“Eat this apple,” she said, and Adam did, and you know the rest. But still they say “An apple a day” like it’s God’s gift even though Eve, the First Foodie, cursed her husband and children and their children’s children when she offered Adam a bite. Despite its reputation, we see that damning apple everywhere early on in our childhood as if it’s both the prime mover and that vast divine whole we’ll someday comprehend; we learn how to read our world through apples: “A is for Apple.” And then we give apples to our teachers to thank them for all that knowledge we’re craving and can’t really find ever, ironically, because of an apple that resulted in our getting kicked out of the garden. It’s the curse of our generations now, that apple, and it’s even worse now because it’s been Franken-fied and GMO’d and sprayed with pesticides and recalled from Happy Meals because the last thing we need these days is listeria. Apples aren’t safe, let alone cantaloupes, spinach, strawberries, mad-cow meat, mercury-laced tuna, salmon-pink farm salmon, gummy worms… Our food’s messed up, it’s messing us up. We’re falling farther and farther from Paradise; we’re lost and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.
Bring in the chefs, restaurant owners and serious foodies featured on Real Life Survival Guide’s Episode 54, “Food and Cooking.” They agreed: Food—how we grow it, buy it, prepare and share it—ought to be part of living life more deliberately both for us and for our children. We need to share the fun of fixing a meal, simply and lovingly, with the next generation who will in turn shape the way their children connect to our increasingly precious gardens, farms and fragile food ecosystems. Good food nourishes not only the body, not only the soul and spirit, but also our relationships with one another and our planet.
I meant to be one of those parents who raise children (and their IQs) by immersing them in a beautiful Green World, all-nature all the time in body and mind. That is, if my husband and I could have kids. But we couldn’t, so we went to the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine and thanks to lots of drugs like FSH (Follicle Stimulating Hormone) and Estrogen patches and daily Lupron injections and that thick Progesterone needle and the embryologist from Australia and the centrifuge and the lab petri dishes and microscopes and Valium for me, we had twin daughters. And thanks to the embryo freezer somewhere in the back room, we had a son two years later. (And yeah, a fourth “natural” one, another story.) But the first three were laboratory test-tube babies. Artificial creations. Franken-children.
Nevertheless, I determined, they’d eat real food the way nature intended. Feeding them, however, was nothing like what I expected after digesting every word of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. When the twins were born, they weighed 4 lbs 9 oz and 4 lbs 13 oz respectively. We left the hospital with a borrowed baby scale and a rented heavy-duty industrial breast pump borrowed, I think, from one of the ConAgra cow complexes out in the Greeley prairies. The babies would lose weight before they gained, the Poudre Valley Hospital staff warned us. Every three hours, we alternated babies between the breast and the pumped, warmed breast-milk bottle, weighed them, and then I pumped more even though I was pumped out, and then we cleaned the plastic clear tubes and yellow attachments, and slept for an hour and a half, and awoke to do it again. And again. And again. When the pediatrician—because I wasn’t generating enough milk—said we should be feeding them every two hours, I teared up, exhausted. One feeding and weighing-babies-to-the-ounce session took an hour; changing diapers and washing equipment took another half-hour. We kept at it for almost four months, pumping, feeding, gradually shifting to formula—chemicals! Processed, powdered cow’s milk!—and the babies broke out in unsightly eczema for a while (and some later developed allergies and asthma) but they survived and gained weight and grew. We repeated a similar breast-to-bottle four-month-max time frame for my son, born two years later in Framingham, MA. My husband traveled for work and I was home alone all week with a newborn and two two-year-olds. I have always felt guilty I didn’t last longer with the whole nursing thing, but at least I have an excuse whenever my kids screw up: “You were formula-fed from an early age.”
I can still see those drawings in the Sears Baby Book, those nine-monthers enjoying freshly prepared and—later—compartmentalized vegetables in ice-cube trays: cubed avocadoes, cooked carrots and broccoli, sweet potatoes and squash. Nothing out of a jar. I tried cooking and food-processing real vegetables but, due to time constraints and burn-out, lapsed into jar fruits and vegetables. Organic ones. We did try. And I did cook real vegetables once the babies were old enough to mash and chew.
Still, it happened, their transition into a nutritional dystopia. My kids won’t eat vegetables unless you count the following four exceptions: 1) sweet potato fries with ketchup, lots of ketchup; 2) tomatoes on tacos (although only 2 kids eat these); 3) onions and garlic concealed in chicken curry; 4) Chunky Ragu with vegetable chunks de-chunkified in the blender.
I prepare beautiful vegetables year-round: roasted eggplant, asparagus, peppers, onions, zucchini and yellow squash in the summer. Roasted cauliflower and brussel sprouts. Guacamole. Lovely raw salads, sometimes chopped, with tasty vinaigrettes. Acorn squash and sweet potatoes and artichokes. Sauteed spinach or kale with caramelized onions.
They won’t touch these, except one twin, the one who has grown tallest and strongest and has the best chance of surviving Armageddon. My eleven-year-old performs a Shakespearian dying-victim choking monologue before spitting out broccoli into the garbage after eating just one no-thank-you bite.
I wish my kids would be more like Rod Rotondi’s daughter. Rotondi is a renowned vegan food chef and Founder of Leaf Organics; in his book Raw Food for Real People, he talks about how his three-year-old daughter “loves to go out and pick some greens and then come back and lovingly make a salad with me or her mom.” She loves her raw kale salad with creamy avocado dressing. So I tried it at home. The salad didn’t fly with the kids, not even when I offered to smother it in ketchup.
And besides, we don’t have a garden. We used to; we’ve had huge gardens but we’ve moved, and now we’ve imported a pile of dirt and have intentions to cultivate it next year. No garden-to-table salads for my kids. The only cooking knowledge I’ve shared with the next generation is how to pour cereal, fix grilled-cheese sandwiches, make Betty Crocker brownies and microwave individually-wrapped bowls of Annie’s Organic Macaroni-and-Cheese. Organic. Not all of it is Franken-food.
At least we lovingly teach our kids to cook these foods. I use Ragu just like my mother before me did years ago. It was special, Ragu night. Growing up, we six kids ate the usual dinner rotation: dry tuna out of the can with baked beans that ensured complete and complimentary proteins, Oscar-Wiener Hotdogs, Aunt Jemima Pancakes and—the best of all—pasta shells and Ragu. We bonded over Ragu at the dinner table, the eight of us, we told stories and laughed and thanked Mom for her fine cooking (okay, maybe we didn’t say thanks, but it’s never too late—thanks Mom!)
And my father had a garden. Deep-bed gardens, three of them out in the backyard. I picked lettuce leaves and brought them in and spun them in the salad spinner and Mom made a salad and we had it with the shells and Ragu. We had tomatoes. We had kale, too, but that never amounted to much, literally. The one time my Dad prepared kale for the family, we watched, enrapt. He’d never cooked anything before except “Egg Supreme Delight” once when Mom left him in charge of dinner. We each got one soft-boiled egg and lied to him about how much we loved it so as to boost his self-esteem; he was proud. Anyhow, he cooked that bushel of kale down to the size of an olive; you could have wadded it into a ball, stuck the wad on a toothpick and sunk it into a dirty martini.
Nevertheless, the love of backyard vegetable gardens stayed with me, mainly because of the mint. Each summer night my father asked me to get him a tall glass of ice-tea—lots of ice—with mint. I’d mix the ice and cold water and the Lipton tea powder and go into the garden and pick just the right mint sprig and serve it just so, and it was summer right there, that glass, the whole way it looked and felt in my hand, clear and cool, the way the mint aroma saturated the air, the way the birds called from my father’s birdhouses and pear trees and the way the twilight fell each evening along with a profound sense of place and time stopping the way it always did (and does and always will) when breathing mint in the garden, thinking “This is mint” and clipping a sprig to enhance a tall, Lipton iced tea.
So, yes, I want my own kids to know that. (Or maybe I just want them to bring me a cold drink once in a while.) I want to fix them. I want to make up for years of fast Franken-food I’ve served them, the bad apples, the baby formula, the jars of baby food, the Lucky Charms, the Happy Meals, the Dunkin’ Donuts. Take this and eat it.
And always, always, the guilt. When my son, the one who refuses broccoli, was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at age seven, his siblings were told by other people that it was because he ate too much sugary junk food. And indeed, he’d been craving sugar. When you have diabetes, you can’t get glucose to your organs or your brain; you hunger for juice and sweets. At the time of his diagnosis, my son had been chugging apple juice, sugary cereal, anything with sugar. He couldn’t get enough. And while Type 1 Diabetes is an autoimmune disease, different from diet-related Type 2 Diabetes, and hasn’t been linked to diet, I blamed myself. Not enough vegetables, not enough fresh and healthy food. Too many artificial foods, too many tomato-like tomatoes and apple-like apples for my boy-like boy, mixed and manufactured in a laboratory and frozen for two years before we came back for him. Somehow this disease had to be my fault. Not to mention the allergies, the asthma, the predictable throwing-up episode at burger, nugget and fry restaurants all over the Northeast.
How will I ever know if his disease wasn’t due to diet, the things he ate, the food I gave him, the science behind the genetically manipulated and modified cells and cellular processes and chemicals that have made our children and made them what they eat? Maybe I could have saved him from this. I think of those avocado cubes and broccoli bits and carrot tips compartmentalized in ice-cube trays and wonder how and why I drifted from my original Green World vision for our children. Somehow we gave up; we became more and more resigned to giving them their greens in an orange, purple or pink Flintstone vitamin. The real greens have wilted in the serving dishes or on their plates, uneaten.
I love my Franken-Babies. Science babies. Scientific manipulation created my children. Scientifically-generated and altered food kept them alive as babies and nourishes them now. We went after that apple, the knowledge and processes underlying creation, the immortality that comes through children, the food that feeds our dreams and our loved ones.
The children, as far as I can tell, appear real despite being Laboratory rather than Locally Grown. But who knows? Maybe one day they’ll start to glow and emit strange atmospherically toxic gasses through their pores, or maybe they’ll travel and take root as invasive species in countries across the sea, or maybe they’ll be more virus and pest-resistant than other children despite their allergies to shellfish and walnuts.
We wanted everything to be natural, we really did. But we have been to the dark side, the Franken-world of sustainability, and maybe we haven’t thought about how each bite has impacted us and our children simply because we were desperate, or strung out, or just trying to feed them what they liked and would eat. Bad things may happen, may have happened, because of their diets. Things we don’t know we’ve done. There is guilt, always, and we’ll be forever trying to forgive ourselves for the illnesses and pain our Franken-food may have caused.
But we’re determined—as we’ve always been before those babies were born—to do it right. We’ll fix what we can; we’ll be healthier, purer; real. We’ve shoveled a pile of dirt into the backyard and will spread and plant it next spring. The seed packets are in the kitchen, waiting, in the wooden apple bowl. We have mint.
Mary Elliott is a stay-at-home Mom with four children, one husband and two leopard geckos. She has a Yale B.A., a Ph.D. in English from Boston College, and—in her old life—taught writing, English and American lit courses at B.C., Gonzaga University & Whitworth College in Spokane, WA.
Upon the birth of her twins in Colorado, she perished rather than published, but has written a couple of novels that need serious rework before they see the light of day. She contributes to Real Life Survival Guide’s Guest Editor blog, is active with the Madison Land Conservation Trust and likes to play the fiddle, hike, bike-ride and unwind with good friends.