Monday, January 22, 2007

On the Evolution of a Foodie

It's a strange thing to watch - witnessing the evolution of a person's tastebuds.

A year and a half ago, when I stepped into this role as stepmom to Munchkin, she was a picky eater. Check that - picky eater doesn't quite express the solid days of tomatoes, processed cheese slices, mac & cheese from a box, Wonder bread, and Chicken McNuggets that made up 99.9% of the little one's diet. It was kind of a shock to me, really, having never been a picky eater myself. I'm from a fairly average meat & potatoes type family where we didn't eat much in the way of "exotic" foods, but I ate whatever the rest of the family was eating.

Dinners usually consisted of a simple salad followed by some sort of beef or chicken (the Bizarre family doesn't really eat fish), noodles or potatoes, a vegetable of some type, and maybe bread or rolls. Save for broccoli or mushrooms, which I hated, I happily ate some of every dish. We were - and largely, still are - pretty down to earth, simple eaters. Grandpa grilled steaks or chicken or burgers during warm months, and those warm months also meant fresh veggies from the garden. We didn't have anything with fancy sauces, and the most "exotic" we got was stir fried chicken - everything else was pure Americana with a bit of Eastern European influence.

Things really changed for me personally when I was about 19. I was dating a boy at that point in my life who had a much more worldly view of food. With gleeful abandon, he made it his personal mission to show me what I'd been missing.
Chinese food ... was something more than stir fry or sweet & sour chicken???
Cambodian food?? I didn't even really know where Cambodia was, but I loved the food.
There was more - so much more - but it was Greek food that really hit me square in the tastebuds. To this day, I still haven't found a Greek restaurant that stands up to my memories of the first time he took me to The Mad Greek in Cleveland, OH. It was more than a decade ago, but I still remember the saganaki we had, how stunned I was when the waiter brought it to the table and lit the cheese ON FIRE before extinguishing it with the juice squeezed from a lemon half. Oh my God, I was hooked.

When I moved to DC, I tried to find Greek food as good. I remember Zorba's, I remember another couple places I tried, but it just wasn't right, ya know? Admittedly, Zorba's has excellent hummus but something was missing.

I never could find anything to suit my taste for Greek food in North Carolina, and the passion waned some. I went on to discover other cuisines I'd missed - Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, it was all amazing. And once I made my way to Philly, I was happy to find excellent providers of several of my favorite ethnic foods, yet Greek remained elusive.

I had more important things to do than worry about finding good Greek food, though (as crazy as that sounds). I was truly finding my groove in the kitchen and I wanted to share it with the picky young mind of dear Munchkin. I never once held out hopes of getting her to eat sushi, though she still watches me with high amusement as I slurp down raw fish, but I really wanted to help her enjoy food.

It was a struggle early on, as those of you with children probably know. She flat out refused to try anything new - especially if it was green. I read up on picky kids and saw a lot of suggestions to get them involved in the cooking process, so I tried that route. We made all sorts of food, baked all sorts of goodies, but she'd just watch me eat them as she happily ate sliced tomatoes and processed cheese. After a month or so, I was cursing those blasted "experts" and the whole "get kids involved in the cooking process" idea. It just wasn't working. I was ready to throw in the towel.

But something slowly started to happen.
First it was the cheese. She gradually started trying different cheeses. Cheddar was good. Jack, muenster, provolone...she liked them. She tried a bit of Gorgonzola from my Cobb salad one day at lunch and loved it.
Oh my God, the kid likes stinky cheeses. There is hope yet!!

I remember the evening that everything changed. I mean, everything really and truly changed and she became a different kid. By that point she had mastered helping me bake bread, could work the Kitchenaid without any assistance, could measure ingredients alone, and took great joy in dragging a chair over to the stove or counter to watch what was happening. She could cook, but she still hadn't learned how to enjoy eating.
One Friday night we stopped off at an Italian/pizza joint. Kevin was working so it was a girls' night. Munchkin only wanted a snack, but I hadn't had dinner yet; I ordered the manicotti and she had a small plate of french fries. My salad came out first, and she watched me eat with interest. I asked if she would like to try a bite, and she thought about it for a second. She asked what kind of "sauce" I put on it- blue cheese. "Okay, I'll try a bite," she chirped.

I did my best to act nonchalant, but I was practically dancing. This would be the first time anything green and healthy had willingly entered her mouth.
I speared a bit of lettuce on the fork and made sure to include some of the shredded mozzarella. Like a baby bird, she held her mouth open and I held the fork out, barely daring to breathe.
She chewed thoughtfully for a second and swallowed.
"Yeah, I like that okay," she finally decreed.
In her six year old language, that meant that she really liked what she had just eaten and would almost definitely eat it again.

That was about four months ago now, and the child has turned into a salad fiend. I love me a salad - I mean, I really really love salads of any sort. Throw some stuff on top of greens, give me a little dressing, and I'm happy, but Munchkin is truly something else. Her little eyes light up like it's Christmas when she hears the world "salad" and she asks for one with practically every meal.
And it hasn't stopped there. Just the other week she ordered prime rib for lunch. Prime rib!! For LUNCH! This, from a child who would eat turkey or chicken a few times a year as long as she could dip it in ranch dressing, and pretty much forget about beef whatsoever. She's gone from zero to sixty in just a few months.

One afternoon, not too long ago now, I got an ad in the mail about a new Mediterranean place that had opened up nearby, and it listed a partial menu showing a pretty good selection of Italian and Greek dishes. I filed that info away for future meal plans, possibly one night that Kevin had off or something.
That meal plan came sooner than I expected when I picked up Munchkin for her weekend visit a few weeks ago and she had already eaten lunch. I hadn't, and since I only had my own hunger to worry about I decided to go check this new place out. She assured me she would be fine to have a soda and to sit and talk with me while I ate.

When we arrived, the full menu wasn't quite as extensive or "fancy" as The Mad Greek's, but it sure looked good. I settled on the combo plate, which I was told had a little taste of everything - hummus, baba ghanoush, dolmades, falafel, and a small Greek salad. It sounded lovely, and for the price I assumed it would be the perfect amount for a hearty lunch.
Munchkin and I sat and chatted and drank our sodas, and all the sudden this massive spread appeared on the table. There was a mound of hummus, a mound of baba, two falafel, four dolmades, a stack of pita, and the "small" salad was a meal in and of itself. I stared at the plates in amazement, then stared at the waiter in amazement.
"Oh my God," was all I could manage. The waiter smiled, and Munchkin giggled - then stole my fork and started in on the salad. She was fascinated as I started eating, and I explained what everything was. She made me repeat "baba ghanoush" about twelve times and laughed each time I said it, and kept eating my salad. That was fine - this was enough food for three meals or more.
And, oh my God, it was Greek food. It was good. I ate happily, and in between bites told Munchkin how happy I was to find a restaurant that served one of my favorite types of food. She looked at me wide-eyed. "You like this as much as you like sushi?!?" I nodded and scooped up some more baba before turning my attention to the falafel. She knows how much I like sushi, so this was a real revelation.

From the corner of my eye, I suddenly saw a small hand appear holding a bit of pita. It hovered briefly over the hummus, then the pita was dipped and I shifted my gaze to see how Munchkin liked her first taste of the chickpea goodness. "Oh!' she exclaimed, then smiled. She tore off some more pita, the same way I had been doing it, and had some more hummus. "Oh this is good!" she said happily, and Miss Not-Hungry helped me polish off that mound of hummus.

So today,
well, it's after midnight, so technically...on Sunday,
the three of us tried to figure out what to do for lunch. Munchkin had been talking about hummus last weekend, so Kevin asked me if the Mediterranean place had Italian food (he doesn't like Greek food. I know, right??) After a three second discussion, we decided to go there for lunch and with much glee we traipsed off into the cold.
Poor Munchkin was overwhelmed. She wanted it all. She wanted some pizza, but she wanted a salad too. And she wanted hummus. We got ourselves situated and made up minds - Munchkin and I would share some hummus, and she got a slice of pizza and a small side salad with mozzarella cheese. I stressed small when I ordered for her (she's at that stage that she doesn't like to order her own food). I should have remembered the last time we were there, because her small salad came and it was the size of my head.
Before long, it became apparent that she was more interested in my food, though. I got a salad too, though mine had olives, artichoke hearts, and a nice topping of fresh goat cheese in addition to all the regular salad fixins.

We already discovered that Munchkin doesn't like olives (insanity!!! She gets that from her father, the olive thing. How can anyone not like olives?), and she deftly avoided those as she pretty much ignored her salad and picked from mine. She liked the cheese better

And it hit me then and there: she was choosing fresh goat cheese - soft and pungent - over every kid's favorite shredded processed mozzarella. She didn't even finish her slice of pizza for the hummus and goat cheese salad she was gorging on.
Right before my very eyes, I am watching the evolution of a foodie. She's choosing quality over processed, bland ingredients.

It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.


Writing At The Kitchen Table said...

What a great story! It is amazing to watch someone taste something for the first time AND enjoy it! I've been trying for the last 15 years to get my family to like certain foods and they will not even try them (I mean, Gumbo, Lamb, crazy things that are delicious!). And it makes mealtimes that much easier for you too!

wheresmymind said...

After watching this clip...I so don't want a nugget anytime soon:

Brilynn said...

Isn't it a great thing to see her enjoying food?

I didn't like olives when I was little either and my Grandpa would always tell me that I just had to sit down and eat 10 of them in a row and then I'd like them. I love them now, but it took a long time.

Misty said...

Hey Chellie...I don't like olives. :P

Shawnda said...

What a great story! It proves there's hope for everyone with a picky eater in the house :)

Alannah said...

I am an extremely picky eater. But I love to cook.

lucette said...

Hi from Cleveland! They still do that flaming cheese at MG.