By Josie Glausiusz
In my parents’ house there is a walk-in pantry filled from floor to ceiling with dried, bottled and canned food of all kinds: beans, lentils, spices and oils, tuna and sardines, flour and rice, wine and mayonnaise, tea and coffee, onions, bananas, potatoes, and bread.
I like to joke that one could lock oneself inside for six weeks and emerge quite happily without a trace of hunger. I’m quite fond of that little room: to me, a home well-stocked with sustenance embodies comfort, security and welcome. I hate to waste food, and that is a lesson I learned from my parents: my father was starved as a child in the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, and my mother, evacuated from London with more than one million children at the start of the second World War, ate what was given to her without any fuss.
I’m old enough to be the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, and young enough to be the mother of 16-month-old twins—which is why, when my lovely children throw food on the floor, I sometimes feel like crying.
I know that at their age they have no appreciation of their family history. And according to the various authorities on the subject, their impulse to toss my carefully-prepared cuisine is just a baby science experiment: “discovering the fun of picking food off the plate,” “learning about cause and effect.” Also, they may have difficulty controlling their impulse “to touch, poke, grab and throw.” My rational mind realizes that, and I rejoice in their discovery of gravity. My emotional brain conjures up images of my parents’ privation.
Recently, I asked my father and mother to describe what they ate during the war. My father, who was born in the town of Szarvas in Hungary in 1934 and arrived in Belsen on December 6, 1944—the day before his tenth birthday—described the daily quota of food in the camp. “Once a day we had a one-centimeter-thickness slice of bread, made of all sorts of grains, like rye, not properly ground, or potatoes. We had Dürrgemüse,a root vegetable stew, once a day. The soup was a slosh, and you may end up just having the slosh, and water with no vegetables in it. Some people say that the leftovers of the Germans’ food—bones, fats—may have been chucked into it for a bit of extra taste, but one doesn’t know. And we had ersatz coffee—something like beet, roasted to make it black, put into water with saccharine—one cupful twice a day, morning and night. That was all we had to eat.”
My mother, born in London in 1936, was sent at age three with her nine-year-old sister to Cornwall on the southwest coast of England. The two girls were billeted with a family in the tiny hamlet of Hewas Water, which had one shop and a bakery. Sweets, chocolates, sugar, tea and meat were rationed, but she did not go hungry: the family ate Cornish pasties, yeast cake, eggs, blackcurrant tart in the summer, mackerel—a fish abundant around the coast of Cornwall—and rabbit on the odd occasion. “We ate anything that was set before us,” my mother told me. “You had to not waste anything. That was the ethos of the time, because things were scarce.” The war changed her attitude toward food, my mother says: “I don’t like to waste things, or see bread thrown away.”
My mother doesn’t remember teaching me this lesson, but it is certainly one I learned. I also learned how the sharing of food is an offering of love. My mother and I both enjoy meandering around supermarkets, stocking up on essentials, and I love planning menus, chopping vegetables, and cooking new dishes. As soon as my kids could eat solids, I tried as many pureed concoctions as I could, and they happily ate them: bananas to begin with, then apples, chicken, broccoli, corn and peppers, cod with potatoes, scrambled eggs, pasta with cheese and tomato sauce, yoghurt, sweet potato, and homemade, garlicky baba ghanouj.
At about the age of 14 months, however, my kids suddenly developed a distaste for three-quarters of the foods they had eaten before. They spat food out, turned their heads away, dropped the day’s offering on the floor and watched it fall, and then looked back at me, smiling, to gauge my reaction. I tried hard to remain calm, but often I could not. As soon as that first lump of food landed on the floor, I would start to feel tense. My mother, ever the voice of reason and comfort, said, “Every mother goes through the phase of baby not wanting to eat. Don’t lose heart.”
I’ve consulted various books about this phase of development, the most popular being How to Get Your Kid to Eat…But Not Too Much. The author, Ellyn Satter, advices presenting a toddler with a variety of foods, including dessert, and letting her decide what to eat. I found this approach to be generally ineffective: instead of throwing food sequentially, they’d chuck it all at once, often by overturning the plate or flinging their bowl with everything in it. And crawling around on the floor late at night picking up wet noodles is not my idea of entertainment. A more constructive strategy, I’ve discovered, is the one advocated by Karen Le Billon in her recently published book French Kids Eat Everything: teaching kids to love and share the foods that we eat, to limit snacking (so as to maintain a healthy appetite) and to encourage them to savor a variety of foods.
I learned how effective this lesson could be, ironically, on Passover, a festival usually associated with limited food choices. At a festive lunch with friends on the second day of the holiday, I let my kids play on the floor while the adults ate at the table. Soon, they were climbing onto our laps and eating everything on our plates—pickled herring (yes, really), roasted asparagus, matza pudding, borscht and chopped Israeli salad. On our return home from a trip to visit my husband Larry’s parents, we all sat on the grass in a field by a church in the middle of the Catskills, eating a picnic of matza pudding, carrots, tangerines and potato pancakes, with very little mess but with great conviviality.
I can’t say that the food-tossing has entirely stopped, but we’re making much more progress now by trying to eat more of the same foods together. I’ve stopped cooking special baby glop, and I encourage my children to eat oatmeal with their own spoons – a skill of which they are very proud. I’m very proud, too, of the new talent Larry has taught them: after meals, he calls out, “Hurray, Mummy, thank you for the food!” and my little kids fling their arms in the air and cheer.
Josie Glausiusz is a New York-based science journalist. Her review of After Daybreak: The Liberation of Bergen-Belsen, 1945 by Ben Shephard (Schocken Books) appeared in the January 13, 2006 issue of The Forward.