Grandma tales part 3 (grumpy about demanding eaters)

“Picky eater” suggests a limited palate, and that’s not what I have. I am rather a “demanding eater,” which is a whole different thing, thank you very much. Jesse, light of my life, daughter of my loins, follows delicately in my footsteps on this front.

She will eat all sorts of foods and appreciates an array of spices and ethnic cuisines. Many kids with food allergies have a lot of food fear and thus a very limited range of willing eating, but I flatter myself that we’ve avoided this syndrome with Jesse. Anthony and I are competent cooks in a lot of different ethnic styles, in our own fusion way, and Jesse’s egg allergy is no barrier to continuing to explore all these flavors. She’ll choke down almost anything we offer her with a courageous heart. But she must have everything fresh. She doesn’t like leftovers. She doesn’t like packaged bread — it must be from an artisanal bakery or home-made — unless it’s a hotdog bun. Hamburger buns? She’s tasted the fountain of fresh, so she demands homemade buns unless we’re at a restaurant. Tortillas are great, as long as I make them from scratch. Meat should come in its original form — a chunk off an animal, cooked in a piece and then cut to bite size (except for fish sticks, which Jesse eats for breakfast because Ian’s makes an egg-free version, a novelty she enjoys). Ice cream? It’s Talenti or nothin’ these days. Avocado? No. Guacamole? Yes (one ingredient: well-smashed avocado). Onions? Yes, if freshly sautéed and caramelized in balsamic vinegar, with some garlic and pepper, a pinch of brown sugar. No other way will do. Cucumbers? Only if served thin-sliced as a spicy Korean quick-pickled salad, which she can rinse off in a bowl of cold water before she eats them, and then she drinks the spicy water afterwards. Tomato-based soup? Sure, but only if it’s Whole Foods’ gumbo made with okra, only she won’t eat the okra and she needs the artisanal French round cut in thick slices to dip in it (her babysitter learned last weekend: cut that slice too thin and all hell breaks loose). Pizza? Awesome. Cheese pizza, only she takes off the cheese. But it has to be baked with the cheese.

An aside here: I’m not talking about Nick because he’s a PICKY eater. All he wants is box-mac-and-cheese, chips, and Pirate Booty. He thinks almost everything I make is totally disgusting. He took one tiny bite of mashed potatoes tonight — yes, I made mashed potatoes! — and promptly vomited. I have no respect for that.

But I do have a great respect for Jesse’s preferences, and as much as I can, I honor them. I may be 48 years old and much more pliable than I used to be, but I remember the days when I was just as demanding as her. I don’t believe she’s being unreasonable. She just has a sense of what she likes best, and she’s willing to forego food unless she gets it. I could be a hard-ass about it, but here’s why I’m not. It’s a little Grandma tale.

One of my favorite meals as a kid was rice-eggs-and-soy-sauce. The original iteration involved a raw egg. You take a bowl of steaming hot rice. You crack a raw egg on it and stir it up. Then you add some soy sauce. Devour. Done in the right kind of bowl, you’re not eating a raw egg. If you use a hot stone bowl and the rice is just-cooked, the egg cooks in all that heat. When I was a wee lass, I didn’t care either way. The raw egg just made the rice a bit more gooey.

I loved this until one day someone made me rice-eggs-and-soy-sauce with a hard-boiled egg. You take the same bowl of fresh rice, unpeel a couple hard-boiled eggs and chop them up into pieces, and stir it all up with some soy sauce. Devour. Oh my god. Even as I type this I’m salivating. I can taste the simple yumminess. It’s one of the few things I really, really miss in our egg-free house. Damn you, egg allergy, damn you!

One fine weekend, I walked on over to Grandma’s house with her and slept there. My mom says that the first night I ever did this (I would have been 3 or 4), I wept and wept and had to be taken back home. I have no memory of that event. I only remember sleep-overs with Grandma as the most magical, wonderful events of my childhood. In hindsight, I guess she was my best friend.

Anyway, a drowsy morning came in Grandma’s house. I lazed in bed. In Grandma’s house, that meant I was snuggled under blankets on a thick cotton bedroll laid down on the heated concrete floor, which was finished with some sort of glazed paper surface. My pillow was a traditional Korean style cylinder-shaped thing. The bed would have been soooo toasty and warm because by the time I awoke Grandma would have already gone outside to add a new charcoal block to the ondol oven, which heated the floors. On cold days, Grandma would put our clothing between the bed and the floor before she cleared the beddings away, so that getting dressed was deliciously warm.

This particular morning, Grandma asked me what I wanted for breakfast. She wanted to treat me to whatever I wanted. “Bhap he-goo geh-lhan,” I answered. Rice and eggs (the soy sauce, or ganjang, would have been assumed). Off she went to the kitchen. I continued to laze. Some time later, Grandma came back and placed a tray of food beside me, so I could eat in the warmth of the bedroom. I looked in the bowl. GAH. The egg was FRIED, not boiled. Ugh. Ew. Yuck. Inedible! I had a whining hissy fit. I announced my feelings passionately. This is all wrong! This is not how you make rice and eggs! This is not how Song-Ja [our housemaid] makes it for me! I can’t eat this! (“Ee-goh moht-moh-go!!”)

Grandma listened silently to me without moving. She stood there and stared down at me as I sat under the covers in a warm bed. She waited until I was done complaining. She never said a word. When I finally shut up, she still stared at me without moving, for another long moment. She looked at the bowl, she looked at me. She didn’t smile, she didn’t scowl. She just looked patient and blank, like she was tolerating a dong-pah-li she couldn’t get rid of. Then she barely nodded. “Gu-leh.” Okay. She picked up the tray and left.

(“Dong-pah-li” literally means shit fly, aka a fly that likes to sit on shit and eat it. It’s an apt image, because that’s what I felt like afterwards.)

I stayed in bed, only I wasn’t lazing anymore. I knew how irritated Grandma was. I was so ashamed of myself for making such disrespectful demands of Grandma, my friend and my elder. I sat in numb silence, wondering what she was doing. I assumed I wasn’t going to get breakfast at all. I still cringe when I remember that day. Right now, at this very moment, I had to stop typing because I literally had to hang my head in shame and fight the tears back. I was such a little piece of shit.

But some while later, Grandma came back and placed a tray of food beside me, so I could eat in the warmth of the bedroom. There was rice and boiled eggs. I don’t remember whether the eggs were fully hard-boiled. By that point, I would have eaten anything Grandma put in front of me. I thanked her sheepishly, shamefully, and ate every bite.

Grandma never remonstrated, never corrected or disciplined me. She never tattled on me to my parents. We never spoke of it again. She forgave me and moved on. Her extraordinary kindness and patience was the worst punishment of all. I’ve never really forgiven myself for that morning.

But now that I’m a mom, I can finally make amends to Grandma. So I meet Jesse’s demands. I make it fresh. I put the food in separate bowls when she needs it that way; I mix it together when I must. And well, let’s be honest, I meet Nick’s picky demands too. I try to work with his preferences. I give him the crap he wants to eat and try to get him to down at least a few bites of something healthier, with the hope that someday he’ll come around. I won’t be a hard ass about food. Grandma is looking over my shoulder, reminding me of the shit she put up with. I can’t let her down. I have to pass on her legacy.

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