Kids and food—there’s no explaining. When my goddaughter was about two years old, I gave her a salty black Greek olive. She put it in her mouth, wrinkled up her nose and squinched her eyes, but kept chewing—and then held out her hand to ask for another.
I was a dreadfully fussy eater as a kid, to the consternation of my mother, who was worried that I wouldn’t grow, not to mention bored with the limitations of my tastes. I wouldn't even eat peanut butter, so she often sent me to school with a cream-cheese-and-jelly sandwich—crusts cut off the white bread, grape jelly only. I refused to eat anything unfamiliar or creative that my mother tried to introduce. I accepted standard preparations of meat or chicken, nothing too fancy or "foreign."
In an attempt to expand my culinary horizons, my mom and my Aunt Esther conjured up a plan for me to try tuna fish: They called it French chicken. Our next-door neighbors were the Delaveau family, which made me an early Francophile, so I was primed to like anything with a French imprimatur. (Somehow I never noticed that other kids in the school cafeteria were eating decidedly American tuna fish sandwiches. Happily, my journalistic powers of observation improved with age.)
Despite my limited palate at home, when it was deemed age-appropriate, I loved taking the train into center-city Philadelphia to meet my dad at his office and have lunch at Horn and Hardart. It was a local chain known for its "automats" (coins were inserted into a kind of vending machine for either cold or hot food) and take-out products (advertised as "Less Work for Mother"), but the branch near my dad's office had counter service, and I often ordered the vegetable plate from his favorite waitress named Ruth. Such an odd choice for a child, especially a little fussbudget as I was, but I think I was taken with all the colors on the plate—red beets, green beans, orange carrots. In the afternoon, Dad would teach me how to type (his secretary was a terrible typist, but she was nearing retirement age, and my dad—the kindest man in the world—didn’t want to fire her). Before heading home, we’d stop in Reading Terminal Market for a quart of my mom’s favorite mocha chip ice cream from Bassetts, packed in dry ice. Although I left Philadelphia long ago, and have discovered many luscious, artisanal, hand-churned frozen delights since then, I acquired my mother’s predilection for Bassetts mocha chip and still consider it the food of the gods.
Unfortunately, I inherited my mom’s food allergies as well as her cravings. One day I was sent home by the school nurse, having become violently ill. Mom asked what I’d had for lunch. It was “French chicken,” from the school cafeteria (I had long ago accepted the fact that other people called it tuna fish) but made with chopped green peppers—the first time I’d been exposed because they were never served in my family. “Ahhh,” said Mom, “you’ve inherited the family pepper problem.”
When my goddaughter graduated from junior high school, I took her to Santa Fe and Taos as a present. She had progressed from a Greek olive-eating toddler into a teen who was interested in cooking, so we signed up for a Southwestern cooking class, completely overlooking the fact that virtually nothing in New Mexico is made without peppers. At every meal during our trip, she was on pepper patrol—cross-examining waitresses about the menu and protecting me from anaphylactic shock.
Really, it was only fair—I did teach her how to tie her shoes.
Aimee Lee Ball is a journalist and co-author of four books. Her website is www.AimeeLeeBall.com.
(This is a combination of recipes from Mario Batali and Jamie Oliver.)
1 lb. fresh tuna, finely diced
1/4 c. fresh breadcrumbs
1 egg, beaten
1/4 c. grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese
2 oz. pignoli nuts
1 t. dried oregano, divided
1/4 t. cinnamon
salt and freshly ground pepper
extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 28-oz. can peeled whole tomatoes, chopped
2 T. red wine vinegar
small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
Combine tuna, breadcrumbs, egg, cheese, pignoli nuts, 1/2 t. oregano, cinnamon, salt and pepper.
Form mixture into rounds, slightly smaller than golf balls.
Roll each ball in flour, tapping off excess.
Fry in olive oil until lightly golden brown on all sides, and drain on paper towels.
In medium saucepan, heat 3 T. olive oil over medium-low heat.
Cook onion and garlic until softened, about 10 minutes.
Add remaining 1/2 t. oregano, tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste.
Add red wine vinegar and a drizzle of olive oil, and cook about 8 - 10 minutes.
Add tuna balls to sauce, and sprinkle with parsley.
Serve with spaghetti or linguine.
Serves 4 - 6.