the making of another foodie


Selene with the tuna rolls, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

I remember the first meal I ever made.

I was only eight years old, or so — memory is only guessing at best, sometimes. By that age, I knew how to make grilled cheese sandwiches, or heat up a can of soup. Macaroni and cheese from scratch — that was becoming my specialty. I could tear open a package of frozen spinach and heat it up in the microwave. When we ate chili or spaghetti with meat sauce, my mother had me fry up the ground beef, since she had developed an aversion to the sight of the red juices and browning meat after being pregnant with my brother. And I stood on a kitchen chair and watched my mother bake, often. So I was slowly becoming conversant with the kitchen.

One weekend morning, I decided that I wanted to make breakfast in bed for my parents. I’m not sure where this came from — somehow I decided that they were overworked and needed a rest. Perhaps it was Mother’s Day, or someone’s birthday. I don’t remember all the details. What I do remember is this — turning back and forth between the orange and avocado green counters in the rectangular kitchen of our house in southern California, trying to convey a ladleful of pancake batter across the linoleum floor to the hot, plug-in skillet sizzling with butter. I was making pancakes, from Bisquick, and they were thick. Pancakes, to my mind, should be thick and stiff as a stack of dollar bills, but far more chewy. So I made pancakes with crisp brown edges, trying hard not to burn them, piling them up on a brown Pfalzgraff plate. I lay out two more plates, for serving, forks and knives, paper towels I tore off the roll, and the squat jug of Aunt Jemima maple syrup.

But somehow, just pancakes didn’t seem like enough. We didn’t have any bacon in the house, which was a weird occurrence, since there always seemed to be a plastic pack of Oscar Mayer bacon in the bottom drawer. I didn’t really know how to make eggs yet, poached or even fried. So, I made the only other breakfast food I knew how to make: toast. As the pancake pile grew, I made a stack of white bread toast (I’m pretty sure it was Wonder bread, or something like it) on a saucer. I dragged a table knife glommed with butter across the top of each slice, the shuffle and brush of crumbs against knife a sweeping sound in my ears. Finally, it was all done. Proudly, I carried the tray full of food to my parents’ bedroom, where I lay it down with a flourish.

They laughed at me. Who makes pancakes and toast together, they wondered?

I was crushed. When they saw my face, they immediately started cooing their apologies. I have this image of them pouring on syrup and attacking the pancakes with their forks, in a rushed attempt to show just how much they loved my breakfast. But I never forgot it, obvlously.

(And how weird is it that the first meal I made was an all-gluten diet?)

Ah well, we all have to start somewhere.

A few weeks ago, I was at the home of my dear friend Francoise. I’ve written about Francoise and her family before, and in that post I put a photograph of everyone in the family, except Selene. Somehow, she didn’t make it in, then, and I’ve always felt bad for slighting her. Selene is one incredible kid. She’s a writer already, fiercely devoted to her craft. Over the past few years, I have been lucky enough to read her imaginative stories, and I can safely say that we’ll all be reading her books, sooner rather than later. I think that her best story from this year, Shok and Loppy, should already be published.

To go along with this, Selene is already becoming a foodie. Now, she’s blessed with parents who truly appreciate great food. In her humble way, Francoise is one of the best cooks I have met, and Adrian makes succulent salmon on the barbeque that leaves me speechless. Selene, and her wonderful sister, Camille, eat nearly everything with gusto. (Except fruit. Oddly, Selene simply doesn’t like fruit.) When I go over for meals, we talk about ten hundred topics, but we always circle back to food, somehow.

So, when I was over there a few weeks ago, Camille was on a white-water rafting trip for the weekend. This meant that Selene had all our attention. She shared more stories, and she spoke with wide eyes and a darting smile about her schoolwork. But the first thing she told me was about the tuna dish she and her friend had invented that afternoon. “And it’s gluten-free!” she told me, gleefully. They had been bored, and found themselves in the kitchen. So they started experimenting, tossing in bits of this and spoonfuls of that. They tasted and nibbled along the way, until they felt done. She was proud. I was astonished.

When I was Selene’s age, I would never have thought to cook without a recipe. I’m not sure I would have been allowed. But now, I realize that recipes are really only a rough estimate, like memories, at their best. One of my Buddhist teachers in New York once told me — when I was troubled by the fact that language can never be experience, and thus why was I a writer if it was only a pale imitation of life itself — that words are simply a finger, pointing out the path. And recipes? Yes, like that.

So feel free to experiment, like Selene did. Make your food by tastes and nibbles, not by the bible of recipes printed out in neat columns. Play in the kitchen, with the confidence of a ten-year-old girl, alive to the possibilities and unafraid to make mistakes.

But don’t make the same mistake I did: pancakes and toast don’t really go that well together.

Tuna Rolls, from Selene Canter

celery seed

You might think this sounds strange, at first, but trust me. When Selene told me that she and her friend tried celery seed in their creation, I knew these would be good. Celery seed! What fourth grader cooks with celery seed?

And then the friend rang the doorbell and walked into the house, bearing a plate of these “tuna rolls.” I took a bite tentatively, ready to roll out appreciative noises on demand. But they came naturally instead. These were unexpectedly light and clean, like a Thai salad. Memorable. I’ll make them again. I really will.

one can white tuna
four tablespoons crunchy peanut butter
steamed carrots, shaved into small slices
steamed asparagus, shaved into small slices
one tablespoon celery seed
one-half teaspoon salt
one-half teaspoon pepper

five leaves of iceberg lettuce
five leaves of cabbage

one tablespoon balsamic vinegar
three tablespoons olive oil
one-quarter white onion, finely diced

Mix the can of tuna with the peanut butter, stirring until they are mixed completely. Add in the carrots, asparagus, celery seed, salt, and pepper. Stir well.

Roll the tuna mixture into the iceberg-lettuce leaf, tightly. Wrap that in one of the cabbage leaves. Set on a plate, then arrange with the rest of the lettuce rolls.

Drizzle the balsamic vinegar/olive oil/onion combination over the top of the lettuce packages. If you desire, you can add some sliced green onions as well.

8 comments on “the making of another foodie

  1. Travis

    that’s adorable, and it also sound tasty. I fooled around with spices when I was little, but never as innovatively as this. (I’m more impressed with the peanut butter than the celery seed!)

  2. beastmomma

    Very cool indeed. I am so impressed. When I was in 4th grade, I only went to the kitchen to grab a snack.

  3. Lynn D.

    Bravo Selene!

    When I was about Selene’s age, my mother worked two nights a week. One night I had to spend at my grandmothers, but the other I was allowed to stay home and make dinner for myself. It was really fun even though some of my creations went straight into the garbage (this still happens!). Nearly five decades later, I still enjoy cooking. I sometimes use celery seed in sandwich fillings, soups, pickles and salad dressings. People are always impressed and never quite know what it is. I find a little goes a long way, however, and suggest starting with a teaspoon and then adding more if you like.

  4. Calli

    I know this isn’t really related to the topic at hand (which, by and by, I will definitely be trying), I just wanted to let you know that you are my personal hero.

    I’ve been allergic to wheat since birth, but after my parents went their separate paths, my father didn’t keep up with the hassle of feeding me healthy food. I’m not sure why, even to this day he insists that kids just “get over” food allergies. Once I moved out and started getting in control of my own life, I realized that not everyone felt tired and irritable every day, and that something was wrong. It took a few years, a couple doctors and a few googles to find the truth. Celiac. Duh. Interestingly enough, my grandmother and mother had created a gluten-free cookbook for kids… a long time ago, probably around the time I was with them. Every female on my birthmother’s side has celiac. xP So.. for the last year or so, I’ve been trying to turn everything around. I love to cook, and am quite a foodie, so this was a crushing blow.

    A few months ago, Alex, my fiancee, and I were thinking of where we would move after the wedding. We wanted some place that would give him a decent job opportunity, and me an art school. Seattle came up, and was researched. I came across your blog. I had often stumbled across it when checking a foods gluten content, — Google really loves you — but I had never noticed where you were located… And I got really excited. Suddenly it wasn’t just a cool city, it was a city where I could actually live. It hasn’t been decided yet, but I’m pushing hard for it. <3

    Thank you so much for doing this. It helps so much.

  5. Tea

    What a great post, Shauna (and that comment above is wonderful too–I agree, you are a hero).

    I so remember what I felt about my first cooking attempts (all variations of scrambled eggs), there was this strong feeling of pride that I had made something, and someone was going to eat it for their dinner. Good stuff.

  6. the pragmatic chef™

    What a talented little girl. You’re certainly right to be encouraging her.

    My sister still has never lived down the ‘black eggs’ she made us as a teenager. She fried them in bacon grease, which is good, but unfortunately the bacon had burned in there first, which was bad. Really bad.

  7. Becky

    You should copyright the telling of your stories. I just referred to the pancakes and toast by way of teaching students about the skill of balance in menu planning. Shhh…listen…you can still hear them laughing. Not at you, with you.

    You and Selene are worlds away from the “foods” I made at age 8 (or so). My brother and I had a favorite snack food that we “made”. I’m going to share the recipe with you. Don’t tell anyone. Take an entire package of Oreo Double-Stuff cookies. Carefully remove the tops (and give some to your oldest brother who likes those). Scrape the filling off all the others and discard the bottoms. Now, here’s the technical bit. Make a huge snowball with the filling. Then, carefully, cut the filling down the middle with a knife making sure you don’t cheat your younger sister out of her share. Then, and this is also important, eat out of hand while watching General Hospital, or Dr. Who (it depends who had the remote).

  8. Ginger Breadman

    You’re blog brought back memories of my mom having me brown beef on the stove — not that she had an aversion, I think it was just something I could help with. And then I remembered my brother and I trying to make peanut butter by mashing peanuts and stirring in some ketchup (while we hid in the back of the car in the driveway). Truly, though, today your blog really hit home. I have three daughter’s — one is a 10-year-old in 4th grade like Selene, the others are 8 and 5. They all eat gluten-free at home(as well as dairy-free, soy-free, wheat-free and peanut-free). It’s not celiac, but a variety of other reactions. It’s a huge challenge in today’s world, and it’s great to have your blog to refer to for fresh thoughts and ideas. We live in Seattle too, so it’s fun to pick out Seattle areas from your blog. Thanks!