Friday, March 15, 2013

The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage

 LUCY BURDETTE:  You all know by now that I can't resist a book about food. When I heard on an alumni writing list about about a book called THE CASSOULET SAVED OUR MARRIAGE, I had to track down the editor and ask her to visit JRW! Take it away Caroline!

CAROLINE GRANT My mom is a great mystery reader, and I grew up steeped in the novels of Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey. These days, though, the mysteries that consume my attention are related to my kids and the continual puzzle of what they will – or will not – eat on any given day. I’d like to see Lord Peter Wimsey and Inspector Alan Grant tackle my dinner menu.  My 7-year-old, Eli, is pretty predictable these days: he likes his vegetables and fruits raw and crunchy; he doesn’t like sauces of any kind; he likes to keep the elements of each meal pretty separate. No big mystery there, though I’ll be happy when we can cook carrots again.

But it’s my older son, Ben, who has moved in and out of pickiness in mysterious ways. For the first couple years of his food-eating life, he ate whatever we put in front of him: eggplant caviar. Goat cheese. Pickled daikon. Chard lasagne. And then bit by bit, he started dropping foods from his diet. It didn’t happen when he started school, as many predicted, but it happened obviously enough that I began to think of him as a picky eater. An unusual picky eater, to be sure; he ate cooked kale and pickled things and bitter marmalade, but no melted cheese (hardly any cheese at all), no milk except a bit to wet his cereal, no tomatoes. Birthday parties, with their ubiquitous cheese pizzas, became problematic. Eating out wasn’t so easy, either. And at home, despite our best intentions to keep cooking the foods we like and waiting for the kids to come around, we found ourselves subtly adapting our cooking to our kids’ appetites, or making modular meals of something new (a different kind of green, squash cooked a new way) topping something familiar (rice or pasta). We have fallen into ruts, and then needed to climb out of them. We get excited about new foods and then exhausted by the problem of needing to make dinner every single night.

But Ben just turned eleven and he seems to be stepping out of this picky eating stage. He sniffs delicately and will taste almost anything now except legumes. It surprises me sometimes, the things he’ll take from the table and put in his mouth. Recently, he pulled the bay leaf out of a dish of olives and ate it. I didn’t notice until afterwards, when he said, “That leaf on the olives is really bitter!”

“That’s a bay leaf, Ben,” I answered, “It flavors the food, but you’re not really meant to eat it.”

“Oh, well, maybe it’ll flavor my water.”

And with that, he stuck the bay leaf in his water and drank it down.
The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage explores various food mysteries: how to establish a new community around food; how to survive a hungry childhood; how to feed our children and our elderly parents; how to adapt to new foods, and new cultures, as we age. What have been the most interesting -- or challenging -- mysteries of your food life?

Caroline M. Grant is co-editor of Cassoulet, Editor-in-Chief of Literary Mama, one of Writer’s Digest’s Best Websites for Writers, and the Associate Director of the Sustainable Arts Foundation.  She grew up in suburban New York, eating only the produce grown by her father and grandfathers in their backyards and now, with her two young sons, raises what vegetables she can in their foggy San Francisco garden. She blogs regularly about food and books at her website.


  1. I suppose we all have our foibles about food [I steadfastly refuse to eat any of those cold cereals that seem to fill the shelves of an entire aisle in our grocery store], but somehow it is always the picky-eater child who captures our attention. Around here, the children, like Eli and Ben, are predictably picky. I am particularly amazed that the decision to ”taste it” or “not taste it” often depends entirely on how it looks . . . if they had their way, all meals would be chicken nuggets and French fries!

    Sometimes I can cajole them out of their pickiness by having them help me cook the meal . . . generally they seem a bit more inclined to at least try it if they actually cooked it themselves [and teaching them to cook is fun!] . . . . Mostly, though, I think it’s a waiting and hoping game --- waiting for them to abandon their picky ways and hoping they’ll learn to enjoy eating a much wider variety of food.

    I love the idea of the bay leaf flavoring the water and I’m adding “The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage” to the teetering mountain of my books to-be-read . . . .

  2. Hi Joan,
    I agree that often kids can be cajoled out of their pickiness by cooking with you, and I involve the kids in the kitchen as much as possible (though as mine get older, they are less interested in cooking with me than cooking independently, so now they have to learn about cleaning up after themselves, too!).

    Shopping with my kids makes a difference as well -- I discovered my son Ben likes okra when he liked the look of it at the market, and we brought some home. It never would have occurred to me to buy the stuff, but he found a recipe for a curry using okra and now curry is an occasional dish in our dinner routine!

    Thanks so much for reading,

  3. My Food Mystery: After 60-plus years of eating the stuff at least once a week, how is it possible that I still love Kraft macaroni and cheese?

  4. Joan and Caroline, you are so smart to involve the kids in shopping and cooking. But I can definitely remember frantically needing to feed everybody--anything!

    And yes, Jack, it was sometimes mac n cheese from a box!

    Caroline, tell us a sentence or two about a couple of the other essays in the book?

  5. I grew up in the days when you were expected to eat everything put on your plate. My one refusal? Canned peas. I ate sweetbreads, all kinds of seafood, all kinds of fresh veggies. Still don't like canned peas, but love them fresh or even frozen.

    My parents loved food. They traveled over a good bit of the world and were always interested in trying new things, and I thought that was "normal."

    I raised my daughter the same way. Although she did go through an adolescent McDonald's stage, she's now a very good cook and adventurous eater.

    My punishment for this? I'm married to a picky eater. His food preferences were formed--and frozen--in childhood by bad cooking. In the almost nineteen years we've been married, he's improved a little, but his pickiness has made cooking very frustrating for me and taken much of the fun out of something I've been passionate about since childhood.

    Caroline, do you think boys are more difficult (in the picky sense) than girls?

    Your book is definitely a must-read for me!

  6. Our darling next door neighbors --6 and 9--will eat anything. ANYTHING. Pate, caviar, smelly cheese, sushi, jalapeno jelly. ANYTHING. They don't even ask what it is. They just dive in.

    On the other wonderful grandson Eli, age ten? Just about eats ONLY mac and cheese. ONLY. He eats baby carrots, but not carrot sticks. Even if you cut the baby carrots into sticks, he won't eat those.

    I figure--whatever. It won't be that way forever. I didn't try tuna salad until I was twelve. I KNEW I wouldn't like it. I just knew. Then--I did.

    But I still have never tasted ham salad. I know I won't like it.

    Oh, your book sounds so terrific! Thank you for visiting!

  7. Hi, Caroline - So happy to have another foodie on Jungle Red! Love the story about your son and the bay leaf. Your book sounds wonderful.

    Both of my daughters have always been adventurous eaters. Squid. Tripe. Kale. And in any restaurant (where they were usually well behaved or we took them out to the car) they could be counted on to eschew the children's menu for whatever was most expensive and they'd never tried. Mozzarella sticks? Feh. And I couldn't disagree.

  8. I can relate to so many things you said about your children's eating foibles. Our daughter was similar to your son who ate almost anything as a baby. I remember taking our not quite 1yr old daughter to a Korean restaurant and being thrilled that she was eating all the "peculiar" vegetables as my husband calls them--even slimy seaweed. Now at nearly 4yrs, she is much fussier. It is probably easier to list the foods she will eat as opposed to the ones she won't. Getting her to eat veggies is a daily chore (even though she likes many of them).

    Our 2yr old son is not a fan of cheese, either. This baffles us, as hubster and I are both cheese fanatics. He must've been switched at birth! lol He will eat cheese if it's mixed into or melted on something--sometimes.

    It certainly does make feeding them difficult.

    Both kids are big fans of dried seaweed, though.

  9. To this day, my husband doesn't eat "mushy stuff," which means he's never eaten a banana in his life. In. His. Life! But he'll eat just about anything that comes off an animal.

    I'm the opposite: anything plant-based, I'm in. Animal-based? I'm incredibly picky and usually won't eat it. Plus I don't eat beef and am allergic to gluten and shellfish.

    We often eat very different meals companionably at the same table....

  10. The hardest thing about providing dinner to a family is they all have different foibles--at the same time. My kids are really stretched out in age, so I had 35 years of child rearing, which means a lot of family dinner. Some days it was a real head scratcher to figure out what to cook so that every single family member would get some nutrition. And even when you think you have it figured out, well, then they change their minds. Something that was a "favorite" last month is now viewed as the most horrible possible thing to plop on the plate.

    Now my adult kids are even pickier: one eats the Paleo diet; one refuses, still, to eat chicken; the other one won't eat anything remotely vegetarian. The eight-year old grandson, who can put away his weight in sushi, refuses to eat pizza of any kind.

    It's enough to make a mom cry.

  11. Hi Jack,
    Some of those foods we start eating in childhood just never let us go, do they? But let me point you to Deesha Philyaw's essay in the book, A Case for Soul Food, and her amazing, decadent recipe for what her family calls Blackaroni and Cheese!

  12. Caroline--welcome. Great post. It could be that your older son's decision to drop cheese etc had to do with a growing alergy. Some people instinctively avoid what their body knows they shouldn't have.
    My son would never touch an egg. When my husband forced him to try one when he was about two he spent the next several hours vomiting. He's never eaten one, or pancakes etc, since.

  13. Lucy, it's definitely not all gourmet meals and luxurious cooking stories in our book (though we do have some of those); some of our pieces address that need to just get SOMETHING into the kids' mouths, like Phyllis Grant's piece, Recipe, about cooking a dish that restores the sick kids and the exhausted mom; or Lisa Harper's essay about what to do when the kids refuse to go to the market.

    The book is organized in three sections: Food, where the writers focus on a particular dish or ingredient that's been meaningful in their lives, from the oysters a KG Schneider and her partner ate their first night in a new city, to the red sauce that's the centerpiece of Chris Malcomb's family-owned Boston Italian restaurant (Jeveli's, if any of you are in that city), or even the candy that Keith Blanchard can't stop eating (he offers a recipe for Heath Bar french toast).

    In the second section, Family, writers consider how they're connected to parents, siblings, extended family by the food they eat or cook together. So Bethany Saltman reconnects to her late father while cooking his recipe for turkey gravy; Elizabeth Crane builds the community her young family needs while selling peaches at the farmer's market; or Max Brooks remembers his late mother, Anne Bancroft, while working in her garden.

    Finally, Learning to Eat contains essays about all the different ways -- and the different places -- we learn to eat: Jeff Gordinier recalls the restaurants his father took him to; Libby Gruner writes about how children's books establish some of our ideas about food; or I write about learning to make independent food choices in the school cafeteria. My mom was very patient with my terrible elementary school food choices, a lesson I temporarily forgot when I sent my own kids off to school!

  14. Deb,
    Thank you!

    As for whether boys are pickier than girls -- well, I only have my own experience from which to generalize, and in my family (including my siblings and myself), the boys have been pickier kids but the females pickier as adults! It'll be interesting to see how my kids develop their palates as they get older.
    And ps -- I'm with you; canned peas make me shudder ;)

  15. Hallie, funny you mention mozzarella sticks -- we've just discovered they are a cheese my son Ben will eat! They seem so plastic & processed to me, but if they are a gateway to future cheese eating, I'll take it...

  16. Rhys, good point about the allergy. It doesn't seem to be the case with Ben, but I agree that's often behind food aversions.

    Lisa and I didn't want to make Cassoulet an issue book, so we don't have specific essays about food allergies and sensitivities, which are a real issue for so many families these days. But many of our writers cover Elrena Evans has a beautiful piece in the book about her own history of eating/body issues and her fear that her toddler daughter's serious food aversions are somehow related; and Jen Larsen (who also has a new memoir out, Stranger Here) wrote us an amazing piece about about how she learned to eat after weight-loss surgery, and what her mother and, especially, her chef-brother had to do with it. (Also she gives us a terrific recipe for her brother's Chicken Milanese, one of those recipes that makes me think maybe I"ll start eating meat again, just for this).

  17. And with all these comments about cheese, I need to give a shout out to novelist Neal Pollack, who wrote us a really smart, sharply observed essay, Food Fight, about the fall-out from an essay he published about his son's gourmet taste in cheese...

  18. Love the Bay Leaf story, somehow I can only see a boy doing that

    Growing up we had to at least try what was cooked, I did not like turnips, parsnips, cauliflower or canned peas.

    If we had mac n cheese it was homemade and I loved that.

    Applesauce was a must at every meal for me except italian. I still love it, but only homemade so we try to can enough for the year each fall.

    We rarely ate out, if we did it was usually italian which was never an issue, love pasta.

    Growing up Catholic, no meat on Fridays so it was fish or cheese pizza - pizza night was my fave, though I do like fish.

    Once a year my Daddy took us to a place call "the Century House" over looking the Hudson Valley - I loved going there because I could have Lamb, such a treat for me, not sure when I first had it but remember eating it young, probably on one of my sleepover at Grams.

    Then when I moved out and lived on my own, I ate a lot of boxed macn'cheese, frozen dinners - P&J sands, anything cheap

    Now I'm picky only because of 40 or 50 food allergies

    Your book sounds great and have added it to my wish list :)

  19. Great post, Caroline! I am looking forward to reading the book. Could use a few tips on encouraging my kiddos to eat more healthy things (willingly).

  20. @Deb -- good luck -- I am going to celebrate anniversary #44 with the world's pickiest eater (his vegetable choices are limited to string beans, corn, peas, and cucumber).

    I could never require my daughters to "eat everything" since their father didn't -- they have all grown into very intelligent and eclectic eaters. One is gluten-free these days, and one is definitely a gourmet. The two who are moms offer their kids very healthy choices.

    I agree with whoever asked about allergies. I NEVER liked milk (even when I was milking my very own cow twice a day!) And I am pretty much lactose intolerant.

  21. Mar, I love the kind of food memories you mention, from the simplicity of meatless Fridays to the annual visit to a special restaurant. Contributors to the book write about both big holiday celebrations and the smaller, daily moments we celebrate with food.

    Cynthia, hi! I definitely think involving kids in every stage of marketing/preparing/serving food can help them be willing to try new things. Bring them to the farmer's market or grocery store to let them choose; let them help prepare and serve it. If you have space for a couple pots, this is a great time of year to go to a garden center and start some seeds -- growing a vegetable themselves often makes kids more interested in eating them.

    Also, let them suggest combinations or condiments that you might not consider. For instance, my son Eli went through a phase of inventing recipes (his cake recipe is actually in the book) and once came up with a broccoli "recipe" that got him eating lots of the stuff: steamed broccoli dipped in a bit of melted butter and sprinkled with cinnamon. Both my boys like milk better if they can flavor it, too, so they've tried vanilla and almond extracts, plus most of the spices in my baking drawer. Everyone's tastes differ, so I just try to stock the pantry with a wide variety of good/healthy choices and then back off.

  22. Caroline, I picked up a book today in London by Pamela Druckerman called "French Children Don't Throw Food." Fascinating--and fun--reading.

  23. Deb, I'm curious about that book! The same author wrote Bringing Up Bebe, about French parenting.

    I think in our culture now we're really consumed by food rules, swinging between judgement on the one side and anxiety on the other; with Cassoulet, Lisa and I really want to change the conversation about food and focus less on what we eat than simply on what food means in our families.