Alien Species In My Kitchen

recipe #9 (sort of): tomato sauce

Pasta with tomato sauce is Luca’s favorite food, but he didn’t want to help me make it even though I had a big bag of fresh tomatoes that needed cooking. He wanted to make Halibut in Fig Leaves – again. Every time I ask him what he wants to make next, he mentions the halibut. I told him we didn’t have the halibut or the fig leaves and that I wouldn’t know where to find fig leaves even if there were time to go hunting for them. And anyway what about the fresh tomatoes? He shrugged and went off to play with his Star Wars action figures.

I started chopping and Luca came in throwing pretend grenades. There has been a marked escalation in recent days of fake violence, guns and shooting noises, and more elaborate explosions. Even in his drawings, Luca has graduated from rescue scenes involving helicopters and ambulances to bloody stabbings and people falling off cliffs. Luca wasn’t particularly interested in guns when he was younger. While all the boys around him were playing guns and war, Luca was building things with blocks or playing violin. I thought, with a hint of smugness, that he just wasn’t that type of boy and was glad I didn’t have the problem of how to tolerate the gunplay.

Luca found this when we were camping

Luca found this when we were camping


Along came Star Wars and first grade and surges of testosterone that I swear are actually visible. Luca started playing with guns occasionally and I found that it didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. There was even something vaguely wholesome about the sight of two boys playing army. I don’t believe in censoring imaginary play, and I do believe that boys need to learn how to manage their aggression. At the same time, I don’t want guns in my house for the simple fact that I don’t like them. Likewise, I don’t let Luca put stickers all over the furniture not because I think stickers will damage his character, but because I don’t like them.

Consulting other parents is no help. Parents I admire are all over the map on this issue. One friend lets her son play with guns in the house as long as he doesn’t point them in anyone’s face. Another does not allow toy guns in the house but doesn’t stop her son from making a gun out of whatever is lying around and then shooting at will. Another mother I know lets her son do anything he wants while a mutual friend of ours enforces an absolute ban on violent play on sociopolitical grounds. I have fallen somewhere in between these extremes, which is another way of saying that I am inconsistent. We don’t have guns in the house (real or pretend), and when Luca makes one out of driftwood, it doesn’t bother me. When he’s outside he can do pretty much whatever he wants, but in the house, the rules change, although not with much consistency. And wherever we are, I don’t like being shot at. Where Jim will pretend to fall down dead, I make a vaguely disapproving comment with only half-hearted conviction. I know he doesn’t mean to kill me and that it may be important to his development to shoot at me. But I can’t help it. It offends me.

Luca's driftwood pistol

Luca's driftwood pistol

Along came second grade, the Star Wars obsession has only grown and with it (because of it?) more interest in weaponry and violence. Now he is asking for an X-box so he can play the Star Wars video game. The answer to this is “No. No. And, oh by the way? No.” I tell him video games are like MacDonald’s for the brain. Because this is a food metaphor, Luca gets it and grows quiet.

I remember 17 weeks into my pregnancy being shocked to learn I was having a boy. It didn’t seem possible. It wasn’t what I was picturing. And besides, I was not equipped to be the mother of a boy. I had the thought that this child would be Jim’s and the next child, a girl obviously, would be mine. Then I began hearing from mothers of boys about how they love their mothers forever and how the mothers of girls must brace themselves for the day they will hear their daughters say “I hate you.” OK, I thought. Maybe this having a boy thing would turn out all right in the end. Yet I wonder about Luca’s Star Wars fixation, coupled with his new love of missiles and grenades. Is it working out a healthy instinct or succumbing to mainstream America’s idea of what it means to be male? And whichever it is, do I have to like it? When presented with a drawing of someone getting shot, replete with blood spatter and a thought bubble that says, “Die, Scum!” am I required to say  “Great drawing?”

This is what I was thinking about as I made Alice Waters’ tomato sauce for the first time. The smell of thyme filled the kitchen. The recipe called for the use of a food mill at the end of the cooking to strain out the skin and seeds. Being more phobic about food mills than I am about skin and seeds, I planned on skipping this part. The recipe also calls for covering the sauce for the first 20 minutes and I thought this might make it too thin. If so, I could always thicken it with some tomato paste.

While I was topping and tailing some green beans Luca ran in, hid behind the kitchen counter and then peered around and shot me. We were in different worlds.

Luca was “starving” when he sat down at the table. He took one look at the pasta with tomato sauce and panicked. “I want more sauce!” he said. I told him that there was no more, that it had turned out a little thin, that’s all (I was out of tomato paste and cooked it down as long as I could). He took another look at the food and burst into tears. I have made pasta with tomato sauce for him hundreds of times and he has never noticed any variation in consistency or flavor. Now he was crying and demanding to know what went wrong. I told him he was welcome not to eat it, but there was nothing I could do about the state of the sauce.

“Did you make it from here!?” he demanded incredulously, pointing to Fanny at Chez Panisse. Then he went searching for the recipe for evidence of my misdeeds. My patience was wearing thin. I told him if he was going to whine about the food he could just get up and leave the table. He had after all been invited to cook it himself. He cried a little more and then settled down and ate. In a few minutes he was in a good mood again.

“Do you know why sand troopers are cool?” Luca asked. “Because they have two lives.”

I may have to get a food mill.

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