Feed Me, Seymour

Maxine’s a fresser. I seem to remember her first word as “mama,” but both Jonathan and our baby sitter insist that I am delusional. Her first word was “cheese.”

This kid will pretty much eat anything. Kiwi, stinky Stilton, dal, smoked whitefish, oily lox, spicy tofu and bitter greens with Thai fish sauce. She loves it all. Like a hobbit, she demands breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner and supper. (If you ever hear her murmuring “my preciousssss,” run.) The only thing she doesn’t seem to like is honeydew. And unlike most mortals, she has no issues with Passover.

By the time these words see print, the rest of us Jews will be so eager to say goodbye to matzo, we’ll be jitterbugging. (We’re probably also hoping that’ll help get things moving through the system, if you know what I mean — and I think you do.) Only Max will still be happy. Eggs, dates, chicken, matzo balls, gefilte fish… what’s not to like? Hey, you gonna eat that? Can’t you tell I want it from my low-pitched insistent grunting?

My girls couldn’t be more different from each other. Josie is a sturdy, healthy chunk of preschooler. She was more than 9 1/2 pounds at birth, and always has been above the 75th percentile for height and weight. (Though the nurse in our pediatrician’s office did say she was above the 100th percentile in head circumference, which you must admit is ontologically fascinating. Apparently she has a head like a dodo egg. But seriously. She’s perfect, exactly the size she should be.)

Yet when it comes to eating, she’s as fussy as a gossip columnist with a lousy gift bag. She freaks out when any one food touches any other food. (Her plate looks like the parting of the Red Sea, all year round!) She will not eat soup. She will not eat pasta with “things” in it. She will not eat carrots or peanut butter, two standbys in the preschooler-parent healthy lunch arsenal. (Fortunately she likes all beans, most fruits, yogurt and broccoli, or I’d have to resort to putting cans of Ensure in her Hello Kitty lunchbox and telling her it’s a milkshake.)

Max, on the other hand, pretty much will Hoover anything you put in front of her. Heaven help you if you leave the house with her and without a snack. Even if she’s eaten a banana, half an avocado, a pile of apricots, a wad of chopped up roast beef and a huge fistful of rice crackers, she’ll be ready for action again by the time you get to the playground. As I type this, I can hear her bellowing: “Bayga! Bayga! Bayga!” downstairs. (Hint: She craves a big round yeasty thing often served with cream cheese.) Sometimes in the mornings I hear her talking to herself: “Up! Up! Dunnuh!” (Translation: “I want to get up so I can have dinner!”) Yet you’d never know she eats like a house on fire. She’s medium-tall and very skinny. She lacks the delicious meaty brisket thighs her sister had at her age. She has a delightful tiny belly, but little string bean arms and legs. She looks like some kind of goyishe supermodel baby.

I know I’m actually in the easy years, foodwise. Neither of my girls is old enough to have body-image issues. Neither takes much interest in the other’s food intake, though they’re certainly competitive about other things. (Whenever Max spies Josie sitting on my lap, she screams in jealous horror, runs over and attempts to push Josie off; meanwhile, Josie recently parroted back my reply to her perennial question, “Who do you love more?” with, “You love me and Max the same, because love is not a pie and you will always have enough…” but then she trailed off and finished triumphantly: “But you’ve loved me longer because I was here first!”) I hope their competitiveness won’t extend to food and dieting. Both of them are absolutely delectable to me. Is it wrong to say that Josie’s butt is like a yummy little peach, and the back of Max’s neck, under the curls, is like a sun-warmed, fuzzy apricot? (Is cannibalism a problem… or a lifestyle choice?) If one of them gets chubby, will I let out a Jewish Mother Sigh every time she opens the refrigerator?

No matter what, I want both my girls to see food as joy and sustenance, not as a source of anxiety. I watch other parents parcel out grapes as if they were gold doubloons, freak out about people offering their own kid a cookie on the playground, or get all smarmily self-congratulatory about making their own baby food or about breastfeeding until the child is in grad school. Can’t we chill out?

Besides being nourishing, food tells us who we are and where we came from. We have our ritual foods — our matzo, our challah, our latkes and hamentashen. (An aside: Josie and I recently made kugel for her school’s Multicultural Share. We are one of the very few identified Jewish families there. Somehow our kugel got separated from its identifying sign, and no one in the kitchen knew what it was. It ended up on the table with the Jamaican food.) In the taxonomy of yumminess and identity, we not only have the genus of Jewish food but also the species of family recipes. Go on with your farshtunkener madeleine, Marcel. Josie will always have her grandmother’s gingersnaps. And I will always have my Bubbe’s black-and-white cookies.

My Bubbe wasn’t much of a cook. (Which incidentally just goes to show that you don’t have to be Julia Child to pass down indelible nosh-related family memories. Sharing a tangerine with your mom after soccer practice every week, or making pancakes from a mix with your dad Sunday mornings, is the stuff memories are made of.) The one thing Bubbe made that we grandkids all loved was the black-and-white cookie, also known as a half-moon. I was the oldest of the cousins, and Bubbe was dead by the time I’d turned 14. But all of us who were old enough to have eaten them remembered Bubbe’s cookies fondly. Once in a while, an adult relative would say, “I remember those cookies! They weren’t anything special!” Or even, “I remember those cookies! I thought they were disgusting!” But we kids knew the truth: The cookies were sublime. Simply talking about them brought us back to her living room with its black, brown and white plaid couch and that elderly-even-then rabbit-ear-antennaed television on which we’d watch “The Lawrence Welk Show” with her. They reminded us of how she’d say “tonic” instead of “soda” and how she’d read us “The Poky Little Puppy” in a high squeaky voice. They reminded us of hanging out together, back when we were all small — even then we didn’t see each other enough. I wish I had many more happy memories of Bubbe, but when I knew her, she wasn’t a particularly happy person. For us, back then, the cookies represented her best self.

So more than a decade after she died, when I was in my 20s, I decided to surprise my cousins on one of the rare occasions many of us got together. It was Thanksgiving. A couple of weeks earlier, I visited my parents’ basement and dug out my Bubbe’s old, dust-covered index-card-filled box of recipes. In her spidery old faded handwriting was the recipe for half-moons. I made them (wow, could the frosting really have contained that much sugar?) and packed them carefully in a shoebox lined with tinfoil, separating the layers with paper towels. And I brought them to Aunt Belleruth and Uncle Art’s house in Cleveland. All the kids shrieked in glee. When the main dishes were cleared and we were all in a happy tryptophan coma, I broke out the cookies. And we bit into them. And they were disgusting. And the sound of gagging and shrieking was heard in the land.

I am exaggerating, but not by much. The cookies were cloyingly sweet on top, hard and doughy and hockey-puck-esque beneath. “I told you so,” one grownup muttered. “Thanks for destroying our childhood memories, Marge,” Cousin Aaron deadpanned.

Okay, so maybe you can’t go home again. But my reanimation of the cookies of the damned did get us talking about Bubbe, did get us thinking about our relationships as children, did give us fodder for our relationships as adults who’ve now started having children of our own. Maybe one day Josie and her cousins, Arlo and Lev (and, God willing, even more cousins we don’t know yet), will say, “Remember Marjorie’s disgusting matzo pizza she’d make in the toaster oven? And it was all drippy and gross, and we’d all pretend to like it because we didn’t want to hurt her feelings?” And they’ll all laugh, except for Max, who will say, “Wait, I thought that stuff was awesome!” And they’ll laugh some more. And they’ll reminisce. And that’s delicious.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.

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Feed Me, Seymour

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