iPancakes

 

 

 Two Sundays ago, I woke to the smell of pancakes cooking. This never happens. The only time I smell pancakes in my house is when I am standing over the stove making them. Jim was just waking up. “Luca is making pancakes?” he asked groggily. In the kitchen Luca was at the stove. No longer in need of a step stool, he hummed as he poured fruit and nut pancake batter into a skillet. He even had the oven on at 200 to warm the plates. The pancakes turned out heavy and burnt, and tasted as though he hadn’t bothered to mix the ingredients. But still, he was cooking for fun, without any prompting or supervision. True inspiration!

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I didn’t take pictures of Luca’s burnt pancakes, so here is a photo from Epicurious of what they were supposed to look like.

 

It turns out that the pancakes were the beginning of what is a continuing burst of culinary zeal, prompted by the Epicurious app on Luca’s iPod touch. In addition to the pancakes, he has made an apple and yogurt “parfait” which is basically breakfast (fruit, yogurt, nuts) in a wine glass; a twist on a Cuban sandwich using turkey leftovers from Thanksgiving instead of pork; and a divine batch of chocolate chunk cookies he brought to a holiday potluck. He showed me his list of “favorites” on the Epicurious app and that he hopes to make soon: apple pie, turkey burritos with salsa and cilantro, bacon and potato frittata, banana, raisin and oatmeal pancakes, and bacon and avocado sandwiches. If he follows through on his plans I will have to go on a lot of steep hikes, but it will be worth it.  

But why this sudden interest in cooking after so long? As the followers of this blog well know (and there are fourteen of you out there), Luca hadn’t so much as stirred a pot of soup or sliced a banana since April of 2011 after his return from Legoland. I have long since passed through all the stages of mourning for our time in the kitchen and the easy conversation that flowed as we measured and chopped and sautéed. Consoled by the idea that something must have stuck and that he wouldn’t go off to college afraid of boiling an egg, I have nevertheless expected nothing more from him lately than sprinkling salt on his food. And then I woke to the smell of pancakes. A miracle? Perhaps. Or, maybe to the problem of Luca losing interest in cooking one could say, “There’s an app for that.”

A few months ago, Luca began talking about saving up for an iPod touch.  He wanted to play games, he said. Really? This was the same kid who declared all video and computer games “boring” and complained that most boys his age were obsessed with them and didn’t seem to enjoy doing anything else. Luca felt left out of playground games that centered on popular video games he knew nothing about. I worried that Luca was making himself an outcast, and worse, that it was my fault. When he was in kindergarten he asked me for a GameBoy and I said no. He could play those things at other kids’ houses, but we were not going to buy a gaming system. I immediately worried that I was setting him up for a grand obsession with the very thing I was denying him. But he never asked again, and to my surprise he never expressed any interest in video games. When other kids around him began playing more of them, Luca’s aversion to them only grew. It became so unwavering that I once found myself asking him if there wasn’t a game he’d like to play on the computer. “I hear Mine Craft is kind of cool,” I said, trying on moderation for size. “You make whole cities out of bricks and stuff.” I had no idea what I was talking about. Also, what was I doing pushing him down the slippery slope I had successfully averted years ago? I thought maybe Luca wasn’t any good at these games due to lack of practice and that was why he was so against them. But he said, “If I want to make something with bricks, I’d rather make it with real bricks, not bricks on a screen.” Inwardly, my heart sang. And yet, I worried that he’d suffer socially. Did I do this to him? Should I have let him play with more screens when he was younger? Now that it was becoming social currency, would it be too late for him to catch up?

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Yes, it’s cool.

 

A few months later, he was set on saving up for an iPod touch. “Why do you want one?” I asked. “Because they’re cool,” came the reply, and I couldn’t very well argue with that. His plan was to wash cars and windows for the neighbors and save up his allowance. But still, the cost of an iPod touch is upwards of $200 and I knew it would be out of Luca’s reach. Jim and I didn’t want him to lose the initiative, so we proposed to Luca that he earn the money to buy Jim’s old iPhone from us for $50. He wouldn’t be able to make calls or text, and internet access would be limited to Wi-Fi hotspots like our house. But games and apps could be downloaded just like on a brand new iPod Touch. Luca did some research and found out that with an easy iOS update the old phone would do just fine. He agreed to the deal (along with a set of ground rules), and a couple of months later our windows were cleaner than they’d ever been, Luca’s savings was depleted and he was the proud new owner of an old iPhone.

He began downloading games and apps with names like “Zombie Survival Handbook,” “Spy Gadgets” and “Zombieville 2.” Because both our devices are linked by way of my Apple account, all our apps are automatically added to both our devices which means that I discover (and promptly delete) apps on my phone that turn it into a light saber or tell me how to survive a Zombie apocalypse, while he has Epicurious and KCRW added to his.

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Luca now spends some time on the weekends playing games on his phone, losing himself in fantasy parallel universes in which he is the head of Stark Industries or is claiming the Idol from the Temple in a deadly maze. He also listens to music, watches videos and takes pictures. He downloads images from Google to use as his wallpaper, checks the weather in various locations around the world (Hanalei, New York, Nuuk and Rio De Janeiro are a few of the regular cities on his weather app) and searches YouTube for videos of classical string players covering rock tunes (we are forced to listen to “Smoke on the Water” several times a day just like in 1972). He has an instrument tuning app, a metronome, a flashlight and one that simulates flight control. He has Hipstamatic and an app that finds the nearest In N’ Out Burger. Just this morning I found him with his headphones on watching Monty Python’s parrot sketch. (“Its’ not dead, it’s just pining.”) Not surprisingly he has become a devotee of all things Apple, and has declared that he wants to go to Reed College because that’s where Steve Jobs went. “Watch this,” he will say as he shows me how to categorize his apps into various files or add a password. Now Luca is the go-to person for all questions Apple in our house. Never mind that Jim works on an Avid all day. Luca knows how to do more cool stuff with our phones and laptops.

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 So did an app inspire Luca to cook? Or would he have gotten up that same morning burning with the desire to make us breakfast even if he had to search through our cookbooks for the recipe? Does it matter? When information that used to require a trip to the library can be accessed with the click of a mouse do we need to rethink how we define inspiration?

 It’s not new – or even interesting anymore – to question whether we lose more than we gain from technology. There are a thousand ways to ask whether everything has become too easy. I find myself telling Luca variations of the “when-I-was-your-age-I-walked-ten-miles-to-school-barefoot-in-winter” stories in an effort to make him understand the nature of real motivation and drive. I am aware that I sound like an idiot when I’m saying this stuff to a kid who literally holds the world in his hand (his current wallpaper is a photo of Earth). If Luca wanted to go to school badly enough, would he walk there over ten miles in winter with no shoes? Would he walk at all, a couple of blocks even? The reality is that he gets a cushy ride to school every day listening to his favorite music station. So does it matter how he gets there?

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If an app can make a kid want to make pancakes, can an iPod make a person want to compose a symphony? Do computers and apps unlock secret passions by making experimentation of all kinds relatively risk-free? Or are they creating a generation of kids who can flit from one thing to the next without making the minimal commitment? Now we can say “I want to try that,” and in a matter of minutes, or even seconds, we are editing a movie, recording a song or making fruit and nut pancakes. We can collaborate with people across the world without even getting out of our pajamas. Is this good? Should we ever be required to get out of our pajamas?  

As parents we fear the cultural and social pressures to which our kids so easily succumb, only to rediscover again and again the faith that our kids’ most authentic selves can – and mostly do – survive them. Kids are who they are whether they are reading a book or a Kindle. There may be more ways to become distracted today than there were when I was growing up. But what drives a person to seek out knowledge – and cool new stuff – is as ancient as the hills.

 Luca’s device has not dulled his intellectual curiosity any more than my lectures about the obstacles overcome by great people. “Uh-huh” Luca is probably thinking as he nods and pretends to listen. “Beethoven deaf, Mandela prison, Thomas Edison dyslexic. Got it.” He is waiting for me to shut up so he can put his face into his tiny screen and do a Google search for a digital model of Ancient Rome.

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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.

“Mommy!?”

“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.

Hairy

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.

Golden

Enthrallment Installment

more vanilla ice cream…

I wish I could write more entries on this blog but writing here is dependent on my eight-year old boy doing some actual cooking and thankfully he has many other interests. Which is another way of saying that I have lost him to Harry Potter.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before what has happened to countless parents across the globe happened to me and Jim: one day you are laughing and playing with your child and the next day every question you ask him is an annoying distraction from Hogwarts Castle. He barely looks up from the book all day and even loses interest in movies unless they are of the Harry Potter variety. You notice he is tired and you suspect he has begun the time-honored tradition of sneaking the reading light on after bedtime. When you catch him in the act of illicit reading he looks up from his book blearily and you notice with alarm that he barely recognizes you. Only half of what you say to him registers at all and that is on a good day, so you give up talking altogether. Your house becomes extremely quiet. Every dinner is like date night because your son, his head stuck in a book at breakfast, lunch and dinner, listens to nothing and you find you can talk about anything in his presence without him noticing. The most you can hope for is that he will understand the words: “Get your jacket on,” when it is time to go to school. In order to keep a toe in his world you start reading Harry Potter yourself and find it sort of fun but not brilliant, kind of original and at the same time derivative. But you get it, why a story about kids with wizard powers has captured the person you love most in the world and created his deepest obsession yet. You think that this is what it must be like to live with a teenager, or more accurately, a teenager in love; the parent/child relationship reduced to desperate attempts to penetrate the fog of boundless enthrallment.

Luca at the California Academy of Science aquarium

 

A few weeks ago I drove Luca up to the Bay Area with the main (if not the sole) purpose of eating at Chez Panisse. After more than a year of making recipes from Fanny at Chez Panisse, Luca would finally get to peruse the menu and order whatever tickled his fancy. Lucky for me he hadn’t yet got his hands on a Harry Potter book because I think even a trip to food paradise would have taken a back seat. This was our life B.H.P. (Before You-Know-Who) and so we spent an entire day at the mind-blowing California Academy of Science and rode the F Market to the Ferry Building, a high-end mall for foodies. They also have a bookstore, but more about that later.

one of many food stalls at the Ferry Building

The next night Jim flew up to meet us and we ate at Zuni Café where we shared the extraordinary roast chicken with bread salad and the lightest and tastiest gnocchi I have ever tasted: ricotta with Brussels sprouts and sage. On Saturday we had a late lunch reservation at Chez Panisse and so we met some friends for a drink next door at Cesar. One of our friends, Lynn Eve, had recently eaten at El Bulli in Spain, the famous, insanely innovative restaurant which has been called the greatest in the world. As we listened to Lynn Eve describe her El Bulli experience (“more performance art than dinner”) that included a mid-meal anxiety attack in the ladies’ room, Luca, dressed in his nicest button-down shirt, sat holding his copy of Fanny at Chez Panisse for Alice Waters to sign in case we were lucky enough to run into her (we weren’t). At one point he sighed and said, “All I want to do is cook.” Though this comment impressed our friends, it was unfortunately totally untrue as is evidenced by my infrequent blogging.

 

When it was time to head next door to Chez Panisse I was worried that, after all the buildup, it was bound to be a little disappointing. However, one taste of the spicy zucchini soup with mint yogurt told me what I already knew, that a master is a master and no one has mastered the art of creating exciting food from fresh, seasonal ingredients quite the way Alice Waters has.

"Here I am!"

Luca ordered well: the famous goat cheese with garden lettuces; ricotta and greens ravioli with chanterelles and Parmesan.

Ravioli with chanterelles

Jim ordered the spicy broccoli, marinated beets, anchovy and egg to start and the quail with kabocha squash puree, rapini and black olives. Jim is one of those people who has turned the act of ordering off a menu into an art (or perhaps a science). He always orders the perfect, most off-beat things on the menu, each course in brilliant counterpoint to the next. It is annoying. Even when I remember to let him order first I still end up coveting his food and asking for too many bites. This time however, we were equals. After the mind-alteringly delicious soup, I had the halibut with butter beans, artichokes and salsa verde.

Divine halibut

Is your mouth watering yet? Every single thing, every single bite of every single thing was out of this world. Things that were supposed to be tender (the halibut) melted in my mouth. Combinations were a thrilling mix of zesty and subtle (artichokes and salsa verde; squash puree, rapini and olives), and the old stand by of baked goat cheese with lettuce seemed to say, “this is why I am still here.”

 

 

 

 

We did not order dessert because we were headed to Humphrey Slocombe where they not only have ice cream with flavors like Pink Grapefruit Tarragon and Strawberry Black Olive, they patiently let you taste every one.

Jim's perfect quail

Luca was so happy with the wonderful meal that he laughed all the way out of Chez Panisse and down the street. We had graciously been invited to watch a rehearsal of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s thoroughly entertaining Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead in which the orchestra is portrayed by fantastic puppets with heads that are half human face, half instrument. By the time we walked out onto the streets of downtown Berkeley, I realized we hadn’t stopped giggling for two straight hours.

 

Now we come to the moment at which Luca’s most powerful obsession to date took hold. We noticed a discount bookstore and stopped in to browse, and just as I was seized by dread of the day when there will be no more bookstores to drop in on, Luca spied the first book in the Harry Potter series on a shelf. We bought it for him and I haven’t had a conversation with him since.

 

Before heading home to LA the following day, we stopped at the Ferry Building where Luca looked up from his book long enough to notice the bookstore and to beg us to buy the second Harry Potter book for him. We did and then made our way onto the freeway and back home to LA. Luca read for six and a half straight hours and by the middle of the next day he was half way into the second book. Now it is three weeks later and he is close to finishing book six, which at 652 pages is shorter than books four and five, a hefty 734 and 870 pages respectively.

 

Luca has always enjoyed reading, and I am aware that millions of kids the world over have been similarly struck by Harry Potter. Nevertheless, Jim and I have wondered whether a certain amount of parental alarm is in order. Watching Luca lose himself so intensely is a window onto an aspect of his nature that is surely genetic (Jim is a film editor: ‘nuff said). But what does it mean, this extreme focus that can seem like a kind of oblivion? While it will serve him well in some areas of his life, it can also make him a pain to live with. I imagine his future romantic partners going bonkers as they try to get his attention from the – fill in the blanks – book he is writing/food he is inventing/symphony he is composing. This is of course the positive outcome. Fill in those blanks with other things (crazy girlfriend/crystal meth/facebook) and it is another matter. What if (oh, horror!) he decides to become an actor? For better or worse, once Luca is possessed there is no turning his head.

Jellyfish at the Cal Acad

Harry Potter notwithstanding, Luca is still occasionally keen on making something in the kitchen, even if it is invariably something he knows he won’t get at home unless he makes it himself; like ice cream and anything breaded and fried such as Alice Waters’ lemon sole fried with breadcrumbs. He’ll decide to make vanilla ice cream and mix heavy cream, milk, sugar and vanilla extract together and then dump it in the machine and let it churn away. Afterwards he has the satisfaction of eating something delicious that never would have been on the table if he hadn’t made it himself. I also think it speaks to a wily resourcefulness to have found a way of ensuring that dessert will not be denied him.

Darth Vader, Big Daddy of the Dark Side

Luca’s combination of obsessiveness and resourcefulness turns out to pack a wallop. I know because I face it every day. Hopefully it will remain pointed toward the Light and he won’t “go over,” to the Dark Arts or the Dark Side of the Force the way so many promising characters in the stories he loves seem to do. Who will Luca turn out to be? This is a question I ask myself often, even as I try to relish the moments of sweetness that everyone tells me are fleeting.

For now, Luca is eight years old and in love with reading and eating and roughhousing after dinner in bed. And maybe he is teaching his mother a little something about trust and faith.

 

 

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