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Someone’s in the Kitchen

We all know the joke. All Jewish holidays can be summarized in nine words: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” But there’s seriousness behind the humor. (Isn’t there always?) So much of our group identity comes from food. As Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen write in “The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America,” “Family affection, ethnic attachment, and religious meaning… are all associated with food, and their ties to each other are embodied in their connection with food.”

When I was a child, I loved making challah with my mom. I have powerful memories of pounding the dough, braiding the loaf (why did it always have a mutant growth on one side, and why did it taper so severely, like plaited hair, every time?), then brushing it with margarine. We made charoset, apples and honey, latkes. But I have equally strong memories of making secular foods. When I was very small, my mom made us pancakes in the shape of Mickey Mouse heads and snowmen. When we were sick, she made custard in little brown speckled pottery ramekins (very ’70s). We made fortune cookies, writing our own fortunes and tucking them inside before folding up the dough. By cooking with me, mom told me she loved me, told me she had time for me, told me she had things to teach me. (Things that were adult. Things that involved sharp objects.) We were creating something tangible, something yummy and real. Cooking nurtures. It bonds us to our moms (or dads, if we have one of those Yeti-rare dads who know their way around a whisk). Cooking with my mom bonded me to her and our shared history. As Clifford Geertz wrote in “The Interpretation of Cultures” rituals (such as the making and sharing food) “establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence.” In normative stupid-people language, I’d say that such rituals help perpetuate a group identity and maintain a framework of meaning and comfort. Rituals give our lives structure, and structure helps alleviate our anxiety that life is meaningless and scarily open-ended.

So I’ve always been eager to cook with Josie. Now that she’s 2, we’ve started in earnest. During the last couple of months, we baked cookies and muffins. She loved measuring, dumping things into a bowl, stirring the batter. But she had no interest in tasting anything we made. (She’s not a baked-goods kind of girl, the little freak. If I hadn’t been in the delivery room, I’d swear she wasn’t mine.)

But this week, we had a turning point: the first time Josie ate anything she made. The Forward’s own Max Gross sent me a review copy of Michelle Greenwald’s “The Magical Melting Pot: The All-Family Cookbook That Celebrates America’s Diversity” (Cherry Press, 2003). The author interviewed chefs from all over the world about what they ate growing up, who taught them to cook and how they got to America. A number of very famous foodies are represented: Marcus Samuelsson, Madeleine Kamman, Colette Rossant, Ming Tsai, Nobu Matsuhisa and Douglas Rodriguez. There are sweet photos of the chefs as children and, best of all, recipes for the foods they loved growing up. If only the book’s execution were better! It is rife with errors in syntax, grammar and spelling. And my educator friends tell me that the notion of a melting pot has fallen out of favor; these days, we’re all about multiculturalism, not assimilation. Today’s culinary metaphor of choice is the salad bowl, not the stew. Americans from many different places keep their integrity and individuality, and together create a crunchy and harmonious mix. The upshot: “The Magical Melting Pot” is in no danger of supplanting “Pretend Soup,” the preeminent kids’ cookbook coauthored by Mollie Katzen of Moosewood Restaurant fame. But it’s still plenty charming. And I took one look at the recipe for tallarin verde, Peruvian green spaghetti, provided by Jorge Chan of El Rocoto in Gardena, Calif., and had a brainstorm.

“Jojo, how would you like to make green noodles?” I asked. Gween noodles?!” she repeated. “That’s cwazy!” For a whole day, I talked up the green noodles. We shopped for ingredients. She ripped the basil leaves off the stems and put them in a pile and packed the spinach into the measuring cup. She helped peel garlic, measure pine nuts and evaporated milk and olive oil, and dump everything into the food processor. (Yes, it’s basically pesto sauce, but with three times as much spinach as basil.) Josie’s afraid of the food processor, so I pushed the pulse button. The result was a screaming electric-green mess. Together, we poured it over long, curly, steaming-hot spaghetti, and Josie sprinkled Parmesan on top with a flourish.

Well, she went cwazy for tallarin verde. She’s never liked spinach, ever, so this was a huge triumph. And the garlicky, creamy sauce was a hit with everyone else, too. The next day, watching her scream joyfully, “I made gween noodles!” at her babysitter, the neighborhood shopkeeper and her uncles — well, it felt like a real milestone.

The following night, flushed with triumph, I decided to bake chewy gingersnaps with her. They’re from my mother-in-law’s recipe, and they’re one of the only desserts Josie will eat. I loved the idea of forging a link, culinarily, to Grandma, someone Josie doesn’t see nearly enough. But I didn’t consider whether the recipe was truly appropriate for a 2-year-old. It wasn’t the powdered mess all over the kitchen floor, or Josie sticking her arm up to the elbow into molasses, or even her licking her hands and chanting, “More sugar! More sugar!” like Beavis on a bender. No, my big mistake was not considering the fact that we had to refrigerate the dough. The delayed payoff devastated her. A giant sob was heard in the land: “Want gingersnap now!” I ended up distracting her with a jigsaw puzzle (whew), but an hour later, she refused to return to the kitchen. I refrigerated the dough overnight.

The next morning, I made balls of dough and handed them to her. She rolled each one in granulated sugar and placed it on the cookie sheet. Then she ate her green noodles (ah, leftovers!) and watched the cookies bake through the oven door. “They getting flat!” she screamed joyfully. (I have a high-decibel child — perhaps you’ve noticed.) We took the cookies out, let them cool, and Josie gobbled two in a row.

Our culinary adventures have already developed narrative power. Josie’s retelling of her heroic deeds has Homerically hardened into ritual: “I ripped the leaves! I don’t know what the green stuff is called! I threw it in the bowl!” And the seeds of ambition have been planted. This afternoon, apropos of nothing, Josie announced, “Next stop, banana cupcakes!”

Write to Marjorie at [email protected].

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