Monday, March 29, 2010

Philly Moms: Picky eater? Try the Velvet Chef method

Picky eater? Try the Velvet Chef method

Original post to Philadelphia Moms Blog.

Cooking1 You might not know it now that she eats everything from sweet tamales to artichokes, but for a number of years my daughter was the pickiest of picky eaters. No cuisine -- no matter how fabulous and world class -- could entice her.

On a trip to India she survived on white rice and pre-packaged macaroni and cheese. In Greece, yogurt. (No rice there because the Greeks add all those pilaf-y ingredients to what my daughter has always considered the king of grains). In Mexico, she was back to unadorned rice with the occasional pork sausage thrown in for variety. In the U.S. you could add plain (and I do mean plain) pasta and raw carrots to the mix and that was pretty much the extent of her acceptable food items.

So what’s a mom to do? If she’s lucky (and I am) she’s got an imaginative sister-in-law with a way with both food and kids.

I think my daughter was five or six when my sister-in-law Jhumpa first came up with the idea for the Velvet Chefs.

At first, velvet chefdom was a modest proposition -- Jhumpa and my daughter would don an article of velvet clothing and then cook some dish or another together during my sister-in-law’s visits to Pennsylvania. My daughter didn’t initially do anything too major -- whisking eggs to a lemony, frothy stage, for example -- but it was enough to make her take an interest in the finished product. Not that she tasted the finished product, mind you. Not yet. But suddenly, food wasn’t the enemy, or the genesis of the mealtime gag-fests it had been until then.

I’m a little sketchy on the details of those early days because I wasn’t a full-fledged Velvet Chef then. My tiny daughter was very clear about that. Jhumpa was at the highest level of velvet chefdom (copper pot), my daughter was at whisk level, and I, according to my headstrong 6-year-old, hadn’t yet proven myself worthy to advance past the first level -- wooden spoon.

Tough stuff for someone like me who considers herself a pretty accomplished cook. Jhumpa used to give me sympathetic looks while my daughter made these proclamations about my culinary worth, but she didn’t interfere. Somehow she knew that my daughter had to take ownership of the whole of velvet chefdom -- even its judgmental hierarchical structure -- to win through to the final goal.

And she was right. My daughter enjoyed the game enough that she didn’t want to wait for Jhumpa to visit to play. Suddenly every mealtime became an opportunity to be a Velvet Chef. And the game evolved. Now my daughter was not only the sous chef but the commentator in some homegrown mock-up of a Food Network show. I had to explain the whys of my cooking choices, explain my techniques, analyze what went wrong in failed dishes and take bows for the successful ones. She still wasn’t eating everything I was preparing, but I took it as a personal victory when she admitted that the smell of garlic and onions sautéing was delicious, and went as far as tasting this first element of so many savory dishes.

Velvet chefdom expanded to encompass menu preparation and table setting, even serving. My nonplussed husband and father watched. Years after my father passed away I found a letter he wrote to my daughter after one of those Velvet Chef experiences. My father was not a man given to flights of fancy, still, he had taken time to write my daughter a “restaurant review” for some particular meal we had prepared. He gave us three stars.

Around this time my daughter tasted veal (a success), Brussels sprouts and lentils (no to both), truffle oil on pasta (a resounding no from all diners), shark steaks and cornichons and homemade tomato soup (yes!).

I did finally graduate to rubber spatula level (though I’m pretty sure I will never attain copper pot status). At our last Christmas gathering at Jhumpa and Alberto’s house, I watched with satisfaction as my daughter ate Alberto’s gravlax (success) and my other sister-in-law Anna’s Italian cod and garlic dish (big success). I hardly recognized the child who used to refuse a plate on which the poor, dry food items had the audacity to touch each other.

And as my daughter talked about initiating Anna into velvet chefdom (starting her, I noted with a little jealousy, at a level it took me years to attain) and her little cousin Noor as well, I found myself grateful for the blessings of family and food. These two aspects of what I call the Latina trifecta of life have managed to expand my daughter’s world in ways unpredicted back when she was an adamant and picky 6-year-old.

During this same Christmas gathering, Jhumpa and my daughter debated whether wearing velvet during cooking should remain a requirement for membership in the organization they invented almost a decade ago.

It will not, they decided.

There’s no need to insist on a plush, soft fabric to wrap yourself in -- the experience (and the memories) are velvet enough.

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