Warm milk + Chili Dot Com: Perfectly particular palates

Our girls are not picky eaters. They do, however, have discerning palates.

This is particularly true of Prima, who at the age of 5, while being babysat by friends, replied “shu-shi” when asked what her favorite food was. (They were anticipating a response more along the lines of “pizza” or “ice cream,” I think.)need for milk

As a baby, Secondo used to sit in front of a high chair tray full of black beans, avocado and cherry tomatoes cut into halves and quarters. I can still see her chubby little fingers chasing black beans around the tray and shoving them heartily into her bonny little mouth.

At age 6, Prima licked her lips and dubbed our easy homemade chili recipe, “Chili dot com” [“I love when we have chili-dot-com!” she announced, tomato cheeked.] I don’t know where it came from or how she created it, but I immediately fell in love with the moniker and her ingenious way of putting language together.

In a tribute to my mother, who began to wind down her day raising four small children when she poured her evening cup of tea, they both enjoy and drink tea. When Prima is sick, she asks for Britain’s favorite beverage.

“But Mooom,” she’ll whinny, “can I have PG Tips? With cream and two sugars?” This girl knows her tea.pg_tips

For the majority of her life, Secondo has preferred her milk warmed one minute in the microwave. If you pour too little in the cup or only go 45 seconds, she’ll know. Not even worth trying.

Over the years, as they have gotten older, their palates have expanded and contracted. They’ve settle in on some favorites.

Secondo’s major food group is cheese. Cheese crisp, mac and cheese (she prefers Annie’s Organic and not the blue box stuff), girled (not a spelling error) cheese, cheese quesadilla and – the holy grail of her dairy obsession – cheesesticks.

That should be two words but in our household it’s ubiquitous, so it is one.

Cheesesticks are serious business around here.

One brand does not suit all.

Prima prefers the Frigo variety (she lampooned an empty Frigo cheesestick package to our refrigerator as a reminder of what type to buy). And mozzarella only. Once in awhile, she likes to venture out to into sharp cheddar rectangles – but only Sargento, thank you very much. And never, never, ever, ever send a cheesestick in her lunch, even if you pack dry ice to maintain temperature. Without fail it will come back a greasy, flaccid half-melted mess of rejection, and the flustered admonishment, “Moooom, I DON’T like cheesesticks in my lunch.”shushi

None of this is suitable for Secondo’s tastes, however, who prefers Precious cheesesticks – “the ones with the guy on the skateboard on the front.” Bingo. Never yellow nor pepper jack nor provolone nor anything other than mozzarella. Packing them in her lunch is A-OK, however. She’ll eat them here or there or everywhere. Really. I’ve found them half-eaten stuffed between couch cushions or under beds, on bathroom counters and dried up in the playroom – a little dairy trail of her day’s activities.

Despite the annoyance of making an extra stop at another grocery store (of course my local does not carry both types of preferred cheesesticks — welcome to Mommy hell), their preferences please me.

They’ve always been the kind of kids to find something on nearly any menu to enjoy. They’re not limited to hot dogs or nuggets. They eat Japanese, Italian, Thai, Chinese, Mexican (Prima has taken up Mr. Bailey’s Cholula obsession), Middle Eastern with regularity. They like salad. They love clementines and apples and berries. When I bring oranges for soccer game half time, they are genuinely excited.

Of course, left to their own devices, they would eat pizza with sides of breadsticks six nights a week and candy for breakfast each morning, but with a spoonful of our guidance, we’re getting them somewhere tasty, cheesesticks in hand. Dot com.

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The Nomination

Prima came home from school the other day looking tentative, bewildered and slightly pleased.

She sat quietly as Secondo chirped about her first-grade day all the way home.Pulling for victory

As they hung their backpacks and ate a snack, Prima told me at school they had done nominations for a class representative for student council.

“Oh?” I said, the distracted mom showing appropriate interest. “Did people vote? Or were they nominated?”

“Nominated,” she replied, pausing awhile. “I was nominated.”

“Really!?” I might have said too brightly.

“Yes, Mom,” she said, telling me who had done so. Per my typical MO, I extolled the virtues of the person who nominated her, emphasizing this small and significant act of kindness in what might turn out to be a disappointing childhood experience.

She agreed it was very nice.

“But, Mom.” Refocusing me, now. “I have to write and give a speech and then everyone votes on one boy and one girl to be on the student council,” her voice quivering ever so slightly when the words “write” and “speech” passed her lips.

These are difficult things for Prima.

“That’s OK!” I cheer-led. “I will help you. You talk and I’ll type it for you.”

But when we sat down at our desk, she locked down, tension bringing her full pink lips into a mash, her smooth brow furrowing. She was on the verge of tears as I suggested ways she might begin. “What about this…” I offered, suggesting some boring version of what I thought she might say.

“No.”

“Well, how about…” I volleyed again.

“Moooommmm! NO.” Yowza. I took a deep breath and waited, brushing away my own irritation.

And she put together the single best campaign speech ever dictated. Like, for reals.

I’ll prove it.

It began with “I can use my ability to talk to the student council members about what fifth grade has to say and what they like. I think that everybody matters in this, not just one fifth-grader.”

It continued with, “If I become the representative, I will respect your ideas and tell them to the student council.”

Good, right?

And in the face of my repressed mamaworry, she gave me the clincher, “And I will always be myself.”

My heart stopped.

“That’s it,” she said, confident that she had expressed herself, the tension gone.

When I could talk without giving away that inside I was melting with pride and gushing with sappy and devoted love and appreciation for her indomitable spirit, I said, “Prima, that’s true. And it’s perfect.”

We practiced and practiced and when she headed out of my circle of love the next morning, she was a bit nervous, but ready.

I could not have been more proud of her than I was in the moment when she dictated the last line. Not even if she had won. Of course, I wanted that for her. Not just because she’s my kid, my piece of heart out roaming the world, my 6-pound 8-ounce baby girl, but mostly because there’s a lot this child struggles to achieve. But struggle she does. She fights. She perseveres. Without fail.

Here’s the thing: when she got in the car after school, she told me she hadn’t won.

I was still proud, and ready to point out all the good that came out of it.

And then she broke out into a huge smile, all pink cheeks and dancing almond eyes and shouted, “Just kidding! I GOT IT!”

And my heart started again.

Harvest

I received an email from my father today. It read, “My first tomatoes in about 30 years !!! I Love Life !!!”

Attached was a photo of several smallish reddish tomatoes, with only a few scars from growth, photographed in a tangle of thick, sweet tomato leaves and vines.photo

It’s not necessary to write he is very proud of these tomatoes.

Eight months ago, I heard him make rumblings about buying some tomato plants. He mused about it for a while, thinking aloud. Then one day I came to the house and found two large decorative terra cotta pots, once neglected and cracking with hard cores of gray dirt cast inside, filled with fragrant, moist ebony soil and two optimistically leafy plants tucked inside – a tomato and a pepper.

The pots were equally spaced and set on tiles, for proper drainage, on the front patio my parents never, ever used during the 30 years they lived there together – and in the two and a half years since cancer took my mom. I was quizzical.

Soon after, he left town on another of his “if-I-am-moving-my-grief-is-more-bearable” trips and asked me if I came to the house to be sure to water his plants. I came by only once or twice and dutifully and skeptically gave them drinks. I figured the plants would be dead in a month or so, composting victims of his scattered focus, collateral damage of the other distractions of the new life he was jamming awkwardly together.

But they didn’t die.

When he came back from the trip, I mentioned to him he ought to move the pots into the sun.

I figured he would forget.

But the next time I came to the house, they were in the sunshine and had small, white blooms. He was nearly ecstatic with these latest gifts of nature — blooms on the vines!

“Do you think I’ll get tomatoes?” he asked, a kid, asking me to predict the Christmas morning take.

“Well, if you’ve got flowers you’ll probably get tomatoes. That’s what that means,” was my snap-ish, erudite response.

Then he left again, this time recruiting a neighbor to support his campaign.

When he was gone too long and the weather was too hot, she fed them and cooled them and reported back. The tomato and pepper plants hadn’t expired of heat exhaustion. They were thriving.

He asked me about them all the time. Had I been by? How had the tomato plant seemed? Was the soil wet? Were they wilting?

I. Didn’t. Get. It.

Finally, the neighbor sent my dad a text. “We have a tomato.”

The night before a Transatlantic journey home, he wrote to me excitedly, “I can’t wait to see my tomato !!!”

I was miffed. He might also mention his daughter and her family. Enough about the tomatoes!

Maybe it was another goofy stage of his grief process, which is a maze for us all, and presents particular challenges for a child who must observe a beloved parent suddenly and tragically forget themselves, go astray, come back, follow rocky paths, want to die, want to hide, want to go back, pine for happiness, try to disappear, then reappear and need you (only you) and not need anyone at all ever again and need someone who is never, ever coming back again. These are agonizing circular challenges of your loss and their loss and your loss and their loss. Ad infinitum.

But still I puzzled, not seeing anything other than tomatoes. Fruits masquerading as vegetables.

When I got the email today, I glanced at it on my phone without really reading it. I asked him about it. He serenely told me he had invited his neighbor over so they could both be there when they picked the tomatoes. “I was afraid a critter might get them,” he said, his voice bearing all the protectiveness and vulnerability of a new mother.

And something in my heart changed. Dissolved. Clarified.

My father had planted, nurtured, worried over, babied, cooed at, cajoled, fed, and then, finally, brought to life something way more significant than fruits or vegetables.

He had harvested hope. For the first time in three decades, he wrote. (But I think he meant four because my oldest brother is 40.)

After Prima and Secondo were tucked into bed, I crept to my computer and looked again.

“My first tomatoes in about 30 years !!! I Love Life !!!”

I love you, Dad.