By Matthew Amster-Burton
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Hardcover, 256 pages
List Price: $23
Introduction: Where Do Monkeys Come From?
My daughter's first meal was supposed to be, oh, let's say local organic carrots pureed with homemade chicken broth in a hand-cranked food mill. That's what everyone wants for their kid, right? I swear I was totally planning a feast of that nature when fate intervened and a doughnut fell on her head.
Leaving the local doughnut shop while carrying three-month-old Iris in the baby sling, I was, as usual, too impatient to make it the whole four blocks home before digging into my Double Trouble (chocolate cake with chocolate glaze). As I took a bite, a large crumb dropped, landing within range of Iris's pointy tongue. She opened her mouth and slurped up the chunk with the same eagerness as, well, me. Uh-oh. You're not supposed to feed a three-month-old anything other than breast milk or formula, and definitely not a doughnut. Apparently the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn't have any three-month-olds on their committees.
There's no evidence that the doughnut caused permanent damage, but Iris, now four years old, does exhibit some peculiar tendencies. In her favorite video game, Chocolatier, she builds a worldwide chocolate empire. Her favorite foods are pizza and burgers, but also sushi and a spicy Szechuan noodle dish. And recently, she had a friend over to play, and after they'd made a mess of the dining room baking pretend cakes, they ran over to me crying out, "We need more garam masala!"
When my wife, Laurie, told me that she was pregnant, I was working the world's greatest job: restaurant critic for a daily news paper. Every week I'd be off to some new or neglected restaurant — a dim sum parlor, a Korean hole in the wall, a red sauce Italian joint, a Turkish kebab house — all paid for by the Seattle Times. Laurie would usually come along, and we'd feast on great food, miserable food, and a lot in between. On nights off from restaurant reviewing I'd cook dinner: green papaya salad with tiny dried shrimp, beef bourguignon, Brussels sprouts with bacon.
So when I learned we were going to have a baby, my first thought was Are we going to have to eat fifties rejects like sloppy joes for the next eighteen years? Or feed our kid food we'd never eat ourselves? (Okay, my actual first thought was Jeez, I hope it was one of the better sperm.) All I knew about baby food was that it came in a jar and looked liked washed-out fingerpaints. And I could barely remember anything I ate when I was a kid beyond pepperoni pizza, burgers, steak, and roast chicken. I hated roast chicken. In sixth grade, a friend and I vowed never to eat foods other than pizza, burgers, and hot dogs — in retrospect, something of a drawn-out suicide pact.
Now, I still like pizza, burgers, and hot dogs, and I've even kind of come around on roast chicken, especially the poulet rôti served at Le Pichet near Pike Place Market. But, pact or no pact, I didn't want to be trapped into eating them in rotation, out of some sense of family solidarity, until our child left for college.
The words of John Allemang rang out in my head: "You don't have children?" writes Allemang in The Importance of Lunch. "You will never know what kind of gastronomic compromises you've been spared. Children don't just bring a jolt of reality to adult appetites. They remake reality, turning a sophisticated cook who used to smoke her own duck sausages into a desperado who will stop at nothing — not even packaged luncheon meat — to silence the complaints of the young."
I thought about the day my friend Matt and I spent making two kinds of Thai sausage, one with sticky rice and garlic (sai krok), the other with lemongrass, galangal, and chiles (sai oua). Those days are over, pal, Allemang seemed to be saying. And that doesn't only apply to sausage. Another friend had always emailed me MP3s of new bands I just had to listen to, until he had twins. "I just don't have time to keep track of music anymore," he confessed, and his bulletins abruptly stopped.
Not to spoil the ending of this book, but Allemang was wrong: Iris and I have spent plenty of time together making sausage. She'll drop any toy to run over and help me operate the meat grinder. He was also right: Iris takes supermarket deli ham to school in her lunch box at least once a week.
After Iris was born, I read a lot of books about feeding babies and young children. Most of them were vegetable-puree cookbooks, party food books (of the "English muffin pizzas that look like cat faces" variety), and dull, clinical books that read like a free pamphlet from the pediatrician's office. What I wanted were stories about real parents and real kids learning about food together — making discoveries, making mistakes, making cookies.
So I wrote my own. Hungry Monkey is the book I wish someone had handed me before Iris was born so I would have known that breastfeeding is challenging (even for dads), that there are two simple rules to take a lot of the stress out of feeding kids, and that it's okay to feed a baby sushi and spicy enchiladas. Most important, I would have been reassured that having kids doesn't require dumbing down your menu: if you love to eat, a new baby presents an opportunity to have more fun with food than ever before in your life.
And, yes, more frustration.
Laurie and I were married for eight years before having a baby, and I sometimes wonder what exactly we were doing all that time. Not like, "How could we have waited so long?" I have no regrets about that. No, I mean, now we spend hours and hours every day looking after Iris — what did we do with those scads of free time for eight years? It seems like we should have been able to score a couple of Nobel Prizes, or at least build a huge, eccentric art installation.
Instead, we have a small, eccentric child. In most ways, Iris eats like a typical four-year-old. She prefers white food, takes her burger plain, and is skeptical of vegetables. But she's also picky about certain things that are clearly a result of her parents' food obsessions. One day I burst into Iris's room in the morning and said, "How would you like some pancakes and bacon?"
"Nueske's," said Iris. Nueske's is a very smoky and expensive artisan bacon from Wisconsin, which we don't always keep in stock, so I attempted to substitute the supermarket brand without telling her. At breakfast, Iris ate a whole pancake and nibbled two bites of bacon. "Dada, this bacon doesn't taste good," she said.
Later she made up a game called I'm Takin' Your Bacon, in which I sidle down the hall and she runs up behind me and snatches my imaginary bacon. "I know!" said Iris, grabbing her toy pirate ship. "We're playing I'm Takin' Your Bacon, level two: I'm Divin' Your Bacon Underwater."
Iris may be more of a bacon snob than I am, but I think we have the same overall philosophy about food:
Food is fun, and you get to enjoy it three times a day, plus snacks.
Hey, you do have to eat quite often, and food at its best can be enormously rewarding. With a little luck and a healthy serving of Hungry Monkey, having a child is a chance to have a second honeymoon with food. Or, if you've never given food much thought before, a first honeymoon, because now that you have a kid, you're going to be thinking about it a lot.
We live in the city, so we're lucky to have access to certain things that I think of as essentials of life: cheese shops, Asian grocery stores, farmers' markets, premium chocolate. This has certainly influenced my palate and my career, and it provides plenty of field trip opportunities for me and Iris. But this book is about finding the fun in food wherever you are and whoever you're sharing it with — though from experience I can say that sharing it with a kid is pretty hard to beat.
Besides, I'm not interested in being a smug city guy (well, at least not all the time). As much as I love our local Asian supermarket, Uwajimaya, I have to admit that I sometimes journey to a Korean chain supermarket in the suburbs, twenty-five miles away, where the prices are lower and they sell fifty kinds of kimchi. There are great ingredients everywhere. The average suburban Whole Foods sells more kinds of good chocolate than were available in all of Seattle ten years ago. That's why I don't hesitate to recommend ingredients like Korean hot sauce, Chinese rock sugar, or poblano chiles. If these things aren't on your supermarket shelves today, they will be soon. In the meantime, you can order online (and I don't hesitate to recommend substitutes, either). Anyway, now and then you can see the Seattle flannel peeking out from under my snob suit. I'm a fan of frozen hash brown potatoes and boxed macaroni and cheese.
In short, if your situation is different from ours, it doesn't mean you can't have fun sharing food with your baby or toddler. I don't believe, as you often read in the paper, that you must insist on a nightly family dinner or your kid will drop out of school to concentrate on her meth lab. I'm lucky to have the time to cook dinner six nights a week, but man, if I have to read one more sanctimonious essay about the power of family dinner, I am canceling ours and replacing it with beer and a Melrose Place DVD marathon.
No, I cook dinner because I enjoy it, I have time to do it, and taking Iris out to dinner means watching her turn into a pumpkin around seven p.m., and by "pumpkin" I mean "wailing, puking lunatic." Having a kid hasn't made me any more tolerant of screaming kids in restaurants, so we do our best not to contribute to the problem. You're welcome.
Even though I like to cook some complicated meals, there are a lot of days when I have to start making dinner at five-thirty p.m. and have it on the table at six, and in chapters 15 and 16 I reveal my strategies for making food fast without having it taste like fast food. I've included over fifty of my family's favorite recipes — some that Iris loves now and some that she used to eat and her parents hope she will enjoy again someday. The recipes range from the extremely simple (the best way to cook hot dogs) to more complicated but very kid-friendly weekend fare (bibimbap, a Korean rice dish that is, in terms of tasting great and pleasing everyone, the savory equivalent of make-your-own sundaes). Every recipe includes prep time, and that means how long it takes a normal human to make it, not a chef. Many recipes are marked quick (under thirty minutes) or easy (limited slicing and dicing). I've also offered ideas (little fingers) for letting kids help out with some of the recipes.
Part of the reason I enjoy cooking so much, I admit, is that it's a break from parenting. But yes, I'm a stay-at-home dad. I didn't plan to be one. Does life ever go according to plan? Iris says she is going to be a doctor, but on her days off she will work at a construction site. She will have two dogs, two cats, and a baby. The baby will be named Daffodil. She will live in the building across the street from us, which offers only studio apartments. Good luck with that, dear.
We live in a lively Seattle neighborhood that, for me, is like a support group, so I'm not really on board with the traditional stay-at-home-dad spiel about how my wife doesn't understand how hard I work and how I need to connect with other dads who really get me. Okay, I admit, I did attempt to find a weekly "night out with the guys" activity and somehow ended up on an otherwise all-female bar trivia team. "We decided to call our team Girls Town," said the team captain. "I hope you don't mind."
I hadn't even told them that I read magazines like Parenting and Working Mother. The main thing I've learned from these magazines is that moms feel guilty about everything. I seem to be immune to this. Here are some things I don't feel guilty about:
- Letting Iris watch TV while I wash dishes.
- Introducing her to Crunch Berries.
- The fact that she likes hardly any green vegetables.
- Having a job. (Or, as Iris calls it, "typing on the baby computer.")
- Teaching Iris to play Donkey Kong Country 3 on the Super Nintendo.
- Saying I'm too tired to tell a kitties vs. pirates story with her dolls.
- Serving frozen potstickers for lunch.
Although, gosh, when I look at it all together like that, maybe I should feel guilty.
But I don't. Feeding a young child is stressful and unpredictable, you do whatever it takes to make it work, and the job is never done. But you could say the same thing about snowboarding or touring with the Rolling Stones. "Stressful and unpredictable" doesn't preclude fun.
Enjoying food is how Iris and I get along. When it comes down to it, I don't have that much in common with a little girl. I will always get bored long before Iris when we play sidewalk chalk or Candy Land (the worst game of all time). But I never get tired of sharing food with Iris. No matter how picky she is on any given day, food always offers us something we can agree on. It could be in the form of Szechuan noodles, pizza, chicken enchiladas ... or just a small crumb of doughnut.
Excerpted from Hungry Monkey, by Matthew Amster-Burton. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt