Finicky and just fine

Did you happen to see the recent New York Times story about the man who, for most of his 51 years on Earth, has managed to subsist mostly on candy? True-life story: Paul Rudnick is 5-foot-10, weighs in at a trim 150 pounds, and hasn’t eaten a single challenging bite since the age of 6, when a psychiatrist ordered his parents to cease and desist or resign themselves to neuroses and “projectile vomit.”

A self-described refined-sugar-centric, Rudnick eats some whiter-than-white carbs, like breakfast cereal, and some nuts, but for the most part he grazes from oversize candy dishes strewn about his Manhattan apartment. He doesn’t go in for high-end confections so much as the kinds of sweets you can find at Walgreen’s. And somehow he grew up to become not a reality TV freak show in the making but a well-adjusted and successful playwright and humorist: According to the Times, you can read all about it in his new collection of screeds, I Shudder.

Myself, I can only tell you what the paper reported. Book reviewers may be right in saying that Rudnick is as hilarious as David Sedaris or Augusten Burroughs, but there’s no way I will allow his writing into my house. My older son might traipse across it and discover that, incredibly, it is possible to narrow his diet even further. And then who would be shuddering?

I used to think my son’s refusal to eat much besides noodles, butter, and certain mild cheeses and squishy breads was a form of defiance, an assertion of his independence. In my defense, I was led to believe by the Parenting Diaspora that a balanced diet was everything. Without a steady stream of vegetables, these experts warned, I’d end up raising another Veruca Salt, the petulant prig who trashes the golden-egg room in the  Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Instilling good eating habits was grim but necessary work, I reasoned as we battled our way through healthy meals that held little appeal for me, either.
I thought of those dinner hours wasted in teary stalemates the other day when I tried — really tried — to get through My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything, by Nancy Tringali Piho. It’s chock-a-block with the kind of reasonable-sounding but wrongheaded advice that caused me to torture my blue-eyed firstborn for so many years: Exposure to a wide variety of foods will create a liberal palate; never short-order cook; kids are more likely to eat foods they prepared.

One silver lining to aging is an ability to spot proselytizing more and more quickly, and to walk away without so much as trying to rationalize or justify said decision. Having a toddler who eats octopus shouldn’t entitle one to as much self-righteousness as our culture currently allows, much less a book contract. (You think it should? Consider: Parents of preschoolers know that toddlers are only ramping up to truly discriminating food habits. And the aforementioned octopus was probably consumed as sushi, which, as we conveniently fail to remember most of the time, is about as mild a cuisine as any on earth.)

I hate to pile on, but I’m going to, if only in the hope that the beleaguered American publishing industry will stop putting out books like My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus. I have a picky kid, yes, but I also have a kid who eats raw beet greens. What accounts for this difference? Certainly not my reading list, or the experts’ prescriptions. Maybe Gemini was retrograde when one was born.

How I wish I had begun my adventures with kids’ palates with Matthew Amster-Burton’s charming, witty, and compulsively readable Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater. A restaurant critic and food writer in Seattle, Amster-Burton seems to have met the challenge of feeding a family by cooking things he himself wants to eat. Like Ants on a Tree, a Chinese classic of cellophane noodles, ground pork, and indecent quantities of chilies and mouth-numbing Szechuan peppercorns. It was his daughter Iris’s favorite dish for her second year of life, after which she went on a spicy food strike that turned out to be part toddler contrariness and part actual spice aversion.

The book is peppered with recipes I’m hoping to try — corn pancakes with pumpkin butter? Bacon-jalapeno pizza? Anyone? Mmmm. But its real charm is the vicarious seat it offers readers on father’s and daughter’s adventures in procuring, preparing, and trying foods. Iris and her father visit giant Asian markets and fishmongers and a lunch counter called Teriyaki Madness that we really need to franchise here. Iris offers funny preschooler observations and her dad equally trenchant cultural commentary. Along the way, Iris sometimes eats everything and sometimes only plain rice. But she and her well-fed parents spend precious little time tussling over it.

Amster-Burton does confess to worrying that, left to her own mercurial devices, Iris might end up malnourished. But a little research unearths studies showing that picky kids end up consuming as many nutrients as kids with broader palates. After this revelation the author calls his mother, who recalls him as a child as “not just picky, but borderline OCD.” She’d send PB&Js on white bread, cut in half vertically, to school. “Then you would take the sandwich apart, take one-half circle bite in each of them and put them back together, and not eat anything else because you didn’t want to spoil the circle,” she reported, adding that peer pressure eventually propelled Amster-Burton to range further afield.

Time mellows a mother, as does the realization that it is in fact possible to try every form of food psy-ops suggested by the so-called experts and never overcome what in the end turns out to be a set of exquisitely sensitive taste buds. My boy’s diet is about 12,000 percent better than Rudnick’s, and he grew up to appear in the New York Times for something other than machine-gunning his classmates. We haven’t worked our way up to Szechuan yet, but you know what? I’ll bet if you put the chilies on the side, within easy reach, Ants on a Tree looks an awful lot like spaghetti.

Beth Hawkins is a Minneapolis writer.

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