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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, May 18

Gapers Block

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The most commonly uttered phrase in any house with children in it has got to be "I'm hungry." Food, the gathering of, the preparing of, the cleaning up of, provides an endless series of tasks, not unlike stringing beads on an unknotted string. You put one on, and one falls off. You feed one kid, another one is hungry. You feed them all, they are hungry again. You buy a pallet of groceries, four days later you are scrambling around in the freezer hoping to find a forgotten loaf of bread. It's an issue for children of both genders, and all ages until they stop with that growing thing they do. I've got one transitional girl/young woman, a string bean boy and one sturdy fellow, and none one of them can seem to go 40 minutes without requiring something to eat. Jars of peanut butter, containers of yogurt, bags of apples, all dissappear in the blink of an eye, and there they are, big eyed and taller, looking for more. It's maddening.

I like a child who can help him or herself to a snack, particularly since they need a near constant influx of them. Fruit, cheese, bread, sliced turkey, whatever baked items are laying around, pretzels, peaunut butter, pistachios, tortilla chips, almonds, protein smoothy, yogurt, bagels, carrots... all of those are staples and generally here, and always on the shopping list. Sometimes none of what we have is what anyone wants, though. Sometimes they need a donut, or Doritos. I fully relate. I try not to buy items with high fructose corn syrup in them, but I understand the importance of candy. I'd rather buy the occasional pack of Starburst than have those fruit snack things constantly around, unless they are actually made from fruit, but in my opinion, sugar is sugar, so, aside from the HFCS factor, whether the sugar is made from apple concentrate or from sugar cane seems irrelevant to me.

More than snacking, though, I grow weary of wondering what to make for dinner. I can remember my mom, who is an excellent cook, lamenting about this same thing. It's not the cooking, it's the decision about what to cook that gets you down. (At this point in her life, I'm pretty sure she'd add that she's sick of the cooking, too) Fortunately I have a husband who has no expectation of a delicious hot meal waiting for him at the end of his work day. Well, there might be an expectation, but more in the form of hope — after all, who doesn't love to come home to find something yummy to eat, some music playing, a shot of espresso at the ready? More often than not there is something to eat, or at least a plan, even if it's just a pot of pasta and a jar of sauce. Throw together a salad and bam, let's eat. But there are many days when dinner plans just don't get made, and we let our restaurant neighbors do the cooking. There are also days when he comes home, sees the look on my face, or the state of the house, and says, "Let's see what we've got," and sets to work making something for us. Usually he makes things that never would have even occurred to me; salmon with some kind of fancy wine reduction, or tofu shepherd's pie. He is more inclined to make something complicated. Perhaps because I do the lion's share of cooking there is still the element of fun in it for him, which benefits all of us.

A few years ago we sat down as a family and made a big list of all of the things we liked to eat for dinner. We came up with about 30 things and plugged them into iCal, thinking that it would simplify things if we didn't ever have to wonder what to make for dinner. We'd be able to look at the calendar and see the answer. Our shopping list would reflect the upcoming meals, and all of our problems would be solved. Unfortunately, much of dinner making, at least for me, is based on what else has gone on that day and some other unidentifiable whim of mine. If we'd had an extremely busy day and hadn't been home much, the lasagna scheduled for that evening was going to get 86ed. Then I would borrow from a meal a few days down the road, or throw something together based on the ingredients at hand. Since much of the meal planning made use of leftover items from scheduled meals, the whole week could be thrown off, and we'd find ourselves back to wondering what was for dinner and ordering from Hong Huah. We still talk about the calendar, and sometimes think of giving it another go, but mostly what that system did for me was insert a list of things we like into my brain, and help me shop with general staple ingredients in mind.

Some of our favorite meals are stir fry. I like a meal that covers all of the bases in one pot. Protein, veggies, rice, sauce. We always have a big burlap sack of rice on hand. One of my daughter's favorite meals is something called "Gingered Greens with Tofu", which is out of Moosewood Cooks at Home. This was the meal she requested at her 7th birthday dinner, and I have a very clear memory of her grandfather looking unhappily at his beautiful plate of food and asking his wife, "What is this?" and her saying, "It's dinner." Yep, it absolutely is. I have no interest in a picky adult eater. I do not care to hear a fully grown person talk about what they do not like to eat. You don't like cheese? You hate rice? Please stop speaking, pick up your fork like a big boy and eat.

Right now we are going through something almost as vexing with our almost 5-year-old. Every night at dinner time he declares that he does not like whatever it is that has been prepared for dinner, unless it is the item he has gotten stuck in his adorable, thick skulled head (garlic bread for example). One day I actually thought ahead and made a big crock pot of beef stew. It smelled delicious, bubbling away all afternoon and we were eagerly looking forward to dinner. When it was dinner time he helped me make biscuits and a big salad. When I dished up the stew. he took one look at this plate and pitched a gigantic fit. I don't care for food-related fits; in fact, it is something that I have just about zero tolerance for. The less hot-headed adult family member took the offending child away and had a big talk with him. I could hear the boy continuing with the weeping and the wailing about how terrible it was that his mother had made beef stew and biscuits, on and on it went. The other kids and I had dinner, and restrained ourselves from eating every single biscuit. At long last, he came back into the room climbed up into his chair, apologized to me, took a big bite of stew and said, "I actually love this!" Yeah. I know. That's why I made it.

Maybe I'm a big meany, but I don't make two dinners. I do make exceptions for spicy foods. I will make a non-spicy portion of chili or curry, but I'm not going down the road of making separate plain pasta, dinosaur chicken, peanut butter sandwich or mac and cheese for a kid who has a perfectly good meal in front of him or her. That seems like a big old slippery slope to me. I'm fine with a bedtime snack and I'm fine with there being things on the table that will appeal to everyone, but it's all one meal, take it or leave it. I think this is why I dislike the children's menu that is set out in just about every restaurant — it gives everyone the impression that there is separate food for kids and adults. Take salad for example. My kids all eat salad, but in general people are shocked that they will eat it, and some tend to go on and on about how lucky I am that they will eat salad. Generally this is said in front of my kids, who I can tell are thinking, "Wow, maybe there is something wrong with eating salad! maybe I shouldn't eat salad!" But then the next thought pops into their in their head. "Salad is good, I like salad," as they shovel salad into their mouths. Since when is salad something for grownups? Furthermore, what does luck have to do with it? And if anyone is lucky, aren't the kids the lucky ones? They have access to all manner of food, including salad, and that's pretty lucky.

I do not want my kids to be afraid to cook, or to ever think that the kitchen (or dinner prep) is my sole domain. I don't want the kitchen for my domain. I want my office and my sewing table to be my domain. The kitchen can be everyone's domain. I have learned — well, still learning actually — that it's easier to look away when others are cooking, though I am not always successful. Sometimes my husband makes bizarre and seemingly random utensil choices. For example, it is very difficult to watch him beat eggs. Sometimes he breaks eggs into a drinking glass, and takes one of the beaters from my mixer to stir them with. Who cares, right? The eggs get mixed, the dishes get washed. But, a drinking glass? A lone beater? That's crazy. How about a bowl and a fork? That is what a normal person would use, and what about the children? What if they grow up to be drinking glass egg mixers? I can't bear to watch and if I am watching, I can't manage to keep my mouth shut. Thus, while we don't have many disagreements, the ones we do have are more often than not kitchen related. Not worth it. Look away. That being said, if everyone could note that the measuring spoons go into the utensil drawer, and not the silverware drawer, I'd really appreciate it. That's all I'm going to say.

I like to cook with kids, especially baking, though the boys have a more flamboyant egg cracking and flour mixing style than my daughter did, making baking more of a team sport than a relaxing activity. They are exceptional vegetable choppers and bread kneaders. Bread baking is a habit we'd gotten out of but are trying to get back to, and is one well suited to spazzy boys on a winter day. My daughter and her friends have turned into excellent bakers. One afternoon I found two girls cozily sipping tea and sharing a lemon tart that they had baked. After assessing the ingredient supply in the house and discovering a lone egg, they went through all of the cookbooks to find recipes that called for one egg and made the most of it, their motto being "if life gives you lemons, make lemon tart."

We all love having baked goods in the house. I'm not so inclined to buy packaged cookies from the store but I'm no saint, I'm not immune to the impulse purchase. Maurice Lennel, for example, has my number. I can't resist a pinwheel, or a cookie decorated with pink sugar, and when you put those two items together, it's hopeless. Damn you, Maurice! I also like to occasionally buy cookies from the bakery at the Italian and Polish grocery stores. Caputo's sells the finest cookie ever made, the Amaretti cookie, and unless the line at the bakery is very long, or the counter staff has disappeared, more often than not I come home with a box of delicious almondy cookies that somehow manage to be both chewy and crisp at the same time. They also make a fancy fig newton-type cookie that has white frosting and colored sprinkles on the top that are very hard to resist. And while they are boxing up those cookies, they can make me a cappuccino, too.

All of those fancy cookies are probably a snap to make, but much like pierogi, kolaczki, ravioli, spanikopita and cheese danish, are so readily available freshly made by local experts that I can't see the point of making them. Chocolate chip cookies, muffins, biscuits, yeasty waffles and sour cream chocolate cake, on the other hand, are much better made at home, and that's where we put our baking energy. We were on a banana chocolate chip cookie rampage for a while, to the point where I could send the 11- and 7-year-olds into the kitchen and within the hour we'd be sitting around with hot chocolate, dunking away. I think that the upcoming days, with a new batch of sub zero temps, snow and wind on the way, might be the perfect time to resurrect that particular craze.

Banana Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies
1 cup white flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon coarse salt, unground 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 large mashed ripe banana
8 oz. chocolate chips
1/2 cup walnuts (or pecans, or leave out nuts if you prefer)

Combine the dry ingredients and the wet ingredients together in separate bowls, then add the dry ingredients to the wet, a little at a time, mixing briefly between each addition. Stir in the chocolate chips and walnuts, then drop the dough by tablespoons onto cookie sheets and bake for 12-15 minutes at 375°.

I want my kids to grow up knowing how to cook. I want them all to know how to feed themselves and their families. I want them to know, based on their own bodies, the connection between food and mental and physical health. I want them to know their way around a kitchen, and never feel that it is someone else's responsibility to make food, and to appreciate it when someone else does. In addition to all of those lofty goals, I want them to know how to make a pan of biscuits. If they somehow grow up without that information, it will be no fault of mine.

Nan's Biscuits
2 cup Flour
3 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup shortening
2/3 to 3/4 cup milk

Cut shortening into dry ingredients until the dough is like coarse crumbs. Make a well and add milk all at once. Stir quickly with a fork till it forms a ball. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead gently. Roll or pat out. Cut with cutter and bake on ungreased baking sheet at 450° for 12-15 minutes.

This is my mother's biscuit recipe, and she is definitely the better biscuit baker. When I make these, I double the recipe, get the dough into a big rectangle and cut it into squares with a sharp knife, transfer them onto a cookie sheet with some space between the squares and bake. She might say that this is why her biscuits are better than mine, and I'd probably have to agree, but they are still pretty damn good.

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About the Author(s)

Lori McClernon Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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