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Peas vs. Purple Jello!

Jeremy Eaton

I will always remember the outraged response I received from an acquaintance when I blithely confessed that my daughter won't eat, among a shopping list of other items, anything green (unless it is a "wild watermelon" gelatin dessert or the squiggly neon noodles that Kraft has started to add to the ubiquitous, boxed mac-n-cheez). "What?" she exploded. "You should be ashamed of yourself! If I were you, I'd sit her down with a plate of broccoli and not let her leave the table until she finished it." She added dramatically, "Even if it took days."

Aside from the fact that I'm really just as lazy a mother as a housekeeper -- in other words, to enforce certain standards, you have to sacrifice a lot of your own time better spent popping champagne corks -- I've never been fond of Gestapo-enforced dining. Children might still be starving in China, but forcing Zoe to swallow string beans isn't going to help them. I'd rather just send them the money directly than by taking pennies out of her flesh (or putting pounds on it).

It's not that I don't want her to be well rounded, at least as it concerns her food choices. But power struggles at the dinner table are the quick route to a healthy eating disorder. Nor am I a fan of current tactics espoused by parenting magazines, which are along the lines of disguising vegetables in hopes that the kids won't figure out they're being duped into tasting asparagus before they can unequivocally say they don't like it. Sorry, but my offspring, as you might imagine, are more suspicious than that.

At the moment, my strategy is more passive. I'm waiting for the time in every girl's young life when she realizes that she wants to be just like her mommy, peas, carrots, and all. That is to say, I'm waiting for her to grow out of it. After all when I was her age, I was beyond picky. My diet consisted of scrambled eggs and Spaghettios. When we took road trips, my mother had to pack the only brand of apple juice my pristine little lips would deign to touch. I also have very clear memories of food-related events that drove my mother, a good cook in ways both traditional and inventive, absolutely bonkers, such as the day when she decided, bless her, to make corned beef from scratch. I spent the afternoon hiding outdoors in 30-degree weather simply because I couldn't stand the smell. Or the time in Maine when everybody else ordered lobster and I was too revolted to do more than will myself not to vomit on the table. And here I am now, though I'm still not fond of corned beef.

Plan B is exposure. Kids don't become readers because you tell them books are fun. They learn more willingly when surrounded by the written word and see their parents enjoying it. Which is why I have dishes and platters with vegetable motifs on them in my cupboards and paintings of exotic fruit on my walls. I may pray to false idols, but at least they represent important building blocks.

Another method, if you have stubborn eaters, is to take them to restaurants where they can glimpse other foods and cultures, even if they press their lips together in denial of any foreign substance unrelated to pizza. I like to torture Zoe at Cuban restaurants because she is fond of black beans and rice (as is nearly every child born in Miami, regardless of ethnic background). So I know she'll eat something. But at the same time, she'll be witness to the rest of us enjoying dishes that simply horrify her -- like, say, white bean soup. To her rigid, reverse-discriminating palate, if beans aren't black, they don't exist.

Field trips also have value. Last year I dragged both kids down to the family farms in the Redland and Homestead areas for organic produce every other weekend. They never appreciated the rather lengthy drive, but they always loved the reward -- cinnamon rolls and strawberry milkshakes from Knaus Berry Farm, where I would stop for gigantic bell peppers and field lettuce.

The latest tactic in the battle of "if you're not going to taste it, at least look at it" is taking the kids to the Miami Children's Museum (MCM). The culinary education there is understated in some exhibits, palpable in others. For instance at the "emergency room" station, a sign reads: "You've broken your arm. Should you panic? Go to the ER? Eat a salami sandwich?" The answer, of course, is go to the ER. But the instructions also advise that "You can always bring the salami sandwich with you."

On the other hand, there's nothing subtle about the miniature, plasticized Publix. The shopping baskets are stacked and waiting to be filled from the various stations, all of which echo the cultural diversity of Miami. At the produce counter, for example, kids can fondle everything from realistically reproduced cauliflower to yuca. Canned products are more Goya than Green Giant. The deli case holds chorizo and sliced American cheese; fish include whole red snapper as well as sardines, which are "packaged" with cut lemon; bakery sweets range from flan to Danish.

Teaching-oriented exhibits include interactive pictorials from different kinds of bread to crop management. The bread display looks to have already suffered some damage -- both the pita and tortillas were missing -- and I'm pretty sure that the injera (Ethiopian sponge bread) is a lesson that will go unreinforced, as we have no Ethiopian restaurants in this town, to the everlasting and quite vocal dismay of all Washington, D.C., transplants.

The Spice Up Your Life television cooking shows are probably a more sincere reflection of our community -- they're conducted in Spanish, Haitian (otherwise known as Kreyol), and Chinese. It would be helpful if the spice assortment that accompanies the tutorials actually smelled like anything, though. You're supposed to tilt the various bottles of oregano and such toward you, sniff, guess the spice, and then flip the card to find out if you're right. Unless you're psychic, good luck; the bottles are actually empty. They smell like nothing more than trapped air.

And then there's the saving grace for every child: pizza. As in, the first traveling exhibit to come to the MCM, called "Pizza: Any Way You Slice It." Very creatively developed by the Omaha Children's Museum for the MC2 Collaborative, of which MCM is a member, "Pizza" explains this ancient, globally revered food from beginning (dough) to end (delivery). The stations include a kitchen for pizza making -- neat-freak parents don't fret, the "raw" materials are plastic and felt -- an authentically reproduced play wood-burning oven, take-out boxes, an ordering center, even a gigantic couch shaped like a pizza with pepperoni cushions.

All along, salient points about pizza are broadcast via parents reading to their children: "Honey, did you know that the average American eats 46 slices of pizza per year?" "Sweetie, I bet you can't guess what people in Japan like to put on their pizza -- that's right, smoked eel! You are so smart!" No doubt facts like the last one will be sure to elicit some disbelieving groans of "Ick!" But hey, that's what exposure is all about. And it sure beats standing over a gastronomically disobedient child with a whip made of broccoli.


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