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.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Philly Moms: Picnicking under cherry blossoms: What are you doing April 11?

Picnicking under cherry blossoms: What are you doing April 11?

Original post to Philadelphia Moms Blog.

Cherryblossoms My daughter is obsessed with everything Japanese.

She’s studying Japanese in high school, she reads (and writes and draws) manga, she cosplays with her friends, and her favorite food is onigiri.

Four years ago her obsession led us to Fairmount Park in Philadelphia for the annual cherry blossom festival celebrated under the pink and white flowering trees. Now, it wouldn’t seem spring for us without it.

This year Sakura Sunday takes place April 11. As in past years, the event is slated to include traditional Japanese drumming and tea ceremonies, demonstrations of swordplay and martial arts, a cherry tree planting ceremony, J-pop performers, artisans and vendors of Japanese wares both traditional and unconventional, and of course, food -- Japanese and unabashedly Western (BBQ anyone?)

You can tour Fairmount Park’s Shofuso Japanese tea house, or make sure to see each of the enormous kites/windsocks that decorate the grounds near the horticultural center, or just wander through trees in various stages of blossom and marvel that Philadelphia has such a long history of friendship and exchange with Japan.

It really is an experience. And for a $5 donation per adult (kids under 14 don’t pay), it’s about as cheap as you get for a full day of entertainment.

We take a bento box full of onigiri I make to my daughter’s specifications and sit under the cherry blossoms to eat, pretending we are in Japan. (We haven’t been there. Yet.)

Honestly, we spend a lot of time trailing behind our daughter and her cosplaying friends as they sample every aspect of Japanese artistry on display. And while they wait for the stage to be freed up for their cosplay display. Last year the somewhat bemused father of one of my daughter’s friends commented that the trailing after our daughters was only just -- given how we make them trail after us to museums and landmarks and wherever else we feel they should accompany us.

Just so.

Only, I’m guessing I enjoy this much more.

But be forewarned -- lots of people like spending time under the cherry blossoms. I don’t know what the official attendance tallies stand at, but it’s always teeming with families.

Oh, and take your camera -- you’ll thank me later.

Friday, March 19, 2010

I'm counting down to the March for America on Sunday

You know you want to join us. You know you want each step to be a prayer for love and justice. In the name of your parents or grandparents or great grandparents or great-great-grandparents and in the name of the dream that is America....

It is not too late -- go here to see how to join. And if you can't join us in person, join us in prayer on that day.

Here, the amazing Bishop Wester speaks on the need for comprehensive and humane immigration reform. He'll be part of the interfaith prayer service on Sunday afternoon in Washington D.C. as well.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Philly Moms: Dressed in history

Dressed in history

Original post to Philadelphia Moms Blog.

P3160049 My daughter wants to give her baptism dress to her new cousin, Alma.

It’s a dress I’ve been holding on to for years, thinking my daughter might one day want to dress her own daughter in it, so I say no. I mention my imagined future grandchild and weave a pretty good argument in counterpoint to her generous impulse.

You see, the dress has history.

Unlike most Catholics, my daughter wasn’t baptized weeks after birth. I had been away from the Church a long time and had no thought to return (or to have my daughter baptised Catholic).

You don’t know a thing about Latina grandmothers if you think my mother was going to accept that. For a full four years she harangued me to reconsider and come back, and La Morenita (the Lady of Guadalupe) to intercede.

She was persuasive.

My daughter was baptized in Mexico City, in the same church where my parents were married and my older brother was baptized. Alma’s dad, my younger brother, flew down to stand up as my daughter’s godfather and one of my Mexican cousins stepped up as her godmother. My daughter -- dressed in a beautiful white dress my mother had purchased after combing marketplace and department store for the tiniest possible first Communion dress -- went through the ceremony, attention shining in her grey-green eyes.

A month, almost to the day, after my daughter was baptized my mother died.

Now 14, my daughter doesn’t have many memories of her grandmother. A few scattered ones of watching corny old Disney movies with her in the Pennsylvania farmhouse where we now live, and of the lipstick smears my mother left on her face whenever she showered her with kisses. But she remembers my mother every time she catches a glimpse of that dress.

So, my daughter wants to give the dress to her tiny cousin who won’t be able to wear it for a good three or four years and never knew my mother. What’s more, my daughter informs me, she regrets not having given it to her cousin Noor first, back when she was small enough to wear it. Then it’d be Noor -- who, like Alma, was born after my mother died -- passing it on to her younger cousin, my daughter tells me.

Okay, I want to ask my daughter, how did you know? How did you understand that the history of that dress doesn’t reside in the fabric but in the act of wanting to give it?

A grandmother’s gift, passing in an unbroken chain from granddaughter to granddaughter to granddaughter.

I wish I had thought of it. But I guess some things we teach our kids, some things our kids teach us.

So, Alma, here it is. Perhaps when you’re done with it, we can figure a way for Noor to get her chance at it too. Since it’s already too small for her, we’ll have to transform it -- but that’s okay. That’s what happens to love anyway.

It’s never content to stay history.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Additional blogging venue

I will soon be blogging at Philadelphia Moms Blog (see sidebar for a shortcut that includes links to blogs by other Philly bloggers).

So bookmark this: and check in frequently!

Monday, March 8, 2010

I get e-mails

Well, who knew confessing to falling apart and the ensuing work to keep the faith would generate so many personal e-mails?

So, a number of you seem to be worried about me (don't be too worried -- I'm still writing and working and praying, after all); a theologian I greatly admire but have never met in person wrote to tell me the blog post helped him (!); another person told me (in slightly more polite terms) to suck it up and be a man, and some kind souls made sure to tell me they didn't think I was arrogant.

By far the numerous reactions had to do with the M&Ms. Who knew they were so universally popular, and so often the choice of what to give up for Lent? Perhaps we should consider making them a basic food group.

But until that happens, here's an M&M bribe:

Anyone who joins me at the March for America (for comprehensive immigration reform) in Washington D.C. March 21 gets a handful or two of Ms from me (sans red ones, of course).

See, it's still me.

Go here for info on the March:

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Take four M&Ms, and call me in the morning

I don’t like asking for help.

In fact, I hate it.

I was trained early on to be the helper, not the helped, and any change in that order of things feels seismic.

So the past few years have been my own private Haiti. A personal quake that flattened what rose high, and shattered foundations – with aftershocks too numerous to count.

I have had to ask for the figurative analogues of emergency relief: shelter, sustenance, healing, hope.

I’ll tell you right now, asking hurts.

It can make you feel exposed – raw and tender as if you’ve spent too much time in a strong sun that scorches rather than warms. Or conversely, it can leave you frostbitten and lost in a blizzard, miles from home.

Because asking presumes an answer, right?


Sometimes petitions turn to lamentation in the long silence that follows them:

Why do you stand aside,
Why hide from us now the times are hard?

I asked a priest friend something akin to the psalmist’s question a few days ago. Not so beautifully put, of course, and probably even more despairing.

Sometimes, he said to me, it is the asking that matters. Putting a name to your need.

I’m kind of arrogant, I answered, ready to finish the sentence with something along the lines of not usually feeling like I need help and so not being at ease with it. You know – a spoken equivalent to the beginning of this blog post.

But as soon as the word arrogant came out of my mouth, he agreed without my having to finish the sentence.

I’m sure the look of shock on my face must have felt like a reprieve after my interminable sniffling and sniveling.

And then I had to laugh. This is one of the reasons he is my friend. I am deeply suspicious of pietistic bromides – religious or secular – but give it to me straight and I’ll sit up and pay attention.

This is the only part of our conversation you are going to remember, isn’t it? he asked a little sadly later, after I had referenced the arrogant comment several times.

But it isn’t.

We aren’t meant to carry our crosses alone. And sometimes God sends us straight to the people who’ll help us shoulder them for the crucial bit. Sometimes God even sends us to someone with a sense of humor.

It may not be the answer we imagined when we asked for help, but turns out to be just right.

On your way out, take four red M&Ms. For your arrogance, my priest friend said. Smiling.

I kept them lined up on my desk for the rest of the day. Every time I caught sight of them I was reminded of how no one gets through the journey without help. We all have to learn to ask, no matter how vulnerable it makes us feel or how the heaviness of the need drives us to our knees in anguish rather than praise.

We learn to ask even when we think God’s not listening.

Four M&Ms, four little red dots -- like blood shed.

My priest friend is very canny. It is Lent, a time of preparation. A time leading, our faith tells us, to an answer to all the petitions, an answer to all the pleas that have turned to lamentation. It doesn’t happen bloodlessly. It doesn’t happen easily. It is a bitter via crucis that leads at long last to a day in which we get to taste the sweet.

Today I placed four red M&Ms on my desk. Tomorrow I will do the same, and every day through the end of Lent.

I look forward to the promise of sweetness.

I look forward in faith.

I look forward.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Guatemala: the continuing tragedy of the disappeared

"Tens of thousands of Guatemalan families still do not know what happened to relatives who disappeared during the armed conflict that racked the country from the 1960s to the 1990s. Carlos Batallas heads the International Committee of the Red Cross’ Guatemala office. He explained the difficulties these families face."

Read the report: :

(Thanks to Greg Beals for the heads-up.)