Thursday, May 10, 2012

Spice of Life

As a parent, I want my children to be open to new opportunities in life.  I want my kids to experience the joys of discovery, diversity, and culture.  I want them to explore their world.  I want them to take a big bite out of life and let the juices run down their face.  Of course, all this experimentation needs to take place within the confines of legal boundaries.  The behavior should be constructive to the mind and soul, not destructive.  These minor caveats leave a wide selection of new tastes, sights and sounds on the table, and my kids should feel empowered to dig in from time to time.
Life’s lessons in risk taking begin with simply learning to wander beyond the paranoid eyes of your smothering parents and move quickly to the challenge of basic assumptions like “I’ll bet that stove isn’t as hot as Mom says.”  After that, it’s into the deep end of the pool, literally.  Some experiments will sting, but many will enrich.  Those are the experiments I want them to embrace – the enriching ones.
Food isn’t usually dangerous and it does teach us to address our fears in a fairly benign way.  Lima beans can be scary, but tasting them for the first time, while potentially disgusting, usually leaves no permanent scars.  Spicy tacos might burn going down but standard American grocery store hot sauce will not cause injury (unless apply to an open cut).  Trying new foods opens the mind to trying all kinds of new things, but hopefully not bungie jumping over a ravine in South America.
So I have been pleased that my children enjoy watching the show Chopped on the Food Network.    Food is safe, except for apples in the Enchanted Forest, or poultry products under a Republican administration.  I mean, we can always spit food out if we don’t like it.  Once we’re airborne with that parachute strapped to our backs, it’s tough to change your mind.  You can’t jump back into the plane.  Food tasting is a safe experiment that demonstrates incremental risk taking. 
The concept of Chopped is a bit hokey and by that I mean exactly like every other reality competition program.  4 chefs compete by preparing an appetizer, main dish and dessert offering, each in 30 minutes or less incorporating 4 ‘surprise’ ingredients.  The competition tests their creativity, resourcefulness and culinary skills under pressure.  Fun!
For example, one episode asked the contestants to create an appetizer using sea beans, ginger ale and pork tenderloin.  Another episode challenges the chefs to whip up a dessert that included jicama, pepitas, and blueberries.  I mean, who hasn’t run across some celery, blood oranges, frozen pie crust and jaggery in the kitchen and thought – dessert! (Full disclosure: these were actual ingredients on the show, and I have no idea what half of them are let alone what they taste like).
By watching Chopped and its shark-jumping spin-off Chopped Champions, my kids are learning not to fear exotic foods.  They are learning about how different cultures have different palates and how they combine different flavors as a way to express their heritage and identity.  By watching Chopped and seeing the unique dish preparations, my kids are becoming more open to new tastes and I hope new ways of looking at the world.
Now that thanks to the Food Network my children are fearless and bold, a trip to Noodles and Company for a little different taste seemed low stress.  Certainly the menu of sweet soy sauce, broccoli, carrots, and shiitake mushrooms would not intimidate my team that has learned how to fashion a main course that mixes top round of lamb, coconut flakes, snap peas, and quick grits into a delicious meal.
So when faced with the Noodles and Company menu of Asian, Mediterranean, and American creations, here’s what my Chopped kids order:
1.       Mac ‘N Cheese
2.       Pasta with Butter
3.       Spaghetti and Meatballs
I will continue to work with them to wander outside their comfort zones.  Watching TV shows apparently doesn’t teach risk taking the way that I had hoped.  I think it teaches the watching of more TV (and the valuable lesson that Red Lobster serves only the freshest seafood and all-you-can-eat fried shrimp during lunch hour).
My poor kids can watch Chopped all day and see master chefs combine unique ingredients and spices into culinary masterpieces , but deep down inside, authentic Italian will always mean Olive Garden to them, and Chipotle will always represent a Mexican delicacy.  Oh well. 
At least they’ll love the dining hall food, if they aren’t afraid to go to college in the first place.

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