“I was slowly discovering that if you watched people as they ate, you could find out who they were.”
New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl wrote this observation in her autobiographical Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table (1999). It is an extended version of the dictum, “you are what you eat.” What I like about her comment is the path of discovery in following people as they eat and talk about what they eat and how food reveals their innate sense of joy. I remember spoon-feeding my children their first tastes when they were five or six months. How anxiously I would wait for their reaction. Is she going to spit it out, turn her head away, giggle or cry? I was really watching them grow into individuals with preferences and needs beyond mere survival. I still watch them exercise their preferences as they sit at the table.
My oldest, now in college, for her birthday generally chose Italian food with steak, pasta, bread and cream sauces of salty, sweet and slightly spicy flavors. Mexican flavors would be a close second, a different composition of similar mouth feel. In Bengali food she enjoyed yoghurt based meat dishes….again the creamy, salty, spicy and sweet flavors. She demands a lot from her bites…refreshing, hearty, familiar and surprising. She is an adventurous and aware eater and a joy to cook for and with. She was always a social person and she is now happy to use her comfort in the kitchen to gather people, just as she struggles to gather distinct flavors in each bite. Life for her is a plate of contrasting flavors that requires each bite be delicately composed of all components in happy competition. She is a happy driven competitive person herself who sets near impossible standards of the perfect bite or moment.
My youngest, now entering her teenage years for her birthday generally chooses a seafood restaurant that breaks routine with the welcomed extravagance of lobster and butter sauce. Fried seafood, raw oysters, baked oysters, all creatures of the sea sing to her. She likes the reassurance when her expectations are met. The unknown scares her a bit. She will try anything as long as I describe it as best I can. She savors the consistency of familiar tastes like dal and rice or eggs and toast, of tastes she associates with happy moments like hot spaghetti after a cold swimming lesson. She likes bento boxes of ordered simplicity and well arranged dishes. She will not happily order cow’s tongue tacos at the local Mexican restaurant like her sister but she will try it from her plate. She knows that she’s learning about what she likes and is willing to test herself. She’s trying so hard to grow up and expand beyond her comforting tastes. But for now, she still needs a day of “home food.” For her, I need to write a recipe book to satisfy her craving for consistency when she moves away from my table.
When my eldest visits, I imagine what experiments we can try, what new restaurants we can explore. For my youngest, I revisit familiar tastes as gateways into times we spent together. To my table my children bring the best inclinations of new adventures and fond memories. I watch how they eat as way to witness how they are growing and how they taste the world.
Some of their tastes will change, others will not. I hope to share their table often enough to know the difference.