Food Is Home


Luca at Chez Panisse

Call it the Luca/Alice project. My seven year old son Luca is making his way through all 46 recipes in Alice Waters’ cookbook for kids called Fanny at Chez Panisse.

I realize how precious this sounds, not to mention deeply unoriginal. Yes, I happened to see Julie & Julia on the same day that I dined at Mozza. What could be more annoying? Maybe only this: the first restaurant Luca ever went to was Chez Panisse. Granted, he was all of 10 days old and so we parked him like so much furniture under the table where he slept in his seat while we ate. But still. I remember when I was pregnant in Berkeley looking enviously at the couples with their sleeping newborns under their tables, sipping the martinis that were forbidden to me. I didn’t even like martinis then. It didn’t matter though. One woman became my hero instantly. With one hand holding the stem of a martini glass, she undid her nursing bra and put her mewling baby to her breast. “I want to be just like her,” I said to my husband Jim. Of course I am nothing like her. For me nursing involved not martinis and fancy restaurants but a crazy-making lack of sleep and thirty pounds of weight gain.

And yet here is a story about Luca and Alice Waters and his desire to have, as he puts it, “a fire in my mouth.” Of course he might change his mind at any time and become bored with cooking. Any number of his other obsessions could overtake this one; Star Wars, space travel, The Beatles. But he will still want to eat well. He’ll still want the fire in his mouth.

Alice Waters’ book Fanny at Chez Panisse is book for kids that is half story and half recipes. Luca has been reading the story at the kitchen table (he told me all about the fire at the restaurant) and last night he made his first recipe out of the book, a carrot and parsley salad.


Babies, Drums and Lamb

I should start by saying that Luca and I had just come from a party that was kind of a disaster, at least for the two of us. I am an African percussionist in my spare time. I play the Senegalese sabar and the talking drum and as a result I am friends with several Senegalese drummers who have been my teachers and friends along the way as well as many dancers. This particular party was a ngente, a baby-naming celebration for a newborn. A ngente is a large gathering that consists of eating a thiebu yap (a lamb and rice dish with carrots, onions and egg) and then enjoying several rounds of high-intensity drumming and dancing.

This ngente was given at the home of the baby’s grandmother, a well-known teacher of African dance, her husband, a drum teacher and their son, a prodigiously talented young drummer named Magatte who is American born and raised, but steeped in the culture of his Senegalese parents (you can read more about Magatte here). Magatte’s half-sister had recently arrived in Los Angeles from Senegal and she had given birth six days before to this little baby boy and so now there was a big party.

As it happens Mareme, the grandmother of this baby, is known as the best cook in the community, and she was cooking the thiebu yap. Traditionally, it is served on one big plate from which everyone eats. But here in the US it is generally served buffet style. Luca, who has on several occasions eaten theibu yap and also thiebu jen which is the same as thiebu yap only with fish instead of lamb, has told me that he prefers the communal eating style.

I have a good friend named Pape Diouf who is a master drummer and teacher as well as having been a butcher in his hometown of Bargny in Senegal.  Because Pape’s idea of accepting an invitation to your house is to come over and cook thiebu jen Luca has eaten it many times. (He has also been to an ngente, one that we hosted at our house for Pape’s newborn baby girl.)  On Luca’s request Pape made thiebu jen for Luca’s 6th birthday prompting a few concerned comments from other parents about whether the kids would eat it. “Senegalese fish stew? The kids won’t eat that, will they?” The kids didn’t even ask what it was before wolfing it down. Theibu jen is one of Luca’s favorite foods and his friends loved it too.

So it was that yesterday on the way to the ngente I asked if Luca wanted to join me and he said yes. When I asked him if it was for the food or the music, he said: “Both.” Then he put on a nice shirt and tie over his T-shirt and helped me carry my sabar drum out to the car.

We arrived at the house in a section of South Central near Slauson. There were stray dogs in the street and dogs behind chain link fences and Luca said, “There are a lot of dogs around here.” I heard talking drums coming from inside the house and knew the party had already begun. The house was already crowded and when Luca saw that people were casually dressed, he yanked off his button down shirt and tie Superman-style and handed them to me. He wanted to fit in. Just then Pape, Magatte, and Pape’s two grown sons recently arrived from Senegal, entered the room, talking drums in hand. They were playing a rhythm called leumbeul, and sweat was dripping down their faces. They immediately circled me and cried out “Laurie! Laurie!” and played inches from my face, smiling right at me and stamping their feet with their dreadlocks flying. Magatte cried out: “Luca! Luca!” and bent down to give him the same treatment. It was a little embarrassing but it was the warmest greeting you can imagine. Luca turned bright red, looked as though he was going to cry and buried his face in my jacket. Fitting in didn’t mean being thrust into the spotlight.


(photo: Lynette Wich)

A minute later, Pape handed me his talking drum and I started playing along with these brilliant drummers who every day show me how much I have to learn and how impossible it will be to ever catch up. This was the only time I saw Luca smile the whole time we were there.

Waiting For Thiebu Yap

When the song was over, they stopped playing and I knew the drumming was over for now. Now came the time, inevitable at all Senegalese parties, where everyone sits around and waits for the next thing. The TV comes on and you watch DVD’s of Senegalese music videos or home made videos of sabar drumming and dancing and you wait for the food or for the drummers to get going again. There are no snacks. There is no alcohol. This can go on for a long while, much longer than is any fun for any Westerner I know. I have hung in there through these long lulls because I know that when the party gathers steam again it will be the best time I ever had in my life. But because Luca was with me, I was worried we wouldn’t be able to hang on until the drumming started again.

Within five minutes, Luca looked at me and said: “I want to leave.” Of course he was hungry. Luca is one of those people whose mood is entirely dependent on the state of his stomach. He remembers events and even whole weekend trips by what food was consumed. I checked the situation in Mareme’s kitchen but it looked like the lamb was still in the oven.

Several times people said hello to Luca and he responded rather rudely, as in, he didn’t respond at all. In my opinion, he is way past the age where he gets a pass on not speaking when spoken to. And yet this is an ongoing battle with a child who is both shy and stubborn. Maybe all shy people are stubborn. Maybe shyness is a symptom of stubbornness or the other way around. In any case, Luca wasn’t talking or shaking anybody’s hand, and when another boy his own age asked if he wanted to play hide and seek, Luca said “No.” As one of maybe three white people at the party, I couldn’t help but feel a little sensitive to my son’s behavior. Of course it had nothing to do with race, and everything to do with food. He didn’t have any racial baggage, not yet anyway. What he did have was an empty stomach and a craving for thiebu yap. I kept checking the kitchen. I saw Mareme open the oven and poke around, but still dinner seemed a long way off.  I decided it wasn’t worth pushing when Luca’s mood was only going down from here. His face lit up when I said we were leaving, and before we reached the car he asked, “What’s for dinner?”

Going Home

On the way home, Luca cried a little about his disappointment in the party. “It wasn’t what I expected,” he said. But when I asked him what it was that he did expect, he could only say, “I don’t know. More of a party.”

I entertained the idea of dropping Luca home and then going back so I could play the drums when the party got going again. But I knew it was too far and that once I was home on a chilly Sunday evening, it would be hard to leave the house again. My mind was full of the conflicts of wanting to be in two places at once. I shouldn’t have brought Luca I thought, and then just as quickly remembered how excited he had been to eat the thiebu yap and watch the drumming. I want him to be a part of this aspect of my life that is so rich in culture and good people and great music. And yet, his presence at the party made it impossible for me to enjoy myself or even to participate at all. As a parent there is sometimes no winning the game of when and how to balance your own creative needs with the more primal needs of your kids. When we got home, I took the drum out of the trunk and Luca and I plodded into the house carrying our separate disappointments on our backs.

Getting Strong

At home, Luca cried some more about how bad the party was. “There was no thiebu yap,” he cried. I told him that the important thing is to try new things because you never know what kind of fun you’ll have. Jim was making dinner; salmon, zucchini and rice, which except for the zucchini, didn’t excite Luca much. He started leafing through the Alice Waters book and I could see his mood lifting. I asked him if he wanted to make something, meaning someday not necessarily right this minute. He spied the carrot/parsley salad recipe and said he was going to make it right then.

He grabbed the apron (because for a child who spends half an hour getting dressed properly for a game of astronaut or police, half of any activity is the costume), and opened the refrigerator. I decided that I was going to see how long I could remain seated while Luca made the salad. He was going to do it himself.

He knew where the carrots were and asked Jim for the peeler. He read that he needed 3 large carrots, and took those out of the bag.  Halfway through peeling them he declared: “I’m getting weak.” “No,” I said. “You’re getting strong.”

When the carrots were peeled, he had to grate them, so he asked Jim for the cheese grater, “but not the one we use for cheese,” meaning the zester. “The one that’s like a box.” He had figured this out on his own. He asked me to show him which holes to use, so I did. I still hadn’t gotten up from my chair. Luca started grating carrots and I heard Jim say, “don’t put them into the same pile as the peels. You don’t want to mix them up.” And Jim put the peels into the compost bin on the counter. Luca grated all the carrots and let out a big sigh. “Mommy. Cooking is making me feel better.” I told him that cooking has the same effect on me, that when I am feeling a little blue, it helps me get happy again. Luca laughed at the expression “feeling blue.” Jim explained that it meant sad, and Luca said, “Oh yeah! Because tears are blue.”

There were now carrot shavings covering the length of our kitchen counter and Luca’s next step was to chop parsley. He pulled out a bunch of greens from the refrigerator and asked, “Is this the parsley?” It was and so he began chopping it with my favorite kitchen implement, a mincing knife with two round handles. When I saw that Luca hadn’t separated the leaves from the stems, I pointed this out and helped him take the partially chopped stems out of the pile of bright green leaves. Now I was out of my chair.

The next step was to make a puree of garlic. (Luca called it a “purry” to rhyme with “furry.”) First I asked Luca to get some garlic. “A clove,” he said and then pulled out a whole head. I showed him what a clove was and then how to smash it down with the big blade of a knife to make it easy to peel. Making the “purry” caused some confusion. I read: “stand a fork up on its pointy ends in a bowl. Run the garlic back and forth against the tips and it will make a juicy little puree of the garlic.” I pointed the fork down but then didn’t see how you could run the garlic over the tips. Then I pointed it up. That was weird. Jim, Luca and I talked it over and decided just to put the fork sideways and rub the garlic along the tines. Since this might hurt Luca’s fingers, I did most of it and he did the last bit. It was a little chunkier than what Alice had probably intended but once mixed with the oil and vinegar it would be fine.

I asked Luca to read what came next. He said, “Add the vinegar and oil.” When I asked how much, he didn’t know, so I showed him the list of ingredients and where it told you how much of everything to use. I got out the measuring spoons and told Luca he was going to pour. “I don’t know how to pour,” he said. “Sure you do,” I said and held out the tablespoon expecting the olive oil to spill all over my hand and the counter. Instead he poured slowly and perfectly, right to the lip of the tablespoon. “See? That was perfect!” I said, and his mouth opened in shock at his own precision pouring. Then he did it again. He threw in the vinegar and he mixed the oil, vinegar and garlic all together, and then tossed the carrots and parsley with the dressing. This is what he made.


In the meantime, Jim had been inspired to make a pasilla chile salsa to go with the salmon. We devoured the carrot and parsley salad and vowed to quadruple the recipe next time. Luca ate big spears of zucchini and only nibbled at his salmon. Then he asked if the salsa was spicy and I told him it was tangy more than spicy. “Oh, anyway I like spicy,” he said and poured a big spoonful of salsa on his fish. “Mm, yummy!” he said and then proceeded to finish off the pasilla salsa. All the strangeness and isolation he felt at the party was forgotten.

Later he picked out his next recipe. After a dramatic exclamation of “Polenta!” accompanied by a long sigh, he let out a thoughtful “halibut  (pronounced halibutt ) baked  in a fig leaf…” Then he settled on quesadillas. There are three options to add to the plain cheese quesadilla recipe in the book; cilantro, red peppers and hot chile peppers. Luca decided to make one of each and then cleared the table as though helping to cook the meal had also made him responsible for all that comes before and after.

Just before bed I asked him what he learned from making the salad. And he said, “How to pour.” And then as though reading my conflicted mind of an hour earlier, he said, “I wouldn’t have made that salad if we stayed at the party.”

Next up: quesadillas… with fire.


  1. Yum, yum, yum,
    a delicious feast, inspirational parenting as always, even with the distance, the way you guys are with food, can still rub off on us. Must get cooking with Johan. Isn’t 7 a lovely age?- oh my gosh, his favourite word now is EMPATHY, and luckily he’s full of it!
    x x x x nina

    • Yes, 7 is fantastic which is partly why I am desperate to get it all down in some fashion. Thanks for reading, Nina, and for being such an inspiration to us in so many ways. Viva Zeep!

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