Every other Thursday, we bring you Nicholas Day -- on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.
Today: On how parents cook with kids dangling from their limbs.
Having children changes you. Specifically, it changes how you chop an onion.
Before I had children, these were the variables I had to contend with: an onion, a knife, Robert Siegel. Now that I have children, these are the variables I have to contend with: an onion, a knife, a sloth who has wound himself around my lower extremities and is singing “Baby Beluga” at a volume that Raffi would never countenance, and an opossum -- the younger brother of the sloth -- whose single desire in life is to upend the kitchen garbage can and arrange its contents in small decorative piles under my feet.
The onion is not really the issue anymore.
Cooking with and for small children can feel like a problem that physics has yet to solve: there are too many variables, and each variable is itself too variable. (For example, sometimes the sloth turns into a princess firefighter.) It is so different from cooking before children that you become endlessly curious about how other parents do it. You become a voyeur -- a highly domestic, tediously mundane voyeur, with a fetish for practicality and freezer organization tips.
Most writing about food and children consists of someone telling someone else what to do. But the most rewarding, the most useful writing about food and children often comes from someone asking someone else what they do. This sort of advice you get from this isn’t handed down from on high. It isn’t authoritative. It’s a patchwork of hashed-out compromises, and hard-won truths, and this-works-for-us-but-I-know-it-seems-nuts suggestions. It’s real life, in other words.
I wanted to write about Clotilde Dusoulier’s new book, The French Market Cookbook, partly because it is an exceptionally clever vegetarian cookbook -- more on that later -- but partly she’s been publishing a lovely series of interviews on her blog about how other parents do it. (That blog being Chocolate and Zucchini, of course.) The series is called, simply, Parents Who Cook, and it began because Dusoulier herself became a parent who cooked. (Her son is now a little over a year old.) And she became, in her words, “super curious to hear from parents and cooks I admire about how they handle things.” (Those parents and cooks include, in an inevitable bit of food blog circularity, Amanda and Merrill.)
For example, from the writer Diana Abu-Jaber, there is this piece of wisdom: “I've found almost inevitably that the amount of work you put into a particular dish is directly inversely proportionate to how much the kid is going to like it. This is actually quite liberating if you don't fight it (and I still test it from time to time.)” But also, in the news-you-can-use department, there is this, about Abu-Jaber’s daughter: “When Gracie was around 2, maybe even younger, I started giving her a little bowl to follow along with me. She has her own tiny whisk and she'll get small amounts of all the ingredients to mix up.”
This is the sort of thing we could use more of. (As opposed to that occasional staged New York Times series about chefs cooking with their children, which mostly just reminds you that chefs are not usually cooking with their children.) To turn the tables, I asked Dusoulier how having a child had changed her cooking. “I have discovered the magic of mise en place,” she wrote back. “I never bothered before (I even scoffed at it a little) but now most of the dishes I prepare, I prepare in several independent steps at different times of the day, or even on separate days. I may wash, trim, and cut my vegetables a couple of hours before cooking dinner, for instance, and when I bake, I will measure the ingredients the day before and put them in containers so all I need to do is mix and bake the batter the next day.”
Presumably, she did that while writing The French Market Cookbook. It is the sort of book that Parents Who Cook would like. It is clever, and it is ambitious but deliberately unfancy, and most of it can be made with a sloth wrapped around your leg. It is vegetarian and seasonal, and so you open it expecting to have seen it all before, but you keep being surprised. Seaweed tartare! Asparagus buckwheat tart! Poor man’s bouillabaisse!
The recipe below -- savory pancakes, packed with Swiss chard -- will sound more familiar. It will feel like a variation on the all-American, late-summer zucchini pancakes staple. But it is better: fluffy with egg, sturdy enough to flip, vibrantly green. And sloth-and opossum-approved.
Very lightly adapted from The French Market Cookbook
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 eggs, 2 whole and 2 separated
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
2 tablespoons dry white wine (optional)
1/2 cup milk (or unflavored, unsweetened nondairy milk)
8 ounces Swiss chard leaves (save the stalks for another use) or spinach, finely chopped
Olive oil for cooking
Fine sea salt
Photos by James Ransom