“You have brought us food!” Elliott shouted, with as much force as his two-year-old voice could muster. Toddling over to the coffee table to be near me, he said, as I unloaded each item from the paper bag, “What is it?” When I’d tell him the name, enunciating so he could hear every syllable, he’d say, “I likes that!” Today, I pulled a small bag of red quinoa from the bottom of the bag, and he peered at it, asked his usual question, and I made my reply. And then he said, “I likes quinoa.” It’s a pretty great thing to hear a little guy say that.
Only bested a few moments later when I pulled out a bag of the gluten-free mix I’m trying lately, to hear him say, “I likes gluten-free flour!”
That did my heart good.
The thing is, he’s not just making it up on the spot. Elliott eats everything. (There’s a great They Might Be Giants video I have come to know well, in which they do songs for nearly letter of the alpahet. My nephew particularly enjoys “E Eats Everything.”) I’m so happy he’s not a picky eater. There was a brief period where it looked as though his food choices were limited to three foods, at best. And I know many parents who struggle with this, with children who will only eat plain hamburgers and ketchup. And the hamburgers have to be those frozen patties, pre-formed and filled with preservatives. Luckily, Elliott moved out of his brief phase and right into trying new foods with apparent gusto. He comes from a foodie family. His mom and dad cook nearly every night. My brother makes mayonnaise from scratch. My sister-in-law made a gorgeous huckleberry bread pudding last night, before I arrived, in the slow cooker. (It was regular bread, so none for me, but it smelled heavenly.) His grandparents adore feeding him. And of course, he has his wacky aunt, who adores food so much she writes about it nearly every day online and cooks new dishes every night. The kid just didn’t stand a chance.
A couple of weeks ago, Elliott asked me about the bounties of vegetables and fruits I was producing from my magic bag of food. (Sometimes I’ll take food over to the island when I visit, so I can cook lunch for everyone, to ensure that gluten-free tastes good.) When I pulled out a springy bunch of basil from my bag, he grabbed for it. I proferred a green leaf to him, and took one for myself, and we sat chewing in silence, together, until his face widened with pleasure, and he had to shout, “I likes basil!” Another convert.
Of course, there are a hundred dozen activities with Elliott when I visit. He and I play in the sandbox, and pretend we’re making bulldozers in the sand. We walk through the woods behind the house and dance in the secret glade, and look for mushrooms together. He slides down the slide, next to his playhouse, and I clap and say “Whee!” when he arrives at the bottom. We read book after book after book together, he giggling with delight at the ten twiddlebugs behind the door marked ten, in Elmo’s Giant Lift the Flap Book. He rides down the grass hill in the pasture on his skateboard without wheels, a look of furrowed concentration on his face, and me watching the entire time. We chase chickens from the porch. We play Hide and Sneek. We play in Elliott’s livingroom, as he calls his bedroom now, and chat away. Today, he drew squiggly lines on the Etch-a-Sketch, and announced, “i’s drawing the mountains of South America!” (His dad is inventing a geography game for kids.) He sings me the entire ABC song–we didn’t teach it to him; he learned it through osmosis somewhere–gliding over L every time, and then waits for my applause. And of course, I always applaud.
I adore this boy.
But I’m realizing lately just how many of our shared moments involve food, or the senses infused in it.
Almost a year ago, when he was only one, I was babysitting him for the entire day. We had nearly run out of activities (he wasn’t talking as much then, nor leading me around the house). I passed through the pantry, and the idea arose. “Hey Elliott, let’s sniff some of these foods.” And thus, the sniffing game begin. I pull up a chair, then sit him on my lap. Together, we gaze up at the shelves of foods before us. And then he points to one. I pull it down (say, a box of brown sugar), tell him the name, and he dives his nose into it. At first, of course, he couldn’t really sniff properly. He’d gush out air, instead of in, and he clearly didn’t smell anything. But now, he takes long whiffs, goes back for more, contemplates it, then nods several times before saying, “Smells pretty sweet!” And then I pick up the corn oil.
You wouldn’t believe how many times we have done this. It has calmed down a bit now, but we still have to sniff in every visit. For four months or so, his interest in sniffing and naming foods was so intense that the moment I’d walk through the door, he’d open his arms, smile, run to me, collapse into my hug, then demand, “Let’s sniff!” It grew to be such a place of longing for him that my parents would complain, “We want to see the boy!” Rightfully so—-Elliott could have spent hours in the pantry, comparing the smell of cornstarch to apple cider vinegar. One day, my brother solved the dilemma. He gathered the most vivid-smelling foods on a tray, which he put down at Elliott’s “party table,” the boy-sized table in the living room. He and I had been playing in his room, when Andy came in, and suggested: “Hey Elliott, do you want to have a sniffing party?”
Elliott’s eyes grew wide, and he stood up in anticipation. A look of pure bliss and amazement passed through him. “A ‘niffing party!!” he shouted, then ran into the living room.
I still say that to myself sometimes, when everything feels like it’s going right. A niffing party!
When he and I are in his tiny playhouse in the backyard, Elliott pretends to make me grass soup, on the plastic burners of his pretend stove. Whenever I’m there, we eat together at the big kitchen table, Elliott in his booster seat, me beside him, eating the same foods. He likes edamame, the frittata I brought, roasted vegetables, goat’s milk yogurt, keffir (I learned to drink it from him), and almost every food I put before him. He did spit out the parsley he asked for by name, but he sat happily chewing on basil leaves for awhile. And whatever I place before him, he tries with no hesitation.
Sometimes, when we need a little quiet time, I’ll take him to the computer, and we’ll look at pictures on Google images. (This is one of the best babysitting tools for a little kid, a trick I learned from my sister-in-law. Google the name of any animal a little guy might like, or a planet. Elliott can recognize all the planets by sight now, because of Google.) But it turns out that my fabulous sister-in-law has been reading this site (hi Dana!), and thus Elliott has been seeing it too. So as we made our way to the computer today, he said, “Let’s look at pictures of the food Shauna has brought us!” I nearly dropped him with the laughing.
My mom sometimes likes to give him sugary treats. (She would want you to know that she also pumps him full of good food, and it’s true. Today, she brought over a pot roast she had made from scratch, with roasted vegetables. Elliott ate it with gusto, and so did I.) When I call her on it, she says, “Oh, I’m the grandmother.” But I protest. Since the celiac diagnosis, and having to go gluten-free, I’ve read more about processed foods than I ever have in my life. And frankly, I’m simply thrilled now that my body forces me to stay away from them. Disgusting. And after a little persuading, and illustration, now my mom agrees, and we give Elliott dried fruits and organic lemonade instead.
Obviously, my parents planted the seed for loving great food and cooking up a storm in me. I want to give Elliott the same chance, without all the junk food. I watch people inculcate their kids with a sugary need, a dizzying array of cheap crackers and pacifying treats, and it makes me sad. And time after time, in public places, I watch people feed their kids as a way to make them shut up. So sad.
I know I’m not a parent. Seven straight hours of playing with Elliott today left me flattened with happy tiredness. Being a doting auntie means I can leave the exhaustion behind. But I do know that if we start feeding all our kids better food—organic, local, home-cooked, filled with fresh tastes—from the beginning, we’d all be better off. That’s why I love what Alice Waters and Jamie Oliver are doing with school lunch programs in their respective areas. We’re not that far from the days when we ate colorless meat patties in the lunchroom and ketchup was registered as a vegetable. And sugary sodas reigned supreme. They still do. Did you know that, on average, the American teenage boy gets 30% of his daily calories from soda pop?
Start a kid sniffing foods, and helping to make pancakes, and talking about what he likes to eat right away (“Mashed potatoes!!” Elliott told me on the phone the other day, with the force of a gourmand), and watch him grow.
As we like to tell Elliott, “This food will help Elliott to grow and grow.” And then he gobbles up his broccoli. Look at him. Doesn’t he look happy and well fed?
I wish every child in the world could have this chance.