In 1854 Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Our life is frittered away by detail” and called for “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a milion count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. ”
It’s good advice for a busy parent, and it’s excellent advice for recessionary times. While not so many of us can uproot ourselves as radically Thoreau did, there is a lot to learn from his advice about self-sufficiency, living close to the land, and keeping scrupulous track of your accounts. Thoreau is, in fact, in some ways, the spiritual grandfather of the urban farming movement, which has a lot of lessons to teach us, even if you’re not ready to raise chickens in your backyard.
For my part, it’s spring in Northern California–or at least the vegetables think so. This means the markets are filled with seasonal things we can eat raw, and which go right to the table with a quick rinse: snap peas, baby carrots, English shelling peas, radishes, tender baby fennel, baby gem lettuces. Even young fava beans can be shelled and peeled and eaten raw, dipping as you go in olive oil in salt. We have cucumbers for slicing and a few early tomatoes, too. Artichokes get done with a simple steaming, as does the Bloomsdale spinach, which has a really meaty leaf and it is the only kind Ella and Finn will eat. And then there are the eggs: fresh, gorgeous, eggs, with bright yellow-orange yolks, which my kids will eat in any form they can get their hands on. I actually have to ration them, but that’s another story.
While I have to confess to liking labor-intensive things, like frying zucchini blossoms as often as I can, most school nights I want to live like Thoreau, which means dinner consists these days, as often as I can get away with it, with whole, raw, simple food. The good things about eating this way are legion: It’s fast, healthy, and economical. You can offer your kids a choice of 2 out of 3 things, and let them begin to self-monitor and make good choices about what they eat. Small individual pots or larger bowls of different colored and shaped vegetables looks really pretty on the table and satisfies a simple aesthetic urge in me. But eating this way also teaches children to eat real food that looks like real food. In this way, they learn to appreciate color, texture, shape, and the basic flavor of the food in front of them. They learn that fruits and vegetables have seasons, and that they taste best when eaten in that season. (Even Finn, who is only four, asked me last night “When it going to be pomegranite season again? I love pomegranites.” Next winter, I answered, and he was fine with that, as he knew there were strawberries waiting for him, and peaches and plums to come….).
Ella and Finn have lately developed an obsession with soft-cooked eggs, which they love to eat in the old-fashioned way: out of egg cups. (I told you, kids like mini-meals, things that are their size.) Three minutes in the boiling water, a cold rinse, and you have an elegant source of locally, humanely sourced protein accompanied by whatever I dig out of the vegetable bin.
The one thing I do to make it a little fancy, is provide a salt sampler. I have a salt problem, as in I collect salt the way my kids collect Japanese eraser buddies. (We all continue to have really low blood pressure, so health isn’t an issue.) In the center of the table, I placed about 5 or 6 of my salts, and let the kids pinch or sprinkle very small amounts onto their eggs as they ate them. We had Provence Salt, Black Cyprus Flakes, Red Hawaiian Salt, the gorgeous salmon-colored Murray salt, Sel Gris, even a smoked sea salt (in the middle) which Ella bravely sampled. The jars were a lovely present from a good friend, and the rest were purchased at Farmers Markets & Whole Foods.
From my kids point of view, there’s not a meal more satisfying. Certainly, the time will come when things get more complicated. So for now, this is another way to continue following Thoreau’s advice. Life really can begin at the table.
“Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necesary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.”