Thursday, March 09, 2006

Food Glorious Food

Every boy has something that makes him older all of the sudden. A first haircut. A growth spurt. A new interest.

For J.J., at 7 months old, it is food.

Real food, not rice cereal, which is like fish food without the interesting smell or rainbow colors. After two weeks of putting that stuff in his mouth and watching him keep it there, I bit the bullet. The kid weighs about 500 pounds without shoes on. He could no longer live on milk alone.

"Try some meatloaf," I finally said.

My mom had made it the night before and sent some home with us.

It was love at first bite. J.J. concentrated on the tiny meat pieces like they were the riddles of the universe. Holding a bite between his thumb and pointer finger, he eyeballed it until it safely reached his mouth. When his stomach was full, he grew sleepy and started putting the meatloaf in his eye instead.

He ate like a sponge soaking up water for the first time. A puddle filling up with rain. An ocean tasting salt. A fly flying. A Tasmanian devil being devilish. It was like he had found what he was born to do.

And in a way, he had.

Whether we eat to live or live to eat, many of our decisions boil down to food. Early humans did not migrate from Africa because real estate was cheaper in Florida. More likely, the hunt for a more secure way to feed their families drove them. When finding food stopped being a constant battle, civilizations grew. Art flourished--or cave drawings, anyway.

Of course, sickness, climate and water also play important roles in survival. But food brings people together. Nobody says, "Let's grab a water sometime." Even the drinks we share are made with food--sugar, barley, coffee beans or grapes.

Families might gather for birthdays or holidays. But let's face it. Food is the guest of honor. In Kansas City, we eat the economy dishes my Nana fed to her 10 children when they were growing up. Chicken tetrazini, hungarian goulash, mashed potatos, jello salad, baked grits and baked beans are favorites. Everybody brings something.

The kids eat two bites of jello and run outside to play football. The grownups half-heartedly tell the kids to eat more, knowing that their loss is our gain, particularly in the meat department. Turkey and ham have a way of disappearing at my Nana's house. In fact, she only trusts my uncle Mike to carve the meat without eating it all.

I have a feeling J.J. is going to stick around longer at the table than the other kids. He is a meat and potato kind of guy. My dream for him is to be a food critic. And if he needs someone to come along with him to gourmet restaurants, I guess I would be willing to do that.

When we go to Boston, where my husband's side of the family lives, the food is unreal. I don't even mess around with the terrestrial choices because there is clam chowder, lobster pie and fried clam bellies to contend with. Well, I usually break down and eat the hot potato salad, stuffed mushrooms, lasagna, fried turkey, icebox pudding and Italian cookies. And the poppyseed bread. And anything else I can get my hands on.

I hope J.J. learns to cook. Johnny, 5, makes a dish called clompaste--chocolate covered pears sprinkled with marshmallows. Justin is a good cook. When he makes things I try to make, they just look better and taste better. His mom is a great cook and taught her sons the craft. My mom is a great cook, too.

Being literate and having a basic understanding of fractions, I can cook. I mean, I can follow a recipe. But some people are born with the talent to make recipes come alive. To cook not just with their minds but their hearts, too.

If J.J. is going to excell at something, cooking would be a good choice. Everybody loves a good cook. If you had a party and your house was a pigsty but the food was good, that is the only thing people would remember.

When I was a teacher, the kids made a book of thanks for their moms on Mother's Day. Do you know what the most thanked for item was? Cheesy potatos. No one, by the way, thanked their mom for dusting.

Now that J.J. is an eater, he is not such a mama's boy, a phase I am sad to see pass. He's a man of the world now. He has discerning tastes and strong opinions.

"Down with cucumbers!" his grimace says. "Cheerios for president! Bananas for vice president! Meatloaf for master of the universe!"

His opinions will always come down to this. He'll grow up and choose a career based on his interests and talents but it will all boil down to putting food on the table. He'll elect politicians based on their ideologies, but that, too, will depend on who he thinks can provide the best feast for families.

J.J.'s most important decisions--the ones about family and neighbors will revolve around food, too. What will he bring to family parties? Will he be the family cook or his wife? If he never marries, will he learn to cook, or eat carryout every night? Or hang around mom and dad's house and see what they're up to (i.e. what they're eating.) Will he help people who don't have enough to eat? Will he bring casseroles to neighbors in mourning? Will he grow a garden? Will he make his kids eat Cheerios or let them eat Lucky Charms? Will he cook a hard boiled egg in the center of his meatloaf? Will he daintily eat eggs and toast for breakfast or courageously dive into the spicy chicken dip leftover from the party the night before?

He'll think about these things later. For now, he is just celebrating the culinary miracle that is meatloaf. He'll never forget his first love.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A man after my own heart! What a cutie he is! 7 months and he was chowing on spaghetti at my house the other day!!!

5:07 PM  
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