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EAT, WRITE, DIGEST: Retro Recipe Night

The Tuesday Night Dinner Project 

There’s something magical that happens when the youngest member of the family hangs out in the kitchen with the cook. 

At nearly three (33 months, if you want an exact number), the youngest member of our family has a special folding stool that she climbs onto when I do anything at all in our kitchen. Camille is interested in what the food looks like when it comes out of any container it might be in, what happens when it gets stirred, how to crack an egg, what a whisk does, why she can’t touch the stovetop when the burner is on. She makes me think more closely about what I’m doing and why; nothing can be rote when a little kid is there examining everything and asking questions. 

Since she hung out with me from breakfast to bedtime yesterday, we started our day making oatmeal. I love oatmeal. Camille liked making it. She peered into the pan through her rhinestone-studded sunglasses (why not glam it up?) when the water started to boil, tipped her head when I told her to listen to the sound the boiling water made. She insisted on pouring the oatmeal from the measuring cup into the boiling water, watched me stir, then stared at the bubbling hot cereal as it simmered. She had a great time all the way until she actually had to taste the stuff and then she was clearly finished with oatmeal. 

We moved on. We made a Valentine card for Camille’s parents. Camille covered the front by scribbling with different colored markers and affixing the paper hearts I’d cut out for her that had double-stick tape on the back. They landed charmingly off-center and cockeyed. When we got to the inside, she asked me to draw a cow and a pig. Insisted, actually.

She’s destined to be romantic, don’t you think? 

Nevertheless, she was quite proud of her card in the moment and it was duly bestowed upon her parents in the evening when they came over for dinner. They oohed and aahed and gave her hugs and smooches. 

When I think about all the Valentines I made as a kid, it makes me sort of wistful that the day has become so far removed from those simple paper creations. Not that I’m going to refuse the dinner reservation my own spouse has made for Friday night; I’m really delighted that he got a reservation at our favorite Italian restaurant in St. Paul. But there’s something about a handmade love note that can’t be duplicated by Hallmark (thank God) or American Greetings or any of the other card companies that cash in on this sham-of-romance holiday. There’s a soft sweetness, an intimacy that can’t be marketed. A handmade card of any kind evokes the cozy familiarity at the heart of any relationship. If you’re a small child, offerings from the heart are the natural way to be in the world. 

As a grown-up, it’s not so easy to let my heart speak all the time. But I can cook and that’s a pretty heartfelt activity.  

Last night was a retro recipe night. With a little help from Camille, I made something called Chicken Tamale Pie, only there was no chicken. We used turkey. In this family, we have a whole bunch of food allergies and intolerances to be aware of, so sometimes coming up with something that everyone can eat is really tough. Both of my kids are allergic to peanuts, my son having developed the allergy only within the last couple of years. My daughter is not only allergic to peanuts; she’s allergic to the general legume category. My spouse is allergic to fish. He also has an intolerance for beans. The only meat my daughter-in-law eats is poultry and sometimes she has a reaction to pectins. Camille had an interesting reaction to corn-on-the cob last summer, but we’re not sure if that was due to some other contamination. 

And me? I can eat pretty much anything. It figures, somehow, that I’m the main cook here. I’m also wicked with an Epipen, but that’s another story.

Back to the poultry-we-had-in-the-freezer tamale pie. It’s still raging winter around here, so warm food is a must. And my Valentine’s Day nostalgia must have influenced me when I was looking at recipes for last night, because the idea of making a dish that first showed its recipe in the Joy of Cooking in 1943 had a certain comforting appeal, as if it were something my mom might have made. Everybody actually liked it, even though Mick and Beka both picked the green olives out of their portions. 

As for Camille, those glitzy sunglasses she had been wearing all day long were set aside by the time dinner rolled around. I like to think she wanted to get a better look at her plate to see what the big deal was. 

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