Eating and reading. Cooking and writing. Food and stories. If asked to describe my “passions in life,” this is how I’d respond. One I blame on genetics; the other makes me a bit of an anomaly in my family.
I descend from a long line of enthusiastic and adventurous eaters. Voracious readers? Not so much. Rather than get outside to play on the swings or run around the yard and “enjoy the sunshine and fresh air,” as my mother so often demanded of me, I was much more satisfied to lie on the couch next to an open window lost in a book. When I was pregnant with my son and anticipating all the possibilities for his life, I hoped that he would share these two passions because of the intimacy and deep connection words and food nurture between people.
When it was time for solid foods, I introduced a wide swath of flavors: curry powder in his pureed sweet potatoes, cumin on the mashed black beans, ground lamb sautéed in a melange of warming spices. And so far, the willingness to eat a variety of flavors, colors, and textures has mostly stuck.
At nearly 5, his palate is more daring than most of his peers (and even mine at times—he still enjoys sardines straight from a tin), even if most nights still require a stern prodding to take one bite of the food on his plate before declaring his opinion of it. (And to assure you that it’s not always joyful eating around our dinner table, just last night we engaged in a hour-long standoff over the from-scratch hearty lasagna I’d prepared for supper; he demanded boxed macaroni and cheese and frozen french fries with ketchup.)
Since he was two months old, my son has enjoyed at least one story read to him every night. We started so young to both create a reliable routine for everyone in our small family coping with near constant change and disruption, but also in hopes that it would set the boy on a path lined with rows and rows of books. And as his interest in these books transformed from page chewing to page turning, I knew we had a budding booklover on our hands.
One of my proudest moments as a parent was when we started his first chapter book, The Boxcar Children. When my husband closed the book and declared it was bedtime, the boy protested: “Nooooo! I want to know what happens!”
In nurturing an affection in my son for food and stories, I hope not to turn him into a “mini me,” but to share with him two of the most profound ways to relate to people and the world. A bold or at least curious palate increases the number of tables around which he can share a meal. An interest in others’ stories expands his ability to relate to others. Food and stories are how communities become community, how they express their relationship to one another, to the world, and to God. Word and sacrament are how we share in our Christian life with one another.
Lately, I’ve been asking my son ahead of time what he wants for dinner or for his dad to pack in his lunch. We have also been encouraging him to choose the books he wants to read. The best discoveries are the ones we make ourselves.
And yet, at this age the gentle prodding, encouragement, and occasional yanking back onto the path by wiser souls is still necessary. He did try the lasagna he’d prematurely insisted was dis-GUST-ing, ate three bites slowly and carefully, and finally declared he just wanted the mac and cheese. Begrudgingly, I made it for him, as well as the french fries. He loves Pokémon, and so, begrudgingly, I keep checking out these “books” from the library. I even read them to him.
But given that I’m the wiser soul in this relationship, I also make suggestions for bedtime stories and negotiate for the books I know he’ll love once he tries. We recently started The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which has captured his imagination just as I hoped it would. When he’s not on his Pokémon trip, we’ve spent a full hour on the couch, reading from a wonderful and, sadly, out-of-print children’s Bible that does not gloss over any of the gorier details like so many of overly simplistic and saccharine children’s Bibles gifted at baptisms (see sidebar).
It is a privilege and a gift to be my son’s mother. And I pray that I always find joy in how I can be an advocate for and nurturer of his unquenchable appetite for good food and good stories.
This article also appears in the May 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 5, pages 43–44).