I was in the library a few weeks ago checking out The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, and on my way out, a little book on the New Arrivals shelf caught my eye. It was called Hungry Monkey, the story of food writer* and new father Matthew Amster-Burton and his quest to impart his eclectic food tastes to his daughter, Iris. The author documents his daughter’s eating habits from infancy to age four, following her through periods of omnivorosity, ultrapickiness, and everything in between.
You may think it unusual that a single gal with no kids would take an interest in such a book, but actually I have been intrigued by the subject ever since I worked in restaurants way back when. Parents would order tacos for their kids “No vegetables, just plain meat, that’s all they’ll eat”, and I would always secretly judge a little bit, thinking to myself, “Have you even TRIED to get them to eat a taco with vegetables? It’s just iceberg letttuce and tomato, for pete’s sake; it’s not like it’s broccoli!” I suspected, as did Amster-Burton, that kids’ pickiness could be in part due to the parents’ expectation that they would be picky (and thereby not exposing them to diverse foods), rather than something inherent. I reasoned that children in other cultures must eat whatever food is put in front of them, and that pickiness was somehow another outgrowth of spoiled American privelege.
After reading this book, I do have a new appreciation for what parents go through in this department, especially those who don’t have the luxuries that Amster-Burton has. Currently a stay-at-home dad, his budget and schedule allow him to tote Iris around his gentrified Seattle neighborhood (Capitol Hill), taking her for lunch at a kaiten-sushi joint or to one of the many specialty markets to grab supplies (lobster, anyone?) for that night’s dinner. But in spite of exposing Iris to all manner of foods, she still goes through a picky phase, rejecting foods that she had once downed with gusto. The conclusion that Amster-Burton comes to, through his own experiences and through talking to other parents, is that a certain amount of picky eating is probably unavoidable, and a phase the vast majority of kids experience to one degree or another. Unlike some of the “parenting experts” he quotes, though, he takes a fairly laissez-faire approach to the whole situation, trusting that his child will not die of a food allergy or suffer malnutrition from not eating enough vegetables.
It was quite entertaining to read about Iris’s encounters with “unusual” foods (at one dinner, presented with a whole fish, Iris proves to be a more intrepid eater than her parents!), and to experience second-hand the little joys and upsets the author lives through as he tries to share his favorite foods with his daughter. The book is hysterical in parts, and Amster-Burton has a talent for relaying funny Iris stories in a way that transcends a show-offy “look how cute my kid is” tone. His wittiness and hip sensibility (he was a rock critic before being a food writer) will appeal to the many thirtysomethings, just starting families, who ate sushi and pad thai in college as often as pizza and subs.
As funny as the book is, it’s not just about superficial anecdotes. Underlying the whole story is the sense of joy that the author has at sharing each new food with Iris- the glee when she gobbles something up readily, and the pangs of disappointment when a favorite food is eschewed. Amster-Burton brings Iris into his “food world”, taking her shopping, letting her select menus, and spending many hours in the kitchen with her. As a dad into sports might play catch with his child to share his love of baseball, Amster-Burton shares his love of food with Iris by making her an active participant in the daily food rituals of the household. And I think that regardless of where Iris ends up on the picky scale as she grows up, she will look back and cherish that one-on-one time spent with her dad.
*Matthew Amster-Burton can currently be found writing about food on his blog, Roots and Grubs.
- Both the author and myself had some pre-conceived notions about picky eaters. Did the book change any views you may have had, or (for those of you who are parents) reinforce what you already knew to be true from experience?
- The author confesses that he was, in fact, a very picky eater as a child, but turned out to be an avid food-lover. Most of you reading this are probably adventurous eaters; is this something that you came to on your own, or did your parents nudge you in that direction? Do you think being a “food lover” is innate or learned?
- The author describes being forced to try sushi as a kid and almost throwing up, but trying it again in college and loving it. He credits this to the fact that the second time he tried it, he expected to like it. Do you agree? Can you think of a food that you probably liked because you expected to like it, or anything you didn’t like in spite of thinking you would?
- Not every family can spend the time and money the author does to introduce his daughter to so many foods. What can working parents or parents with less means do to bring cooking and diverse foods into their children’s lives? Or do you feel this is even important?
- Food obviously plays a huge role in the Amster-Burton household. What role does food have in your household? Do you feel that kids need to know “where food comes from” and participate in food preparation, or is it enough just to make sure they’re eating reasonably healthy foods?
Those of you who read this somewhat regulary and read my posts about my trip to Portland may have been wondering, “Didn’t she say she went to Seattle as well? Did she not have any blog-worthy experiences while she was there?” I didn’t want to keep you in suspense any longer lest anyone die while holding their breath waiting, so here’s my Seattle post (with one last little bit of Portland thrown in for good measure).
The day I went to Seattle (a Saturday) I had intended to take an early-morning train, but it was sold out. Another excuse to go out for breakfast in Portland! Kathy took me to a place called the Screen Door, which she tells me is one of the breakfast hot spots in town. It was almost (unseasonably) warm enough to sit on the patio, but not quite. Fortunately, in spite of the restaurant’s popularity we didn’t have to wait too long for a table, and best of all, they offer self-serve coffee while you’re waiting. The restaurant defines their cuisine as “Southern-style”, and apparently their signature dish is a huge piece of battered and deep fried chicken atop a sweet potato waffle. I wasn’t quite brave enough to deal with that much food (someone nearby had ordered it and it was ridiculous) so I got a scramble with bacon, cheddar and spinach and it hit the spot. I felt a little guilty for not going out of my comfort zone food-wise, but sometimes you just feel like sticking with what you know and love.
The train ride to Seattle was lovely- an uncharacteristically sunny day, and the train conductor obliged my request for a window seat. I miss taking trains; I used to get around almost exclusively by train when I was in Europe, and it’s so nice to be able to read or nap or watch the world go by rather than have to stress about traffic or directions. I was visiting friends from college, and the priority was to spend some quality time with them, but I did manage a couple food-related pilgrimages my last day in town while my hosts Fred and Lori were at work.
My biggest priority was to visit Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market, but before I did anything I wanted to fuel up for the day. Lori had recommended a coffee & doughnut shop called Top Pot that was downtown near Fred’s work, so that was my first stop. I have to confess, I’m not much of a doughnut person- I’d usually rather consume my excess calories in the form of cheese or pig fat than carbs or sweets, and doughnuts are pretty far down on the list of sweets I would reach for. But, this being recommended as a “local food landmark”, I had to check it out in the spirit of food journalism. I probably should have ordered a few flavors for comparison’s sake, but I just decided to go seasonal and ordered a pumpkin glazed doughnut. It was pretty good- not too much glaze and therefore not sickly sweet, and didn’t leave that weird film on your mouth that you get with most glazed doughnuts. It was very moist as well and had just the right amount of spice. I can only muster a certain amount of enthusiasm, but if you’re a doughnut lover, you’d probably be in ecstasy at this place.
After strolling aimlessly for a while around the Pioneer Square area and the waterfront, I made my way to the market, where I wandered through the stalls snapping lots of photos and wishing I had either more money to get things shipped home, or a larger suitcase. Fortunately I was there on a Monday morning, so I didn’t have to fight the weekend crowds and was able to photograph and check things out at my leisure without feeling claustrophobic. The market was a feast of colors, smells and the sounds of vendors hawking their wares… Even though I wasn’t in a position to take anything home, I enjoyed the sensory experience. I can only imagine the fever pitch of activity during the busier times, but I’m glad I got to explore without feeling rushed, pushed or crowded.
In addition to all the vendor stalls, Pike Place Market houses dozens of regular shops as well. When Fred found me, I was busy wandering around one of these shops, an Italian specialty foods store called DeLaurenti. Although I could probably find similar items in the Detroit area at Papa Joe’s, I was “on vacation” and wanted to splurge a little on something I probably wouldn’t buy at home. I selected a spicy Spanish chorizo (unlike Mexican chorizo, the Spanish variety is like a dried salami, so I was able to travel with it no problem). I was tempted to buy some salt-packed anchovies as well, but at almost $30, they were a little outside my budget.
Fred’s wife Lori had told me there were places at the market where you could walk up and order fish and seafood and eat it there at a counter, so I wanted to check that out since I’m all about street food and it seemed like it would be more of a local experience than sitting in a restaurant to eat. I ordered a crab cocktail and Fred got some fish & chips and we sat on stools at the metal counter to tuck in. If I’d had more time and a bigger stomach, I could have spent hours walking around sampling the various offerings- in addition to the fish specialties, there was a place touting their “famous” chili, a crêpe place, a place selling deep fried chicken livers, and much more.
The one thing Seattle is most famous for food-and-drink wise is obviously its coffee, which I didn’t get around to sampling (except for the coffee I had at Top Pot, which was fine but nothing extraordinary). However, I was intrigued by this sign advertising “Obama Blend” coffee. I’m guessing it’s a blend of Kenyan and Kona (from Hawaii)?
Next time I come to Seattle, I’m definitely going to set aside some money in the budget to take advantage of the many vendors offering to ship fish and seafood to your house. This time around, though, I was pretty satisfied with my experience; my only regret was passing up those chicken livers!