At his favorite restaurant, a gaudy massive Chinese buffet, my son Owen fills his plate with baby octopi. He doesn’t just eat them, he dissects with commentary. For a picky eater like me, listening to descriptions of texture and anatomy is almost more than I can bear.
My first child ate virtually nothing after he gave up nursing. My husband and I are robustly built people who couldn’t get our little one to eat more than a bite or two, leaving us a very physically mismatched family. The kid is nine now and still considers food an annoyance that interrupts his life.
So when baby Owen arrived, I was ready for food fights once again. But from his first joyous bite of applesauce — no spoon, straight from a pile on his high chair tray — Owen has loved food. Not just treats, not just when he’s bored, not just when he's hungry. The kid savors flavors and wants to explore them.
Miso soup is a favorite, full of umami and salt. “What are the white squares?” he asks.
I don’t want to ruin it for him so I’m wary answering. “It’s called tofu. It's like…hmm.” I hate tofu so I’m at a loss for words.
Owen doesn't wait for my explanation, though. He scoops a few cubes into the deep spoon, looks carefully at them, and then eats.
“It doesn’t taste like anything.”
The food adventures began as a male bonding exercise. My husband loves trying all kinds of food, especially the ones that make me squeamish. Owen learned early on that a willingness to sample new foods made his father proud. He was an early adopter of asparagus and artichokes, salmon roe and stinky cheeses, long before he could even tie a shoe. Father and son became a team.
Owen’s food love has grown past his father-son relationship. For his fifth birthday he wanted our friend to make him obento for lunch. I’d made arranged standard America fare into cute bento box style for months, but that wasn’t what he wanted. Hard-boiled egg cut into the shape of an animal, seaweed wrapped rice ball looking like a masked ninja, tiny sausages steamed into tentacle creatures. Our friend was thrilled to have a fan club so she went all out on my boy’s special Japanese lunch. It was easily his favorite part of the day, far surpassing the Spiderman festooned cake.
Seafood and Asian specialties are at the top of Owen’s list. The funkier the smell, the better. He enjoys his foodie identity as part of what makes him unique. I love this about him. He’s unswayed by the kids at lunch with their boring sandwiches. I pack him nori (dried and crunchy seaweed), Thai dried shredded fish, and cantaloupe.
I’m never going to be a brave eater. I abhor anything white or creamy and, honestly, this is fairly limiting. But each time Owen grocery shops with me we try to select a new food to try out as a family. Cactus fruit, cinnamon sticks, the olive bar with its dozen options, rambutans. The cactus, nopales, will not be coming back even with the spikes taken out. Some olives were more popular than others with their strong brine, though I find all varieties vile. But the alien looking spiky fruit spheres with a sweet gelatinous layer inside covering the enormous seed? I love those things! Without Owen, I never would have tried them.
I love to watch Owen overcome his fears – of food, of cockroaches, of anything – and surpass me in life. And it's not just the food. I like to think my little son is more open to unfamiliar experiences in general. Will he bravely go off to science camp with strangers? Skydive? Choose an unpopular political opinion? I hope he’ll listen to his own voice - not just about what to eat, but what to think, and who to be.
We’re planning a family trip to Thailand soon. I’m excited to explore, and try new things. But I’m nervous too. Big cities, unfamiliar culture, unknown language, and the sheer mass of humanity. Oh yeah, and the pan roasted bugs I've heard so much about.
I know that with Owen's guidance, I’ll step outside my comfort zone, order something more than plain steamed rice, and try to open up to whatever comes my way. Even if it once lived in the ocean, or worse yet, under a rock.