Add One Part Julia and Stir: Julia Child’s Rules

Julia_Child_at_KUHTI’ve written in the past that books about Julia Child are among mysecret reading pleasures, but I was skeptical when I heard about Karen Karbo’s Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life (Skirt!/Globe Pequot Press). It sounded like yet another gimmicky coat-tails kind of project, like the blog-book-movie phenomenon, Julie and Julia.

I must admit that I enjoyed Julie Powell’s account of her year of cooking every recipe in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking; it’s a funny, engaging, stylishly written page-turner. But there’s a quality about it that’s so anti-Julia—an edge of smugness and a positively Seinfeldian lack of compassion for, well, humanity. In the first chapter of the book, Powell encounters a mentally ill homeless person on her way home from a bad day at work and casually refers to her as “the loon” half a dozen times in the anecdote that follows.  (No milk of human kindness wasted by our Julie, that’s for sure.)

As the Julie-Julia blog project went viral, Julia, then in her 90s, was reported to have made clear that that she didn’t much care for it; she thought it was a stunt and objected to Powell’s use of foul language. For me, it was that soupçon of insensitivity bubbling up here and there in the book that left me with a bad aftertaste. Julia Child was many things—a maverick, obsessive, irreverent, a lover of practical jokes—but (judging from all those biographies I’ve read) she wasn’t mean.

Julia Child Rules book coverSo, like I said, I was feeling skeptical when I opened Karbo’s book, but after the first few pages, that feeling had evaporated completely. Karbo has written a hybrid volume that is part biography, part memoir and part inspirational manual that uses Julia’s life as its template. In ten chapters, each titled with a numbered “rule,” she interweaves bits of Julia’s now-familiar (to fans) history, with a moral about her approach to living. (Rule No. 1: Live with Abandon. Rule No. 2: Play the Emperor. Rule No. 3: Learn to be Amused. And so on.)

In between, Karbo tells about her own life, her relationship with her mother (an early Julia devotee who faithfully cooked Julia’s recipes every night for dinner) and her relationship with food, cooking and balancing all the expectations and obligations of modern womanhood. That sounds like heavy stuff, but it isn’t at all. Karbo writes with a painterly eye for detail and a gag-writer’s ear for a punchline. Here’s her memory of what it was like to wait each night for her mother’s Julia-inspired creation to come to the table:

My mother would be standing at the stove, wearing a pair of Capri pants and a short-sleeved cotton shirt (not unlike those worn by Julia on The French Chef) smoking her Viceroy and stirring. The kitchen smelled of onions and butter, or garlic and butter, or what I know now to have been wine and butter. I’d ask when we were going to eat, and she would say soon. But it didn’t mean soon. It meant whenever she was finished stirring.  … We usually ate around eight-thirty. I had finished my homework hours earlier and some important TV show was inevitably on at that very moment. I had long since stopped being hungry and had entered the state where your body starts digesting its own organs to stay alive.      

You and your inner adolescent can’t help but laugh along in sympathy, even if your mother (like mine) never attempted Tranches de Jambon Morvandelle— at twelve, whose view of the world matches her mother’s? And then, two chapters later, having been thoroughly drawn into the domestic scene Karbo creates, your inner adolescent just might find herself sobbing when the author recalls her mother’s death from a brain tumor at the age of 46, and her last Julia-inspired birthday meal for her apathetic daughter.

If Karbo had only written a memoir of her own life, this would have been a charmer of a book, but it is more than that. That’s because Karbo interprets Julia through a fresh, decidedly feminist lens. Others have written about how Julia’s height of six feet, two inches put a damper on her social prospects, and how she languished, rich but purposeless, until World War II. Then, so the story goes, her wartime service with U.S. intelligence forces in Asia occasioned a fateful meeting with the man who was to be love of her life, Paul Child, who didn’t care that she was a whole lot taller than he was.

This is all undoubtedly true, but Karbo puts a different spin on Julia’s height. Her chapter titled “Play the Emperor” refers not only to the roles Julia always got in the amateur theatricals that she loved, but also to the approach to life that she evolved in those years. The tallest girl in the room never got cast as the princess or the ingénue; she was always the lion or the emperor. In Karbo’s telling, instead of accepting her lot with the outward grace of a good sport, Julia enthusiastically embraced it, and came to revel in the opportunities if afforded her to steal the show.

From this, Karbo extrapolates a rule for living: Play the Emperor. And she explains: “A woman as tall as Julia could never be transformed by a new dress or a tube of lipstick. No makeover would ever make over the part of her that failed to comply with traditional standards of feminine beauty.” Karbo finds inspiration in Julia’s resilience: “Her practical nature asserted itself, and she realized she had a choice. ‘Why languish as a giantess when it is so much fun to be a myth,’ [Julia] …wrote in her diary. She may have been whistling in the dark, or practicing a sassy attitude, but she seemed to have understood even then that a girl could choose to behave in a way that would distinguish her.”

Karbo ends the chapter concluding, “I’m not saying you’re fine the way you are. Julia, certainly, for her time, was not ‘fine’ the way she was. Instead, by embracing all that she was, she redefined fine.”

I wouldn’t exactly say that Julia Child Rules “redefines” Julia, but it does offer up fresh perspectives on our beloved food diva—and maybe even on ourselves. And that’s no gimmick. It’s just a darn good read.

This post originally appeared on booktrib.com

Edamame Salami, or Eat Your Poetry; It’s Good for You

“Oh, Mom, we do enough of that in school.”

My daughter’s reaction to the news that I’d be leading a poetry jam with her Girl Scout troop was pretty much what you’d expect from a hipster 10-year-old. But our troop leader had loved the idea, so it was a done deal, school poetry lessons or not.

When the day arrived, of course we started with a snack. The troop had come straight from school on that May afternoon, and being fifth graders, they were as famished as if they’d just come from a 10-mile trek. Because poetry was the theme of the day, we’d have a “poetic” snack. First on the menu was Edamame Salami (recipe below), which I had invented for the poetry dinner chapter of my book, Friday Night Bites. The name came to me first, and then I made up the recipe to go with it: finely diced Genoa salami, crisped in the microwave, tossed with ready-to-eat edamames. For the less adventurous, there was Delish Fish: goldfish crackers dipped in melted chocolate. Both disappeared in minutes.

And then it was time for poetry. I had asked the girls to bring poems to share and had prepared a selection of my own favorites—poems I had loved as a kid, and others that I had discovered later on.

Oscar_Hammerstein_-_portraitWe began with “My Favorite Things.” We all know it as a song, but I wanted the girls to look at it sans music, both because the title fit the hodgepodge of poems I’d gathered and because, well, the thing is built like a brick wall. Oscar Hammerstein’s verses are just so well constructed. Not only is there a cunning little word picture in each line, but the rhyme scheme is deceptive in its simplicity, with a new rhyme and a refrain alternating in every other couplet. I passed out copies and pencils so the girls could analyze it for themselves, and soon they had labeled the whole thing:

mittens/kittens A

strings/things B

strudels/noodles C

wings/things B

sashes/lashes D

springs/things B

 But we weren’t done. Next, we looked for alliterations, and found one in almost every line. “Raindrops on roses,” “copper kettles,” “warm woolen,” etc. Suddenly, the verses that had seemed so familiar and so simple took on a new dimension.

For something a bit more contemporary, we looked at Adele’s “Someone Like You.” We talked about how she used the second person to give her song a sense of immediacy.

ogden nashThen came a lighter selection: “Fossils” by Ogden Nash, from the poems he wrote to accompany Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals.” It had some vocabulary to define first; 10-year-olds didn’t know that “wassail” is a kind of a drink or that “mastodontic” refers to the girth of a prehistoric mastodon. But they needed no coaching to chuckle at Nash’s mischievous punch line:

Amid the mastodontic wassail

I caught the eye of one small fossil.

“Cheer up, sad world,” he said and winked—

“It’s kind of fun to be extinct.”

 d147b662f0fc28f340d33f060a578d93Next was A. A. Milne’s wonderfully whimsical  ”Sneezles,” in which Christopher Robin has a  a case of wheezles and sneezles. It’s a wonderfully whimsical poem with a strict meter—tetrameter, to be exact. I clapped out a few lines with the girls, but they kept going until the end of the poem through lines like:

                   

…They asked if he suffered from thirst.

                They asked if the sneezles

        Came after the wheezles

Or if the first sneezle

Came first.

         They said, “If you teazle

A sneezle

Or wheezle

A measle

May easily grow.

      But humour or pleazle

The wheezle

Or sneezle,

The measle

  Will certainly go.” …

Then came Robert Louis Stevenson, Nikki Giovanni and Shel Silverstein, the latter brought to us by several of our Scouts.

statue of liberty By then we were ready to tackle something more challenging. Our troop had visited Ellis Island together, so Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” seemed in order. First we considered the title; we learned that the “old” Colossus was a giant statue on the waterfront of ancient Rhodes until an earthquake crumbled it to bits. We noted how Lazarus contrasted a militaristic symbol with the strong but welcoming lady of New York Harbor. Again, there was challenging vocabulary to review, but they got the gist:

           

Not like the brazen giants of Greek fame,

           With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

         Here at our sea-washed sunset gates shall stand

 A mighty woman with a torch whose flame,

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. …

 Call me sentimental, but the last lines always get to me:

“…Give me your tired, your poor,

                  Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

           The wretched refuse of your teeming shore

               Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

   I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 It was late in the afternoon, but I had two more poems to share. The first, one of my all time favorites, is by Emily Dickinson, and it’s as short as it is profound.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee.

One clover, and a bee.

And revery.

The revery alone will do,

If bees are few.

A tricky poem for a kid. We reviewed the hard words and then I told them how Emily Dickinson had lived at the time of the westward migration, which they had studied in fourth grade. She herself never went west and probably never saw a prairie in her life. So what was she writing about?

“Imagination,” ventured Hannah.

Bingo!

robert frostThere was just time for one last poem, and again I chose a grown-up one, Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” We defined the vocabulary words and then read: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/And sorry I could not travel both….”

It was May, after all, with just a few more weeks of school. I got out my soapbox. “I wanted to share this poem with you because you are all going off to middle school next year, and there might be times when you have choices to make. Somebody might offer you drugs, or there might be a bully who wants you to be a bully, too. I think this poem is about life—and about how not taking the easy road can make all the difference.” They were silent. I wondered if they were listening.

Clearly, it was time for a poetic art project. Concrete poetry—the arrangement of text in shapes that convey meaning. I handed out sheets of words that I had typed out and they got to work cutting and gluing and adding colorful flourishes with markers.

While they worked, I asked them which poems they had liked best. The answers were as different as the girls. “Sneezles,” said one. “Bed in Summer,” said another. “My Favorite Things,” said our troop leader. Around the table we went, and when it was Lauren’s turn, she said, “’The Road Not Taken,’ because it’s about making decisions that might not be popular.”

I said a silent YEE-HAAA!

On the way home, I asked my daughter what she thought about the afternoon. She replied, with all the eloquence of a kid, “It was good.”

“Ya’ know,” I said, “Some of these poems you might remember for the rest of your life. I first read some of them when I was young, and I still remember them”

“I guess so,” she replied.

That was good enough for me, because, well, I know that she will.

***

 

Edamame Salami

Makes 4 servings

2 ounces Genoa salami

8 or 9 ounces ready-to-eat edamames (thawed if frozen)

Chop the salami very finely or pulse in a mini-chopper to make small pieces. Transfer to a microwavable container and microwave on high power for 45 seconds to 1 minute, or until crispy.

Pour the edamames into a serving bowl and when the salami is cool enough to handle, pour it in and toss to mix well. Serve with plenty of napkins.

From Friday Night Bites: Kick Off the Weekend with Recipes and Crafts for the Whole Family (Running Press, 2009)

 

***

 First published on booktrib.com

Hot Comfort: An Adoption Story

Is Chinese baby formula dairy or soy based? The question occurred to me so suddenly and with such force that I had to check myself to make sure that I hadn’t blurted it aloud. But no. The other parents-to-be sitting in the meeting room in the offices of Spence-Chapin, the venerable New York City adoption agency, were listening undisturbed to our social worker, who was explaining yet another item in the mountain of paperwork we had to complete before we would be put on a waiting list that would eventually result in a trip to China to meet our longed-for daughters. I tried to listen, too, and to take notes, but I couldn’t help picturing an innocent babe, placed into my arms fresh from the orphanage, the only home she’d ever known. Would she like the formula that I’d bring from America for her? Would she recoil at its unfamiliar scent? Oh, God, what if she hated it? What if, in our first hours and days together, when she’d be assaulted by newness at every turn, I couldn’t offer her the comfort of a familiar mouthful of food?

I pictured my baby wailing and hungry and wondered what on earth I would do if that picture became a reality. Resuming my note-taking, I tried to focus on the form under discussion. But the questions stayed with me, and at the end of the session I approached the social worker.

“Is Chinese formula dairy or soy-based?” I asked. “Which should we bring? Will our babies take to American formula?”

“The Chinese formula is dairy based, and most of the babies drink the American just fine,” she answered. “But if your child doesn’t, you can buy formula there and mix it with the formula you bring with you. Then you can gradually reduce the amount of the Chinese. That way she’ll get used to it. By the time you come home, she’ll probably be completely happy with the American brand.”

Oh.

So much for that mom-to-be anxiety attack. But it got me to thinking: If an infant has been taking a particular kind of nourishment for her whole, albeit short, life, what happens when you change that form of nourishment suddenly? To put it in another way, do babies have comfort food?

So much has been made of that term in recent years. Meat loaf and mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese have been rhapsodized and eulogized so often, you’d think they were ambrosia. Of course, what’s comfort to one palate is exotic—or appalling—to another. My Argentinean friend speaks lovingly of the blood sausage and tripe, but he gags at the mere mention of root beer, my childhood favorite. For some souls out there on this small planet, comfort food is the roasted, carefully browned rat that I saw for sale at a street market outside Bangkok. (A case of chacun a son goût if ever there was one.) But while the foodstuff might vary, the idea is the same no matter where you go—comfort food is the food of home. It’s what we ate in our earliest experience of the restorative powers of the table, before, well, whatever came afterward.

I thought about this as I drove home from the agency with my folders of paperwork: Do babies develop food preferences? Can they form taste memories even as their first teeth are coming in? In short, can they have comfort food?

A few months later in China, my child answered my question—and it had nothing to do with baby formula. It happened on the third night after I got Jessica. We were settled into our hotel in the capital city of the province where she was born, waiting for all the official paperwork necessary to finalize her adoption. On that evening, my sister (who had accompanied me to China) and I went down to a late supper in the hotel dining room, with baby Jessica in her stroller. We were dining late because my newly acquired eight-month-old had had a late nap. When she woke up, I had fumbled my way through a diaper change and her dinner—a bottle of formula mixed with rice cereal, some puréed peas and mashed bananas—which, despite my lack of finesse, she seemed to enjoy. The peas necessitated a thorough sponge bath, and when that was done, we dressed her again and set off for our own meal. It was after nine. By that time, we didn’t feel like anything complicated, so we just ordered big bowls of noodle soup.

The dining room was tranquil and nearly empty, and the three of us sat companionably waiting for the food, Jessica content with a full tummy, or so I thought. But when the waitress came to our table with two steaming bowls, my tiny baby let out a series of large, loud screams.

Our few fellow diners turned to stare. In the three days I had known this child, such a thing had never happened. Was she suddenly sick? In pain? Just cranky? After a few moments of new-mommy terror, I realized the obvious. She wanted the soup. A one-page “bio” of my baby that had come from her orphanage had mentioned that her diet included soup, but the information had been sketchy, and I was a strict and nervous follower of my baby books. These advised introducing single foods, not blends; the better to identify the cause in case Baby had an allergic reaction. So Jessica had been drinking formula mixed with rice cereal and eating simple baby-food purées and mashed bananas.

My heart was overflowing. This tiny being, so trusting and innocent in the face of everything new—new mommy, new auntie; a new crib after so many months spent in the orphanage issue; the new surroundings of the hotel, with its shiny brass fixtures and mirrored halls; rides in elevators with doors that opened and closed; rides on buses with their smells of diesel fuel; a new stroller with belts and buckles; forays in that stroller over bumpy sidewalks to vast green parks and bustling department stores; new clothes and new diapers; new toys—almost everything she had encountered over the past three days was cosmically different from what she had experienced for the first months of her life. Yet, she had greeted each new phenomenon with smiles and coos. And now she smelled soup and saw the big bowls, and she knew what it was, and she wanted it.

I blew on it to cool it and spooned a bit into her mouth. Instantly, she was calm. We shared the rest of the bowl. How powerful, I thought, was the appeal of something delicious, even for so tiny a person.

When we came home to Connecticut, I made a big pot of my mother’s chicken noodle soup—my own comfort food, but not so very different from the noodle soup we’d shared in China. My daughter dove in, eating the noodles with her fingers.

And now I know: Babies surely do have comfort food. For mine, it was soup. And not age or language or nationality—nothing—could stop her from trying to taste it.

Copyright Karen Berman 2012. Permission is required to reproduce part or all of this essay.

Giving Thanks: Not Just for Thanksgiving

When I was writing my cookbook, Friday Night Bites, I spent months with a head—and a kitchen—full of archetypes and images of things that kids like. Amid the princess cupcakes and pirate meatloaf (with a treasure of cubed veggies inside), the dinosaur quesadilla and the deep-sea creatures made of puff pastry dough, there was one idea that I knew I wanted to include: giving thanks.

It was easy to work it into the book; the publisher had asked for a collection of 20 themed dinners, with recipes, a craft and other activities for each theme. Because it was book of family dinners, I decided to include trivia questions and conversation-starters for each dinner. As I developed each theme, I tried to imagine the kinds of questions a child might ask about, say, the origins of the teddy bear (or in the case of that dinosaur quesadilla, the origin of species).

Having been a parent for a few years by then, I’d already been thinking about how our kids have so much stuff and are so accustomed to immediate gratification of their every desire that it’s easy for them to take it all for granted. It was in this context that I imagined a conversation about appreciating what we have, and I developed a dinner titled “Thanksgiving Anytime.”

The meal consisted of variations on Thanksgiving dinner; the dessert, for example, was a twist on tradition—a made-in-the microwave pumpkin-vanilla pudding. The craft was a construction paper cornucopia filled with paper fruits, on which everyone was to write the name of one thing they were thankful for. The conversation-starter turned out to be fairly simple: going around the table thanking others for the nice things they had done, and emptying the cornucopia and reading its contents aloud.

We can all, grown-ups and children alike, benefit by cultivating the habit of giving thanks—and not just for Thanksgiving.  It sounds corny, but I’ve been doing it for a while now. I began a few years ago, when I was going through a difficult time. Lying in bed, unable to sleep, I forced myself to remember all the things I was thankful for. My goal was simply to distract myself and fall asleep, but very soon, I came up with a long list of wonders, from the cozy quilt that was wrapped around me to the loving parents who raised me, from the books in my bookshelf to the child sleeping peacefully a few steps away. As my mind flitted from sublime to ridiculous, my list grew longer (M. F. K. Fisher, Rodgers and Hammerstein, indoor plumbing, my third grade teacher who encouraged me to become a writer, dark chocolate, my sister and brother, the right to vote, dear friends, the bagel waiting for me for breakfast), and it occurred to me that life was really pretty good after all. I just had to take the time to remember it. Since then, every so often, I spend the few minutes before I drift off taking inventory and giving thanks. It’s a habit that refreshes my perspective.

And I see that I am not alone. In the run-up to Thanksgiving, social media was abuzz with “Thirty Days of Thanks.” Perhaps it’s the uncertain economy, or a reaction to the lows of the recent political campaign, or the ease of social media, but it seems like more and more people are taking stock of what’s good and sharing their findings. Or maybe it’s the weather.

During our few days without power after Hurricane Sandy, I had a chance to share my mood-lifting strategy with my daughter. At 11, she coped pretty well, but she had moments when the stress of no TV, no computer and no friends to hang out with just got to her. I took out my cell phone and used some of my precious remaining charge to show her pictures of houses destroyed by the storm and of people far worse off than we were. I reminded her that we were safe in our nice, dry house with our two cats curled up beside us, and that we had enough food, batteries and books to get us through. She fell silent—for a while, at any rate—and eventually, thankfully, the power returned.

When I looked back at “Thanksgiving Anytime” for the pudding recipe below, I rediscovered what I had written as a chapter opener. I don’t think I can say it any better than I did then, so here it is: “How lucky we are to have enough to eat—and such delicious things, at that! How lucky we are to have each other! When my day has been less than perfect, I try to remember all the things I can be thankful for—I make a mental list, and it always cheers me up. In a world where some are overly focused on getting more and more and still more stuff, while others don’t have enough, this is what I want to teach my child: let’s be thankful for what we have, for what is most important, and let’s make time to enjoy the important things together.”

Yumpkin Pudding Parfait

From Friday Night Bites: Kick Off the Weekend with Recipes and Crafts for the Whole Family (Running Press)

Makes 4 Servings

Vanilla Pudding

2 1⁄2 cups whole milk

1⁄4 cup cornstarch

1⁄4 cup granulated sugar

1⁄8 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

 

Pumpkin Pudding

2 cups whole milk

31⁄2 tablespoons cornstarch

1⁄2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1⁄2 cup canned plain pumpkin purée

1⁄2 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1⁄8 teaspoon salt

Graham Cracker Crumbles

8 graham crackers

1⁄2 cup packed brown sugar

1⁄2 stick (1⁄4 cup) unsalted butter, melted

To make the vanilla pudding, combine the milk and cornstarch in a measuring cup or small bowl and stir to dissolve. If there are any stubborn lumps that won’t dissolve, strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Pour the mixture into a microwavable container with a lid, and stir in the sugar and salt until dissolved. Cover and microwave on high power for 11⁄2 minutes, stir, cover again, and repeat the process twice more, for a total of 41⁄2 minutes; then add the butter and stir in the vanilla, cover, and microwave for 11⁄2 minutes. Stir to blend, cover, and microwave for 30 seconds. The pudding should be thickened and creamy and the butter should be completely melted and incorporated thoroughly. (Microwave ovens can vary in power, and some cook unevenly, so if by chance it is not pudding consistency, cover and microwave for an additional 30 seconds.) Remove from the microwave, let cool a bit, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To make the pumpkin pudding, combine the milk, cornstarch, and cinnamon in a small bowl and stir to dissolve. If there are any stubborn lumps that won’t dissolve, strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Pour the mixture into a clean microwavable container with a lid and stir in the pumpkin, sugar, vanilla, and salt until dissolved. Cover and microwave on high power for 11⁄2 minutes, stir, cover again, and repeat the process 3 times, for a total of 6 minutes; then stir again, cover, and microwave for 30 seconds. Remove from the microwave, let cool a bit, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To make the crumbles, combine the graham crackers, brown sugar, and butter in a food processor and pulse to coarse crumbs. Set aside.

To serve, spoon about 1 tablespoon of the crumbles into each of 4 parfait glasses or deep wine glasses (not the balloon shape). Top with 1⁄4 cup vanilla pudding, another tablespoon of crumbles, and 1⁄4 cup pumpkin pudding. Repeat, dividing the crumbles and puddings evenly among the 4 glasses, and alternating between vanilla and pumpkin. Top with a dusting of crumbles and serve.

Dinner, The Best Umbrella

The night that the superstorm Sandy took the power out, there was still dinner to get on the table. I suppose I could have served sandwiches, but something warm seemed in order. With the winds blowing at 70 miles an hour outside, firing up the grill was out of the question. Instead, I got out my chafing dish and set it over five squat candles that I had arranged in an aluminum tray. In went a can of condensed soup and some water, and about 45 minutes later—voila!—lukewarm soup. My other chafing dish yielded warm slices of buttered French bread. I cup an apple into wedges and dinner was served. There we sat, my daughter and me, eating our soup, bread and apples by candlelight. The storm taunted us from outside, but inside, the familiarity and comfort of family dinner prevailed.

Having written two volumes that fall into the burgeoning category of books about cooking with and for children, I’ve become convinced of the importance of family dinner. And I’m equally convinced that that the style of the dinner matters far less than the fact of sitting down together to eat it. I’m a happy producer and consumer of books to help with every permutation of the evening meal, for every taste and every occasion: multi-course extravaganzas that are cooked from scratch with organic, local sustainable ingredients; quick affairs that are assembled in 20 minutes from jars and boxes; or special, kid-themed dinners that feature foods with silly names, whose architecture makes them fun to make and eat (as in my two books). But—dare I say this in a blog post about books?—I don’t think you need a cookbook to do family dinner. The occasional take-out meal or hurricane-chafing-dish-improvisation will also qualify.

The important thing is to sit down with your kids as often as you possibly can, to share a meal, talk about the day, talk about life and just be together. I could cite many studies that have proven the social and public health benefits of family dinner (and reserve the right to do so in a future post). But now, days after the hurricane that barged in on so many lives, in so many ways, I’m just thinking about family dinner and how it’s such a sweet simple, refuge from whatever storms rage around us, no matter what’s on the table.

Note: This blog post originally appeared on BookTrib.com, The All You Can Eat Literary Buffet

The Most Important Meal of the Day

When I was growing up, it would have been hard to imagine the proliferation of cookbooks that offer today’s cooks instruction in the art of the family dinner. In the past few years, food personalities like Rachael Ray, Laurie David and Sara Moulton as well as other less prominent folk (myself included), have issued volumes on quick dinners, slow dinners, special dinners and everyday dinners.  Each author takes a unique approach to the subject of dinner, and each book offers its own charms.

Back when I was growing up, family dinner was just what you did. Every night. Mom cooked a hot meal, the kids set the table, Dad came home from work and everyone sat down to eat and talk about the day. (Paging Norman Rockwell!) Sadly, for too many families today, the evening meal has gone missing, lost somewhere between soccer practice, the PTA Council and the 987 texts, emails and Facebook updates that come bleeping to the table as soon as we sit down.

 

But it’s worth taking time for family dinner, because, like the fresh produce my mother taught me to eat, it’s good for us. More specifically, it’s really good for our kids.  I’d always heard this said, but when I sat down to research the topic in preparation for a conference earlier this year, I was astounded by the number of honest-to-goodness public health studies that proved the point, over and over again. I’ll spare you the academic citations and sum up: regular family dinners reduce kids’ risk of alcohol use, tobacco use, obesity, and even violent and criminal behavior. Regular family dinners also promote well-rounded nutrition and, not surprisingly, better parent-child communication.

 

So bring on the books about family dinner! Our mothers and grandmothers didn’t need them, but it seems that we do. With the stakes so high and the rewards so great, why not seek some inspiration to get back to the dinner table together?

 Note: This blog post originally appeared on BookTrib.com