Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Look Who's Shoving For Dinner

Among the childhood episodes Zev will likely recount to his inevitable future therapist, I imagine “the thing at the diner” will come up a lot.

“I’m sitting there between my mom and dad,” he’ll probably begin. “And mom’s furiously cutting up a goat-cheese and Kalamata omelet on my plate while dad is trying to shove half a buttermilk pancake down my throat.”

“Uh-huh,” the therapist will say, her mind wandering off to visions of fabric swatches and yacht interiors.

“And they’re each piling it on, Mom with her lox scramble and Dad with his sugar-coated blueberry muffin.”


“My mouth is opened and stuffed like a garbage disposal, grinding away all these incompatible flavors while my parents battle for the bragging rights to cultural dominion.”

After Hubby converted, we thought we had worked out all the ethnic kinks: Any kids we had would, of course, be raised Jewish. All trans-Atlantic travel would include a stop to Israel. And, it should go without saying, no Christmas trees.

But there are subtleties to mixed marriages that we had never considered – bittersweet subtleties that play less on our ideologies, and more on our tongues.

Hubby is a thirteenth-generation American, raised with no religion, but plenty of divinity (as in, the meringue cookies his Kentucky-bred grandma used to make). He grew up with caramel cakes, milk chocolate and breakfasts sweetened with all the syrup this proud nation’s cornfields could produce.

I, meanwhile, am a first-generation daughter of Israeli immigrants who carted cream cheese and olive sandwiches in my lunch box along with sliced cucumbers and tomatoes. I prefer fish with the head still on it and had never tasted a s’more until the age of 27 (I didn’t care for it).

When we were dating, Santa Claus and haftarah portions made each of us seem exotic to the other, but our cultures were not nearly as foreign as our cuisines. There are five taste sensations: salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami. (Umami is that indescribably wonderful taste of savory, meaty, delicious food. Think mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, and anything cooked with monosodium glutamate.) Hubby’s taste preferences lean toward the teeth-coatingly sweet while my tongue tends to wander to the rich, sophisticated spectrum of umami.


For years, Hubby and I have gently ribbed each other for our perceived “strange” taste in foods – I’d threaten to kiss him after eating an olive and he’d subject me to big pancake breakfasts.

But after Zev came along jokes turned to competition: Whom did Zev take after the most? Yes, he has his dad’s lips and his mom’s nose, but what we each really want to know about is his tongue. Does it take after the pedestrian sweet side or the discerning umami side? (I know, I know, but if Hubby wants fair, he can write his own column.)

At the impressionable age of 3, Zev has not yet decided his culinary identity – he’s as happy dousing his food with hummus as with ketchup. We’re trying to play it cool, but as our recent feeding frenzy at the diner demonstrated, we desperately want to know which side of the table Zev will choose. The love of food, after all, is the love of life – who doesn’t want to share that with their child?

Neither of us has bad-mouthed our spouse’s taste buds, but I fear that Zev is starting to realize that the fissure in the united front of our parenting runs right through the kitchen. Never mind his aching tummy, what is our endless jockeying of sweet and savory going to do to his psyche?

“And in the end,” I’m sure he’ll say to that future therapist, “I feel like, whatever flavors I am more drawn to, I’m letting one of them down. Like I’ve delivered some decided blow to my parents’ personal culture war. I feel sick to my stomach – and not just because I’ve eaten my weight in breakfast foods.”

“Yes,” the therapist will nod, adding, “Our time is up.”

Having unloaded his neuroses, Zev will walk out of the fluorescent light of the shrink’s office, blinking in the afternoon sun. He’ll get into his car and drive somewhere where he can unwind and collect his thoughts.

I can only hope now that it’s a Chinese restaurant.