The Gleeful Gourmand: February 2012

Thursday, February 23, 2012

When Dinner Fights Back

It's been a heck of a week here at The Gleeful Gourmand, and tonight really put the cherry on top. I don't think I've ever had any meal fight back quite so hard while it was being made as I did tonight. The Contender: Pork Chops Agrodolce, Green Beans in Butter and Lemon, and Plum slices. The Challenger: Me.

This is a meal I've made many times before. The pork chops take quite a few steps, but they're not hard steps by any stretch of the imagination. I had purchased some really lovely looking bone-in chops from Whole Foods, and was excited for the meal.

The Contender must have realized that it needed to come out swinging about 3/4 of the way through its preparation. Maybe it saw me setting the table and knew its demise was eminent, who knows. But it started with the pot of piping-hot water I had been boiling the green beans in. I moved it to the sink after removing the beans, and accidentally bumped it against the counter as I set it down, splashing the water right up into my eye. My open eye. It didn't feel great, but I was fine, and pressed ahead.

Then, in rapid succession I sliced my finger while working on the plums, and burned my foot and my hand while working on the sauce for the pork chops, in that order. Then, while cutting up Liam's pork chop for him I managed to hurtle half of it onto the floor where our dog, Bailey, quickly set about to licking it (note that I said licking it; she's ancient and only has four teeth, so she couldn't really seize it). Somehow my sauce reduced way too much, and I couldn't turn it into the syrup it was supposed to be. No amount of butter was going to save it.

I started to feel like one of those contestants on "Worst Cooks In America." My only defense was to shout gibberish really loudly. I couldn't even curse in my pain and frustration with three small children nearby. Despite all this, I managed to put three pretty plates on the table.

The chops were God-awful. They were over-done, tough, and dry. And the weirdest thing is, I did everything right according to the recipe, and according to how I've made the dish many times before.

Sometimes you get dinner. Sometimes the dinner gets you.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Toddler Table Manners Revisited - Part Two

So here's the part in our program where I relate to you how we managed to turn our 4-year-old son into the perfect little diner, complete with perfect manners; and how every mealtime is pure joy, a scene right from one of Norman Rockwell's paintings.

But I'd be lying, so here's what I will tell you instead: Teaching your kids how to behave at the table is really, really hard work. I feel like we've been working with Liam ever since he started sitting at the table with us on how to behave, and I guess I thought that by the time we got to 4 we'd have things pretty much under control. I can hear all you longtime parents out there laughing right now. Cut it out.

Part of what I forgot to figure in was that during his 3rd year, he acquired not one, but two baby sisters. At first he took his big emotions over this out on my husband and I. Then when he realized that wasn't going to fly with us, he turned to the next best thing in his mind: Food. Suddenly, the area we had so much success in was up for grabs. He started balking at everything we put in front of him, even foods he had previously loved. There have been more than a few meals that have ended in tears, or timeouts, or both, and conversations that have gone like this:

L: Yuck, I don't like that.
Me: It's chicken and rice, what's not to like?
L: It's gross. I don't like it. Ew.
Me: Too bad, eat it anyway.
L: I don't want to. I want something else.
Me: I'm not a short-order cook, you'll eat what I put in front of you.
L: What's a short-order cook?
Me: It means I'm not making you a separate meal.
L: (squirming, fake crying) Ew! It will make me sick!
Me: It will not. Look, I don't particularly like eating gross food. I wouldn't make you something that I think tastes gross, because I don't want to eat food that tastes bad. This food doesn't taste bad. So eat it!

And on and on it goes, until he finally either eats it, or loses his dessert privileges.

The perfect diner - as long as it's something he likes.
So, where does that leave us? Luckily that doesn't happen at every meal, and he really is great about behaving when we're out to eat. He knows that we expect him to sit still, to use his inside voice and to eat his food. But what's not to love about eating out? He gets all the yummy foods he loves. It's so much easier to behave when you're getting what you want. I do realize he eats much better than a lot of kids, loving things like sausage and bean soup, paella, a good steak with sauteed mushrooms. And when he likes it, his praise is as boisterous as his complaints, so that evens things out a little. But when he digs his heals in, man he digs them in hard. Like a night we had months ago with a scuffle over Butternut Squash that ended in tears and with him going to bed super early without eating much of anything.

I realize that every parent ever has dealt with these struggles, so that at least makes us feel a little better as we soldier on, but some things do make my blood boil, like when he's eating soup and starts stirring it too hard so that it goes all over everything - all while staring at me with this look on his face that plainly says, "I dare you to tell me to stop. I'm not going to, but tell me anyway."

These days we're working on at least trying new foods, and littler things like putting his fork or spoon on the dish when he's not using it, and chewing with his mouth closed. Buck and I are pretty much in lock-step with what we expect from our children as far as eating at the table. Here are a couple of rules we stick to, and are working on:

1) You do not have to finish all your food, but you do have to try everything at least once.
2) You may not eat until we've said Grace.
3) You may not get up from the table until we excuse you.
4) Your napkin is there to wipe your mouth with, not your sleeve.
5) Chew with your mouth closed (I know from my own childhood this one will take forever to master).
6) Do not interrupt us when we're talking.
7) Your fork belongs on the dish when you're not using it, not in your lap.

How about you, readers? Any tips for producing well-behaved little diners? Any rules you're working on? I'd love to hear them!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Toddler Table Manners Revisited

One of my most popular blog posts to date has very little to do with making or preparing food. It’s about children at the table. I wrote this post just over a year ago, lamenting about diners becoming incensed over children sharing the same space as them in a restaurant. I also wrote about things we’re teaching our son, Liam, when it comes to behaving at the table at home, and when we’re out to eat.

I’ve been thinking about that post lately in terms of what has changed over the past year. Here is Part One of my thoughts:

In terms of dining out, it seems like customers aren’t the only ones peeved at tiny tots eating out. Restaurants have also gotten into the act, like this Pennsylvania restaurant that banned children under 6 from eating at its establishment. They’re not the only ones to do so, but I still think it’s a non-story. It’s a little silly to take your toddler into a fine dining establishment. And by fine dining, I don’t mean your local family restaurant. I mean a very nice, fine dining restaurant. Or, if you do take them, take them at a reasonably early hour when they won’t be disturbing other customers.

Does this make you want to order takeout? You're not the only one.
It’s a fine line to walk, and we’ve certainly been caught in situations where we had to choose to either take kids or stay home. The first Mother’s Day we celebrated, Liam was only 7 months old, and Buck really wanted to do something special and celebrate by taking me to a wonderful dinner at a 5-diamond restaurant (the now defunct 1 North Belmont), one we had been dying to try. Unfortunately for us, we couldn’t find a sitter. Buck wasn’t willing to give up, though, and talked to the manager. They moved our reservation to the first one of the late afternoon (I think it was like, 4:30 or something ridiculous like that), and Buck promised him that if our son even so much as made a peep, he would immediately take him out of the restaurant. The manager was skeptical but agreed, and we had something on our side – that was also Liam’s naptime, and we hoped he would sleep right through it. I was very nervous because I’m the type of person who really follows rules and etiquette. I knew it could go wrong so many different ways. Miracle of miracles, Liam slept in his carrier behind my chair (in a dark corner we had picked) through the whole thing, and we enjoyed a wonderful meal.

But the truth is, I probably wouldn’t ever do that again. It was nerve-wracking wondering if he was going to wake up and start making noise. I see absolutely nothing wrong with an establishment setting the rules for children. There are resorts where they request that small children under a certain age not eat dinner in their upscale restaurants, and it’s not a big deal. Plus, there are also lots of other options at those resorts for kids to eat. I see nothing wrong with that whatsoever. Those restaurants are meant to provide a certain experience, and they can’t accomplish that with screaming toddlers in the mix.

On the other hand, I still firmly believe that it’s important to teach our children how to behave when they eat out at nice restaurants. I think there's a balance in there somewhere, and it starts with parents who are willing to take the time to teach their children how to behave. I applaud establishments that welcome young diners, but set rules and expectations for them. Like The Homestead, where young diners are welcome to eat in their two best restaurants, but are expected to look presentable, and boys 12 and up are expected to wear ties and blazers. I still stand by what I said in my original post: If we don’t teach our children how to behave at the table when it’s time to go out to eat, how will they know what to do when it really matters? What will they do when it comes to their very first important business dinner meeting? Part of that process is actually going out with the kids and giving them the chance to experience it. I want to know that when my children go over to someone else’s house, or they go out to eat at a restaurant – any restaurant – they’ll know how to behave. It takes a lot of work to get there, and it hasn’t always been smooth going trying to get Liam to fall in line this past year, but that’s my next post.

So what do you think, readers? Are you up in arms that kids are being “banned” from certain restaurants? Or do you think it’s the establishment’s right? Sound off in the comments!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Getting Acquainted with Auguste Escoffier

I just finished reading a really great article by N.M. Kelby about Chef Auguste Escoffier. I had never heard of Escoffier before (or if I did, his was a name that didn't stick). That surprises me because Escoffier is widely considered to be the father of all foodies. He was so much more than a chef: He wrote cookbooks, co-created the Ritz Hotel chain, and he changed the way people regard chefs and even food itself forever. He also took the already sublime French cuisine and turned it into something approachable for all people. He was one of Julia Child's main sources of inspiration.

N.M. Kelby has written a historical fiction novel about Escoffier's life titled White Truffles in Winter, and judging from the wonderful article she wrote, I can't wait to read it. Escoffier in Kelby's hands sounds like a remarkable, fascinating man, driven by his love of food, and the belief that situations in life can always be improved, as long as you have the desire. For instance, Kelby writes that in Escoffier's time (early 19th century France), restaurant kitchens were an abysmal, brutal place to work. All they had to drink as they worked in those sweltering, windowless, confined spaces was wine (not as pleasant as you might imagine, mostly leading to drunkeness and dehydration). Escoffier changed everything by not allowing any swearing or shouting. He gave his staff a special malt brew to keep them hydrated and sober. He also invented a system for cooking that modeled Henry Ford's industrialization of the automobile.

Kelby also relates that while he was far from saintly, Escoffier also spent a lot of money and time fighting hunger in London alongside the Little Sisters of the Poor.

We even have McDonald's because of Escoffier. To find out why (and how), you can read Kelby's well-written and fascinating article here.