Recipe As Tribal Lore – Eating Like James Brown Sings

Recipe As Tribal Lore

It’s probably the cook more than the parent in me that demands I pay such close attention to my son’s food enjoyment. I can almost chart the levels of ecstatic trance he goes into when he eats. “Ahhh” I say to myself, “that’s how he used to look when he ate corn on the cob… now we’re approaching level one watermelon bliss.”

When’s the last time I looked that way with blueberry oatmeal in my mouth? Without realizing it I’ve become his student. More than anything else I want my son to teach me how to eat.

Parents know children are maniacal in their obsessions over the little things we depend on to make our days work. I’ve been looking for a set of keys to our truck for six months. Children are natural born foragers. They rifle through our cabinets, drawers, purses and pockets whenever they can. Obsessing over each treasure, they may return a few to the places of their origin only to relive the joy of finding them all over again.

The evolutionary high side of this is easy to spot in children raised with edible gardens. Once kids know they can just pull stuff out of the ground and eat it, they’re foragers for life. Crawling through the strawberry bed, my son claims white, pink, and the few red berries that escaped yesterdays hunt.

Minutes later he’s over at the pile of tomatillos I pulled out months ago, sifting through the beige scattering of slowly rotting fruits. He’s expert at carefully peeling away the faded paper shell and judging the value of the wan citizen within before either discarding or devouring.

He’ll often follow me around, sampling things as I do, pulling up the new sprouts and savoring them. I’ve seen him thoroughly enjoy greens he’d never eat at the table. Carrots are especially magical, maybe because I have to dig them up for him, but more likely because they have a firm coating of dirt to enhance their flavor. He must taste everything, he must lay claim to it all.

Walking out our front door in the morning he asks to be lifted over the fence into the herb garden. After quick handfuls of parsley and basil are stuffed into his mouth, he’s ready to head up the hill. He knows every tree in our yard that can bear fruit. Though he’s just now finding his words he will remind us by pointing and crying to check the miniature apple tree by the neighbors fence. After all its been a whole two days! Our Meyers lemon tree is his favorite. It never seems to stop producing. “Gaaaaa?” he points. “Yes Tiger, but only a few. Bring one here when you’re done and I’ll peel it for you.”

Once found food makes its way into his hands he owns it for the glory it is, consuming every particle – absorbing its essence into his soul. The first bite of one of his lemons always produces a squinty pained face. Undaunted he’ll push forward, making sure he sucks every last tart drop out of that fruit. We’ve learned to only wrestle the potentially poisonous things from his hands – the screaming fit that follows the loss of harvested food can be heard for miles.

Sitting at the dinner table with a bowl of ricotta-doused homemade pasta he is almost as pleased as if he dug it out of the ground moments ago. It’s the grunting growls I like the most. A hand stuffs a golf ball sized lump of pasta into his mouth, then a rumble starts at the back of his small throat and bounces forward with every mastication. Its as if the cells in his body are singing in unison “yes, YES, more, MORE!”

The food that’s rejected is ejected quickly and without a second thought. On a rare occasion he may point to a pile of disdained glop and shake his head as he stares me down. “Never again”, the message is unmistakable. I take these critiques very seriously.

I thought kids would be a lot more finicky to feed than my son is. I’ve learned he’ll put anything in his mouth at least once, I’ve just got to try to make that first attempt as interesting as possible.

With the cuisines of the world so readily available to so many of us, it would be immoral of me to train him to one kind of food. His cousins grew up in LA eating everything from sushi, to dim sum, to spam musabi. Like many over forty from the mid-west, pizza was the only foreign food I grew up with. Today’s Little Ones Tribal members are epicureans of global cuisine.

Watching him dine is like watching James Brown sing. Beyond effortless, you know the forces of nature have arrived when he sits down at the table – or rather climbs up into his chair to eat. This young man knows how to work a plate. He’ll eye his turkey wing with a hawks eye, but then dart for the beats he helped harvest that night. Delicately at first, but then with strong sureness he shoves an egg sized rainbow beat into the back of his mouth. “Mgggnnnnnmmmmm.” He looks at each of us and rocks back and forth. The beguine has begun.

Witnessing the kind of satisfaction he gets from food awakens something within me, reminding me that I was once part of the Tribe of the Little Ones. We all tugged at someone’s apron strings, looking up with begging eyes that only wanted more of the good stuff. Then eating was the only religion each of us knew. Food changed our reality whenever we had the chance to lock our lips around it. Perhaps this worship begins at our Mother’s breast. Intimacy and food are the same thing when you’re young.

I hope basking in his light will banish my jaded palate and help me find the apron strings of the world. I need to be able to eat my ice cream as if I’d never tasted ice cream before. I need to believe the world is full of endless new flavors that will make me feel ways I can’t even imagine. I need to rediscover my food groove. I need to learn to eat like James Brown sings.

Stirring my pot of chili tonight with him in my arm he asked for a taste. I’ve just recently started giving him cooking tools to lick. First it was a spatula covered with mashed cauliflower, then it was the Quisinart bowl I made pesto in, tonight it’s a spoon full of chili. “Mmmoooooooree?” He grunts and points to the spoon. That’s the first time he’s said more. Time to get funky with the chili.

I keep wondering if he will stop eating like James Brown sings and start eating like me. When will the most important person in the room stop being the apple in his hand and start being the TV? Some of my friends suggest it never has to be that way. Because we’re aware of food and how to treat it with respect, he might never have to give up his unblemished enjoyment of dining. In this way he may never have to leave the Tribe Of The Little Ones.

I hold out hope, but study with fervor now. The next step in my tutelage is for me is to start foraging more. Eat inside less, consume more dirt. Who knows, maybe by starting there I can work my way back to the blank slate my son enjoys. One meal a week at least, in the garden, no utensils and no using the hose to wash stuff off. You can only take as much dirt off as you can brush off. I know the company will be great.

back to introduction –


  • Anonymous
    December 2, 2009 - 6:56 am · Reply

    Hey Tim,You should try sleeping in the garden amidst the tomatoes or under the pole beans or meditating with a growing pumpkin on your lap. It’s fun!lisa

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