I first realized that my infant daughter would eat just about anything when I handed her a curled tentacle of baby octopus that she promptly devoured with glee. I hadn’t planned on introducing her at such an early age to the world of edible cephalopods—a depth of culinary sophistication that I didn’t reach until I was well into my twenties. But there my daughter was, all of one year old, pointing to the disembodied arm on my plate, tiny suction cups and all, not content with her simple, buttered pasta.
It was a perfect bite: crisped at the skinny end, tender at the base, the perfect balance of contrasting textures. But there my daughter was, reaching for it, and what good father would deprive his baby daughter a piece of baby octopus?
Her enjoyment of the little leviathan was certainly made easier by that fact that she hadn’t yet fallen in love with storybook seascapes of smiling sea creatures living in a world free of a predator and prey, free of food chain (at which she was the top), or, more precisely, mediterannean trawlers hoovering up schools of baby octopus destined for grilled baby octopus salads in Los Angeles, California. Which is where I had this epiphany staring at my daughter across the table at a sunny osteria on Beverly boulevard as the foodies of Los Angeles tucked into their stripped down, modern-quasi-Amalfi-Cal-Italian.
My daughter was by far the purest foodie in the restaurant, in her blissed out, smiling, beatific, pre-verbal, uncodified, raw state. I watched her immersion in this moment: unformed, experiencing an evolving world of sensation and comprehension, and I thought: my daughter will eat anything I give her. So long as it’s delicious.
I know it sounds ultrapretentious—a chi chi plate of salad in a fancy restaurant in a silly city—but we were having a moment that is dangerously rare in this world. We were eating a salad that was not only delicious, but nourishing, as it was composed of greens, tomatoes, a lovely vinaigrette. The only fat there was from the olive oil, the salt was just so, the vegetables fresh. No that she consciously picked up on any of this, at least intellectually. And that’s precisely what made it possible. There was no fellow child there telling her octopus was gross or scary. There weren’t the cumalative years of processed chicken in a school lunch program to have deadened her palate. She hadn’t yet developed the habits, formed the assumptions, learned the language to keep her from eating an ingredient that is quite normal in the coastal Mediterranean.
And that was the wonderful thing about it: my daughter was ready for anything. And this could’ve been happening anywhere to any child, infant or toddler or teen. The octopus salad in L.A. could’ve been a perfect late summer tomato sprinkled with salt at a roadside farmstand on the North Fork of Long Island. It could’ve been a piece of real parmigianno reggiano instead of Kraft single in a school lunch box in Phoenix, Arizona. It could’ve been a fresh caught lake perch at a backyard barbecue in Indiana.
But for us, that octopus and the decision to not hold back have yielded marvelous results. In the years that have intervened since that moment, the basic truth of that thought has remained steady.
My daughter, growing up in a foodie household, knows that chickens, octopi, and even, yes, Mary and all sorts of other little lambs, are all fare game, so to speak, for eating. We don’t hide a thing, lie to her about what she’s eating, or where it came from. And she loves food of all sorts, as long as it’s delicious. From cheese crackers to Pink Lady apples, to candy corn, to high-heat roasted brocollini, to brandywine heirloom tomatoes sprinkled with madagascar salt. To string cheese, to Cheerios, to good old PB and J. Good and bad, high and low, she loves it as long as it’s delicious. We’ve never held back in feeding her what we eat and she’s never not told us what she does or doesn’t like.
Thing is, she likes most of what we cook her. So we try to cook her as varied food as possible (sometimes sheer exhaustion leads to a week of increasingly defeatest variations of frozen ravioli; sometimes we have the time to make something elaborate and new). There’s no guarantee she won’t rebel and only eat non-organic saturated fats down the road. Or get sick of eating Mary and the other lambs and suddenly go vegan on us. But until then, we’ll have fed her everything she needs to make that choice on her own.