I love to cook and I love to feed people. At the theatre commune where I interned during college, I was the one who baked the vegan cookies for the Tuesday night “Shapenote Sings.” The happy stress of preparing the seder for 20 of my closest non-Jewish friends is the highlight of my spring. I love cooking so much that in the summer, when I could be relaxing and enjoying my time off, I run a small bakery and breakfast restaurant. I assume it comes with the territory of being Jewish, although my Italian grandmother-in-law stakes a big claim to the food-is-love territory, too.
My daughter Penrose is 6 months old, which means it’s time for her to start eating solids. I take all things cooking and eating seriously, and so after talking with friends and doing some reading, my husband and I decided to go with Baby-Led Weaning. And as disdainful as I can be of capital-letter parenting methods, this is one I’m on board with all the way. For the uninitiated, BLW entails giving appropriately sized and seasoned (with no or very low salt) pieces of food (no honey, egg whites or peanut products for now) to a baby for them to play with, drop, feed to the dog, or eat as they see fit. No spoon-feeding, no rice gruel. Lots of mess and actually, lots of fun.
We started her off on a Sunday night. We invited a friend over for dinner, Penrose’s self-appointed Crazy Auntie Carrie. It felt like a special occasion, one that merited other witnesses. I made baked whole wheat penne with butternut squash and steamed broccoli. I set aside a tiny dish of Penrose’s food—a few plain noodles, broccoli trees, and squash cut into sticks. She sat in her booster chair on the floor and we gathered around on the couch. I put a few pieces of food on her tray and we all watched, fascinated, as she grabbed a piece of broccoli and stuck the floret end in her mouth. She nibbled experimentally with her gums and the tiny tooth nub she’s been sprouting and swallowed a few flecks of green. We had all been silent and we let out a self-conscious cheer as she ate solid food for the first time.
She smeared the squash across her tray—it was a little too soft—and chewed on a noodle. Claude, our dachshund, had a field day waiting for her to drop food on the floor. It seemed like magic. How did she know what to do? Granted, just about everything goes in her mouth right now, the broccoli and noodle were just the first things that yielded to her gumming. But watching her eat food, nutritious food that I’d prepared, basically the same food we were eating for dinner, was like watching her grow up in the space of a meal.
In the week since we started BLW, Penrose has tried egg yolk, cooked like a tiny omelet, Swiss cheese, tempeh “bacon,” roasted carrots with garlic rosemary oil, baked sweet potato fries, a noodle with tomato sauce, banana (the least successful of the bunch), corn tortilla with ranchero sauce at a restaurant, avocado (which met the same fate as the squash), chow foon tofu, and pizza crust. Most of it has at least made it up to her mouth, and she seemed to really enjoy the tempeh, egg, carrot and broccoli. Claude’s been feasting, and baths have become a little more frequent as a lot of the food winds up in her hair, on her nose, or stored in her neck rolls. But it’s all up to her, what to choose out of what I offer her, how much to eat and in what order. I help her grab pieces if I see that she wants them, but I don’t put food in her mouth. Since I’m still breastfeeding full time, the food is there for exploration and fun, and how much she actually eats is incidental.
When I cook for someone, the choice is theirs whether or not to eat it. When company comes for dinner, I like to plan meals with care, thinking about food allergies, preferences, and even the possibility of introducing them to something new. Every day with Penrose is like that now. The extra work is minimal, since she’s eating components of our meals, and the rewards are beyond measure. Every bite is a new experience for her, and as she tries new flavors and textures, I hope she understands the subtext: In our family, food is love.