When I was a toddler, my favorite food was escargot.
There were only two restaurants in our town and one of them was French. My parents and older siblings didn’t tell me I was eating snails; they were too amused watching me smack my lips in delight as the butter garlic sauce dribbled down my chin. After that first taste, I requested escargot whenever I could.
Young children have no innate prejudice about food. They are wide open to the possibilities. It is only adults who impose their prejudices on them. The common wisdom in our culture is that children only like a narrow menu of foods: hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, pasta and the assorted bland variations encompassing mostly starch and cheese.
But a toddler in Ethiopia will eat spicy collard greens, a German child will eat sauerkraut and a Mexican child will devour beef tongue. The only difference is that the adults around these children embrace their traditional foods and include the children in their traditions. They offer the children the same foods that the adults are eating.
Set the tone of what your child will eat. Step out of your food comfort zone. If children are never offered diverse foods, they will never try them. Children will rise to expectations. Be a model for the children in your life. Try a food outside your repertoire.
In our house, the children eat what the adults eat. They don’t have to eat everything, but they at least have to try. And we adults in turn are continually pushing ourselves to try new foods. As a result, our daughters have tasted everything from the classically shunned foods such as squash, eggplant, Brussels sprouts and liver to more adventurous foods such as octopus, snails, pig’s brain, lamb’s tongue, fish eyes, chicken heart, and raccoon.
Not everything gets a rave review; our children eat liver with the tiniest nibble permitted and fish eyes were rejected by children and adults alike. But we have all discovered unexpected favorites. The announcement of “tongue tacos for dinner” is met with cheers, and one of our daughters pines away for another meal of raccoon stew.
Why bother? you might ask. If you are content eating your regular fare, why push yourself out of your food comfort zone? Because, by pushing the boundaries of what you eat, you are reducing waste and supporting biodiversity. You are preventing the extinction of plant and animal species.
By eating the unusual parts of the animals you are utilizing more of the animal. And with every Gravenstein apple you eat, you are helping a local farmer keep a piece of Sonoma County heritage rather than uprooting their trees to plant wine grapes. With each heritage breed farm animal you consume, you are calling forth the next generation of that animal. Farmers cannot raise heritage animals or cultivate heirloom plants unless there is a market for them. By pushing yourself to try new and unusual foods, you are voting for local, small-scale food rather than industrial food with all of its inherent problems. You are voting with your fork. And it’s a vote that says diversity matters. Step out of your food comfort zone.
Rebecca Bell Black is a member of Slow Food Russian River and is co-owner with Roy Smith of Green Goose Farm in Sonoma County where they raise heritage pigs, sheep and poultry.