Monday, March 19, 2012

Two Spicy Meals

The other day my daughter's reaction to dinner reminded me of an important meal I had in Mexico in 1995.

As a rule, I feed my now 30-month-old daughter whatever I make for myself and her dad. She doesn't have to eat everything, but she won't be offered any alternatives either. I try to mix it up with a lot of variety partially so I don't get bored and partially so she doesn't get stuck on a couple favorite foods.

The other night I was excited to try a new recipe for white beans, sausage, and kale over rice with a side of baked sweet potato strips. I used spicy Italian sausage - something Lysistrata had never tried. Dinner was running a bit late, so she was especially hungry by the time the food reached the table. She happily climbed onto her chair ready to chow-down. Looking into her bowl, she smiled and exclaimed, "Meatballs!" I explained to her that it was "sausage" and "a lot like meatballs". I also explained to her what the other bits were, which she rejected with a shake of her head. She took a big bite of just the sausage, and then things took a turn.

Lysistrata's face turned red as her mouth slowly opened and she simultaneously spit out the food and began to wail. "It's too hot!" I told her to drink some water, which she did. I also encouraged her to try the white beans, kale, rice, and sweet potatoes, but she refused. Instead she put another piece of sausage in her mouth. Her reaction was the same, only this time she swallowed the piece before wailing. She ate a third piece before shifting into full-on tantrum mode. She pushed the plate away, grabbed a huge handful of sweet potato strips, and screamed, "I don't want that!" I grabbed her hand just before she threw the sweet potatoes on the floor. She glared at me, then let out a primal scream. It reminded me of orc battle cries in Lord of the Rings.

On the surface, I remained calm. In as soothing a tone of voice as I could muster, I told her she needed to be in time out, and when she felt better she could come back to the table. Then I gently lifted her and placed her on the couch as she broke into tears. Inside I felt a wreck. Was I a terrible mother for expecting my toddler to eat spicy food? Should I break down and heat up some frozen meatballs? I kept reminding myself that she had eaten beans, rice, and sweet potatoes all before. There was plenty of "safe" foods for her to eat if she wasn't feeling adventurous about the kale and sausage. And she'd had kimchi for the first time at 18 months, and many other ethnic foods that have some heat, Besides, as far as spicy foods go, this sausage was relatively mild. I would stick to my guns and calmly wait for her to return to the table.

It took about five minutes for her to calm down and return. Her face streaked with dried tears, Lysistrata picked up her spoon and began to eat. As before, she started picking out the pieces of sausage to eat first, only this time she seemed to enjoy them. Then she added a piece of white bean or kale and rice to the spoonfuls, and when the sausage was gone, she kept eating the rest until the bowl was empty, at which point she reached for the sweet potatoes. Her mood shifted back to pleasant, and she told me dinner was "tasty." I quietly thanked her for the compliment, but inside I was doing a victory dance.

Witnessing this whole scenario unfold I was reminded of a meal pivotal to the development of my taste and enjoyment of food. As a child I avoided spicy foods, and I had to avoid them because my dad was a huge fan and they were frequently around. But when I was 17 and my family went to Mexico for part of the summer, avoiding spicy foods became much more challenging. I had managed to maintain my preferred mild diet rather well until the summer program I attended went on a field trip to a "traditional" bar-restaurant. A sign on the outer wall of the building read, "No women or children." We were, however, permitted to sit in the outside courtyard at rustic, wood tables with umbrellas to block the harsh sun. There was no menu. If you were hungry, you could order the meal. This turned out to be several courses of the hottest food I'd ever tasted. Of course not eating was an option, but it was late in the afternoon, and I was starving. My hunger far outweighed my aversion to spice, and I forced myself to eat. I wanted to whine and cry about it, beg my teacher and fellow students to go somewhere else to eat, but I was too old to act so sophomoric. The only beverages available were bottled water and carbonated soda, which provided little relief from the intensifying fire in my mouth. I just had to let it burn.

This was the most physically painful meal I have ever endured. But it was probably also one of the best. After it I wasn't afraid of spicy food, and this has encouraged me to expand to a wider range of foods. The thing about spicy food is that it still has flavor to be enjoyed and substance to satisfy hunger. Over a decade later I still have specific memories of some of the wonderful flavors in the courses from that firey meal. Not to mention the many wonderful spicy foods I have been able to enjoy since then.

Watching Lysistrata shove piece by piece of that sausage into her mouth despite the heat, I realized that she was learning a valuable lesson - that there can be joy and pain, attraction and aversion, at the same time, and that sometimes enduring a little pain proves worth the effort.