Season to Taste…

I have no idea what makes us like the foods we like. To some degree, it must be cultural or at least, environmental. North American kids learn to love and live by the peanut butter sandwich. French kids develop a long lasting relationship with the baguette. Hawaiian kids make a staple out of Spam and British Commonwealth children somehow overcome the reaction to recoil in horror at the sight of Marmite. I have no idea how.

My son, Short Stack is, to understate things, a picky eater. He is, in fact, an epically picky eater. To some degree, I can forgive him that. When I was young, I too have an extensive “no go” list when it came to food. It was mostly what you’d expect a kid to eschew, with a few oddities tossed in. Strawberries, for instance, I could no abide. Yes, I know. It was weird.

At one point in my young adulthood, I decided that it was all just too much and I decided to wipe the slate clean and start over. The impetus for this was two fold. First, was my introduction to international travel. When I was abroad, I ate pretty much what ever there was. I was raised to be polite and didn’t turn down food when offered by a kindly resident of wherever I happened to be at the time. The second reason was a rather obvious… inconsistency in my list of foods that I would not touch. Much of what I deemed, “no thank you” food, was either unpleasant to look at or icky in texture. Something like liver? You must be joking. Not a chance.

But… I had a love of muscles. Not the kind that you flex, but the blue muscles, picked fresh that morning and served in a butter and garlic sauce. That was something simply exquisite and I’d would happily use my elbows to make room at a table that included them in its spread. How could I bring my self to eat something that essentially looks like a buttery human ear and pronounce it delicious and then turn my nose up at anything else?

muscles

So eventually, I changed. I decided to eat everything that I came across and give it a fair shake. My only hard and fast rule was that whatever it was, it needed to be dead. I don’t think that’s asking too much from a meal. As it turns out, I like almost everything.

I have become a proud omnivore.

Short Stack is getting truly maddening to feed, however. What you can get to pass his lips is a very short list of food. He’ll eat breaded, fried chicken. He’ll eat breaded fried fish sticks. He does love most fruits and vegetables, so that’s good and makes us worry less about what’s going through his tiny system but then there are the bizarre foods that make no sense.

He won’t touch macaroni and cheese, and yet with happily scarf down a home made white pizza topped with feta, caramelized onion and, anchovies. EH? There is no chance of getting him to touch noodles in any form and yet if you cube up some extra firm tofu and give him a little saucer of soy sauce, he will scarf the stuff down like it was Turkish delight. “Would you like a bite of shepard’s pie? No? Oh, but you would like to have the bratwurst and spicy mustard.” ARG!

One time when he was still eating baby food, I was having a devil of a time to get him to eat the mashed up sweet potato that Gerber Baby Foods thought he should like. He had taken a few bites but then had clamed up and steadfastly refused to touch any more of the stuff. My wife happed to pass through the kitchen and watched as I valiantly tried to squish some more past his pursed lips. With a look of, “I wonder…” she took the jar of mush from me, opened the cupboard and added a good pinch of… curry powder. As you might guess, the rest of the sweet potato was vacuumed up in no time. I looked on in disbelief.

Now that he’s pushing three years old, there are more and more inconsistencies that have shown up. In the drinks category, there is Moxie. This is a regional soda that is loved only by a select, hard-core bunch of New Englanders. The taste starts off a bit like root beer, but then quickly turns bitter in your mouth. I know it sound awful, and to many folks out there, it is, but to me, it tastes great. Naturally, Short Stack loves it and if he catches me with an open bottle, will plead share it with me. He’ll take a sip, wince, and then take another.

Then, this morning, Action Girl called me at work. She has the day off and was home with the kids. One of the things that the two of us love about being home in the morning is the ritual of coffee drinking. Luckily for our marriage, we both like the same coffee, the same way. Black, no sugar, hot and very, very strong. The brand we buy is roasted locally and is called “Blackout”. It’s the type of brew that completely obscures the bottom of your mug even if it’s just a shallow puddle. When the mug is full, it looks like ancient motor oil. It is BLACK.

The phone message started, “Our son is weird.” What she then related was how he had wondered aloud what she had in her mug. When she told him that it was coffee, he had asked if it was very hot.

“No.” she replied. “It’s gotten quite cool now.” She had almost finished her cup and the half-inch at the bottom was not only cool, but also very, very concentrated.

“Can I have a sip?”

Perhaps it was a bad idea, but his food list is so small, and he so often turns his nose up with out ever trying anything that we never turn him away when he wants something new (booze, excluded naturally). He took a drink and immediately, pronounced it delicious. Oh, crap.

So now, I have an almost three year old who wants his own mug of black coffee. Obviously, we’ll have to figure out a way out of this one, regardless of how awesome the mental picture is of him turning up for daycare with a travel mug of freshly brewed joe. Not only that, but the idea of a preschooler with a belly full of caffeine is not a pretty one, to put it mildly.

“Nap time? What nap time? LETS RUN! AAAAAAAAAAH!”

So, to the list gets a new oddity added to it. I’m preying for the day that he’ll go through the same gastronomic metamorphosis that I did and will decide that most foods are in fact, pretty darned good. Tonight though, I know that he’ll be dining on chicken nuggets and peas, just like five of the last ten nights. Either that or Action Girl might decide to make a pizza, in which case, he’ll be eating with us. I’m hoping for mushrooms, turkey sausage and oil cured, kalamata olives.

Short Stuff should love that.

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Eating to Live or Living to Eat

Part of my job as a father of two young children, is to dispose of perfectly good peas.

As a general rule, I loath waste and though my wife professes to as well, she is also very skittish about any food item that could have possibly come in contact with an individual mold spore or, God help us, was over a week old. This is a personality trait that often times come in direct, diametric opposition to my own edible food criteria. For me, so long as it’s not trying to escape or is three distinct shades paler than it was when it was newly made, I’m pretty much game for eating it.

The root of our individual viewpoints comes, I believe, in the way we view food in general. Though I can appreciate, even wax poetic, about some meals (an octopus soup enjoyed in Belgium, springs to mind), I tend to view food as fuel. Though I prefer delicious fuel to cardboard flavored, I’m of the mind that both will get you where you want to go, so it’s no big deal to say… eat the exact same peanut butter and honey sandwich for sixteen days straight or to simply go for the english muffin with peanut butter every single morning for four years. It’s fast, easy, and fits the bill, though I do tend to go though a hell of a lot of peanut butter. I call it being practical. She calls it, “Eeeaugh”

Not so, Action Girl. She is of a different sensibility. She would rather go with out rather than eat the wrong thing. This is manifestly, a bad idea and though I love my wife with all my heart, if there is one thing that will transform the bubbly woman I’m married to into a blond haired, blue eyed hand grenade, it would be “lack of food”.

Action Girl is one of those individuals whose attitude toward the word is directly connected to the contents of her stomach. If it is filled with a fine meal, delicately made and thoughtfully assembled, then she could pretty much shrug off the house burning down. Let her skip lunch and then be foolish enough to enter the room, and the best you can hope for a swift and moderately painless death.

I have two sets of photographs to back this claim; both taken over seas when eating patterns were erratic and unpredictable. The first was taken on a trip to Bavaria where we were staying in a small village, nestled in an Alpine valley. When we discovered that bicycles could be rented and that you could pedal to Linderhof, a palace built by Ludwig II, we jumped at it. It wasn’t a hard ride on paper, only about ten kilometers. What they didn’t point out was that it was all up hill. Not a huge incline, to be honest, perhaps only about three or four percent, but it never once let up. Couple that with less than optimal bikes, a somewhat rough gravel path and you get a tougher than expected ride. We weren’t creampuffs when it came to biking and did manage the ride without having to wuss out and take breaks, but it was harder work than we had anticipated doing, fueled only by a light breakfast. Once we arrived, we immediately toured the palace and grounds, partly to beat the bus loads of camera toters that we saw in the parking lot but also for the sheer joy of walking on our own feet and giving our beaten-up our behinds a rest from sitting.

By the time we had exited the palace and seen the famous gardens and grotto, it was well past lunch. I had been nibbling on granola bars and though Action Girl had one too, she opted to wait for a proper lunch.

Bad plan.

Here’s where the photos come in. The first I took is of my lovely wife sitting on a bench in an amazing garden. If you look very, very closely, you can almost make out the black cloud that is hovering inches over her head. There might have even been flickers of lightning in there. In short, she does not look like a person enjoying things. Only the most inept and unobservant pan handler or pigeon would attempt to beg something from her. Not doubt with dire consequences. The next photo on the roll is of Action Girl again. This time she is swinging, one armed from a lamp post a la Fred Astaire. A joyful smile spreads across her face and the rain cloud is nowhere to be seen. Between these two photographs… was a hardy and delicious German lunch.

The other set of photos, this time taken in Alsace, lacks the “before” black cloud picture that so perfectly bookends the no-food / food equation. They are, however, very telling as well. To anyone who doesn’t know my wife, in these two pictures, she just looks like a happy traveler, walking towards me and wearing a smile. To those of us who know her well, we notice two things. In the first photo, you can see that she is just leaving a chocolatier’s shop. In the next picture, she is closer in the frame and you can now make out two important things. First, the yellow bag containing something like forty Euros of fine, hand made dark chocolate, clutched lovingly to her chest. Second, her enormous smile, possibly visible from space, which was put there by the anticipation of getting into that bag.

Food is heavenly to her and it needs to be done right or not at all. Very French of her, I’d say, which is odd since I’m the one with the French and she’s mostly Irish. All in all, our two ways of dealing with food match pretty well. Being a gifted cook, she routinely makes meals that would be at home in the best restaurants and kitchen stadiums. I firmly believe she could easily win “Iron Chef”. On the other hand, once the apple roasted chicken is more than a few days old or the raspberry torte is getting a bit stale, she is all for pitching it and starting anew. She’d rather make something else than warm up a plate of less than perfect leftovers. So, since we don’t have livestock at our house and I hate to see what I view as “perfectly good food go to waste, it has fallen to me to hoover out the fridge in an effort to keep up with the wonderful bounty of foods that we didn’t finish the first, second or third time around. Now with the addition of kids, my job and diet has expanded.

Short Stack’s attention to his dinner plate can be less than laser like on any given night. If food items are easily stabbed with a fork, he does pretty well, all things considered. Peas and chopped carrots are another matter though. The cooked carrots, though delicious, are hard to keep on the fork and tend to slip off the tines en route to his mouth. Peas, ever the tricky vegetable, are all for going on brief and exciting excursions across the table, into his lap and eventually, onto the floor where they find a final resting place under his chair or crushed flat under our feet. Because of their inherent difficulty, they tend to be eschewed and purposely forgotten. That’s where dad comes in.

Initially, I would simply clean off his plate and dump the forgotten peas down the drain. The waste bugged me a bit, but it was high summer and fresh vegetables were plentiful. Autumn is now heavily upon us, and with the changing of the season, so had come a change of my attitude. It’s almost as though I view these once frozen vegetables as bits of the warm, bright summer, and I cringe at thoughtlessly dumping them in the sink. As I walk away from the table, holding a ladybug shaped, plastic dinner plate, I scoop up the lukewarm leftovers with his miniature fork and shovel them in. Though some of the peas might have been dribbled with ketchup or a few of the carrots, marinated in soy sauce, I don’t mind. It’s all good fuel.

Tonight Acton Girl is making a roast and there will be leftovers-a-plenty. I will no doubt eat the loin’s share of this wonderfully prepared meal, but that’s okay. She won’t want more than two servings of it any way.

I bet, in the following week, it will go very well with cast off peas.

Valhalla in Salzburg, part III

Now, as I have stated before, I was, repeat WAS a picky eater and though I had a very long “I no eat” list, I was also raised to be polite. I would never have turned away an offer so generously given. Especially since I had already started ingesting it. Besides, it was obvious that it wasn’t going to kill me. After all, the plumber was still alive. I was also, at this point, ¾ in the bag. Something that happens quite infrequently and it no doubt helped with my “Eh. What the hell” attitude.

I took another bite from the pile on my napkin.

*Chew, chew, chew.*

Mountain Man, knowing the normal depth of my pickiness, looked at me quizzically.
“What does it taste like?” he filially added. I pondered this between bites and finally replied, “It’s kind of like… well… It tastes like… boiled, shaved cow’s cheek I guess. Want some?”

With out a moment to consider, he reached over and took a few slices off the stack. I have no doubt in my mind that my friend would eat a live trout if presented to him. The guy is like a garbage disposal. For him, this was nothing. Someone had even killed it first and cut into bite sized pieces.

When my napkin was empty and we could see the bottom of our steins, we decided that rather than going up for a fourth pint, it might be a good idea to get some fresh air. Sloppy “Danke Schone”s were given to our plumber and we staggered off on our merry way. First to the facilities and then out to hopefully walk some of this off.

“Beer as sustenance” had some flaws. The first is the rapid deterioration of the fine motor skills. The second is that once you have made your first stop at the loo, you seem to have to go again and again every few minutes. Aren’t kidneys and livers amazing things? All I can recall for certain about the bathroom was just how amazingly full of white tile it was.

Another problem with “beer as food” is that it shuts down the majority of your higher brain functions and instead gives control over to what apparently is a five year old who lives in your head; lying dormant until the opportunity arises. Both Mountain Man and I were wowed by what was, in all honesty, 4×4 plain white tile. Then we were wowed by a stone wall, then were were wowed by streetlights. What was in that beer?

As we wobbled out in to the night, one of us had a brilliant idea. We should call home to the States! We found a phone boot standing out by its self in the center of a little garden. I was first into the booth and managed to get my pre-paid phone card into the slot.

I don’t recall the actual phone conversation I had with my folks back in New Hampshire. It was probably along the lines of “DIS ISH GREAT! WERE HASHING SCHO MUCH FON!” Though the dialogue of the call is forgotten to time, I have been assured by my parents that I seemed to be having a good time, and that the beer breath was palpable through the telephone connection. Though they didn’t approve of drinking to excess, they have both told me that they were cracking up for a good half hour after that call home.

Mountain Man was next and I remember him taking a nonchalant pose in the booth and talking. And talking. AND TALKING. Good Lord! I started to wonder if we had phoned the UN with some new ideas about a solution the Arab-Israeli problem or something. Then, the Hefeweizen started to call again…

I looked around for some place to deal with the issue but there was nothing. The only thing big enough near to hide behind was the phone booth. Even the shrubs in the garden were about knee high.

A quick aside here about my luck. I know my luck well enough to realize that the second I start to do something naughty, a policeman or nun or a Grandparent will come by and see me doing it. I don’t know if it’s karma or what, but that’s the way my luck runs and to say that it makes me a cautious person is an understatement at times. If this were not the case, I might have been “watering” the azaleas at this point, but I know my luck better than that.

As I started to get more and more urgent messages from my bladder, I watched Mountain Man for any sign of getting off the dang phone. None was forthcoming. After a few more minutes of waiting I finally pulled a wrapper out of my pocket, wrote a note on it and pressed it to the glass of the booth for him to read…

I don’t know who “some of us” were, but I can only assume I was referring to the royal “we”. Or possibly, a royal “Wee”.

After the badly needed “Pinkle Pauser”, my friend informed me of an English language movie house. near by. Without hesitation, we were off! By this point, memory starts to fail me. I can recall sitting in the almost empty theater and that the movie was “Wallace and Grommit in A Close Shave” which alone, is a great little movie and quite funny. After a trip to a beer hall and three liters, it’s difficult to stay in your seat because you’re laughing so hard. Again, it’s the five year old taking control.

I don’t remember anything after the movie. Not getting back to the hostel, not the kids staying there, not the stinky bunk room or even how I managed to get into an upper bunk that was mercifully vacant.

Epilogue.

The next morning was a little… tender. We both were moving slowly and painfully, though to our immense pleasure we found lots and lots of very hot, very black coffee in the cafeteria. The hostel was a pit to be sure, but Mountain Man did come through on one point about it. The breakfast was amazing. You ordered it by country preference.

English= toast, yoghurt, weetabix and baked tomato
German/Austrian= cold meat, bread, butter, fruit
Australian= kangaroo and muesli… or something
American=2 eggs, scrambled, toast, homefries, sausage and bottomless black coffee

It was like heaven. We ate slowly and drank enough coffee to power three city blocks. Most of the day was spent café surfing and admiring the passers by. It was a wonderful way to observe a beautiful place like Salzburg. We ate out at a restraint that night. The beer was great, if no tin smaller quantities and the food wasn’t boiled, though it might have come from a cow.

Our train left early the next morning and I slept quite deeply, my last night at Delta House, Salzburg. While Mountain Man had been getting breakfast that painful next morning, I had slipped out to the front desk… and reserved the private double on the top floor. The experience of bunkhouse had loosed me up a good bit, but I still had standards.

A House Guest in France, Part VI

Something that you should know about me. Until the age of about 25, I was a very,very picky eater. The foods that I would not touch were many and varied, to the point actually, that I started to forget what foods I ate and which ones I didn’t. Pain in the butt for everyone around me? Yah, I guess so. I wasn’t one of those really obnoxious picky eaters though. If offered something on my lengthy “no go” list, I would politely refuse and wait for the Tater Tots to come around or simply eat all the bread sticks within reach. Never, did I turn up my nose and say something like, “Broccoli? Eaugh!”, or any other reprehensible behavior. I’m not really sure why I was a picky eater, but I was. The plate that I had just been given would have made me pass out prior to my conversion to omnivore.

Luckily, at some point, I decided that the “picky eater” thing was all rubbish and tossed it out the window. I started to try everything again and I’ve done pretty well. To my amazement, I find that I like just about everything and rather pride my self on it actually. The first food I discovered that I truly didn’t care for was Rhubarb. Other than that and about five other items, that’s about it for “no go’s”. I also swore that I’d try everything that came my way that was within reason. This plate in front of me though, pushed me right to the edge. My mother, however, taught me manners and I was a guest in the house of a man whom I had just met and he was offering me his food out of kindness. I smiled and took a large dollop of mustard.

Our host turned to Action Girl and started to cut her a piece. “Some for you?” he asked hopefully. “Ah… I’m afraid I’m vegetarian.”, she grimaced. “Oh, sorry about that. But it’s alright. I have some lovely fresh bread and olive spread.”

What I wanted to yell was, “FOUL! NO FAIR!” and I eyed her plate with envy. Our host looked back at me with a hopeful smile and I sliced off a good sized piece of my brain-jello. I figured that the fewest bites needed was preferable to drawing it out. A healthy coat of mustard and down it went. It was cold, mostly tasteless and had the consistency of congealed bacon grease. I got it all down, but it was an exercise in self control and gag reflex suppression.

When the last piece was gone, our host immediately lifted the knife to carve me another glutinous slab. “No! Really! I’m fine!” I blurted out to prevent a repeat performance. “Are you sure? You must be hungry?” he added with an arched eyebrow. “Ah, no. I’m all set, but thank you though!” I hoped I wasn’t too transparent. “You don’t like it do you?” He added, matter-of-factly. I decided that the truth was the way to go. “Um… No, not really.” I was almost immediately sad that I had said this because our host looked chagrined. “That’s too bad. I really hoped you’d like it” Great. Now I really felt like a heal. “A friend of mine dropped it off to me as a present and I can’t stand the stuff. Grosses me out. I was really hoping you’d eat it.”

The shock on my face must have been visible form Mars because he immediately burst into laughter and clapped a hand on my shoulder. “You’re a very good man for having forced it down, though!” That set the tone for the time we spent there and we all got along famously. In one soggy plate load of cold brains, I had gained his admiration and respect. I had also earned the right to sass back when he deserved it. We all had a great time. Action Girl and I intended on being there for three days but at our host’s insistence, wound up staying for a week. I can’t wait to return some day and when I do, I’m bringing him some brains.

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