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I obsessively read two things as a child: The Babysitter’s Club, and old cookbooks. In reality, I wasn’t allowed to do any babysitting because I was “grossly irresponsible,” and “hated small children.” Cooking, though, I could do. …Sorta.
Like most kids, I had no idea what I was doing in the kitchen, but cookbooks made it seem so simple. Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls has illustrations of nine year olds making Pommes Anna and boiled sugar frostings; scouts huddled around campfires without adult supervision; and boys and girls of all ages hosting lavish parties with nary a grownup in sight.
My sons Atticus and Toby are not me in 1987, and they most certainly are not the progressive boys in patterned aprons in 1957. They’re from a generation that plays cooking games on an iPad, and knows that they can make that food appear just by switching to the GrubHub app. They care not for dinner parties where they will be expected to wear anything more than underpants and sweatsocks in their own home. And despite the fact that both of their parents are chefs, they are the pickiest eaters on the planet.
Does Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls have any magic left? Can it break them out of the cult of McNuggets, broaden their horizons, and get them excited to learn how to cook so they can start making me dinner while I recline on the couch and watch Jeopardy?
In every edition of her children’s cookbooks, Betty Crocker has stressed that by making food “fun,” there will be fewer arguments around the family table. And by “fun” she means “find a way to make the food look like a face,” because you want whatever you’re eating to be smiling back at you as you rip it apart with a knife and fork. I plan a whole day of edible face fun, cross my fingers, and begin the experiment.
Betty offers no less than six options for breakfast faces, each paired like a fine wine with various General Mills cereals. I decided to do the only one that was only diagrammed, but not photographed, in the book—Old Hobo Joe—because I enjoy surprises, and also because Wheaties were on sale.
First I drop prunes in the bowl, dress them up with a banana and maraschino cherry hat, carve out little bits of apples for the eyes and mouth, and add apples slices for ears. This happened:
Atticus: Is that poop?
Me: No, those are prunes, and they’re good for you. The prunes are smiling at you!
Atticus: No they’re not.
Me: Does it look like this illustration?
Atticus: THAT’S RACIST!
Me: It’s prunes! They are rich in fiber! And I’m not getting into the politics of breakfast cereal.
Toby: I like hobos!
Me: You want to try it?
Toby: No, I hate prunes.
Me: You’ve never had prunes.
Toby: Yes I have! One day I had them when you weren’t around, and they were gross. And they look like poop.
My children hate salads, because they’re normal children. But you know what kids absolutely love? Candles. And according to this book, “It’s better than a real candle, because you can eat it”.
Step one is to place one single leaf of crisp lettuce on a plate, because that’s how you know it’s a salad. You then place a ring of pineapple on the plate, add an upright banana half into the hole, and affix a maraschino cherry flame using a toothpick. I opted to add a smiley face to the plate with some salad dressing, because I wanted the subliminally alert the boys that this salad would be filling them with joy, so they should eat it instead of bitching about how they’re starving because they didn’t eat their racist breakfast.
The problem with this recipe is that the authors did not take gravity into consideration. It’s near impossible to balance a banana vertically on a plate, much less transport such a creation from the kitchen to the dining room.
You don’t want to hear it. I got a phone call from school the next day.
Dinner: Three Men In a Boat
The plan now seems to be to emotionally scar the children with racist cereal and “candles” so badly that they’ll eat whatever I put in front of them. What better way to get them excited than a boat? A boat telling them to strap themselves in tight, because we’re going on a voyage….of flavor. And by flavor, I mean creamed dried beef and olives in a potato.
Atticus: It looks like vomit.
Toby: There’s vomit on my cheese sail!
Atticus: And there’s olive juice in the vomit.
Toby: They should call it “Men Swimming in an Ocean of Vomit”
Me: Can you stop saying the word vomit?
Toby: It also looks like diarrhea.
Conclusion: Children can see through your lies, and will not be fooled by faces. Or candles. And my kids are out to destroy the few shreds of sanity that I possess so please send help.
Next time: We’re celebrating Thanksgiving by going back in time! I’ll be leafing through Home Life in Colonial Days, written by Alice Morse Earle back in 1898, learning how to cook as the pilgrims did, how to serve those dishes in a way befitting the time, and how to keep the food free of cholera and typhoid.