American is what's for dinner


In one of my all-time favorite movies, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the protagonist Toula laments how she didn’t fit in at elementary school because her family was super-Greek. They sent her to school with mousakka, which the “blonde and delicate” girls eating their Wonderbread sandwiches call “moose kaka”.

I am reminded of this scene every time I pack my toddler’s Immigrant Lunch Sack. She’s not in school yet, but since we are pretty frequently on the go, and she is pretty frequently hungry, we have to be prepared for the wild and wacky world of American food culture that exists outside of the carefully-curated Eastern European food system that is our house.

Growing up, I understood American food culture pretty well: it was 100% better than Russian food culture, and I didn’t get to experience any of it.

I was the only kid that I knew that got a plate full of soup right when I came home from school. Breakfast was kasha or eggs.

If you wanted snacks in our house, you were out of luck. You might come upon a handful of walnuts (that you had to crack yourself because it was cheaper to buy them that way), or some raisins, or a bag of Utz chips from 1998.

Lunch was either a buy-your-own affair, or kielbasa on black bread, wrapped in aluminum foil.

Going to friends’ houses was a weird, amazing experience. They all had dinner together and said grace. They asked how each other’s days went, instead of ranting about the latest thing that Putin did (Putin - Since 1999.)

They ate weird stuff like meatloaf, Hot Pockets, lasagna that I was too scared to try, but too polite to refuse. But they also had this thing where they had Rocky Road Ice Cream in their freezers and Sour Cream and Onion Potato Chips in their pantries and they could take some whenever they wanted.

For lunch, they got Gushers. I begged my mom for Gushers once in third grade. Why would you want that dran’, she asked? Dran’, trash, was her word for anything that was fruity, artificial, and tasted delicious.

I always saw Russian food culture, aside from chocolate with tea, as extremely rigid, boring, and torturous. Who would willingly eat borscht? Or salat olivier? Why did we not have snacks? Why couldn’t we have pizza every Friday? And most importantly, why did my mom never place some Pringles lovingly in the pantry like the moms on TV?

They say you change when you become a parent, and I changed by realizing that my beloved America’s food culture is trash.

A couple weeks ago, we were at a kids’ play area with the toddler (well, as normal as you can get for a facility located in, essentially, a warehouse in New Jersey), and we got hungry so we sat down at the cafeteria.

In spite of the fact that there was a pretend Whole Foods in the play area, prominently featuring plastic peppers, apples, and insane credit card balances left and right to the kids, every single family eating lunch at the same time as us was feeding their toddlers (that is, under three-year-olds) Doritos, soft pretzels, and convenience store pizza.

Is pizza great? Sure! We love pizza. The toddler gets a version of pizza at daycare, made with fresh bread and cheese. Is frozen pizza that’s been shipped in from god knows where good for a kid who’s just learning to eat real food? Probably not.

We took the toddler’s lunch (some chicken, some cous cous, some yogurt, some strawberries, nothing too crazy) out of her Immigrant Lunch Satchel, and watched everyone watch us like we were aliens.

I am not judging people who are busy and need to feed a lot of kids in a little time. I am judging our whole country’s eating culture, that thinks it’s ok that eating quickly and easily means cardboard frozen pizza.

Not to get all Michael Pollan on everyone here , but I have yet to see a kid-oriented place (museum, aquarium, fair, festival, or even kids’ menu at most restaurants) that has acutal Real Food Things that a toddler can eat or at least attempt.

The closest we’ve come so far is the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, which does sometimes have good soups, salads, and cheeses.

But, at every other event we’ve been to, I’m tempted to ask, where is the couscous? Fish? Grilled chicken? Pasta with fresh sauces? Baked potatoes? Fresh fruits and veggie snacks? Hummus? Mozzarella sticks? Yogurt? Wraps, paninis, chilis? Chicken noodle soups?

Obviously, my toddler, being a toddler, doesn’t eat everything and anything. Her latest hatred is chicken, in any form. But I’d at least like to give her a fighting chance.

It’s much easier to get kids to try things and keep trying them when they’re made available.

If it’s because of the cost, then places like Panera and Qdoba have proven that you can have mass-produced food that’s not as bad for you, at a reasonable price.

I’m not saying every piece of lettuce has to be Humanely Harvested, or that it has to look like it came from The Chef’s Table (don’t watch that before you’ve eaten, by the way).

I’m saying that we’re an awesome country, and it’s totally unfair that we’re shooting ourselves in the foot with what we say is ok for kids (and adults, but that’s a whole different story) to eat.

I think in recent years, with the advent of foodie culture, what’s acceptable to eat in America has drastically improved. Just the other week, I saw a can of beets packaged in a fun, lively wrapper, at the grocery store. Beets were the weird vegetable of my childhood that no one knew about. “You eat that red stuff,” kids would ask, laughing. I’ve also seen the yogurt/milk product selection significantly improve, and it’s gotten much more acceptable to be into buying fresh.

But this kind of stuff is available only at certain kinds of stores, in certain areas. We need to democratize this thing, somehow. Don’t ask me how. I’m just a blogger who likes to complain.

But if things don’t get better, my solution is to form an American-based committee of Eastern and Western European women to basically guilt everyone into better eating.

Since chances for the Mary Poppins effect are slim to none, we bring the Immigrant Lunch Box, for now, for as long as it doesn’t make my toddler feel like Toula, and hope for a frozen-pizza-less food future for America.