family dinner

Tacos

Lisa’s post recently about calzone pizza tacos got me thinking about tacos, of course, but also about how even though our kids are growing older and somewhat less picky, the slightest change can sometimes mean the difference between a happy meal and a table fraught with conflict.

Her kids ate the calzones, though not without a lot of discussion. I had a different experience recently when I laid out a dinner with crispy taco shells instead of our regular tortillas. I didn’t think much of it, really. Same ingredients, same shape, different texture. If I had stopped to think about it, I probably would have braced myself because most of the time around here change is Not Good.

But I got lucky. My kids were thrilled. They were in raptures. I was the Best. Mom. Ever. (Even though Tony did the cooking; sorry, Tony). And Eli ate four of them, stuffed with brown rice, pinto beans, guacamole and shredded jack cheese — the same ingredients with which he fills his quesadillas — suddenly transformed by their crispy new jacket. For one night, change was good, and I relished the feeling.

Up for debate

by Lisa

Two days ago, my fifth grader left for school declaring, “Time to face global climate change!”  It’s been 85, 90 degrees here. In October.  By 4 pm, our house, with it’s western facing wall of windows, is a hot box.  We’re steamed out of the kitchen. I’m certainly not cooking, and we’re certainly not eating in there.  Also, there have been the debates. And baseball. Which = a lot of TV dinners. More

Family Food in Paris

by Caroline

My children have been to Paris four times.

I have to pause after writing that sentence. My children have been to Paris four times? How did that happen? How did they get so lucky?

Well, first there was the wonderful boat trip, a week exploring rivers and canals in southwestern France, that my parents took us all on to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Tony and I considered the consequences of jetlagged children in a confined space and (twist our arms) decided to stop in Paris first. Subsequent summers brought my sister teaching in Oxford, a friend living temporarily in Portugal, other friends on sabbatical in Paris and– through it all — a convenient nonstop flight from San Francisco to Paris bringing us closer to people we love. So now here I am, the mother of two children who have a fair amount of experience in the City of Light.

The City of Cheese,” Ben might say, with a grimace. “The City of Sauces,” Eli might add, shuddering.

It seems churlish to complain, but the world’s food capital doesn’t do very well by my vegetarian family. And honestly, that’s ok with me; we eat what we eat and don’t expect people — or countries — to accomodate our habits. But it has made staying in beautiful Paris a little more difficult than it might be for families whose kids will happily tuck into steak frites or a cheese crepe. We find ourselves challenged in a city where restaurants don’t want to make adjustments to the dishes on the menu (just try ordering plain pasta!) and don’t like to accomodate a child who can’t make it through a full three-course meal. In one of my favorite small guides to the city, Karen Uhlmann’s Paris for Kids, she writes, “I use my museum method for taking children to dinner in Paris (one museum, then one park): One pasta night for you; one bistro night for me.” She then goes on to describe her children eagerly trying duck for the first time (and loving it) or a place that offers an oyster ice cream that her children are still talking about (I bet they are!) I aspire to her experience, and keep her recommendations on the shelf for a time when my kids have expanded their palates.

For now, since Parisiens don’t expect (and don’t really want) children at restaurants, we make like Parisien families and try to stay out of them. In the past, we’ve rented apartments and cooked for ourselves, using the glorious produce available in the various markets. But this year, we weren’t staying in Paris long enough to justify an apartment. We didn’t pack food; we stayed in a hotel. It offered a spectacular breakfast buffet that kept us going for hours; we ate salads from the wonderful Monoprix for lunch; and then we collapsed in the hotel while Tony fetched us take-out for dinner. We wound up eating a lot of Italian and (perhaps weirdly) sushi in Paris, and it worked out just fine.

Our hotel picnic dinners gave us some nice downtime together before we headed back out into the beautiful night.

Twenty-One Meals at Camp

by Caroline

Last summer, Lisa detailed her family’s vacation road trip and how they handled forty-two consecutive restaurant meals. This summer — just last week — my family faced a shorter, but perhaps even more difficult, challenge: 21 consecutive cafeteria meals.

We were at San Francisco’s family camp just outside Yosemite, and while we had heard raves about it for years — the lake! the hikes! the freedom for (and from!) the kids! — everyone always paused when Tony or I asked about the food. Well, they’d say, you don’t go for the food. When I asked about vegetarian options, they’d say yes, there’s always a vegetarian option, but then would mention the availability of pb&j and cold cereal at every meal, too, which was simultaneously comforting and worrisome. I read an article in the local paper and paused at the reference to the Sysco truck delivering provisions. The night before we left town, I ran into a friend, just back from her 9th summer at Camp Mather, who told me this year the food had slipped from mediocre to lousy.

But part of the point of this vacation, for me, was the break from cooking, from every aspect of cooking: meal planning, marketing, cooking, serving and cleaning up. A break from the kids’ complaints about what we’d prepared. A break from being in any way responsible for the meal. For someone who thinks and writes and cares about food as much as I do, I found that I really didn’t care too much about the food at camp. For one week, I figured, we could handle anything. So we did not pack extra provisions beyond granola bars for hikes and some salty snacks for cocktail hour. We crossed our fingers, and we hoped — well, not for the best, but for good enough.

And it was fine. We’d set the bar low, and were happily surprised. The food was varied and plentiful and we all found things we liked. Tony taught Ben to work the salad bar like a pro, topping his chopped romaine with tofu chunks and a soy-ginger dressing. Eli, happily taking advantage of how much I say “yes” on vacation, learned how to get just the right amount of cold milk into his hot chocolate, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No one had to resort to cold cereal for dinner.

an evening meal


And we were reminded, again, that it’s not just about the food. We ate every camp meal outside, on a wide porch shaded by enormous pine trees. We sat with old friends and made some new ones.

dinner crowd


We shared drinks, bottle openers, and tips about nearby hikes and swimming holes. At the end of each meal, our messy trays looked like this:


My family looked like this:


And I can’t wait to go back.

Family Food in 1938

by Caroline

family picnic, circa 1938

Among the treasures I found in my garage recently were two bank-issued datebooks from 1938 and 1939. They are embossed with Tony’s grandfather’s name and offer some introductory boilerplate pages of information considered essential for businessmen, from a 300-word description of the Statue of Liberty to “Fifteen Don’ts in the Use of the Flag” and “The Fourteen Errors of Life.” “Good Rules for Business Men” include “Make Friends, but not favorites” and “Stick to chosen pursuits, but not to chosen methods.”

These pages fascinate me, but I’m even more interested in the calendar pages of the book, which Tony’s grandmother took over and made her own daily journal. From January 1st until December 25th, she noted the day’s activities and the family’s meals (sometimes indicating different dishes for her daughter, eleven year-old Nancy, and her youngest child, Geoff).

Saturday, January 1st, 1938
Played in the yard in the morning
Ate lunch at Andersens on Wilshire Blvd.
In the afternoon went to Grauman’s Chinese to see “Love and Kisses” + “Checkers.”
Supper at 6:15 P.M. Bed at 7:40 P.M.

~~~
Breakfast
Orange juice
Ralston
Scrambled eggs
Ham
Milk
Toast

Lunch
Turkey
Corn
Potatoes
Tomato Juice (Nancy)
Lettuce salad
Orange sherbert (Geoff)
Choc. Sundae (Nancy)

Supper
Bean soup
Pear salad
Crackers and cheese
Apple
Cookie
Milk

Monday, January 10, 1938
School.
Nancy had her 17th French lesson. Geoffrey went to club.
Bed at 7:05 + 8:00 P.M.

Breakfast
Orange juice
Oatmeal
Raisin bread toast
Bacon
Milk

Lunch
Meatball
Spinach
Lima beans
Peas
Orange
Milk

Supper
Mushroom soup
Spaghetti
Roll
Rhubarb
Milk
Graham crackers

I skip ahead to April:

School
Nancy had a French lesson at 3:10 P.M. Geoffrey went to club.
Nancy getting her rock specimens ready to take to school for the “Hobby” department on May Day.

Breakfast
Orange juice
Ralston
Bacon
Toast
Milk

Lunch
Pea soup
Cottage cheese – avocado salad
Jello + cookie
Milk

Dinner
Meat ball
Potato
Squash
Beans
Raspberries
Milk

And then skip again to a Saturday in May:

Went to the children’s show in the morning at the Beverly theater.
In the afternoon played outside.
Nancy baked a lemon cake – very good.

Breakfast
Orange juice
Oatmeal
Bacon
Toast
Milk

Lunch
Creamed fish
Beans
Potatoes
Tomatoes
½ peach
milk

Supper
Mushroom soup
Bacon sandwich
Apple-celery salad
Milk
Tapioca pudding (Nancy)
Cherries (Geoff)
Cake

I learn about their haircuts and their play dates and their appointments at the dentist; I learn that Nancy had a pet guinea pig and Geoff was sent to bed early when he misbehaved.

But of course it’s learning about their meals that interests me. I’m intrigued by the ways in which they are not so very different from our own (cereal, juice and milk at breakfast) and the ways they really are (also bacon and toast with that cereal, juice and milk!) It’s page after page of hot lunches and meat + two (or more) veg dinners, with milk at every meal. It is very proper English eating, because Nancy’s mother was English, but clearly California eating, too, as they incorporate the local produce, especially avocados, and lots of grapefruit and oranges.

Its uncomplicated lists of everyday meals show how one family was being nurtured and nourished, and makes me glad of the record Lisa and I are keeping here. It makes me think about what I want my children to remember of their meals, and realize my aspirations are fairly simple: I want them to be satisfied and happy, I want them to enjoy cooking and eating our meals. I could emulate some of these 1938 meals today if I wanted to – you can still buy Ralston cereal, which has only changed to note on the package that it’s microwavable — but I don’t feel the need. It’s enough for me simply to read this completely unremarkable record of one family’s daily food life, notable only because it exists.