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The Family Cookbook Problem

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Every other Thursday, we bring you Nicholas Day -- on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.

Today: Nicholas explains why most family cookbooks fail -- and offers one glimmer of hope. (Plus a family kale recipe with dignity.)

family cookbooks

Every hungry family is hungry in its own way.

It is a terrifying, Tolstoyan truth: you are all alone in the pantry, with nothing for company but unlabeled grains and a junkyard of abandoned dinner ideas.

No one knows how to feed your family. Even your own family doesn’t know. I mean, they’re starving. Who can think when you’re that hungry?

No book can tell you. There are now splendid cookbooks in almost every imaginable culinary category, not excluding salumi making, but any parent looking for good advice about what and how to feed their family will run into a chicken-fingered wall.

This is a genre in which the most prominent cookbook, Laurie David’s The Family Dinner, is written by someone who employs a family cook. Half of all family cookbooks take the fun out of cooking, in a 1950s, home economics sort of way: here we will manufacture this thing we call dinner, which is composed of foodstuffs. The other half, the chef-authored ones, are inadvertent parodies of how not to cook for a family, and for an obvious reason: at dinner time, no chef is cooking for his family.

No one asks an architect how to build a blanket fort. 

Do I sound tense? I’ve been thinking about this—the promise and peril of family dinner—lately because we have just added a new human to the household. (Meet Samuel, also known as Mila: he is a gorgeous, gurgly nonagenarian fatso.) For those of you keeping score at home, that’s two big humans, two small humans. They’re catching up.

Not coincidentally, we also just added a new recipe binder labeled sanity. It does not include the family recipe for tortellini.

Am I aware that last time I was here I told you to make a different sort of individually-filled dumplings? I am. Am I going to admit that this is an ironic juxtaposition of columns? I am not. Do I still insist that those dumplings are totally worth it and way easier than you’d expect and have the potential to save actual lives? Yes.

dinner: a love story

Mila’s arrival coincides with the publication of Dinner: A Love Story, the cookbook version of Jenny Rosenstrach’s blog. Her book and blog are something very rare in the genre of family dinner: they inspire neither homicidal nor suicidal impulses.

Dinner: A Love Story works for a few reasons: a realistic but not humiliating appraisal of your time-limited capabilities, a balance between aspiration and actually getting to eat, a voice that manages to confide without you wanting to tell it to stop confiding already.

But what I like most about Dinner is that it is honest about what it will not do: it will not solve your problems in “three easy steps!!!” Indeed, the story that Dinner: A Love Story tells is the creation of Dinner: A Love Story. Rosenstrach gives a lot of tips, and a lot of recipes, but the implicit point of the book is that, in the end, you have to write your own Dinner. No one can do it for you.

This is why the cookbooks to which people turn most desperately are the worst of all. Most cookbooks make sense because they speak to particular tastes: a taste for Moroccan food, say, or donuts. But family cookbooks address the audience of people with families—which is nonsensically broad. There isn’t family dinner. There are only family dinners.

Right now Mila’s mostly mouth and underdeveloped esophagus. Even by our radically lowered standards for dinner companions, under which FORHESAJOLLYGOODFELLOW counts as conversation, he’s no dinner companion. But in the years ahead he promises to make a mess of the few things I thought I knew about feeding children. And to make the title of that new binder look deeply ironic.

But there’s only one of him. If we can crowd-source this sanity thing, we might yet have a chance.

For the sanity file, I recommend Rosenstrach’s kale with avocado and pickled red onions. Why? And why kale, of all things?

Here’s why: 1) because pickled red onions, like smoked paprika, make everything better; 2) because avocado is what you give children instead of giving in to more butter please; 3) because of my self-deluded, Jenny Rosenstrach-bolstered faith that, even in our new state, kale is not a four-letter word.

Oh, right: 4) Dignity.


Kale with Avocado and Pickled Red Onions

From Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach (Ecco, 2012)

Serves 4

1 cup water
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 red onion, sliced
1 bunch kale, washed, stems removed and chopped (8-10 cups)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 avocado, cut into chunks

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by James Ransom

Tags: Nicholas Day, kids, parenting, weeknight, dinner, family cookbooks, cookbooks, kale, dinner, everyday cooking

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