This past weekend, I attended a wonderful gathering in celebration of the birthday of a beloved aunt. It was a beautiful day, spent with many cousins and two aunts, both good cooks, who greatly impacted my childhood and who have always been guiding lights and inspirations for me, not to mention a constant source of great fun, many treats and much love as I was growing up. From one, I inherited a love of making stocks and broths, and she is to this day the family expert in how to draw out flavor this way to make the most delicious soups from scraps and bones, and all her nieces and nephews ask for her soups. She still makes killer whipped potatoes which are light and airy and scrumptious, and the best cucumber salad. From my other aunt, I learned to entertain and how to set a beautiful table and make guests feel at home, and I spent many a happy hour as a child "helping" her (and learning from her) to set up a baby shower or ladies luncheon, writing names on place cards in my best writing, or folding napkins. Or better yet, laying napkins in a fan-like fashion, which as a child, seemed an impossible task, and I was determined to master. This has become something of a family joke, and into my adulthood, I would be given "napkins and straws" as my contribution to a gathering table! I was expected to learn to master various things, but never allowed to take myself too seriously in the process. One of the wonderful things about family, is that even if you become a chef, you will not be allowed to take yourself too seriously in matters of food!
In my American family, as in my French-Swiss family, delicious food marked family times, and there were many family times. Sunday dinners at my grandmother's after church were occasions for all the aunts to feature their cooking skills, often in my grandmother's compact kitchen all at the same time! I remember many happy hours helping my grandmother to roast chickens or a side of beef before everyone arrived. Her table seemed to extend endlessly, and she was legendary for the hoards of kids who practically lived at her house when my father and his brother and sisters were growing up and her wonderful spaghetti and crab feeds and parties. Food was never so precious or taken so seriously that the children weren't allowed to help, yet it was treated with respect and my American grandmother was a superb cook in the best Midwestern tradition. She cooked the Wednesday night church supper for years, and these dinners are still the stuff of legend, for she could cook feasts with inexpensive ingredients, having grown up in a very large family with lots of very tall brothers who were big eaters and expected to eat well. And she didn't buy mixes or instant ingredients or used canned soups to pump the flavor. She knew how to draw it from the fresh ingredients, and for years she had a terrific kitchen garden, which for years my father came to help her cultivate. She was a constant student of a good meal, and never stopped learning. As I began to cook seriously, and entertain her sisters and brothers at my house for lunch or dinner on occasion, she was always very keen to know what had gone into this dish or that, how it was cooked and what particularly would make it sing. I remember once I served venison with a sauce made with Chartreuse, and she adored it so much that I brought her a little bottle of Chartreuse the next time I visited. She wasn't formally trained as a cook, but she had as keen an eye for a good dish as anyone I have ever known. And she wasn't the least bit pretentious about her cooking ability, which was widely recognized. She took food seriously and herself lightly. She was full of Grace.
My aunt for whom the weekend party was planned teased me on Saturday, food-obsessed as I am, that my children, who will (most of the time) eat just about any food and vegetable with gusto when cooked well (and I don't mean well done), when last at one of these gatherings, went directly and with evident enthusiasm for the hot dogs, chips and soda pop, easily passing over the salmon and the other delicacies lovingly prepared. To my children, rarely privileged to enjoy these treats, there is little more fun than a chance to indulge in all the "normal" (as my son calls it) foods of childhood, from which they lament their great deprivation. Nothing beats a good burger from "Dave's", the neighborhood butcher who grills them outside his shop on Saturdays (this may be true). In fact, I think my son knows their schedule of delectables quite well, and his new found freedom on his bike has put his lawn-mowing earnings to use for a host of similar treats. I think this is very fun, and I am really glad that they can appreciate a good ossobuco as readily as a good brat, and know that both have their place in the life of someone who embraces life with both arms open.
When our children were small, we observed a few guidelines. We never cooked a separate meal for them, but instead cut up, minced, ground or otherwise made the food we were eating edible for whatever age they happened to be. And unless we were having a date night, we always dined with them, except when they were just babies, pulling the old wooden high chair up to the dining or kitchen table. They enjoyed the table as did we, and participated in the conversation as their ability allowed. Bits of meat went into the mini food processor with some gravy to make a delicious baby food, served with mashed potatoes and pea puree. My mother was famous for making little plates at Sunday dinner, dotted with all sorts of tiny bits of food, of which to this day my children still speak longingly. She would give my daughter tasty bones on which to chew when she was teething, and my daughter is now the undisputed marrow queen of our house, with her very own marrow spoon so as not to miss one morsel. We bought baby food only one time, when we were driving to our holiday house in Big Sur and feared our daughter would starve en route for lack of something she could ingest. She refused to eat it. I still remember her in a restaurant in Roseburg, Oregon, eating bits off of all our plates and giving me a look of utter disgust when I gave her a spoonful of some sort of baby food to eat. Not having been weaned on this stuff, she was not accustomed to the salt less, tasteless and texture less fare, and she wasn't having any of it, thank you very much! As our children grew, we simply reduced the spiciness of the food we prepared and adjusted the seasoning so as not to serve them highly spiced food until they were a little older, gradually increasing it as they grew. And from very early on, we involved them in the cooking. That's about it.
As my children are older now, they will have a little wine with their water on Sundays, just as I did as a child when visiting my European grandparents, and they love to sip champagne and wine and comment on its nose or bouquet, and they have great fun poking fun at pretentious wine that doesn't match its marketing. French and Italian food is very child friendly, for the most part, and suited to a developing palate. We tried to cook with as many organic and hormone free/antibiotic free/nitrate free foods as we could find and tended to eliminate anything that had a high pesticide residue and couldn't be found organic, served a lot of grains and complex breads, and loaded up on fruits and vegetables. We bought nothing processed. I do cook with both olive oil and butter, and don't believe in any of those supposedly "healthful" substitutes, and my kids don't take vitamins. They eat them in their diets and their annual physicals show their blood work is exceptional. For most of the years of their childhood, we had a large kitchen garden very much like those of both my grandmothers, which they helped to grow and cultivate. And they regularly admired the beautiful food which sat on my counter in white French porcelain bowls: heirloom tomatoes from the farmers' market, seasonal fruit, onions and shallots, artichokes from Carmel, etc They grew up eating everything, and both are now reasonably adventurous eaters who look forward with relish and delight to dinner each evening, love to go to the farmers' market and help select the food. Both like spicy food, my son the spicier the better! My son loves raw oysters and foie. gras and my daughter thinks moules marinieres is about the best food on the planet. Both will consume a bucket of clams and love to make cheese plates for the cheese course, trying all but the ripest of cheeses with figs or grapes. But both will eat a bag of chips with relish, and given any chance, will order a burrito at the snack bar at the swimming club, smacking their lips. Mostly, I wanted my children to love food in moderation, with passion, but without the tangled love-hate (secret guilt) relationship to food that many Americans seem to have. Nor did I want them to be a slave to precious "gourmet" food, however much they love beautiful, and beautifully cooked food. Food is about pleasure. And family. And Love. I wanted all these memories of food and family to act as their lifelong muses, as they have for me. But that this is so, does not mean that we don't take food very seriously. I just don't want them to confuse this with taking themselves very seriously. Easier said than done, for sure, as I 'm still learning this myself!
My house tends to be a magnet for hungry kids, and on any given night after school, the refrigerator wars for the leftovers or a piece of gingerbread or pie are legendary. I have not noticed that most kids are naturally finicky eaters. Of course, I am often told this, apologetically, by parents embarrassed by their kids, but it has not been my experience. Once we rented a house with some friends in France, and I was told, since I did all the cooking for the two weeks, not to worry about cooking for their children, as they would only eat one or two things. This was true the first day. The second day, the kids came into the kitchen and asked if they could help. They started shelling fava beans and dipping them in oil and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Yum! They said. They rolled out fresh pasta and cut it on the big harvest table. They pitted fresh cherries they had hand picked in the market for a clafouti, which is a dessert cake. They ate most of the courses that night. The next night they came in the kitchen again. They went out to the garden to harvest fresh rosemary for a braised chicken and chopped it with a mezzaluna. They shelled fresh beans for a little stew they helped cook. They cut up plums from the market for a tart, tasting everything. By the fourth night they were eating everything and anything. No more special dinners cooked only for them. This has played out over and over again with the friends of my children. Children recognize good food, and if they have a hand in making it, and it isn't too precious, they will eat with enthusiasm. But the chef, who can teach them to take their food seriously, can't take himself or herself too seriously. It might not be perfect for the little hands still learning technique, but it will be glorious. For their hearts will be open and engaged, and that is the best way of all to learn.
It is not the grand fetes, or feast menus, that my children most value. Or even sitting in the kitchen when I host a benefit dinner at my house, trying all the courses. Or even the culinary masterpieces of a Christmas Eve cassoulet or a tower of artfully composed salad topped with tomato sorbet and tuiles, which I adore as much as anyone. As is often the case, children are wise in a way that sadly fades as we grow into our lives. They have the ability to live openheartedly, to approach the world with trust. They don't take themselves too seriously to make fun wherever and whenever they can, to be open to Joy. It strikes me that this is the attitude we need to approach food, but moreso our spiritual life in Christ. As with cooking, we may be dedicated to the fundamentals of spiritual growth, but the deep magic comes by being unfailingly generous in our application of it. The goal is not to be perfect or even to achieve perfect food. The goal is to cook from the heart with a with respect for the ingredients and the process of cooking, and a heart open to learning.
It is the same with our growth spiritually. We are not meant to be perfect, and being perfect isn't even the right goal. In fact, if our goal is to be perfect, we have missed completely the Life that is ours. Jesus said that without the heart of a child, we can never enter the Kingdom of God. A child's heart is teachable, open to joy, aware of challenge and sorrow, trusting that all manner of things will be well in the end, however arduous the journey. And I submit that it is the everyday lessons, just like the everyday foods, that most open our hearts, not the grand religious experiences. We are to be determined to open our hearts to God's love, but not take ourselves too seriously in our many failed attempts to walk in His steps. We may walk in faith with a sense of awe, but as for ourselves, we know that in the end it is all Grace. And we step out in Joy, grateful for that "blessed sin" that brings us to the feet of God and lets Him love us.
Happy Cooking, mes amis. Tomorrow, some more recipes.