On our first night home after visiting family in Florida, my daughter examines the melting pot of Indian, Ukrainian, and Italian restaurants we pass. “The restaurants in New York are much better than Florida,” she says with the authority of renowned food critic Ruth Reichl.
I am surprised to hear this remark from my extremely picky eater, the one who doesn’t even love New York pizza. The girl born to two passionate cooks and restaurant devotees.
When we traveled to France, my husband and I planned our itinerary around noted restaurants; we drove hours in Normandy just to taste authentic poulet de Bresse. As a kid, my husband spent afternoons making popovers instead of playing baseball. My parents encouraged me to apprentice with Grandma Regina, transforming a refrigerator of yeast dough into rugelach, strudel, and danish. After Grandma died, we lost an entire cookbook of Eastern European delicacies, but I'd developed an open mind to food tastes.
Given our childhoods, my husband and I were confident that our baby would be passionate about food.
Amy was born frail and skinny. The pediatrician told us to start feeding her “solids” at four months to gain weight. She spat the mush out, objecting vehemently with sobs. How could this be? Her earliest experiences occurred perched atop restaurant tables in her tiny infant seat, while we ate mesclun salad, farfalle with homemade sausage, grilled branzino. Once a server asked how old Amy was, as she graced a wooden table in a tiny vegetarian restaurant known for its casserole.
“Six weeks,” I said.
“Wow!” he said, “Only six weeks on the planet!”
Four months on the planet: she wouldn’t eat. Skinny as a bird, as Grandma Regina used to say.
Six months on the planet: still no food. In Chinatown, I would nurse Amy while picking out grains from her downy head (they’d slipped through my chopsticks).
Eventually — at 18 months on the planet — Amy grew into a diet of all white foods: pasta, bread, butter, cream cheese. I complained to the pediatrician that she ate macaroni and cheese every single night! His response: “At least you don’t have to think about what to make for dinner.”
We continued exploring restaurants, determined that exposure would lead to experimentation. Yet Amy ate the same lunch for three years at preschool: cream cheese on cinnamon bread and vanilla yogurt. Her friend Monica had identical eating habits. We took both girls to dinner at a new French bistro, where they ordered penne with butter and grated cheese — no green stuff (a.k.a. parsley). The girls chowed down, remarking, “This is the best pasta we’ve ever had!” The same dry pasta as every other time…
I had friends whose children memorized Zagat ratings and ordered rare seared tuna before they learned their multiplication tables. Servers paused, asking, “Are you sure?” These parents gleamed, saying, “My child loves sushi, carpaccio, ceviche ... ”
My child ate only white rice in Chinese restaurants. White rice and water.
My friends’ children asked their moms to cook veal milanese with lemon caper sauce. We bought cases of mac and cheese.
Where had I gone wrong? What if she’d actually inherited my mother-in-law’s taste buds? (My mother-in-law: a woman who admitted to loving “bland foods.”)
I persevered, dreaming of the day when Amy’s taste buds expanded to anything more exotic than cinnamon bread. My friend’s son Alex was ordering gator bites in Cajun restaurants, whereas Amy could identify and extract a microscopic poppy seed that had infected her plain bagel. When she was sick, I ran to a renowned delicatessen and ordered “a pint of chicken soup with noodles and no green stuff.” Dill would not pass my daughter’s lips.
The first non-white food she added to her limited repertoire was brown. Chocolate. Lots of chocolate. The darker, the better.
“I don’t like milk chocolate,” she explained.
There was hope!
When my mother brought me a half-pound box of my favorite Swiss truffles, Amy started popping them in her mouth like M&Ms. (Then, once I calculated how much each one cost, I hid the dwindling box in my dresser.)
Soon, another brown food. We were visiting friends, and they grilled filet mignon. Amy began ordering it in restaurants. Of course, she had to pick the most expensive thing on the menu, but nonetheless I encouraged the trend, splitting a portion with her even though I rarely order steak.
“Are there any truffles for dessert?” she asked.
Before her 10th birthday, Amy fell in love with a food that was reasonably priced, healthy, and exotic: edamame. She could eat two orders at a nearby Japanese noodle parlor. I bought it frozen, boiled it up every night sprinkled with "sel de mer fin." Amy’s favorite dinner became edamame, pasta with butter and no green stuff, and Belgian dark chocolate gelato for dessert. I finally had a multi-cultural eater!
Will her palate continue to expand as she grows? Every so often a glimmer of hope appears. One night we convinced her to try fontina fondue with toasted ciabatta bread and warm, gooey chocolate cake. The main course? Spaghetti with butter and cheese, no green stuff.
“The best pasta I ever ate!” she claims, and asks the server for more Parmigiano-Reggiano. “I hate that fake cheese stuff in the green container.” Sometimes I am very proud of her.
We stop in a kosher bakery on the way home. The octogenarian baker offers Amy a piece of rugelach. I’ve always shunned bakery rugelach, convinced I can never recapture Grandma Regina’s masterpieces.
“Does it have nuts?” Amy asks. “I hate nuts.”
The baker reaches into another tray, giving Amy a chocolate rugelach — no nuts, no green stuff. Amy dives into it with a smile. It might not be my grandma’s authentic rugelach, but I push my picky eater into the endless taste possibilities, always hoping for a new breakthrough. Chocolate rugelach today… gator bites tomorrow. — Candy Schulman