When Sammi was a feisty three year old and we were still unclear about why she ate so slowly and with such unusual habits, I tried to entice her to eat heartier foods by inviting her to cook alongside me. It was a method recommended anywhere I sought help with “picky eating,” even though she wasn’t picky in the way that most people described their picky-eating children. She tried a great many things — always willing, often surprisingly eager — but seldom more than a few bites. Cooking together — particularly baking together — was my attempt at imbuing food with a kind of positive energy. It was Jewish-mama-mojo, those afternoons when I plopped her on a stool next to me and held her little hand as it dropped flour in a bowl, stirred eggs, drizzled oil.
She was a little superball of squeals and wiggles at that age. As fiery as she was in tantrums, she was equally adorable when she was happy. One Friday afternoon, as we made challah at the kitchen counter, she began telling me about her plans to cook professionally as an adult and give all the food away for free. I grabbed the camera and began recording:
As the years went on, I marveled at this little girl’s consistent ability to enjoy food despite the trauma done to the very mechanisms she required for eating it. Despite suctioning at birth, swallow studies, endoscopies and years of restrictive diets, she never really disliked food. She happily helped me prepare giant loaves of challah only to linger, slowly, over one slice she barely finished. She acted excited over birthday cakes whose frosting was the only piece that made it into her mouth. She inhaled deeply the smells of dinner on the stove and then ate tiny bites, taking hours to finish a small helping.
She liked food. Even the struggle to eat it didn’t sway her.
In later years, when we learned what could actually help and did what needed to be done to make eating pleasurable and possible for her, the gusto with which she approached a meal finally matched the enthusiasm she described in the past for everything but the actual chewing-and-swallowing. Somehow, despite everything, she is a connoisseur of a wide variety of foods, perhaps because my desperation to find the things she would and could eat led me to search tirelessly for new things to offer. She likes vegetable sushi, pad woon sen, black beans and rice, lentil dal, knishes, frittatas, and miso soup. She likes every fruit except kiwi and pears.
Apparently, when you combine a child’s enthusiasm and a Jewish mother’s dogged determination to feed her child, you get Sammi: a girl who could barely eat who now loves everything, even Brussels sprouts.
I wonder often about the message from the universe in all of this. We could have given up, fed her chickpea soup and fruit for years, and she may have been happy with that. The wide variety of foods in our diet now would be a narrower group of things easy to prepare alongside a constant pot of soup, and perhaps vitamin deficits would have reared their heads along the way, but we would have survived, all of us. Instead, we have learned the value of casting a wide net. We’ve seen the power in believing in a little girl’s squeaky voice despite the inherent statement of the still-full dinner plate. And we all eat a lot more interesting food.
I’d be willing to bet that the menu at Sammi’s Restaurant really would include anything else you want to eat. I’ll be in the back, at the stove, ready for you.