It was almost too good to be true. My son, from the moment he started eating solids, seemed willing to eat pretty much anything. I remember it being a few months before his second birthday when my husband and I marveled at the fact that he had a more versatile palate than most of the children we knew, many of whom were years older. In fact, on one occasion, after dining out with a couple whose sons wrote the book on pickiness, we actually had the gall to (privately) criticize our friends for letting their children get away with eating nothing but macaroni and cheese most nights during the week.
Yes, we certainly were spoiled back then. And naive.
The falafel stand was a key stop on the “tour” of Israel. Organized within my son’s active imagination, the imaginary tour was inspired by a Happy Birthday Israel program at our synagogue. This trip was special because it included a participatory component beyond a float in the Dead Sea, a dip in the Mediterranean, a stop at the Western Wall, or, for that matter, visiting a falafel stand. The extra component was helping to “prepare” a special (birthday) meal for Israel–on a kibbutz no less. The menu, as arranged by our youthful tour guide (age 4), included falafel, pita bread, hummus and Israeli salad along with tahini. We had a wonderful time “preparing” the meal and enjoying it. Our son beamed as his satiated parents expressed their appreciation for his culinary creativity. It added a different dimension to the trip.
So, this Hanukah, I decided my pre-schooler and I would go nuts. Old enough to be involved, we went shopping- silver tinsel, an extra menorah, flour, sugar, cookie cutters and sprinkles were all purchased and waiting for Hanukah break. We decorated the house, rolled out dreidel cookies, set up the menorahs, and fried latkes…. And it was only day one of vacation. The only thing left to do was make sufganiyot.
I just explained the Holocaust to my daughter through the lens of food scarcity and kashrut.
I hadn’t planned to explain the Holocaust to my daughter at age 4.
However, after listening to Leah Johnson’s (Yonson) story of Holocaust survival in the Forests of Belarus (with the Bielski Brothers - see Daniel Craig in the movie “Defiance” and the spellbinding History Channel documentary), I came home to my wonderful daughter complaining about which type of noodle she wanted to eat. It made me want to immediately convey to her how privileged she is and how others have struggled.
I’m counting the Omer and reflecting on my garden this year: What has been accomplished, and what remains unfinished? (the metaphors abound).
The winter here in southern California is enviable to gardeners everywhere. We can plant in December what others can only begin to plant — if they’re lucky — now. Lettuces, chards, carrots and beets, and peas to name a few. By now, early May, I can start to put in summer’s heavy hitters; tomato seedlings, sweet corn, cucumbers and green beans from seed. Nature makes it easy to garden here the year round, if you can keep yourself motivated.
Last summer, the rows of corn I’d sown in the spring towered over the rest of an abundant garden, and gave us more ears than we knew what to do with. We steamed, grilled, roasted, and gave it away. I sent my five year old out to the garden before dinner to pull off a few ears and she quickly learned to sit on the back stoop and shuck them, as expertly as any farm-raised kid. We had tomatoes and tomatoes and tomatoes, summer squash, okra, zinnias and cosmos for the butterflies and for cutting, cucumbers and Japanese eggplants, Hungarian and Thai peppers and so much butternut squash we had enough to eat through November.
My sous chef tosses the salad and some of it ends up on the floor. He sticks his hand into the bowl, picks out his favorite ingredients and eats them. He takes a bite of a carrot, declares it “too hard” and returns the teeth-marked carrot to the bowl.
Despite the mess, I think he does a wonderful job. Of course I do: my sous chef is two-years-old. He’s my son Noah.
Research confirms the importance of eating together as a family. Families that eat dinner together are more likely to have healthier meals, the children are less likely to be overweight or obese, or to smoke, or use drugs or alcohol, and the children are more likely to talk to their parents. As if this wasn’t enough, research also shows that eating together as a family leads to less tension in the home.
My 3-year-old daughter clambers into the car at the end of a long day, asks me what’s for dinner. When I tell her turkey burgers, her voice gets hopeful. “We cook it?” No, I made it the night before. But, she reminds me that we bought the ingredients together in the store. As I begin to worry about a child-sized guilt trip, she is happily chatting away about something else.
Liora loves to be in the kitchen with me. No matter how beloved the play date, if she sees me head for the cutting board, she is dragging her stool next to me to be able to watch what is being chopped on the counter. She mixes scrambled eggs, rolls out (and mushes) cookie dough, and gets her hands sticky with ricotta gnocchi. One of her favorite bedtime stories is a book from PJ Library about baking challah, “It’s Challah Time”; and I am trying to muster the courage to actually try out the cupcake decorating set she got for Hanukkah.
With my big girl as my sous chef, I often reflect on the passage in the Talmud that outlines the responsibilities of parents to their children: teaching them Torah, providing them with a trade and getting them married (some also say: teaching them to swim). To my ear, this sounds like parents are required to provide their kids with the skills to live productive, independent lives, and so teaching my kids to cook falls naturally for me into this mitzvah. I don’t need to raise a gourmet cook, but I think basic life skills include knowing how to scramble an egg and make tomato sauce from scratch. So much of Jewish traditio,n particularly among women, has been passed down through cooking and eating together. What happens in the kitchen is an ongoing collective memory, and it is my responsibility to adapt and pass that along as much as I pass along the importance of Shabbat or tzedakah.