Author Roald Dahl loved food. Only the most inventive foodie could concoct Wonka’s Whipple-scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight, or a three-course dinner packed into a stick of chewing gum. In Dahl’s novel James and the Giant Peach, our young protagonist and his insect friends drift across the Atlantic on a delectable clingstone. Even Dahl’s unsavory creations brim with genius. The Big Friendly Giant abstains from “human beans” and survives on snozzcumbers, foul vegetables reminiscent of slime wanglers, and frobscottle, a drink whose downward-floating bubbles evoke not burps but Whizzpoppers.
As well as extraordinary tastes and smells, Dahl infused his books with not-so-subtle guidance for parents. Remember Veruca Salt? That greedy little brute slipped down the garbage chute, and why? The Oompa Loompas tell all: “The guilty ones, now this sad/ Are old mom, and loving dad.” Every child who enters the Wonka’s factory, save Charlie, meets their demise because Mom and Dad have failed to teach gratitude, moderation, and respect. And in Dahl’s novel Matilda, the girl’s heartless parents refuse to buy her a single book, an oversight that leads to Matilda’s adoption by her more attentive school teacher.
Sobering parental advice, outrageous cuisine, whimsical writing, and above all, prodigious imagination. For these reasons, Roald Dahl’s books are favorites with both the kids and adults in our house. Also for these reasons, Dahl provides the title and inspiration for this new column on food and family.
Nourishing our children is a mother’s most primal instinct. The urge to provide begins at conception with the awareness that what feeds our body also builds our child, and continues through breast or bottle, first sweetpea purees, and full knife-and-fork family meals. Whether you forage in a backyard garden, a local farm, a supermarket aisle, or even online, our connection to food — what we eat and what we share — is, quite literally, visceral. But what should be a source of satisfaction, even joy, so often veers into frustration and self-doubt: as parents, we can’t or don’t always feed our kids the way we want to, plan to, or think we should.
I grasped this lesson early in motherhood, the day my twins were born. Several months prior, I’d enrolled in prenatal classes for multiple birth families, and had learned the mechanics and good sense of breastfeeding both babies at once. Two mouths, two nipples, one double-barrelled nursing pillow: easy. But the evening Alex and Jon arrived, I slouched into my hospital bed, aching from one natural birth and one emergency C-section. My babies lay like two wrapped baguettes in their bassinet. When Alex woke and wailed for food, I shuffled over and hauled him into bed with me. He took to breastfeeding quickly. So far, I thought, so good. But as Alex fed, Jon woke and screeched for his turn. I’d just two hands; my husband had returned home to care for Thomas, our toddler. I had no choice but to let Jon cry until a nurse arrived and placed him alongside Alex for my first attempt at dual-feeding.
I learned more about mothering in the subsequent minutes than I’d learned in all my prenatal classes. I could not feed Alex and Jon simultaneously. Alex drank as if downing a single shot of espresso between business meetings. A gulp, a burp, and then on with the agenda. Jon savoured his milk like a glass of fine Beaujolais; he did not appreciate his brother’s belches or busy schedule. The twins, though conceived, gestated, and born together, entered the world as entirely different children with vastly different tastes and tendencies. My plans for nourishing one did not work for the other, at least did not without grief — mine and theirs.
So it remains today, almost seven years later. In his ideal world, Alex would survive on heaps of pesto-pasta and soda water, Jon on mint ice cream and jelly beans. Their older brother, Thomas, likes his bacon and sausage with a buttery side of mash. My boys have the privilege of choice, the luxury to refuse a meal with the confidence that an alternate will arrive in a few hours time. In other words, my kids are fussy, and for many reasons it drives me mad.
Fussiness irks me in part because we recently moved back to Canada after four years in South Africa, a country where half of the population lives under the poverty line. I met kids in Cape Town who relish boiled tripe and consider a plate of chicken feet reason to celebrate. Many children live solely on cornmeal porridge or white bread and tea. For mothers in these families, mealtime anxiety stems not from fussiness but from simple, inexorable lack: not enough food to go around.
My mealtime frustration stems from abundance, for which I can only be grateful — but I do wish my kids were more grateful too. They understand that many children have less, but that knowledge doesn’t always translate into eating what’s on the table. And while I’m thankful my boys have the self-assurance to express their opinion (a well-wielded word in our house), I’m less enthused to hear, “Actually, Mom, I don’t really like curry. I’ll just have the plain rice.”
I want to do more than feed my kids. I want to sustain and fortify them. I want to show them the convoluted or bee-line path their meal might trace from farm to table. At times, however, I simply want to placate my noisy band of boys, and get dinner over and done without a single, “I don’t like that.” So even the simplest of meals, a grilled cheese or chicken soup, becomes complicated. We bring much more than food to the table. We bring our tastes, culture, budget, upbringing, location, and values. We bring the infinite variations that make us individuals and make our families unique.
As my family reorients from suburban South Africa to a small fishing town in eastern Canada, I invite you to share in our culinary creations and discoveries. Next month, we’ll pick, bake, squish, and freeze local blueberries. In forthcoming columns, we’ll explore root cellars and rooftop gardens, ice fishing and fish smoking, school lunches and ocean-side picnics. We’ll dig up old traditions and cultivate new ones. Like Willy Wonka in his Inventing Room, like Roald Dahl himself, I hope to spice the daily task of feeding kids with a dash of creativity — the wildly improbable, the wonderfully poetic. Who knows what will happen? As James’s friend the Centipede sings, “I like hot-dogs, I LOVE hot-frogs,” but what does he choose in the end? A single bite of a juicy, home-grown, utterly fantastic peach.