Jul 8, 2010

Trying Mushrooms

When my oldest child turned seven I decided to quit my job to stay home with the kids. It turned out to be the opposite of what most of the other moms were doing. I'd thought I was joining an amazing network of wonderful stay at home moms, but turns out they, after nurturing their infants into elementary school, were ready to hit the job market again. I hadn't had much interest in the days in and days out of little babies--so many unreasonable marbles rolling in so many directions--but got really interested in being around to influence homework habits, have the kinds of conversations you can have with fully formed kids, do things with them that they might remember, etc.

So with all this time on my hands and with no other neighborhood moms to do yoga and lunch with, I started to cook real meals for my family. I like to think I'd have been motivated to do that anyway, but there's no way of knowing.

Until that point my kids had consisted on chicken nuggets, velveeta shells and cheese, goldfish, ramen noodles, take-out Indian food, and ketchup. Not necessarily in that order.

Now I was asking them to get excited about the kinds of meals I was served as a kid. Meals with more colors in them, more textures. An upside-down shepherd's pie we call 'grumption,' (though, when I looked it up now to see if I could hyperlink to it, it turns out to have some pretty unrelated meanings), lemon poppy chicken, pasta with pesto, tacos, pot roast, etc. Of course some of my 'home-cooked' meals are the kinds of slapped together things that my more Enchanted Broccoli-types of friends would consider pre-cooked and processed. Not everyone would put tacos in the home-cooked category, but I figure if I'm messing up more than one pan and using a measuring cup, I've cooked.

The kids were not instantly excited. I'd prepared them for butter-waterfalls on their mashed potatoes, but rarely served the potatoes as hot as would be necessary to get that effect I remembered so much when I was a kid. They'd seen Fear Factor on tv though (something I'm not proud of) and so I ended up introducing a game called Family Fear Factor. The children could earn a dollar for every new thing they tried. And just like on the show, we'd all gather around for the chewing and swallowing and then we'd inspect the inside of their mouth to make sure they hadn't hidden a cockroach, sorry, I mean a stalk of broccoli somewhere. It was fun, it was funny, it was expensive, and--surprisingly, it worked. Once my son discovered he liked pot roast, he ate it every time. Once my daughter tasted pesto, she was a fan forever. Of course the food I was serving wasn't much of a stretch. I don't eat any kind of fish, at all. No mushrooms, ever. Not a lot of adventure in my own cuisine. Just meat, potatoes, some vegetables, variations on pasta...stuff like that.

I realize that it's hypocritical to encourage them to take chances on food when I refuse to do the same. But I'm kind of fully formed, have long identified as a non-seafood/non-mushroom kind of gal. At a clam bake (or was it oysters?) in Princeton twenty years ago I spent the entire evening with a guy I'd never met, having bonded with him only because of our disdain for all the sea-creature-slurping going on around us. It was kind of like having a husband--like that new concept of a work-husband?--he was definitely my party-husband. We clung together for the duration, gave each other knowing looks, and found strength in numbers when it came to being cornered by someone with oyster slime on his lip, demanding to know why we wouldn't even try it.

I'm aware that much of this food-aversion is in my head, as I enjoyed ruffles dipped in clam dip, sardines, and Howard Johnsons clam strips as a kid. Now that I know what most of that food is, I cringe at the thought of aiming for the chewy bits with my potato chips at all those neighborhood parties I grew up going to. And once, in my adult life, I was served a mushroom ravioli with mushroom sauce that managed to have no visible mushrooms anywhere. I didn't know what it was, liked it, and only rejected an offer of seconds once I was told what it was. I get how terrible it is to admit that. But still, eating those yucky brown slimy things that grow on rotting trees? Yuck. I don't even know why the beauty products that advertise shiitake mushroom extract, as the camera pans over artfully arranged mushroom, are playing that part up. What part of the word 'mushroom' makes you think of beautiful skin? Exactly. 'Fungus' might have something to do with feet but not in a very desirable way. What crazy person thought that one up?

As of a week ago, I'd never eaten a mushroom on purpose. But now I have. I'm not going to be ordering them on pizza anytime soon, but I can announce that little raw mushrooms just aren't that bad. At an Italian dinner the other night sponsored by Select Italy with chefs from Eatalian leading us through what we were eating, I (and a handful of other invited mom-bloggers) was invited to eat several frightening things. I'd planned to be a big girl and keep my feelings about mushrooms and seafood to myself, but of course I spilled my secret to the first mom I could, therein christening her the person in the room who I could make worried eyes at while being offered things like eggs with truffles, and porcini something-or-other.

The mushroom breakthrough moment came when one of the chefs brought out these soft powdery puffs that almost looked like meringues but were, indeed, some kind of fresh mushroom. The trick, he said, was that you don't wash them--that makes them turn brown, and slimy (or did I just add the slimy part?). You peel the edges off and then slice them into little inoffensive mushroom pieces. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say 'yum!' but...you know...they weren't that bad.

I even looked for them in the mushroom section at Fairway today as I scootched past with my cart. Big soft white powdery things. I saw them (amidst other more hideous varieties that look kind of like someone dumped a forest floor into the display case), and didn't buy them. But I didn't feel any animosity to them. I kind of felt like they were some familiar friends...ambassadors, maybe, to the other more drastic kinds of things in boxes around them.

And, just like every mom should have to relive the pain of a skinned knee so she can bring a bit more sympathy to the children who get them (they really, really hurt!), so should every mom take a wee bit of a chance on some kind of food she might have written off a lifetime ago. My meals aren't getting any more complicated around here as a result of having gone to this dinner (the rest of which was, by the way, out of this world spectacular), but I feel a bit more grown-up now. I handled a mushroom. Maybe I can handle anything.

No comments: