was the first-prize winner in the least-sexiest wet t-shirt contest ever, on pretty much a daily basis. I'm not sure when the needs of his body started to overpower the ability of mine, but I think that stomach flu had something to do with it.

Either way, the horrible truth is this. I've started to supplement. With formula. Sometimes up to 2 bottles a day. Go ahead. Gasp in disgust, Dr. Newman, but what would you do?

"Well, Jessie, I would just nurse more. Nurse and nurse and nurse until your supply catches up with his demand. Every 45 minutes, all day long, until you are a single, melded, sucking-lactating machine."

That's great advice Dr. Newman, from someone who does not have breasts.

So what does this mean. That I love Nate less than Loki? That I am not willing to sacrifice as much for his well-being? That he won't be as bonded to me, as nourished by the life-determining security of maternal devotion?

Is Nate the air-chilled chicken?

Probably not. After all I am the best mother for my baby and every child is different (echem).
Okay, I'm not sold on it. But I'm doing what I have to do.

When you think about a family dinner, you think about everyone sitting together, eating the same thing. But, of course, that's not ever what happens. People take more of what they like, less of what they don't. You make something special for this one who won't eat carrots, for that one who is only cool with yellow food this month. Feeding your family is about flexibility and accommodation. So I'm not feeding Nate exactly how I fed Loki. Well, good. That will probably be the way it goes for the rest of their lives at my table. But no child of mine will go to bed hungry (unless they really piss me off).

Tonight's Dinner:

Loki, Herb, Jessie: "Naturally Raised" herb roasted chicken with carrots, fennel, Brussels sprouts & potatoes

Nate: Left, Right, Left, Bottle.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Woman's Eternal Conflict - Blah, Blah Blah

So Becca, our caregiver, has the flu. Since Monday I've been on my own with the two boys, an idea that would have terrified me just a couple months ago. Now, granted, there's a big difference between a 3 month old and a 5 month old (for anyone reading this who doesn't have kids, indulge in a huge eyeroll, but really it's like a "monkey vs. Lucy" difference). But still, the notion that I could capably and successfully take care of an infant and a toddler all day long without anyone's help and without collapsing into a heap of pooping, whining, crying madness (and that's just me) is a relatively new discovery.

Privileged. Yes. Let's call a spade a spade. The fact that I can be on maternity leave and have full-time help is like the Prada of childcare situations. Yesterday, I bumped into our neighbour at the park - me with Loki and Nate and she with her two kids, who are a bit older. Her son and Loki play "Sportball" together on Tuesday mornings - an activity generally reserved for just Loki and me as our special time one-on-one. I mentioned that if Becca was still under the weather than all three of us would be there together. "Who's Becca" my neighbour's daughter asked her mom, as they walked away. "Loki's nanny," the mom answered, to which the girl questioned "why do they need a nanny?"

Because I'm lazy! - I thought about yelling over my shoulder- And kindof incompetent!

I always imagined myself as a working mom. Isn't that a hoot - a "working mom" as if there are moms who don't work. Okay, I always imagined myself as a mom who also has a salaried, socially-rewarded and recognized career. But, after a year off with Loki I thought, how exactly do I pay someone else to do this job which is so clearly and completely mine? I had just gotten over feeling guilty that we pay someone to walk our dog - now I'm hiring out motherhood? But if I don't go back to work, what happens to me? Well, I start to feel half-there. That's who I am. I need meetings and deadlines and projects and people to say "wow, you're really great at that." One of my biggest struggles with motherhood is that, as much as I ask for it, Loki will not sit down for a semi-annual appraisal. So far, Nate's given me verbal feedback in the form of raspberries but refuses to put anything in writing. No one will grade me.

I think this might be why the whole dinner-thing plays such an important role in my life as mother. It is concrete. It is a success (everyone ate-it-up-yum) or a failure (even Herb wouldn't eat it) and it requires planning and creativity and results in a final product. Dinner is my daily report card.

Ironically, part of the reason I have time to fixate so much on what to make for dinner is the fact that I have childcare.

But, what I've realized over the past 2 days is that I could do it on my own and I would be just fine, in fact, possibly even good at it. I've baked. I've achieved the simultaneous nap (so much more rewarding and satisfying than the simultaneous orgasm). We've gone to the park, to the school, to Sport Play, to lunch at a sidewalk cafe. I set up the sprinkler in the backyard and stripped Loki down to his diaper and we romped through it while little Nate basked in the wonder of tree shadows.

And, I've made dinner. Easy, quick dinners. But dinner none-the-less.

The house is messy, there are dishes in the sink and I'm considering a glass of wine before 3pm but selfishly, I hope Becca needs another day of rest. I like having my children all to myself (for a few days, anyway).

Tonight's Menu:

- Salmon on the grill (with Barefoot Contessa's yummy asian salmon marinade)

- Asparagus (also on the grill coated in olive oil, salt and pepper)

- Either fresh bread from the bakery or steamed rice depending on how the afternoon goes...

Monday, June 15, 2009

Eating Good

So I was sortof joking when I wrote to some friends, telling them I had started a blog that tackles the socially & politically charged dilemma "what should I make for dinner?" However, in the particular climate of our time (climbing, that is), the question is anything but benign. In the face of rising temperatures, rising obesity rates, rising cholesterol, rising habitat degradation, rising poverty, scarcity, costs of production (ah!) - we are all meant to raise our consciousness when we go to market (to market, to buy a fresh, locally produced, grass-fed, antibiotic-free, organic pig).
There is tons written on this topic. In fact I recently finished the very thought-provoking new book by Michael Pollan, "In Defense of Food," where he actually feels it is necessary to define the word "food" for poor, deluded Western eaters who think that cheese is actually grown to the perfect shade of Cheetos-orange inside little plastic wrappers, which is simply nature's evolution of the banana peal. We're pretty far gone. I get it. I agree. But it's so hard to do it right.

For example, last night Herb and I attended Toronto Taste, an event in support of Second Harvest - a phenomenal charity that redistributes fresh food left over from restaurants and hotels (which otherwise would have been thrown in the dump) to social service programs across the city. It's a "duh" idea. I could take these 20 gigantic, fresh, delicious spinach lasagnas and dump them in the garbage cause they just weren't selling so hot tonight or I could, you know, give them to a women's shelter, an AIDS hospice, a seniors center. So Second Harvest figured out and perfected how to do this and we live in a better city because of it.

Toronto Taste is their biggest fundraiser (I'm pretty sure) - all the chefs and restaurants in the city (that count) come out for it. Each one gets a booth and produces a perfect little nibblet - something savoury or saucy or sweet - and you get to go around and have one of this, one of that, all fantastically yummy. Also there are wineries and breweries and wateries (what else do you call them?), chocolatiers, bread-makers, tea tottlers - all for our epicurean pleasure.

In the program, co-chairs Tracy Wynne and Camille Allman write "As an honoured guest at Toronto Taste 2009, you too become an activist and form a vital part of the food chain that enables Second Harvest to recover and redistribute millions of pounds of perishable and non-perishable surplus food to those in need."

Damn. Doesn't that make you feel good? Really full. But good. But wait. Wait. An activist? Are you sure? I mean, I'm a fundraiser too so I know what you're trying to do, here. And sure donors are super-duper important but let's not fool ourselves. I'm pretty sure that the chick in the $700 Holt's halter-dress that took one bite of her Kobe-burger before throwing it, and her unscathed napkin, into the trash is as much of an activist as I am. Maybe a little bit more. But dude, we were there for the food. Oh, and yeah, it's a good cause.

Ok, that might be a bit more cynical than I really feel. I'm sure at least 65% of the people there really do care and do want to do the right thing (breakdown of the remaining 35%: 15% trying to impress a date with a mixture of compassion & affluence that would make them an attractive parent for potential future children ; 15% trying to impress a date with a mixture of wealth and social status that makes up for the fact that they are old/fat/ugly; 5% looking to get laid - there's always that 5% at any event).

But all we really did is fork over some money and fork in a whole heap of food (and fork out tons of waste - both food and trash, I'm sure). I'm really glad that something good will come of it, but I know better than to accept even an ounce of credit for it (ummm, but yeah, we'll take the tax receipt, thanks).

I'm not really sure what it would take to be a food activist, but I guarantee it requires a lot more effort. Planting your own organic garden, becoming a vegan, eating a 100-mile diet 12 months a year...I'm not being callous. I am in awe of people that take these stands. But it's not what I can do. What I can do is try. And try to try on a somewhat regular basis.

There's a quote from Voltaire that I've been coming across a lot lately: "Perfect is the enemy of good." We can't eat perfectly. I don't have the time, temperment, or marriage to survive it. But we can try to eat good or at least take responsibility for eating better.

Tonight's less-than-perfect dinner:

- Meat lasagna that's been in our freezer since Nate was born (Loki wouldn't eat it until we put slabs of it on top of toasted raisin pita bread and called it "pizza")

- Organic Spinach Salad

Sunday, June 14, 2009

King of the Grill

Weekends generally mean that I am not solely responsible for what gets put on the table. Last night we had a BBQ with friends and - hearkening back to some oddly persistent caveman-code - the grill is Herb's domain.

We finally replaced the junky Walmart smoker we bought in Chattanooga the year we were married with a real, grown-up, stainless-steel beauty; it is the "Broil King." We bow to you, Broil King, ruler of ribs, champion of chicken, sage of sausages.

This is the kind of barbecue you read about in those Skymall magazines you get on airplanes. You know, in between the advertisements for "the 9-hole golf course that fits perfectly in your corner office" and the "ever-fresh" water dish for the pampered cat with built-in osmosis filtering. Right, like those things - except we need the Broil King. How else could we prepare succulent, fall-off-the-bone, smokehouse ribs without the need to boil them first (refer back to my strong sentiments against boiling meat).

But the other thing about the Broil King is that it blatantly reinforces the patriarchal hierarchy of meal preparation gender roles (really, it says that, right in the description of the product in the Skymall advert). I mean, you'd never have the option to buy a Broil Queen or god-forbid a Broil Princess. Not even something gender-neutral like a Broil President (no, we'll leave that to the media networks).

So let's think about this for a minute. Is it because the BBQ resides outside the home, beyond the kitchen, that it falls into male territory? Or because it involves openfire and is therefore untamed, anti-domestic? I mean, in our house it kindof makes sense in that Herb has much more experience with and a much greater love for the act of cooking meat. But take my parents, for example. Up until the age of 60, when my mother broke her wrist and was unable to cook for a few months, my father's biggest coup in the kitchen was a pan of scrambled eggs and the overly-complicated concoctions that he feeds his dogs (really, it involves coconut oil, raw venison, and some mysterious white powder). Yet, somehow, the plate of quivering pink chicken breasts would pass from my mother's hand out the screen door and into a world in which my father could cook. I think we were all greatly relieved in those years that a family of robins made nest in the bbq. We were all off the hook.

But honestly, my feminist angst aside, I have no desire to burn my bra in the Broil King. I say, let'em have it. I'll sit down and have a glass of wine (or two) and watch. In fact, I fully support male dominance at the grill especially now that I have figured out that an entire meal can be cooked out there with almost nothing required from my end.

Starch: drop some ears of corn in a bowl of water for 30 minutes. Put them on the grill; when the husks char, they're perfectly cooked.

Veg: chop up portabello mushrooms, red peppers, zucchini, name it (not lettuce, though, never lettuce) ; douse with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, pepper, whatever. grill.

Dessert: big fat pineapple rings. grill. ice cream. done.

Besides, the fact that I have "prepped" dinner (read: thought of a meal, bought the necessary components, washed, cut, and marinaded a few things) means that I still get the credit for it and I don't have to do the dishes. All hail the Broil King...long may HE live!

Dinner tonight:

Toronto Taste in support of Second Harvest

Herb's parents babysit!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Make Your Chicken Comfortable

I hadn't planned on making dinner tonight as we are going to see the Russell Peters show but, as timing has it, we decided it would be easier for us if we just ate dinner at home before scooting childless out the door. So my original plan of wieners and cheese shells for Loki has been replaced by an equally comforting but less grossitating family meal.

This raises two questions:

1) Why would I serve my kid something that I consider grossitating?

a. Because he really likes it
b. Because it's easy
c. Because really they're 100% organic beef wieners and organic shells & cheese so how bad for him could they really be?
d. Because it is part of childhood to eat weird crap your parents make
e. All of the Above (ding ding ding).

See when my parents were going out on Saturday night, I was left home in front of the Muppet Show (or in later years, Golden Girls) with a plateful of crinkle fries and oven-baked clams (I can't even find those anymore...they were delicious!). Or, the occasional TV dinner with that very exciting brownie ending that tasted sort of like a slab of clay. Those are great memories and I cherish them.

2. What counts as comfort food in a mixed-culture family?

I have discovered that comfort food is purely subjective and our dinner tonight is a case in point. Both Herb and I indulge nostalgic longings for the appendages of our fine feathered friend, the chicken. Only, for me the appendage is more of a metaphor - the chicken "finger" - where as for him it is grotesquely literal - the chicken foot.

How someone develops warm and fuzzy feelings about a claw covered in corn meal and chicken crap, which is hacked off, boiled, and coated in some kindof sickly red sauce is perplexing. But there's nothing pretty in the hook to plate story of the gefilte fish either, so we'll leave that alone. I think Herb's chicken foot fetish might go back to the big exciting trips to the city for dim sum that his family took when he was a kid to escape the wonderbread and mayonnaise culture of the small Ontario farm town where they lived. I can't imagine that his mom made these ghastly things at home - not that she couldn't, but where would she have gotten the necessary parts? Hardly the thing you find sandwiched between plastic and Styrofoam at the local Listowel grocery store. I guess she could have procured them directly from the farm - they were accessible enough - but I just can't see my mother-in-law knocking on farmer Brown's door for a few spare talons.

That being said, we never ate chicken fingers at home even though we certainly could have. Maybe it was the upsetting breading to chicken ratio (3:1? 7:4?) that made them off limits in my mother's kitchen. In any case, chicken fingers were reserved for very special occasions - like my annual birthday trip to Ruby Tuesday at the very glamorous Owings Mills Mall (it actually was glamorous once, really). I ordered them with french fries, dipped them in honey mustard, and got a full-on ice cream sundae for dessert. They also had a salad bar which was the length of the entire restaurant which I think is why my mom took us there. I have no recollection of what she ordered by I'm guessing a glass of white wine and salad as those are her two primary food groups.

So perhaps our chicken digit attachments stem from the same source (if not the same anatomical part) - the sense of occasion, of indulgence that comes with eating something usually out of reach.

Wow, that's deep and beautiful. But there's no way on god's-green-earth that I am ever cooking chicken feet.

So tonight's menu is:
- Sesame coated chicken fingers w/ plum sauce
- oven-baked fries
-steamed broccoli

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Sorry, You've Got the Wong Kitchen

Mmmm, hungry for some maple glazed salmon? Or spicy orange beef?

Sorry, we don't serve that here.

How about a lovely spinache lasanga or wild mushroom pizza with salad greens?

Nope. Not on the menu

Okay. channa masala, butter chicken, saag paneer!

Look somewhere else, buddy.

Fine! Soup of the day - whatever's in the pot.

Right, well, we don't DO soup.

Welcome to The Wong Kitchen - my daily attempt to prepare a healthy-wholesome-eco-friendly-immune-boosting-delicious-toddler-friendly dinner for my family on a (semi) nightly basis following the complex set of rules, preferences and mores that have been set before me by my darling husband.

They are:

1) No sweet on the meat

2) Vegetables are a side-dish. If there ain't no meat, it ain't complete.

3) Pasta and pizza are too carb heavy (besides, I ate pizza for lunch) but rice is okay.

4) Indian food gives me gas

5) Soup is for sick people.

There's also:

6) Sandwiches do not a dinner make

7) Eggs are for breakfast

Okay...I'm making him sound like a jerk (or, at the least, a food snob) which he isn't at all. This is just his own personal kosher - his rules of food physics - that I have discovered over the past 9 years of eating together. And the truth is there is another over-riding rule that trumps all: "Put it infront of me and I will eat it, all of it, whether I like it or not."

We all have our own ways with food...odd little imprints of our cultures, childhoods, personalities that make us followers of our own food religions. For example, I do not eat boiled meat of any kind and I do not eat leftovers. I feel like the melding of food ways in a family is an incredible act of love and intimacy. Plain and simple, cooking food for someone just the way they like it is a caring act and is deeply satisfying.

So that's what this is about...the one thing I do consciously, planfully, (almost) every day to build our family with food and love (they are kindof the same thing, right).

Tonight's Dinner:

- BBQ beef sandwiches
- Corn on the cob
- Caesar Salad


BBQ Beef: I'm getting a much needed haircut at 4pm which means that I needed to do something in a crockpot that would be ready and require little last minute prep. Hence BBQ beef. I realized I am braking 2 rules with this meal:

1) it's a sandwich (but I think the amount of beef involved balances that out)
2) it's sweet & meat (I use kindof a sweet bbq sauce but it's SOOOO good) and again, the sheer amount of beef involved should make it okay

Corn: Loki will eat it. I need at least one component of dinner to be my "Loki Safe" ingredient. He might not touch the beef or the bread and definitely not the salad, but I've never seen him push away corn...(and Herb changes his diaper in the morning so HAH!)

Salad: Part of my own food heritage from my mother... you MUST serve something green with every meal or you are probably a terrible person.