I can take pretty much any ingredient you can throw at me and, once I pick it up off the floor because I am not great at catching things, I can make something delicious with it.
I don’t need to look online to remember the ingredients for a chicken potpie, chicken cordon bleu, or even a chicken cordon bleu potpie. If you challenged me to make a soufflé, I would have to look at a recipe, but I wouldn’t necessarily follow it to the letter and it would still be a pretty excellent soufflé.
I’m a good enough cook that I could put a little twist on it—like if it was a tomato soufflé, I might add a splash of elderflower syrup, which would catch you off guard but in a sweet and comfortable way that might make you say to my daughter, “Wow, Barbara, you’re so lucky to have a dad like Tyler to cook for you.”
“No,” 22-month-old Barbara would say.
And herein lies my challenge: to feed my child while trying not to feed my ego. Barbara is a toddler who knows how to say only one word but loves a wide range of foods, from blueberries to cheese to anything that is salty or crunchy, or that I am about to put into my mouth. She especially loves when her mom gives her cooked pasta with nothing on it. What could be more delicious than dried pasta boiled in water, cooled to room temperature, and served with a glass of water?
I’m sure that it tastes even more delicious when her father, who has spent the past 20 years of his life dedicated to the pursuit of a relatively high level of culinary understanding, stands by, observing as his daughter shoves fistfuls of plain shells into her mouth while watching Coco for the 64th time.
I’m trying. I take her beloved pasta and I add cheese and milk and a bit of flaxseed meal, which thickens the sauce to a velvety consistency, turning good cheese and organic milk into fancy Velveeta, and she will take a bite, at which point I will set up FaceTime on my phone to show my wife what an incredible Chefdad I am. Barbara will take advantage of my lack of attention and dump the rest of the pasta on the floor.
“Bon Appétit named my restaurant one of the best new restaurants in 2009, and I am pulling cat hair off pasta and considering still feeding it to you!” I shout at a toddler who thinks I am a terrible cook but also that my exclamations are hilarious.
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Recently I cooked her some broccoli—and yes, I get that kids don’t like broccoli and it is totally my fault, but I gently caramelized it in a touch of olive oil to give it that magical toasted-broccoli flavor, then gently poached it in garlic-laced chicken stock, emulsified with more butter than my wife would be comfortable feeding to our daughter, and Barbara wouldn’t even taste it.
My broccoli has been mentioned in The New York Times, and she pointed at a box of whole-grain bunny crackers because I guess she can’t read The New York Times.
My friends ask if she likes broccoli because it’s kind of my thing, and they’re only kidding, but I pretend that something else has caught my attention.
I cooked jasmine rice in a combination of milk and chicken stock with some tiny pieces of carrot and a little butter, and after it cooked, I stirred in a very mild shredded mozzarella. It was a bunch of stuff she likes, fortified with some protein and fiber, but in a way that even a child could love, and of course she tried to push it off the table, shouting, “You’ve never even been nominated for a James Beard Award for cooking!” and I calmly told my little girl that at least I got a writing nomination and put her to bed and drank vodka while eating cheesy rice.
And frankly, it’s okay. I will simply take the high road, as I do with my wife and parents, and hold on to the frustration so that years later I can throw it right back into the faces of the people I love most.
Actually, I’m really looking forward to teaching my daughter how to cook. Right now, however, I must remain patient—a truth that I’ve found links cooking well and parenting well.
Someday, I imagine that we’ll make a simple soup, one of the first things I learned to make, and together we’ll chop vegetables, gently sweat them in butter, add a little stock, and simmer them. I’ll let her season the soup and make sure it tastes just the way she wants it to. We’ll set the table and sit as a family, and I will try not to spit the soup all over the floor.
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