Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Smart Kids, Part I

Optimism seems to be out of style.  It seems that a growing number people – of all political stripes – are convinced the world is going to hell in a hand basket.  The planet will soon be a charred ember, but not before mankind drowns in a sea of moral decay.  Or vice versa.

I, on the other hand… am always out of style.  And I am incredibly sanguine about the future – both environmentally and socially.

I have been thinking a lot lately about children.  Which works out well, seeing as how I have some of them.  And they utterly, completely amaze me.  They are so much smarter than I was at their ages it’s laughable.  True, they are woefully ignorant of the vitally important topics at which I excel, namely 80’s pop trivia and sports statistics – a situation which I try daily to remedy (“Who played Mrs. Garrett on the landmark TV series ‘The Facts of Life?’  Wrong!  It was Charlotte Rae.  I’m very disappointed in you.”)  But they have an environmental and social intelligence I didn’t achieve until, well… which I still haven’t achieved.

And that is why I have great hope for the future.

Two places in which kids today amaze me are:  the kitchen and the playground.  This post focuses on the kitchen.  Another half-written and probably never-to-be-finished (but nonetheless brilliant) post focuses on the playground.

When I was growing up in suburban Minneapolis, dinner at my house was a simple, straightforward affair.  You know what we had for dinner?  Whatever was put on our plates, thank you very much.  There were two inviolable rules:  1) Complain and starve, and 2) Eat slowly and starve (I have five siblings).  I often starved.

Dinner at our house these days is a very different affair, and it’s anything but simple and straightforward.  First we have to please a whiny little brat whose undeveloped palate craves only pizza and tacos and who throws a complete and total hissy fit if he doesn’t get to eat something he likes.  Then we have to please my wife and children. 

Every member of our household has a large and growing list of preferences, tolerances and culinary taboos.  Every evening we become short order cooks.  It’s not a kitchen, it’s a restaurant.  A high end restaurant.  A high end vegetarian restaurant.  The Moosewood Café meets the Post Punk Kitchen on our stove every night at six.

Somewhere along the line – and I have no idea where I went wrong – my children got the impression that when it comes to dinner they actually get a vote.  Then somewhere along the line that vote became a veto.  Then somewhere along the line (and don’t ask me how it happened) Alice and I became outnumbered by our offspring, and we lost the ability to stage a filibuster.

Did I mention that I hate to cook?  I didn’t?  Good, because that is completely untrue.  Hate is such a mild word.  There is no word in the English language – or any other language that I have found – that remotely captures the scope and depth of my disdain for food preparation of any kind.

What amazes me, though, is what kids in 2012 choose to eat when they actually get a choice.  And what they choose gives me hope for the future.  And maybe – just maybe – what they choose will make all those hours spent slaving over (and, God help me, eating) organic millet balls worth the effort.  And abdominal pain.  Just don’t tell my kids; it would tarnish my image as the Crabby Chef.

My kids eat – and love – food I never even heard of as a kid.  Quinoa, kamut and spelt – oh my!  I didn’t hear of tofu until college, and then only as something that those wacky Californians ate.  (Now that I am a wacky Californian… I eat it only under protest.)  My kids also eat nuts by the truckload.  As a kid the closest I came to eating nuts was sucking on peanut shells at a ballgame until the salt was gone and then spitting them out.

True story.  One evening a few years ago we made tofu stir fry for dinner.  As it was cooking we decided it didn’t look like enough food (OK, I decided it didn’t look like enough food).  We searched the pantry and the freezer and decided to heat up some frozen French fries.  A little weird I’ll grant you, but trust me we’ve had food combinations a lot weirder than that.  When we sat down to eat the kids scarfed up their tofu in record time, and then they proceeded to start forking the tofu off of my plate.  Angry at their lack of manners I slammed down my fork and bellowed in my best authoritative "Father Knows Best" voice, “That’s it!  No one is getting any more tofu until you FINISH ALL YOUR FRENCH FRIES.”  I remain the only person in the history of the world to utter that sentence. 

Here’s my point (and I do have one).  Kids today – certainly not all or even most kids, but many kids – think deeply about what they eat.  They care about what they eat – where and how it was produced.  And they act on those beliefs, yes in a way that immensely complicates food selection and preparation (the guy who stresses out boiling noodles and heating sauce simultaneously now stirs polenta, monitors roasting peppers, sautees mushrooms and slow cooks beans at the same time… then goes to McDonalds when everyone else is asleep), but in a way that holds great promise for change.

These kids are the people who get the idea of eating acorns and other nuts grown from permanent woody plants instead of annual grain crops.  These are the kids who will act on that understanding.  These are the kids who will create markets for acorn-based food products.

These are the kids who restore the oak to its lofty but rightful place as the Staff of Life.

I just hope that with the stress caused by food preparation and the irreparable damage being done to my taste buds that I live long enough to see it.

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