Matthew Amster-Burton’s, Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater (Mariner Books, 2010), derives from a singular situation: What happens when a food writer becomes the primary caregiver for his infant daughter? More to the point, what does this parent — who has wide-ranging expertise in culinary traditions and sourcing ingredients, has the time (and inclination) to cook, and has a boundless, embracing appetite — have to teach the rest of us ordinary folk about feeding our families? Quite a lot, it turns out. Hungry Monkey is the result of Amster-Burton’s quest to feed his first child adventurously. It’s an engaging, often inspiring read for anyone, but especially for those parents looking to haul themselves out of a family food rut — which, I think, includes almost all of us at one time or another.
Amster-Burton proceeds from a place of yes. He believes that children’s food, and infant food too, should not be deliberately bland. We shouldn’t fear giving them (added) salt or sugar, or sushi, or spice — or anything else. For him, “the First Rule of Baby Food is that there’s no such thing as baby food.” This means sharing your meals with your children from the beginning, and he has lots of great suggestions about how to do this, ranging from smashed apricots to baby-chicken-and-mushrooms to enchiladas. Of all our human experiences, Amster-Burton writes, food is the thing we get to “enjoy three times a day, plus snacks!” And so he sets out to make the most of his food life with his daughter. He eats, cooks and shops with Iris, who turns out to be more like other kids than not: she’s adventurous, then picky, then a little of both. Father and daughter eat a lot of pizza, and bacon, and nutella snacks. But they also range more widely, and his practical discussions of a variety of stews, sushi, Korean, Chinese, and Thai dishes is liberating for anyone stuck in Western food traditions. The recipes for Pad Thai, Bibimap, and Ants on a Tree look terrific.
What’s most different about this family is not so much what Iris will or won’t eat as her father’s attitude. Rule number two is: “When I put down the food in front of my child, my job is done.” There are no arguments, no food fights, and no bargaining. Iris eats what she eats when she is ready. This approach reminds us that learning to eat is a long term goal. Amster-Burton can afford to take his culinary failures in stride.
While the energy of the book is infectious, Amster-Burton’s tone can plummet from witty to flip very quickly, and some of the anecdotes become cloying digressions. Given the choice, he defers to the joke, which can frustrate readers looking for more analysis. But he’s upfront about this: “I’m no Michael Pollan.” More problematic may be the way he takes for granted the range, availability, and affordability of ingredients. There’s a kind of culinary hipster sensibility to his approach that can be offputting for readers who haven’t made food their life’s work. To Amster-Burton’s credit, however, he fully acknowledges these prejudices. What he fails to acknowledge, however, is that not all parents have his expertise, skill, or time. It’s one thing to cook for a single child, but add another child, a full-time job, homework, an after school activity or two, and cooking and serving family meals becomes a lot more challenging.
Still, Hungry Monkey can be genuinely funny. Think of this book as Anthony Bourdain for the Bugaboo set: less a how-to or primer than a call to action. In the end, it’s the spirit of the book that matters most. The very best take away — aside from a bunch of good recipes — is a sense of adventure: food should be fun. For Amster-Burton, feeding a young child is an adventure into newness, an opportunity to forge a relationship to the world and to each other, and an endless series of failures and possibilities. We should all have his spirited, catholic approach. And, probably, a lot more bacon.