Sat 9 May 2009 12:22 am
So if you knew Matthew Amster-Burton’s writing before his daughter, Iris, was born, I can tell you he’s still one of the sharpest, funniest food writers around. He operates with a scientist’s sense of kitchen adventure, a well-rounded palate (know anyone else who enrolled in a Thai language class because he liked Thai food?), and a well-calibrated bullshit meter for his own foibles as well as those of others. All these things — smarts, humor, perspective — seem to vanish when otherwise sane people start writing about children and food. That’s what makes Amster-Burton’s first book, Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater, a find that should be required packaging with every high chair.
The subtitle talks about raising an adventurous eater, but the book is mainly common sense perspective for anyone who plans to raise any kind of eater. At childbirth classes, I would hand out the chapter where he talks about the “terrible lie” that most new parents hear about breastfeeding (i.e., that it’s automatic and instantly fulfilling.) For any new parent investing in a blender and baby food purees, I would share Amster-Burton’s recipes for pad thai and bibimbap. And for anyone who doubts whether 5-year-old Iris can be for real, or whether a kid who eats what adults eat is as charming a literary creation as Sal or Frances, I would refer them to Boom Noodle. That was Iris’s restaurant of choice when I asked Amster-Burton if I could meet them both for lunch, and it’s where Iris politely requested a bento box of “crunchy shrimp,” while my own 2-year-old scarfed down his first plate of okonomiyaki. (Next I want to see if she’ll take my boy to Jerry Traunfeld’s Poppy, her next favorite.)
New mothers and fathers are painfully vulnerable when it comes to books of parenting advice. Most of it comes in the form of inflexible rulebooks, with one expert’s instructions, naturally, disagreeing entirely with the ones in the next book, and none of them necessarily rooted in sanity or science. Food science isn’t always definitive, for one thing, and what’s sane for one child might not be sane for another. One reason I’m a Hungry Monkey fan is that Amster-Burton doesn’t waste his time or yours mandating your family’s food choices. He’s just explaining in a rather entertaining way how he and his wife and child collaborated on theirs — while providing 50+ excellent recipes that might come in handy while figuring out your own.
The book also avoids the irritating traps of the ghastly box of “children’s cookbooks” I used to keep under my desk at the P-I — I kept planning to write about them, but always found the topic too depressing — the ones relentlessly suggesting that children are a species apart, and the key to feeding them is to trick them into nutrition, to sneak vegetables into their chocolate brownies, cut their sandwiches into enticing shapes, or cutely decorate their entrees into perceived edibility.
Hungry Monkey’s thesis is a straightforward one: There is no reason to segregate children into their own land of “kids’ food”; they’re individuals who can enjoy cooking and eating and developing their own tastes like anyone else. Those likes, in a given week, might include anything from hot dogs to Veggie Booty to larb gai to fish eyeballs. Along the way, Amster-Burton lopes through topics like picky eaters (his kid can be one too), meat grinders, spicy foods, pressure cookers, and school snacks. He isn’t proscribing a dietary regimen so much as a describing a parenting style that lets adults and kids enjoy eating together. Despite the tooth-gritting word “foodie” on the back of my advance edition, and the recipes for duck ragu and stuffed trout, he’s careful not to aggravate readers outside a big city food bubble, announcing that Iris gets deli ham in her lunchbox at least once a week and that he buys frozen hash browns. Before having Iris, he writes, he would have assumed there is no reason children should automatically gravitate to foods like hot dogs and pizza.
“Boy, was I a dumb jerk. Now I realize that if you took the cast of Lord of the Flies and gave them a deep fryer and a sack of potatoes, they’d invent French fries within an hour. (Don’t ask where they’d get the cooking fat.)”
At our own lunch today, Iris divulged that Hungry Monkey is not her own favorite book, that honor goes to the “Rainbow Fairies” series, but that she does have a favorite chapter, the one titled “You Fed Your Baby WHAT?” She is most likely making potstickers with her dad when they tape The Early Show in New York City on May 19. She thinks a better book title next time would be, if I’m remembering right, “Rice is Nice, Eat Some Twice.” Just writing those words reminds me that one of Amster-Burton’s neatest achievements in the book is writing about his own child in a way that doesn’t come off as nauseatingly precious. It’s very hard to do this, which is why my own kids’ grandparents are usually the only ones who would appreciate what I write about them.
Beyond talent, I wonder how much gender has to do with the book’s sparkle. A disproportionate number of kid cookbooks and parenting books are written by women, and Amster-Burton’s dad’s-eye look hits it early on when he writes that the main thing he has learned from parenting magazines is that moms feel guilty about everything.
“Here are some things I don’t feel guilty about: Letting Iris watch TV while I wash dishes. Introducing her to Crunch Berries. The fact that she hardly likes any green vegetables. Having a job…Teaching Iris to play Donkey Kong Country 3 on the Super Nintendo. Saying I’m too tired to tell a kitties vs. pirates story with her dolls. Serving frozen potstickers for lunch.
“Although gosh, when I look at it all together like that, maybe I should feel guilty.
“But I don’t. Feeding a young child is stressful and unpredictable, you do whatever it takes to make it work, and the job is never done. But you could say the same thing about snowboarding or touring with the Rolling Stones. “Stresful and unpredictable” doesn’t preclude fun.”
Are there flaws in the book? Sure. Amster-Burton is capable of falling on the wrong side of the smart aleck line. Also, while he had a regular gig writing Cheap Eats restaurant reviews for The Seattle Times, I kept tripping on the book’s description of him as the paper’s restaurant critic (that would have been Nancy Leson). And, he mentions a chocolate malt cookie twice in the book without giving up the recipe. That’s about it. Not bad in exchange for the key to his spicy green chile enchiladas.
The book’s publication party will be at 7 p.m. May 14 at Bailey Coy Books. There will be cupcakes, and, as Iris informed us, two monkey stickers for every kid who attends. (Parents can cover the kids’ ears if Amster-Burton starts going off on colostrum, as he did at this reading, describing it as “about as mellifluous as smegma.”) And, in the full disclosure department, Amster-Burton thanks yours truly in the book’s acknowledgements, simply for suggesting once that I would be happy to read a full-length book of his any time he got around to writing one. I’m glad it’s finally here.
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[...] May 8: Lara Ferroni at Cook and Eat May 9: Rebekah Denn at Eat All About It [...]
[...] posted a great review of Matthew Amster-Burton’s Hungry Monkey on her blog, which can be found here. The book chronicles “A food-loving father’s quest to raise an adventurous eater” [...]