Like many of us, today’s guest-poster Melanie Rehak read Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser and became inspired to shop more responsibly. But also, like many of us, she was confused about how exactly to go about doing this. That’s what led her to work at a small restaurant that focused on local, sustainable foods as well as work at the farms that supplied that restaurant. (Not like many of us.) And guess what? For all she learned and cooked, she still couldn’t figure out how to feed her oldest son, whose excuses for not eating what she cooks made me laugh out loud. She tells the whole story in Eating for Beginners, new in paperback, and a free copy of which goes to a commenter chosen at random*. But for now, here’s part of the story, which includes a killer bacony pasta recipe as well as the always helpful reminder not to blame ourselves when we are face-to-face with a picky eater at the dinner table.
Until about 8 months ago, I was the parent of a picky eater. Before you groan at the thought of yet another story about how a formerly chicken nuggets-eating child is now a gourmet, fear not. My five year-old remains such a bizarre—dare I say, contentious—eater that I’ve dumbfounded even the most experienced parents with my tales of his refusals of plain pasta and toast. He has never once allowed a bite of hamburger or macaroni and cheese to pass his lips, and his current favorite food is pea shoots. And no, I’m not going to boast about his charming, eclectic tastes. Have you ever sat through a meal with a child who eats three pea shoots and then listened to him whine until bedtime because he’s hungry?
So clearly, this is not a story of a boy transformed. Most nights he can be found sitting at the dinner table, thinking up Dada-esque excuses for why he can’t sample anything on his plate. “My arm is very itchy, so I can’t eat anything.” Or: “Your shirt is too blue, Mama, and it’s making me not hungry.” Whatever might happen later to make him change his ways is nothing I can possibly imagine (and believe me, I’ve tried).
What did happen recently is that I had another baby, who, when he began eating solid food about 8 months ago, turned me from the mother of a picky eater into the mother of one picky eater and one child who eats anything. A child who, I should
probably be embarrassed to say but am not because I still can’t believe I actually gave birth to someone who loves food this much, literally snatched a cheese cracker twist out of someone’s hand at a party recently. Slung on my hip, he just whipped his fat little fingers out as we passed her in a doorway and whoosh—it was in his mouth in under a second. He was eating curry at 6 months (only because it didn’t occur to us to offer it to him sooner) and is so excited at the sight of the refrigerator door being opened that he can’t sit still in his high chair.
And here’s the thing: we didn’t do anything different with him than we did with our first son. It seems so clear to me now that all of those hours I spent wondering and fretting about what hand I might have had in turning my older son into such a nightmare at the table were wasted. I could have used them to do so many things, like write another book, or go for lovely evening walks in the park near our apartment, or eat ice cream after dinner. I could have been so happy!
I’m too old and cynical at this point to hold out any great hope that the baby’s enthusiasm is going to influence his older brother (though I’ll confess to just the tiniest bit of hope—after all, I’m only human.). Nevertheless, it’s nice to watch someone under the age of 40 enjoying the meals we cook. Among other things, our one year-old has led us back to dishes we hadn’t made for ages, and thus to the happy discovery that some of them suit all of us with a few variations. This one, which I believe originally came from a Marcella Hazan cookbook we owned long before we had children but is a classic, has become a house favorite lately. It got back into the rotation because the baby is, for lack of a better description, a pea maniac.
Now that our older son has consented to eat pasta at last (don’t ask how old he was when this finally happened, but it was a glorious day and I can still see the disbelief on my husband’s face as he watched that first piece of penne go down) we make this on a regular basis. The ingredients—basically frozen peas, bacon, pasta and ricotta, with a little Parmesan if you’re feeling fancy—are easy to find and fast to come together; you can alter them according to your preferences without much trouble. Child #1 eats the pasta and the bacon, an occasional pea when pressed, and no ricotta. Child #2 gets the full mix, but light on the bacon with an extra helping of peas.
Best of all, watching my sons at the dinner table gives me a chance to feel lucky because I can see what I hope are signs that they’ll both end up fulfilled in life. The older one knows exactly what he likes and doesn’t like, always a useful characteristic when charting your path through the world, and the little one–well, his career as a master chef is clearly already written in the stars.
*Reader Kiersten wins the copy of Eating for Beginners.
Pasta with Peas, Bacon and Ricotta
10-oz. package of frozen peas
1/2 pound bacon, as lean as possible (When we can get our hands on it, we love the cherrywood smoked bacon from Nueske’s, but any bacon at all is, obviously, delicious.)
3-4 tablespoons fresh ricotta
1 tablespoon butter
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus extra for the table
fresh-ground black pepper
1 pound pasta (We like rigatoni, penne and cavatappi because they’re all easy for the baby to hold, but really this combination goes with any shape.)
1. Fry the bacon until crisp, then tear it up and set aside. Pour off all but about 2 tablespoons of bacon fat from the pan.
2. Put the frozen peas in the pan with the bacon fat (no need to thaw first, though you can). Cook at medium heat for about 4 to 5 minutes (slightly less if thawed), stirring to thaw and coat the peas thoroughly.
3. Put the ricotta in the bowl the pasta will be tossed in, and break it up with a fork if necessary. Add the butter.
4. Cook the pasta in salted water, drain, and place in the bowl, tossing it immediately with the ricotta and the butter. Add the shredded bacon back to the pan with the peas, rapidly warm it all up, and pour the entire contents of the pan onto the pasta. Toss thoroughly, add the grated Parmesan and 2 or 3 grindings of pepper, toss once or twice again, and serve.