Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Miranda Rights of Second Helpings, and other Food Rules I Have Known

I served a hot meal in a theater lobby to 30 hungry teenaged actors last night, an activity that involved planning a menu to include vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free options. Since I was paying for this repast from my own threadbare pocket, all provisions were secured at my new favorite sub-bargain haunt, Aldi. I’m proud that I’ve overcome my anxiety over the hostage-release situation they’ve got going on with the shopping carts (hint: never leave home without a quarter) and have embraced the joys of browsing endless stacks of about-to-expire jars of sauerkraut, shipped directly from the headquarters in Mülheim an der Ruhr.

After all the planning, cooking and endless schlepping, I had, last night, finally arrived at the moment when everyone was tucking in and filling their pie holes, so I began to mingle. “Mom, they’re confused,” my daughter told when I walked by. “They don’t know if they’re allowed to go back for seconds.” I was struck dumb. Did these adolescents not understand the very nature of a Julie Kendrick Meal Production, in which seconds are strongly encouraged, as are fourths and twelfths, not to mention doggie bags to take along for a little nibble on the drive home?

I turned to one of my daughter’s friends, a girl who has eaten many a temporary-price-reduction toss-of-the-dice meal at my home. “Tess,” I enjoined, “You know that I never serve anything without first declaring there’s plenty more where that came from. It’s like the Miranda Rights of eating at my house.” Tess, who is no mere “yes” woman, not even to a crazypants like Mary Katherine’s mom, pondered this assertion. “That’s true,” she said, head tilted to one side. “Unless you tell me it’s the last Clementine and I have to eat it right now so you can put the bowl in the dishwasher.”

She had me there, did little Tess. My highest hostess accolades go the guest who Finishes it Up, thus saving me the battle to find a matching Tupperware lid and elbow out some real estate in the refrigerator.

As I dragged all the dirty dishes up the back porch later that night, I thought more about our discussion of Food Rules. Everyone has them, especially the truly batshit people who claim they don’t have any. I am a 20-year child care volunteer at the Crisis Nursery, and if you want to see some truly rigid Food Rules, ones that make a rabbi at Passover look like a Unitarian ordering a bacon cheeseburger,  then spend some time eating meals with preschoolers. No touching. No mixing. Nothing funny looking. Ever. Preferred color of food? Tan. Preferred method of serving: Plain. And more plain. And even plainer than that.

We have such lovely volunteers at the nursery, and many of them gather with co-workers, church groups or friends to serve meals to the kids. They work so hard to make things special, but they often forget that for the six-and-under set, “special” is simple. We had a volunteer this past Sunday who brought in a giant bowl of strawberries and a box of graham crackers. Alice Waters has never received such accolades for her swanky fare; our kids could not get enough of this lady’s snack.

Volunteers who forget the “simplicity” standard do so at their peril. A few months ago, the nursery had an enthusiastic volunteer cooking group from a local food company. They had clearly scoured their test kitchen recipe library for Fun Foods for Kids. They arrived with “pizza muffins,” a concoction in which pepperoni and cheese had been placed in the hollow of a biscuit, then baked in a muffin tin. In case you aren’t grasping the full horror here, it was All Mixed Together. The children reacted as if they were being served pig cheeks, with the pig head still attached. The volunteers were crestfallen. But kids don’t change their rules for anyone, not even the company that invented Lucky Charms.

In addition to my child care work at the Nursery, I get together with a group of friends four times a year to make Saturday night supper for the kids. Our menu, which has been honed to perfection over the years, never varies: turkey meat on Hawaiian rolls. Carrot sticks and dip. Veggie straws. Clementine sections. And then, just to show that simple doesn’t have to mean dull, we roll in our big finish – chocolate pudding cups with – oh yes – squirts of whipped cream delivered straight from the Reddi-wip canister.

Sometimes on Saturday nights, as I watch the kids’ delight as whipped cream is squirted to their exact specifications, I think about the many people all over the world who are enjoying fine meals at that very moment. They’re sniffing corks, asking for a few more shavings of truffle, or setting up their camera for an Instagram shot of course number three-out-of-thirty. But, watching those kids smear their entire faces with our simple-but-worth-it dessert, I doubt that anyone is enjoying their food more than they are, and that’s the only Food Rule that really matters, at least to me. 

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