Junk Food

recipe # 30: hash browns

This is how I know I am a catastrophic thinker: when someone offers to take my son to Legoland I worry that he will be lost in the crowd, seek help from the wrong person and, well, you can fill in the rest. Rather than spend my free time basking in the hours of uninterrupted thought punctuated by a nap or two, I live for each text message saying all is well, that Luca is on the Star Wars ride for the 8th time or eating a giant corn dog on the way out of the park.

And this is how I know I have an almost pathological hatred of amusement parks: when Luca’s uncle came to visit with his three kids and planned to take all four of them on an overnight trip to Legoland, I said “Um…sure!” One of Luca’s cousins is fifteen, and another is twelve, so I figured they could be counted as adults. The fifteen-year old could watch out for Luca and his eight-year old cousin.

After Legoland... the Pier

Luca has been to Legoland twice and to Disneyland once, so by now I am used to the idea that children actually make it out of those places alive. They even have fun and want to go back. And Jim’s brother (I’ll call him Uncle X) is a parenting pro with three kids and countless trips to places like this under his belt. I waved goodbye at the door with only a slight pang. Settting aside my usual nagging fears, I wrote for hours. I went for a run. I planned to meet a friend for a movie in the evening. Bliss.

At six o’ clock my friend Lewin picked me up and just as the car was pulling away, my cell phone rang. The incoming call had a strange area code.


“Hi Luca,” I said cheerily. I thought maybe he was calling from their motel, that they had checked in early “How are you?”

“NOT good!” My heart pumped wildly and for some reason I started taking my seat belt off. What was I going to do, run down to Legoland and rescue him?

“What’s wrong? Where are you?”

“I’m with Legoland Security. Uncle X dropped me off and he never came back!” He was breathing heavily as though trying to keep from crying. I was helpless to fix the fact that my kid was surrounded by strangers, that for all I knew this security guard was just a pervert in a stupid shirt.

“Let me talk to the security guy,” I said. He seemed on the up and up so I told Luca I would call Uncle X and tell him to come and get him right away, that everything would be alright.

“OK, sweetie? You’re OK,” I said. “Just stay with the security guy.”

“OK,” he said and I could hear the little man voice inside the scared kid voice, a hint of the man he is becoming even as he was holding back his tears in the middle of Legoland.

Uncle X sounded confused when I reached him on his phone. “He’s just running around the store,” he said, which made it sound like they were all there together and that Luca had gotten turned around and lost sight of his group. A couple of calls back and forth later and Luca was reunited with his uncle. As we drove to the movies Lewin accused me of being overprotective and Luca of being so sheltered that, after one wrong turn in the store, he runs to the nearest security guard (Lewin is a close enough friend that he can say these things without getting punched in the nose). If what he said was true then I was glad that Luca was having a different kind of experience with his uncle. Along with the chocolate pancakes, fast food burgers and sodas he would be consuming, he would also be learning about different thresholds of independence and safety.

Still I don’t remember much about “Jane Eyre” except that there was a lot of rain and that the most of the scenes were too dark for me to discreetly pull out my iPhone to check for messages from Luca (I did anyway).

What a foodie does with Lego

Over the next 24 hours more of the story began to emerge.

Uncle X said he left Luca alone in the store to shop for a toy while he walked his kids to one last ride. Luca had apparently told him with confidence that it would take an hour for him to select a toy. The park was getting ready to close. They had agreed on a rendezvous point right outside the store and while Luca was waiting some German tourists approached him and asked if he was all right. Luca said he was fine, that he was waiting for his uncle but the tourists insisted on waiting with him and then on walking him to security. It was the Germans who got Luca nervous with all their overzealous meddling.

But why would the German tourists have noticed Luca in the first place if he didn’t appear to be upset or under the age of, say, five? Is the sight of a child waiting alone so unusual in Germany? Are German children so much more over protected than Americans? That didn’t sound right. American parents are the ones who insist on playing with their kids at the playground while our European counterparts sit on playground benches smoking cigarettes.

Something was missing in this story about the Germans.

While Luca spent that night with his uncle and cousins in a motel and most of the next day touring the Queen Mary, I counted the minutes. I wanted my son home.

Queen Mary

The group arrived in the evening, grimy and sweaty and smelling of junk food. Luca had ketchup all over his shirt and announced that he had had a root beer for breakfast. Over the next couple of hours a clearer picture of what had happened at Legoland began to emerge. The cousins showed me a photo of them on a roller coaster, arms raised, eyes bugging out in terror. This was their last ride, they said, and wasn’t the picture fantastic? Yes, it was, but wait. There are four of them in the photo, including Uncle X. So he hadn’t just walked his kids to their last ride, he had gone on it with them. While nine-year old Luca waited for him. Alone.

At bedtime I rubbed my cheek against Luca’s clean, wet hair and asked him why he thought the German tourists stopped to talk to him.

“Because I was crying,” he said. The missing piece the size of Texas thudded into place.

He had been waiting for a long time although being nine he couldn’t say how long for sure. “I made my purchase,” he said (where does he get this syntax?) “and then I waited for a really, really long time.” Meanwhile Uncle X had gone on not one, but two, rides with his kids. While a nine year old waited for him outside the store at Legoland. Alone. (I could write a country song)

I am not a catastrophic thinker for nothing. When I was a kid, being left at Legoland would have been the least of my problems. Bad, scary things happened to me and my siblings and when they weren’t actually happening, the threat of them happening was real. So I don’t feel exempt from bad stuff the way most people I know do. For people like me, statistics tend to shape-shift so that of the one in a million kids who might have something terrible happen to him, I can only see the number one rather than the other nine-hundred-thousand-nine-hundred and ninety-nine.

How do parents, even normal, non-catastrophic thinking ones, ever let our kids out of our sight? I don’t know. But we do. It must be because we trick ourselves into believing that the world is a mostly benevolent place. After all, the German tourists who stopped for Luca had his best interests at heart. The alternative, that Luca was scared and therefore might have been easily duped into someone’s car (“I just talked to your uncle. I’m taking you to him now…”), that there are people who do this kind of thing is something we have to deny on a daily basis in order to let our kids go to school and visit friends, ride bikes and… go to Legoland with our relatives.

Our new kitchen buddy

The day after the relatives left, Luca was given a birthday present of a potato peeler in the shape of a potato with a face. This has to be one of the best birthday presents ever. We went to the farmer’s market and Luca was inspired to buy some potatoes. “I want to make hash browns!” Could it be that after a cooking drought of months Luca was finally going to strap on his apron and get to work? I held my breath.

Back at work, at last

That night Luca and I toiled away together in the kitchen. I have really missed these times with him because of the easy conversation we have as we cook. Food brings up all kinds of questions such as why are potatoes so full of water? What is hotter, lava or fire?

Snap pea salad

While I made a salad of snap peas with red pepper, red onion, and mint, Luca shredded the potatoes. He actually didn’t use his new peeler at all, but stood him upright on the counter so he could watch.

Someone made some friends

We squeezed the water out of the potatoes with paper towels (not the best method but we don’t have a potato ricer) and then Luca put the potatoes in the skillet and sprinkled salt over them. In the meantime, he noticed that when a potato is half shredded, it looks like a human with moppy hair and made me take a picture.


The recipe said to turn the potatoes when they got crispy but you’d have to have a spatula the size of a dinner plate to do that. We did the best we could.

“I like being back in the kitchen,” said Luca. This was of course music to my ears but I played it cool and told him to make sure the potatoes didn’t burn.

Jim and I still aren’t sure what Uncle X was thinking to leave Luca alone the way he did. He has since sincerely apologized and promised that it will never happen again (assuming there will be another opportunity). My outrage has subsided but sadness has taken its place. Because if his uncle cared enough, if the idea of something even a little bit bad happening to Luca were unfathomable to him, he wouldn’t have been able to leave him for any length of time. Alone. At Legoland. While he went for rides with his kids. (OK, maybe I am still mad.)

It might be a stretch to think that Luca’s panic at Legoland made him want to retreat back into what may be the safest place in the world. In any case it produced some pretty tasty hash browns that went nicely with the crispy snap peas. My boy was home.



  1. What a harrowing experience for both of you! I’m sorry to say that those experiences only seem to magnify as they get older. I’ll never forget the night that Spencer got on the wrong city bus in downtown Berkeley. Instead of getting on in the direction of home, he got on a bus that went into the heart of East Oakland. He realized at a certain point that he made a mistake and so he stayed on, wisely thinking that the bus must turn around at the end of the line and head back in the other direction. No. He was forced to get off the bus, barely had enough change to make a few phone calls. Big problem. It was opening night, my phone was off, I was in the Theatre. His dad also couldn’t be reached. Finally he got to my brother-in-law who had to Google-map where he was and come get him. Meantime, he stood and waited outside a seedy liquor store, watching drug deals go down. When I got out of the performance, I turned on my phone to see I had received a half-dozen messages. Listening to them was torture…not knowing what the outcome was. I think after that we decided to get him a cell phone (he was about 13).

    Glad to see that Luca is back in the kitchen again (and into your arms!). Thanks for this story…I would be angry with Uncle X too!

    • Oh, Lynn Eve, what torture that must have been to go through all those messages without knowing the outcome! I do know that I will be a wreck when he learns to drive!!

  2. I am so glad Luca is back in the kitchen and you’re back to writing the blog! But dear AFireinMyMouth readers, what i really said as Laurie was unbuckling her seatbelt in order to dive out of a moving car so as to run to Lego Land to Luca’s rescue was, “Laurie you need to calm down as you will not be able to help Luca in this state; I’m sure he will be fine and this will all work out.” It did and I think Luca and i hope his uncle X learned some valuable life lessons.

    • OK, Lewin, but afterwards you accused me of being over protective, etc. Don’t deny it or I will have to come over there and punch you in the nose!

  3. Holy frijole! Uncle X was playing with Lathem fire. There’s more to this story, a subconscious thread we must unravel! Even though I know I seem for all the world like a lax doofus half the time with my kids, I never let them out of my sight– and that goes double when they’re hanging with Luca! 😉 Give the little man a hug for me.

    • Hey John – isn’t there always a subtext when family is involved? I don’t think you seem like a lax doofus. I have trusted you with Luca countless times and never got a call from security.
      Luca is hugged, Tomasic- style.

  4. Ah Laurie: I too, have this kind of anxiety and feel I am often too overprotective. The solution to me is obvious — never send your kid off with a guy, unless it’s his own dad. We can only rely on other women to understand our own fears and to worry about our kids as if they were their own. A woman would have never left Luca to his own devices in the store. She would have hung around until he bought his thing, rushed him if he were taking too long, and then dragged him along to the rides…..

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