I read the New York Times Cooking Newsletter the way other people read self-help books. I imagine myself strolling through a farmer’s market until the perfect Japanese eggplant catches my eye. In my fantasies, I go home and, while my children assist with the spices, I create a healthy aubergine saute for my family.
This, of course, never happens.
Through minimal trial and error, I have found a half-dozen dishes that my children will eat—and I rotate through them like a Top 40 DJ, fated never to stray from the overplayed hits. The meals aren’t terrible, and they’re pretty healthy. There is always a protein, a few colorful vegetables and a carb. It’s filling, but it’s not fulfilling.
A few years ago, my rabbi asked a diverse group of congregants what each person would take if they could only grab one item from their home to preserve their Jewish heritage. Some named the usual suspects: candle sticks, menorah, etc. But, a few people said “cookbook,” and a surprising number said “frying pan.”
So much of our heritage is passed down through our experiences with food. The smell of fresh baked challah can evoke a memory of grandma. The taste of a perfectly moist brisket can transport someone to their mother’s kitchen. Will my kids one day get misty eyed when they spy a pre-cut, triple-washed bag of kale in the supermarket? I somehow doubt it.
That’s where the New York Times comes in. Nearly every day, I steal a few minutes to read the evocative descriptions of dishes derived from adventurous world travel. I save recipes to my online “recipe box,” and I dream about the mother I could be.
A few months ago I decided to take action: I downloaded a recipe called “Weeknight Fancy Chicken and Rice” and resolved to cook it with my children. The recipe called for two things my kids already liked—chicken and rice—and one thing they’d never even heard of: star anise. This was going to be a winner. All we needed was star anise.
The dish is Indian-inspired, so I took them to a southeast Asian market, thinking we’d find the star anise there. We didn’t. We then trekked to a Japanese market. No luck. Finally, Whole Foods came through. Three markets to obtain this mysterious spice! I could feel the meaningful childhood memories being formed already!
We crushed cardamom, we stirred in turmeric, we threw in the star anise like pros. And, in the end, my kids gobbled up every bite, so proud to have helped create this masterpiece. It was everything I had hoped it would be. For me.
“Can we have salmon and crusty bread tomorrow?” my oldest asked. Salmon and crusty bread? We have that at least once a week.
“Yeah. That’s my favorite dinner.”
“Yum!” my youngest said.
“What about you?” I asked my middle child.
“Yeah. I like that, too,” he said. “But I also like mac and cheese.”
“Ooh! Can you make salmon and mac and cheese!” my oldest said.
They were as excited by this as I was by the star anise, and so, I agreed. Yes, my meals are boring, but they’re meaningful to the kids. That’s what counts, I guess.
I still read the New York Times Cooking Newsletter most mornings. And I still get swept up in the narratives and the delicious possibilities. But I’ve stopped seeing the stories and recipes as instructive and started seeing them for what they really are: fantasy fiction.
Mayrav Saar is based in Los Angeles.