My friend Stephanie and I shared an exquisite meal on Saturday. We ate lunch at Sitka and Spruce, just after I picked her up from the airport. After an early-morning flight, and fast-talking between us all the way there, she was hungry. I was excited. I love taking friends to Sitka and Spruce for the first time. It’s one of my favorite restaurants in the world.
The light in that place? I want to move in there and take every photo at the communal table. Every dish looks gorgeous. Every ingredient is carefully chosen, in the moment, on the day it was picked or caught or made. There’s no set menu. Each time I walk in, I’m greeted by dishes arranged near the stove of the open kitchen and a small menu. I am perpetually surprised.
Stephanie and I shared a few small dishes —— I always leave Sitka and Spruce leaving sated but never too full — and each one made us stop our fast talking, put down our forks, and look at each other for a moment. “Wow,” she told me. “I get it.” Sitka and Spruce is like the smell of sidewalks just after rain — everything made new again.
The day after that meal, I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast.
Yes, this is homemade strawberry jam. (It has taken me four summers of making jam to finally find the right process for me.) And that’s organic creamy peanut butter. The whole-grain bun was made by Jan and Lacy of Happy Campers GF, a small baking company out of Portland that makes great bread with all the right healthy ingredients. But even if it had been store-bought jam, with sugary peanut butter and soft white bread? It probably would have tasted pretty good.
Both those meals were right in the moment: the fresh-caught salmon, sea-salt-brined, and served with just-picked peas, as well as the peanut butter and jelly sandwich made first thing in the morning to gulp down a cup of coffee. Honestly, they were both great.
Here’s the sad part: someone, somewhere will be offended by both of these meals I ate.
I might get a letter from a vegan, angry that I’m eating animal products. I seem to get an email a day right now from someone who’s on the Paleo diet, urging me to go grain-free because it has worked so well for him or her. Someone else will spot a bit of cream in that sauce in the dish on the top and go on a tirade about the evils of dairy. I’m certain there’s someone fuming that I’m drinking a cup of coffee instead of herbal tea.
And this isn’t about me. This is everywhere. Go on Twitter and watch strangers attack each other for their dietary choices. (Are you really eating bacon? How can you not be bored to death if you’re eating primal?) There are the snarky commenters, who have nothing kind to say, and the well-meaning, who mistake their own zealous passion for your need to change. Everyone, it seems, has something to say about the way you are eating.
When did we start this? When did people start believing it was perfectly fitting to make judgments about other people’s diets?
I used to do this too, a bit. And then I started writing a food website, and I realized what a panoply of forces make up every bite of food we choose. Mostly, I grew up. “It’s not that simple,” my friend Gabe and I used to say to each other about life.
My friend Stephanie knows something about being looked at askance for her food choices. Until she was in her late 20s, Stephanie was a really picky eater.
I don’t mean there were a few foods she wouldn’t touch. (I hated peas, lima beans, and beets when I was a kid.) I mean she was the kid who didn’t eat vegetables. At all. Or most grains. Or peaches. (Peaches! She hated the texture of the skin. I’m pretty sure she still does.) She was the kid hiding food in her napkin or stuffing leftovers behind books in the shelves at friends’ homes. The only sandwich she would eat was plain white bread with bologna. (Try to sneak lettuce in there and she would howl. Take it off and she would refuse to eat it, because the sweat remnants of the lettuce would still remain.) She was that kid that some people seem to dread.
And now? Now, she’s thriving and alive, even after eating no vegetables for the first 27 years of her life. She turned into a food lover, a culinary-school graduate, a damned fine food writer, and someone who regularly eats okra, cauliflower, and foods that made her want to vomit as a child. (Still, don’t offer her raisins or bananas.) How did this happen?
Well, she’s written a book about her experience — Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate — as well as the science behind picky eating, the wide varieties of experiences kids can have with hated foods, and ideas for parents of kids who turn up their nose at anything more than cheese on their pizza.
What is the gist of what she concluded after doing all this research and work? No one really knows what causes a picky eater. But seriously, calm down, folks. Kids don’t die if they won’t eat their vegetables. You’re going to be fine.
Early on, when she was just a baby, I read two books that really helped me to calm down about food and our kid, long before she started eating solid foods. Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater, by our friend, Matthew Amster-Burton, made me laugh so hard I cried. I decided that was the way to cope with a kid who won’t touch a food before tasting it. I’d laugh. Because seriously, who stays that picky? I wouldn’t touch a fresh tomato until I was 16. I cannot wait for ripe tomatoes in a month or two now.
Matthew recommended Ellen Satter’s Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense, which gave me the biggest sense of calm before I put a bit of food in Lu’s mouth. Stephanie refers to Satter’s work in her book too. “Satter advises offering a variety of choices at mealtime, including one thing you know your kid will eat. If they eat all or some, great. If they eat nothing, fine. Walk away and let it go.”
Being at the table with my husband and daughter is one of my favorite moments of the day. Why do I want to spoil it with an insistence that my daughter eat something I think is healthy for her? I’d rather her memories are of laughter and the gathering than my nagging her.
Maybe that’s why so many people feel comfortable telling others that their diets aren’t right. An entire generation has been nagged by its parents and told they weren’t doing it right.
Stephanie says she learned to love vegetables by learning to cook them well. Roasted cauliflower has a richness, a starchy pleasantness a little like french fries. (Toss it with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roast it in a hot oven — 425° or 500°, depending on how much time you want to take — until the cauliflower is tender and browned.) Offer this to a kid, instead of boiled frozen cauliflower? He or she might want to eat it. The adults can have it dipped in smoked paprika aioli (make this mayonnaise, but add 1 tablespoon of chopped garlic and 2 tablespoons of smoked paprika before you drizzle in the oil). If you don’t make it a big deal, the kids might try it too.
The older I grow, and more specifically, the older my daughter grows, the more this feels for me about welcoming. Does everyone feel welcome at the table?
Would we tell our adult friends that they have to “…just eat three more bites of your dinner, and then you can leave the table.”? If not, why do we do this to our kids?
And why do we make the picky eaters, or the food allergic, or the ones on a diet radically different than our own, feel like they are freaks?
As Stephanie wrote, “If you haven’t already come to this conclusion, being a picky eater is a perfectly wretched state to be in. And one that can be achingly lonely. Some picky eaters are so miserable and self-conscious they turn down all dining-out invitations, including the ones involving their families and holidays, rather than expose their picky eating or to be made vulnerable by it. Dr. Zucker would like to get picky eaters — the adult and child variety — to an emotional place where they can own their pickiness, where they are not ashamed and are not allowing it to be a source of constant stress in their lives. She wants picky eaters to be able to say, ‘This isn’t my fault, it’s not a flaw. It’s my biology and it’s just the way I am,’ and really believe it. This level of calm, assured self-acceptance would empower picky eaters to go to restaurants and dinner parties without fearing what might be lurking in casseroles or in the minds of their friends and family.”
If you took the phrase “picky eater” out of that paragraph and put in “someone who has to be gluten-free,” it works beautifully too.
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“We need to sit facing people with great regularity so we are making an exchange and we are learning to be civilized. We need to learn that if you pass a platter and take everything off it, you are not leaving anything for others. We are strangers to each other…. The place where we really need to come together is around the table.”
If we sat at the table with each other, instead of talking about each other online anonymously, would we throw around such derisive statements about the way folks around us are eating? Or could we be grateful for the gathering and just dig in?
If you have a food allergy, an aversion to avocadoes, a vegetarian, or a picky kid, or you don’t eat grains? I still want to feed you.
You’re welcome at our table.