This is the first in an occasional series of interviews with parents involved in the local food scene — a peek into the family kitchen, where the kids need to eat dinner no matter what Mom or Dad does for a day job.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl knows her way around deep red wines, heaps of exciting greens from the Hmong market, Minnesota’s best blue cheeses, and just about anything food-related her readers at Minnesota Monthly could possibly want to know.
Her four-year-old son, meanwhile, lives mostly on white foods: noodles with butter, string cheese, hard-boiled eggs, apple slices.
And Moskowitz Grumdahl will tell you she’s fine with that.
That, in today’s world, is a brave statement. A healthy appetite has long been a point of pride and a mark of character. Today, however, it’s not about how many corn fritters Johnny polishes off before milking the cows, it’s about Johnny’s appreciation of the finer things in the gastronomic universe. If Johnny can pick out the cultured French butter in a blind taste test, all the better. (Think this is an exaggeration? Witness two recent parenting books: Gastrokid and My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus.)
Last summer, Moskowitz Grumdahl wrote an essay for Minnesota Monthly called “The Doughnut Gatherer,” in which she describes what happens when the ideals of her profession — “Good food is better than bad food” and there exists, somewhere, a “best” worth seeking out — meet the messy realities of parenting.
It had the effect of a confession in front of a 12-step group. Parents reached out to say to her, “You know what, my kid won’t eat either.” Closet doors slammed open around the country and mothers and fathers stepped out, shedding layers of shame, embarrassment, and deeply felt failure. Some brave partisan even tracked down that octopus-eating two-year-old and slipped McNuggets into her bento box.
But Moskowitz Grumdahl says she has, in fact, freed herself of her early worries about her son’s diet. The moment came after a visit to a feeding clinic. “They tried to tell us he was mentally ill and wanted us to come in for all different kinds of therapy,” she says. But she and her husband decided against “medicalizing and pathologizing” eating. “I don’t want anyone telling me what I’m going to eat, so I don’t want to tell him what he’s going to eat.” Simple enough.
So now dinner in the Moskowitz Grumdahl household resembles the nursery dinners of Victorian Britain, as she describes them. Back then, nobody expected kids to have mastered table manners or grown-up food until they were around seven years old.
Around 5 or 6 o’clock, the kids start out with fruit and cheese and then move on to noodles and hard-boiled eggs. Later she and her husband will have a more grown-up dinner and their 2-year-old — Moskowitz Grumdahl describes her as “Jack Sprat’s wife… I can’t think of a thing she won’t eat” — will sometimes join them.
“I want parents to know I’m not existing in some perfect foodie universe where we all sit down to cassoulet,” she says. “Life is unbelievably hectic for all families.”
And here Moskowitz Grumdahl offers permission to step free of yet another layer of parenting shame: You don’t have to be the one to cook it all.
“We rely on the skills and kindnesses of others,” she says. “We love getting takeout from Lucia’s. We do that more than people know… We got a CSA the year my daughter was born. That was just a disaster for our family. I would come in with all these bags on the counter and the kids needing my attention,” she remembers. “So, I’m going to turn my back on my kid to deal with some kohlrabi? Give me a break. That just didn’t work. What makes more sense for our family is to pay Be’wiched or Lucia’s to do the prep work. The money goes to the farmers eventually.”
Part of the problem, as she sees it, is the “professionalization of everything. You have to set a table like Martha Stewart and live in a house out of Dwell and cook like Nigella — not to mention look like Giada. But look at Nigella. That is her job: to make dinner. If you had your whole day to make dinner, that would be different….
“What your kids most need is time… If you’re present with your kids and you’re helping them, why do they need to eat sushi? Some kids like it. My little girls eats everything. Does that mean she’s a better kid? Does that mean I did a better job?”
Really, what it comes down to is perspective. Every potty-training parent has heard, at least a dozen times, “Nobody ever went to college wearing diapers.” Foodie parents need to be reminded that there was a time before they, even, had heard of broccoli rabe.
As Moskowitz Grumdahl puts it, “I love sushi. I don’t think I really got on board with sushi until I was 14. Did not eating sushi when I was 10 lessen my experience of sushi? I didn’t start drinking wine until I was in my 20s. Did that lessen my experience of wine?”
And, to parents everywhere: “If you have healthy kids and they eat buttered noodles, raise a glass to that.”