My Family Recipe

I'm the Food Expert. But My Kids Love My Husband's Cooking.

On learning to cook again, after children.

December 11, 2018
Photo by Ty Mecham

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.

A few years ago, when our podcast, Burnt Toast, was in its infancy and we were dreaming up topics for episodes, someone suggested that Merrill and I bring our children on a show about the challenges of feeding kids. A timeless topic—and we had lots of experience to share. Perfect.

So we set it up. First, Merrill and I weighed in with our theories and beliefs about how to feed kids. We knew all about cooking and palate development, and we were parents, too. After we held forth, Kenzi Wilbur, the host at the time, brought the kids in to ask them about their eating habits.

“What’s your favorite thing to eat?” she asked my twins, Walker and Addison, who were 8 at the time.

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Top Comment:
“I find that cooking is a creative act, and I also often try new things and tinker with regulars. My family's favorite foods are still the few that I made over and over by rote: peanut chicken (or tofu for my daughter), pesto, and simple soups and stir fries. and I might add as an aside that some of our absolute favorite recipes still come from the early contributors to this site. They are among our most loved and vetted recipes!”
— healthierkitchen

“Daddy’s pasta!” Walker said, Addison nodding enthusiastically.

There it was, recorded for posterity. (1) Our kids, who in their first few years of life had tasted nearly all of the 1,400 recipes that Merrill and I tested for a cookbook, who had been introduced to oysters and sea urchin as toddlers, and who, in my attempts to educate their palates and broaden their openness to the world around them, ate whatever I put in front of them—pho, shishito peppers, lamb curry—cherished none of this. They preferred a simple, homey dish made by their dad.

When I met Tad, he kept books in his oven and nothing edible in his fridge. He drank cheap beer and ate a lot of takeout and burgers. I found this irresistibly troubling and remediable. (Okay, I may have found it so irresistible that I named him Mr. Latte, and wrote a column and a book about him.)

Over the last 18 years, we’ve found our middle ground. I’ve converted from drinking wine to craft beer and now eat more burgers. Tad puts his books on bookshelves, where they belong, and, happily, he even cooks!

One of my other nicknames for Tad is Mr. Efficiency. He obsesses over the shortest route to a destination, orders everything in bulk, is always on time, writes thank-you notes within a day, and absolutely detests standing in line. Especially for food.

When it came to cooking, Tad was characteristically economical. Once we had our kids and our schedules went haywire, he set about mastering a handful of dishes he could pull off on a moment’s notice: fish tacos, pasta alla vodka, and Daddy’s pasta.

Daddy’s pasta is a variation on pasta all’arrabbiata, a low-touch, slick sauce of tomato, red pepper flakes, and cheese. Tad started out shadowing the classic, but soon broke out on his own, adding chopped bacon and a bit more tomato. Rather than a long noodle, which was difficult for our kids to twirl and swallow, he used penne rigate, then orecchiette. His pasta shape du jour is now rotelle, because the tomatoes and bacon get trapped in its spokes. He tinkered and honed, making mental notes of our dinner table reviews and translating them into the next version:

  1. Cook down the sauce longer so it really clings to the noodles.
  2. Let the pasta sit for a few minutes before serving, which helps the whole shebang bond.

Meanwhile, I continued to roam and experiment, rarely making the same dish twice. I enjoy the hunt for a new great recipe, the push for something better. But it comes at a cost; cooking new things is more stressful because the unknowns are many. Tad would chat with the kids while making his pasta; I would cook distracted, with my nose in a recipe. Even after focused cooking, things don’t always work out well, and no one around the table is happy. And it’s hard to expect anyone to build an emotional connection to a dish if they’re only seeing it a few times.

One of the things I like most about cooking is how humbling it is. You can never master cooking, you can only continue to learn and change as a cook. The cook I was in my twenties is radically different from the cook I am now. Then, I had a family of bread starters inhabiting my mother’s fridge, and thought nothing of making duck confit for cassoulet. I was more ambitious, yet less efficient, a tiring combo. These days, I’m well planned and more patient. I’m probably not going to cook a Thomas Keller beef stew when you come over, but will happily whip up rice jook and a vegan cookie. Food has changed and I have changed.

The learning that comes with cooking is not only about your cooking abilities and tastes. The longer you cook, you discover not simply deficiencies in your skills, but flaws in yourself.

Once I had recovered from a bruised ego over Daddy’s pasta, I could see that my restlessness had been laid bare.

It’s a trait that’s often in deep conflict with another vital part of my personality. I’m an unabashed homebody. A comforting home and stability are things I have an almost desperate need to maintain. And yet, even when I have a home that feels comforting and right, I’m always itching to iterate and improve the physical space—to paint a wall, rearrange the furniture, recover the chairs. The same thing happens in my kitchen. I may love being in the kitchen and cooking for family, but I clearly can’t help myself from exploring some new taste, technique, or idea.

This urge for newness and evolution worked for me for many years. When I was a full-time writer, whose job was to constantly discover and write about what’s next, it was like feeding candy to my pathology.

These days, I’m well planned and more patient. I’m probably not going to cook a Thomas Keller beef stew when you come over, but will happily whip up rice jook and a vegan cookie. Food has changed and I have changed.

Now that I have kids, though, to whom I feel an intense responsibility to nurture a sense of security—not to mention, to establish family traditions—my searching ways floundered. The night after the podcast interview, while “joking” about it over dinner, I asked the kids what dishes of mine they liked. They paused and looked at each other. It was difficult for them to conjure up anything specific.

Kids rarely need to be direct for their message to be loud and clear. If I wanted them to remember my cooking, I had to slow down, I had to repeat, I had to make food that they could count on. Like their daddy did with pasta.

Over the past few years, I’ve done just this. I’ve stuck with dishes, and I keep a folder of recipes we like to go back to again and again—Roberta’s garlic dressing, porchetta, and Thai steak salad. Last summer, after getting back from the greenmarket with a haul of tomatoes, Addison asked me if I could make my brown butter tomatoes.

Mommy’s brown butter tomatoes. I like that.

(1) Ultimately, Walker’s “Daddy’s pasta!” response didn’t make the cut—not because I had it edited out to save my pride, but because the original recording was lost, and the episode we posted was a re-recording. The effect of Walker’s comment, however, stands firm.

Got a family recipe you'd like to share? Email [email protected] for a chance to be featured.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • healthierkitchen
  • M Stuart Itter
    M Stuart Itter
  • Bri Lavoie
    Bri Lavoie
  • kathy johnson
    kathy johnson
  • Merrill Stubbs
    Merrill Stubbs
Amanda Hesser

Written by: Amanda Hesser

Before starting Food52 with Merrill, I was a food writer and editor at the New York Times. I've written several books, including "Cooking for Mr. Latte" and "The Essential New York Times Cookbook." I played myself in "Julie & Julia" -- hope you didn't blink, or you may have missed the scene! I live in Brooklyn with my husband, Tad, and twins, Walker and Addison.


healthierkitchen December 27, 2018
Wow! Thank you, this is wonderful, Amanda. I definitely relate to the seeming dichotomy of being a homebody but feeling restless. I find that cooking is a creative act, and I also often try new things and tinker with regulars. My family's favorite foods are still the few that I made over and over by rote: peanut chicken (or tofu for my daughter), pesto, and simple soups and stir fries. and I might add as an aside that some of our absolute favorite recipes still come from the early contributors to this site. They are among our most loved and vetted recipes!
Amanda H. December 29, 2018
This is so great to hear! I just made Secret Ingredient Beef Stew, which was also an early Food52 recipe. I've made it many times but never cooked it for my extended family before. It was a big hit, so I'm going to put it into the holiday rotation, rather than searching for something new every year. :)
M S. December 20, 2018
Wow. This is pretty serious presentation Amanda. I first responded by noting that kids love Prego. True. But this is much more...more than food. All the little things you talks to them while he cooks, makes familiar dishes, not stressful, complicated dishes, avoids nuances that the kids have no context for understanding. Do you miss many dinners at home because of your work responsibilities, too. Painful. Sure you have resources for dealing with all this.stuff. Did all the above. Still fooling around with french fries starting with your column. Very big on croque monsieurs for the past month-remember your "From the Streets of Paris" thing. And, everything else. Like four hours figuring out what to serve first for Thanksgiving. My son, now in his thirties, hates the mention of Richard Olney's name. Our salad for years was the classic oil-3, vinegar-1, freshly grated garlic, touch of dijon mustard, parsley and tarragon. After Olney, decided this was passe and corny, and switched to subtle oil, vinegar, shallots. Family has hated the salads since then, . Maybe Marian Cunningham's "keep it simple dear" and the Canal House offer a little light at the end of the tunnel. oh well.
Amanda H. December 29, 2018
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Sounds like your kids have had some great food.
Bri L. December 20, 2018
Repetition makes traditions, and signature dishes that friends and family can love...I applaud your hubby for his tweak til it’s right approach and your quest for the exciting and new—how lucky your kids are to get both! I’ve long held the belief that one should marry complimentary vs redundant skills, so cheers to you for making it work. And yes, post kids, simple is key, at least on weeknights!
Amanda H. December 29, 2018
Thank you, Bri -- I appreciate your encouragement.
kathy J. December 19, 2018
Amanda, you are a food expert for sure, but you are also a very gifted writer.
Amanda H. December 29, 2018
Thank you, Kathy -- appreciate you saying this.
Merrill S. December 18, 2018
Getting to this a bit late, but it was worth the wait. It was especially fun to read because I've witnessed this important transformation. Now, I need to take some inspiration from your restless years and apply them to my own cooking... 😉
Amanda H. December 29, 2018
No! Your cooking is perfect.
lastnightsdinner December 18, 2018
I love this. My schedule is such these days that I rarely get to cook dinner for my kids (their current favorite eats are "daddy's salmon patties" and "daddy's turkey burgers"), so I try really hard to make sure we eat dinner as a family on Sundays. I generally let the kids decide what we'll eat, and 99% of the time, they ask for spaghetti and meatballs. The repetition is hard sometimes, but I am also learning to slow down and roll with it.
Amanda H. December 29, 2018
For the record, I would also be very happy to eat spaghetti and meatballs cooked by you any time. xx
marie December 17, 2018
I remember well your New York Times column and have a worn, torn out copy of your story about the first time your future mother in law had you and Mr. Latte for dinner. I have repeated the duck recipe more times than I remember and always loved that you were enchanted by the tastiness, but more the generosity in her entertaining that came from the ease of well honed recipes. Her son learned well. Happy Holidays!
Amanda H. December 29, 2018
Thanks, Marie. I'm at my father-in-law's house now and he has that column framed and hung in the mud room. He'll be pleased to know the duck recipe lives on. Thank you for keeping it going!
Courtney C. December 13, 2018
I am just bawling reading this - thank you for sharing this delightful story. I can absolutely relate to your description of ‘restlessness’. I came into cooking later, when my daughter was well beyond the toddler stage - and she is now almost 23. I rarely cook the same thing twice, which I realize has it’s positives and negatives. My daughter could likely not tell you what dish she remembers most growing up, or would love to repeat...but she has a love of food that is just a delight to watch, and she is extremely adventurous in what she will eat. I love that both my husband and daughter embrace this and will eat/try literally anything I put in front of them. I, too, also now understand that I will never master cooking, and I’m OK with that - but it does not diminish in any way the joy I have in my attempt to reach that lofty goal.
Amanda H. December 13, 2018
Thanks, Courtney -- so glad this spoke to you!
Elycooks December 13, 2018
This is charming, Amanda!
Amanda H. December 13, 2018
Thanks for reading it!
andymcmorrow December 12, 2018
I used to be adventuresome, but now it's the standards: my 19-year-old daughter wants my Bolognese, vegetable soup, a fairly authentic stir fry I do... It's her comfort food. She has no interest in "new classics;" the old ones are what she grew up on...
Jane S. December 12, 2018
I think I can now diagnose myself as a restless cook! Working in food naturally deters us from repetition, which sometimes (sometimes) is probably just what my kids need. Good food for thought. Thanks for the lovely and honest piece.
Amanda H. December 13, 2018
Appreciate your comment.
Megan December 11, 2018
This is my life too! My kids' (who are as picky as yours are adventurous) favorite meal is my husband's penne all'arrabbiata!! Very similar to Tad's except without the tomato paste and a bunch of garlic. In fact it is the ONLY meal every person in my family will happily eat. It is the meal we always have the ingredients for and the first thing the kids ask for when we ask them what they'd like for dinner. He's making it tomorrow for my son's birthday :)
Amanda H. December 11, 2018
So glad to have company!
Suzanne D. December 11, 2018
Loved this piece! What you say about needing stability and a comforting home, but also always itching to iterate and improve, particularly struck a chord with for thought in my own life. :)
Amanda H. December 11, 2018
Thanks, Suzanne!
Sarah Y. December 11, 2018
I loved this. I, too, love finding and trying new recipes, but have started realizing lately that it's not working with my young kiddos. I'm slowly but surely starting to create an arsenal of go-to's for them. One of their favorites: Marcella sauce. :)
Amanda H. December 11, 2018
Our kids love that too!
Emma L. December 11, 2018
So loved reading this, Amanda—thank you for sharing such a personal, candid story.
Amanda H. December 11, 2018
Thanks Emma!